Archive for January, 2013

January 16, 2013

Sage & Thrift marmalade.

At the end of the month, we’ll be holding the second of our Sage & Thrift suppers – which we really need to rename because they’re actually in the afternoon – and I wanted to have a seasonal speciality to use for my home-made contribution. But it’s January. Season of the sensible root or cruciferous vegetable – cabbage, brussels sprouts, parsnips and so on –  things that can cope with the cold. And whilst I’m not adverse to cabbage per se, it’s not exactly the uplifting kind of thing I want to take to a communal supper. I want cake, damn it.

And then, like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day, I remembered that January is also the season of the wondrous Seville orange, and that means one thing and one thing only. Marmalade!

Luckily for me, Jo, my partner in Sage & Thrift is as optimistic about our capabilities as I am. When I asked “Do you like marmalade?” she replied “Yes, as long as I don’t get to eat it only after you’ve made me go for a crazy run…” I fear she knows me all too well. But my plans were rather more sedate than a mud-filled 10k and this time just involved the pair of us, a stack of oranges, a mountain of sugar and a well-thumbed copy of the Women’s Institute book of preserves.

PicMonkey Collage

After what seemed like an endless amount of orange squeezing and peel cutting – and fuelled by endless pots of tea –  we had ourselves a giant pan of bubbling deep golden marmalade. Enough for 14 jars of the stuff. And, despite a few mishaps and shrugged shoulders about following the recipe exactly, I am very happy to say that it’s really really good!

Allowing for the fact that I’ve nearly eaten one jar already and having given a few away, I still have plenty left over for the Sage & Thrift Supper (Tea? Gathering? Hmm, it needs more thought) and now I just need to decide which lovely recipe to make. On the shortlist so far; marmalade ice cream from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, marmalade cupcakes with frosting from Primrose Bakery and a rather exciting sounding cocktail with whiskey.
I’m thinking perhaps the only real answer is to try all of them…
January 14, 2013

Making Space for New Dreams.

Regular blog readers will know that I’m on a long-term de-cluttering exercise, and attempting to live something of a more minimalist lifestyle. As I work my way through my house, I have got to the point where I’m nearly rid of all the clutter that doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve got rid of a giant teetering pile of books, all the clothes that I’ve kept in the mistaken belief that I’ll get thinner, taller or suddenly be able to wear low-rise skinny jeans, loads of old paperwork and everything I’ve kept ‘just in case it might be useful’ – and it’s been relatively painless, once I dealt with my book guilt. In something of a landmark moment, I’ve even finally accepted that my beloved blue Converse are more hole than trainer and let them go…

Now I’ve moved onto the more challenging things. A couple of things that I’ve recently got rid of have made me cry. Firstly an enormous, half-finished Beatrix Potter cross-stitch. I started this in the summer of 2006, when I was pregnant with my daughter. It was one of those ‘I’m going to be a perfect mummy’ kind of plans. I was going to finish it before her arrival, get it framed and smugly hang it in her bedroom. And then it all fell apart. Thirty weeks into the pregnancy,  I became really ill with pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome and she arrived far too early for me to finish it. But in all honesty, even if the pregnancy had been text-book perfect, I was unlikely to have managed it. The simple reason? I didn’t really enjoy it. It was far too big and complicated and I’m just not very good at sitting still and concentrating on one thing for that amount of time. A lesson in not trying to be someone I’m not, perhaps.

I suppose it was the first of my failures in the attempt to be a perfect parent. These days, I am definitely not a perfect parent, and far less stressed about the whole thing. But six years after I started that damn cross stitch, there it was, every time I opened the drawer in my bedroom, taunting me about my failure and giving me a giant dose of guilt. Every time I came across it, I thought fleetingly ‘I must finish that’ before hastily shutting the drawer and putting it – and the guilt – out of my mind. Not this time though. This time, I got it out of the drawer and sat thinking about it – and having a little cry – before asking for a second opinion.

Thankfully, I have the best friends in the world, and so that second opinion was a wonderful one. One that said ‘you’re not a failure for not finishing this. It was started with love, and that love still exists, even if the finished article does not’. The love that I have for my daughter, and the six years worth of things we have shared more than makes up for not having finished one lousy cross-stitch. It went into the bin and I don’t have any regrets.

The second thing that I have finally got rid of is a guide book for Mongolia. From 1999. Hmm. I was supposed to go to Mongolia for a few months through a Raleigh International scheme, but no-one told me until I’d got to the end of the application process that because I was in the final year of my degree, I was ineligible. Marvellous. Still, I have hung onto the dream since then. I long to visit Mongolia; the vast open spaces, wildlife, last vestiges of a nomadic, horse-reliant culture and the reintroduced takhi (Przewalski) horses are something I refuse to get to the end of my life without witnessing.

Hence my ancient guide book.

I know, though, that if I ever do manage to finally make it to Mongolia, I’ll need a new guide book. So why have I hung onto this one for so long? It is the misguided belief that my dream is somehow inextricably linked with it. That without the book, the chances of me finally getting to realise a long-held ambition are doomed. This is replicated across many other things that I own, and that I’ve struggled to let go of. Half finished plans, guide books for places I’ve planned to go but never visited, books bought but never read, kit for various activities and sports going dusty…

The other reason I have hung onto things is because they have links to memories; places I have been, people I have known, experiences I have had. In some cases, the memento or souvenir is rather nice. In the vast majority of cases, it’s an old bus ticket, an unused piece of equipment, an ancient t-shirt. What I have come to realise, is that I don’t need to keep all of these things in order to retain the memory. I have never forgotten my old friends, regardless of whether I have kept mementoes of things we have done together. I’ve never forgotten holidays that I have taken or adventures that I have had, whether or not I’ve kept the tickets! And, as a friend of mine pointed out a while ago, I could always take photos of things before letting them go, if I really need to.

So, it is time for me to let go of these things. To rely on my friends to help me with the invisible tentacles that each item might hold around my heart, and to help me see that my dreams and my memories are not linked to my things, but rather that they live on inside me.

In my last post, I mentioned an article by Lesley Garner that I’d found, amidst my clutter, about de-cluttering. The irony is not lost on me. This time, I’m going to quote from it a little: ‘Clearing clutter means shedding dreams. But the funny thing is, I can throw things out because I still believe in the dreams themselves. The clutter is the husk of hope that never flew. But hope itself is inexhaustible. De-cluttering is necessary because new dreams need space to grow in’.

In clearing my house of the clutter from unrealised dreams, I am not killing the dreams themselves. In clearing my house of the clutter from things in my history, I am not wiping out my memories. I am making space, both for my mind and body to live in and for my new dreams to grow in.

January 9, 2013

2013 Goodreads Challenge.

Instead of doing a ‘here are my plans for 2013’ kind of post, I thought I’d write a handful of posts about individual things I’d like to do with my year. Today’s subject is my reading goal. Last year, I set myself a Goodreads Challenge to read 52 books in 2012.  I have utterly no idea what possessed me to think I could read a novel a week, given my other commitments, but I like to think it was with a sense of optimism, rather than sheer idiocy.

Anyway, to cut a long story short – which is probably a good thing, given the subject at hand – I failed in my attempts. I read 46 books, and about ten of those were children’s books as I reached December in a self-induced panic and decided that was the only way I’d get close to my goal. I read excellent children’s books, mind you. ‘Moominvalley in November’ is a thing of beauty that would be wasted on many children. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ is so good it’s a ‘read-in-one-sitting’ kind of book. And whilst I didn’t really love the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ books that I read, I guarantee that they’d be loved by many people. So, it wasn’t time wasted.

What I came to realise about the whole exercise, as I wrote in my review of the year, was that although its important for me to set challenging goals, as far as reading fiction is concerned, I’m more interested in quality over quantity. And with that, I’ve decided that this year’s Goodreads Challenge will be 26 books. A figure I arrived at by the deep and meaningful thought process of cutting last year’s goal in half…

Alongside this has been a giant book cull. I’ve gone beyond clearing out the books that I don’t like and have now plucked up the courage to clear out books that I know, in my heart of hearts, I will never read. Even if I’ve bought them new and they’ve been sitting in my house for years, patiently waiting to be picked up. I’ve got rid of my copy of classics too, kept forever in a misguided belief that I should keep a copy of Hardy, or of Dickens. After all, I do not want to live in a world in which I could not buy a new copy –  or borrow from the library – if I so desired. And, in many cases, I know that I won’t.  I don’t actually like Thomas Hardy and so it’s highly improbable that I will want to read his work again. Even accepting that has been something of a relief.

Clearing out my house of unread and disliked books has brought a sense of freedom to my reading. No longer will I be taunted by dusty piles of unread fiction, or suffer from feelings of guilt over them. I read a wonderful article by Lesley Garner about how clearing your house of unfinished projects, unrealised ambitions and dreams gives you room and freedom to create new ones. This is how I feel about having cleared out all my books. As though I can start afresh with books I really want to read instead of feeling as though I should read them because they’re already in the house.

My new rules are thus: I will read one ‘big’ novel a month and one easier read. I will only buy one book at a time, and read it completely before buying the next. If I choose to keep that book, then I will operate a ‘one in, one out’ policy to prevent the claustrophobic feeling created from by having too many possessions crushed into my tiny house. And, I realise that 26 books is a little more than two a month, but I am optimistic. Or idiotic. I’ll leave that for you to decide…

January 7, 2013

On Smoking.

I was going to start my 2013 blog posts with one about my plans for the year, but then I got a bit side-tracked by listening to a radio show about the most common New Year resolutions people make. Unsurprisingly, giving up smoking was high on the list and it made me think of my own history of smoking and about how I managed to quit.

I started smoking relatively late, at the age of 21. An interest in horses, plus being largely bullied or ignored at school meant that I never developed any bad habits there. In something of a tired cliché, it was with an unsuitable boyfriend that I started smoking. A musician. I know, cliché piled upon cliché. True though, nonetheless. We spent a summer together and by the time the relationship ended and I went away to college, I was pretty much surgically attached to my Marlboro Lights. For the next three years, during the whole of my degree, I smoked. Less so during the holidays, and with a dramatic increase during exam times, when I barely opened my eyes on a morning before lighting up the first smoke of the day. It makes me shudder to think of it now.

After I finished my degree, I went home, got a sensible job with the Council and carried on smoking. I made wonderful friends at work, one of whom I used to share cigarette breaks with. At 42, she was older than me and on the verge of a divorce and a fresh start in life. I took her rock climbing, to concerts, out dancing. I left that job a year later, in July, but we kept in touch. We still went out and still smoked together. In November of that year, she was off sick with a sudden ‘flu’, when I went to Australia. On Christmas Eve, I returned home to a message telling me that she was dead. The cancer was swift and vicious. I didn’t get to say good-bye, or to attend her funeral. My only consolation was that she had told all our friends how much she loved that I’d taken to do all the things she’d really wanted to try.

I continued to smoke through my grief.

My new job brought new friends, many of whom are still very close friends. Being young, free and single, we spent many an evening with a ‘swift half’ in the pub after work that tended to end with us being kicked out at closing time. In those pre-smoking ban days half the people who didn’t usually smoke would ask for the occasional cigarette and I always obliged. It used to cost a fortune. But more than that, it legitimised my smoking. We drunkenly put the world to rights, and worked our way through several packets of cigarettes a night. The morning after usually brought me a sore throat and an empty purse.

In January 2005, however, something happened that made me finally give up smoking. A party. We held a 60th birthday party,complete with céilidh band, for a  colleague. Mike is a pretty unique kind of chap. When I was off work with a long term problem, he sent me the most wonderful long hand-written letter, with a mix CD of country music (“because it’s guaranteed to make you feel better about your own situation” ) and comedy. I still have it to this day. The venue was upstairs, and so every time I wanted a cigarette, I had to go downstairs, smoke outside, and then climb back up the stairs, arriving red-faced and out of breath to start dancing again. With a 60 year old man who was clearly fitter than I was…

At the end of the party, there was a speech. I don’t remember it all but I do remember Mike saying how grateful he was to still be alive. How sad he was that not all of his friends had made it to 60. And that, combined with my realisation of how horrible and ill I’d been feeling all night, was enough. I quit the following day. I’ve not smoked since. I had to go through it without any aids, because I’m allergic to plasters so couldn’t use the patches and the nicotine gum made my mouth swell up. I don’t remember it being particularly easy. I don’t remember it being particularly hard either, beyond the first few weeks and a complete inability to drink alcohol, because in my head the two activities belonged together. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve got past the not-drinking problem!  I do know beyond all shadow of doubt that it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I would never, ever go back.

So, to everyone who has decided that ‘give up smoking’ will be their resolution this year, I applaud you. Never give up giving up. It’s not easy, but it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. I can run now, never mind climb some stairs or dance a ceilidh. And that’s the greatest feeling in the world…