Tuesday, 17 December 2013

3 Happy Things

After writing the Hardwiring Happiness post, I started thinking about how I could turn noticing the little things that make me happy on a daily basis into a habit. So, I thought I'd start a new series here on the blog called "3 Happy Things" just to keep the idea fresh in my mind. I hope these little posts spark your imagination and keep you on the lookout, too!

After a weekend jaunt to Bath, here's my first offering...

One: Visiting a funky, vintage guitar shop with my husband

Two: Incredibly uplifting, bright red cyclamen

Three: Discovering Bea's Vintage Tea Rooms and the most delicious lemon meringue cake ever with my lovely friend Victoria

I wonder what three little things will make you happy today?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Oh my, I can't remember the last time I saw a show where the audience laughed so hard, so often and so genuinely for the entire performance! The woman at the end of our row had one of those shrieky laughs that made her sounds as though she were rapidly inflating and deflating, but she was having so much fun that no one begrudged her the weird noises she was making! The bottom line was that we were surrounded by pure joy for the whole evening, reminding me once again that laughter really is the best medicine.

Matthew Macfadyen was stupendously good as Jeeves. His quick-fire character changes (he often played two people at the same time!) were astounding. The comic timing was impeccable, the energy zinging and the script word-perfect. Even the set was brilliant — and funny in its own right! I've never seen anything quite like it.

Stephen Mangan was extremely endearing as Bertie Wooster and Mark Hadfield did a great job of covering all the other parts with aplomb. If pre-Christmas preparations are stressing you out, and you live within shouting distance of London, I highly recommend dropping what you're doing and booking tickets… but be quick, it's only on til March.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Diary of a Provincial Lady

While I am not particularly girly, I have to admit that I am a sucker for a Virago Modern Classic. The beautiful new cover designs are like catnip and make me want to buy them all up just so I can look at them all lined up on my shelf together. Shallow? Perhaps, but they make me happy and buying a hardback feels blissfully indulgent in these times of austerity.

Somewhat oddly, I seem to be making a new habit of old books. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield was originally published in 1930.  I love novels that detail the social history of a time and this one deftly, but gently satirizes the life of an upper middle-class woman and stalwart member of the Women's Institute. The book, which started life as a serialization for a popular weekly, is set out as the "diary of a provincial lady" living in Devon.

She (we never learn her name) is plagued by her hapless husband, unruly children, troublesome servants and, of course, the unofficial "head lady" of the village to much comic effect, but really it is Delafield's use of language that endeared this book to me. (The same reason I was drawn to The Enchanted April; see that post here.) People don't write or speak this way any more and I so wish they did! One example: our heroine's husband must attend a funeral and she is helping him by pulling out "his accoutrements of woe". How wonderful is that?!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hardwiring Happiness

I recently read about a book called Hardwiring Happiness, which explains how to reprogramme your brain by focusing on positive experiences through the senses on a daily basis. So, paying attention to a smell that conjures up a happy memory (maybe your grandmother's apple pie), a sound that lifts your spirits (a favourite song playing while you wait in line for a coffee), a sight that makes you smile — such a cliché, but the autumn leaves get me every single year!

I started trying to notice little things like this as often as possible each day and it really does work in terms of making you feel "glass half full". I was with my youngest daughter in a candy shop last weekend and Abracadabra by The Steve Miller Band was playing. It took me back to the happy, optimistic part of my teen self. I felt like she often lost out to the jaded, cynical part (although several friends have told me that what they remember most about me during those years was my laugh, so maybe not).

Abracadabra got stuck in my head and made me smile all day long. Little things like that go unnoticed if we don't make a conscious effort to stop and honour them, but it's so worth the effort because they can change the whole tenor of your day if you let them. Who says only the "bad" stuff should hold our attention? Here are some other happy things I noticed recently:

* Our apartment faces due west and every night I get to watch the spectacular colours as the sun sets, and it's always majestic

* I've started looking out for interesting doorways — they always hold "possibility"

* It makes me happy to see people wearing or displaying handcrafted things. I am lucky to live in a neighbourhood full of creative people so I watch out for their talents

* I visited a yarn shop this week and spent some time sitting on the floor immersed in the colours and textures of a whole wall of wool — and, of course, had to bring some home...

* My mother bought me a stunning mini orchid in a greeny-yellow shade that I just can't stop looking at

* I am obsessed with the smell of my new face oil (see post about it here)

What have you noticed lately?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Family Man

Goodness, I just mentioned my friend Jane and her prowess at book recommendations and she's gone and done it again with Elinor Lipman's The Family Man! I love Elinor Lipman and have done since reading her very first novel, Then She Found Me, way back in 1990. Then, a few novels later, she went off the rails and we went our separate ways, during which time she wrote this little gem, which has endeared her to me all over again.

Aren't good books such a double-edged sword? On the one hand, how marvellous to find a book so great that the world simply drops away while you immerse yourself completely in it. On the other hand, it means that you speed-read your way through and are done in two days, and are left missing the characters and the world you have been inhabiting with them, basically at the expense of all else! This is where I now find myself. Lipman creates such wonderful characters; they really are people you want to hang out with.

This book revolves around Henry and he's a treat — with a quiet life that's not destined to stay that way for long. His past becomes his present, and his future, in all manner of ways and it is an undeniable pleasure to be a spectator for all the events that follow. It's set in New York City and has the whole host of characters you'd expect. Lipman has filled them all with humanity and heart. When Henry, gay and lonely, is reunited with Thalia, his estranged step-daughter things certainly get interesting.

Lipman is a genius at witty, intelligent dialogue and her observation skills are second to none. She reminds me of Nora Ephron, but with a voice that is very much her own. She specializes in relationship studies and this one features those between Henry and his step-daughter, ex-wife, therapist, new boyfriend, his step-daughter's boyfriends…and all are beautifully painted. It is a perfectly executed and enjoyably uplifting tale and I am sad to say goodbye. I guess I will have to dig around to see if there's anything else I missed or just hope that she's working on something new. If I'm really lucky, it will be a sequel!

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Comfort of Chimes

I live near a church and every time it chimes the quarter-hour, it takes me back to my grandparents' house on the shores of Lake Erie. They had an old-fashioned, chiming clock on their mantelpiece above the fire. I have such distinct memories of lying in my bed there, reading late at night, and listening to that clock. It made me feel safe and anchored. My grandfather built that house from scratch and nothing ever changed the whole time they lived there.

Every time we visited (usually twice a year as children), my brother and I would run to each room and check that everything was the same: puzzles and games in the cupboard under the fish tank, the old piano (always hopelessly out of tune) right where we left it in the corner of the basement in between my grandfather's workshop and my grandmother's laundry room. A quick peek in the tall, shallow cupboards that lined the walls revealed shelf after shelf of tins and jars of food Grandma had stockpiled or canned herself: peaches, pickles, jam, apple butter, beans….

And, finally, I always went and sat in the garage for a few minutes on my own, just to sink into that familiar smell of wood shavings, gasoline, grass clippings, autumn leaves and that slightly musty smell of things that have been stored for decades. Everything was so blissfully familiar. I had a lot of upheaval after we packed up and moved continents in my childhood, so being able to go to that house that forever stayed the same, which housed two people I loved beyond measure, was supremely reassuring.

Is there any sight, smell or sound that takes you back to a particularly peaceful or happy time? How can you incorporate it into your daily experience? Maybe burning a cinnamon candle to remind you of eating cinnamon toast on cold, snowy mornings or planting a scented rose bush to remind you of visits to your favourite aunt's house or a framed, photo montage of things that make you smile. Anything that will trigger a pause and a happy thought will do. It's a nice ritual to sneak into a busy life.

All the feelings of love, peace and security that I associate with my grandparents rush back each time there is enough of a lull in the city din for me to hear those church bells. I listen out for them now and when I hear them, I pause and am grateful for the comfort their chimes bring.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Best Eye Gel Yet!

I am on a perpetual search for an eye cream or gel that can tackle the serious visual effect of exhaustion around my eyes that my heart challenge produces. Having gotten the worst of my physical symptoms on the run, mostly what I struggle with now is my endless need for rest. As a full-time mom, I never get as much as I need and it shows, so it was even sweeter to receive REN's Active 7 Radiant Eye Gel from my eldest daughter for my birthday.

It seems like 10 minutes ago that she was smiling up at me from her crib and now she is a fully fledged teenager, buying me "product" that she has discovered herself! She hit the teen phase of "Make-Up" with a vengeance and our house was starting to resemble an independent pharmacy til I put my foot down and we learned the lesson of quality over quantity. I am happy to report that she is a quick study and not only did she take that lesson on board, but she has also indulged my love of organics and whenever possible (well, what teen can resist the latest fun and functional offering from Benefit?!) she researches and buys natural products. Bless her!

And this REN eye gel is a serious credit to her ability to sniff out the good stuff. It has a silky, featherlight texture that goes on smooth and sinks in quick, leaving the eye area feeling soft and moisturized, and looking better by the day. I am only on my first week of usage, but it has made more difference than any other product I have tried in the past two years… and there have been too many to count! The puffiness is gone, the dark circles are on the wane and the whole area looks somehow "younger" than it has done for a long, long time. I am eternally grateful to her for this clever buy, and very happy to have a new partner in crime on the product front!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Book For Girls: 5-8

When I was looking through my daughter's shelves for books in the 7-11 category, I kept coming across really great reads for 5-8s, so here's a little round-up for those of you looking for something in that range. This is such a special time, when kids start to read independently and discover whole new worlds for themselves. It reminded me of the books I started out with and how the characters have stayed with me all my life. It's a little miracle, in a way, that authors can create these very real worlds for us to inhabit as we grow through all the different stages of life. They help to shape our way of viewing the world, help to explain things we might not yet be confident enough to ask about and provide friendships that we share with ourselves. What a gift!

Both my girls fell hard for Judy Moody (as did, it seems, most of their generation!). She is a terrific character and one that all kids can relate to. She is spunky and slightly mischievous, but with a big heart and enough foibles to always remain likeable. There are a lot of these books and they are very reader-friendly, so if your daughter likes Judy, she will have many adventures to look forward to.

Another character that almost all our daughters encountered in their picture-book days is Fancy Nancy. She was Fancy, with a capital "F", but also clever and curious and adventurous. She and her best friend Bree are super creative and the illustrations that accompany the text are superb: very detailed for little eyes to pore over and beautifully colourful. I was sad when my Reluctant Reader outgrew this series and was over the moon to discover that Jane O'Connor had moved her character along into chapter books. I was really struggling at that stage to find titles that were easy enough for my daughter to read, but also engaging enough to keep her interested. Nancy Clancy fit the bill perfectly, and my daughter was excited to be able to revisit one of her favourite characters, but in a more "grown-up" format. This one is a win-win!

We were on holiday in California a few years ago when our dear friend Karyn took us to an amazing little independent bookshop in Lafayette called The Storyteller. My daughter was immediately swooped up by the owner and together they delved into some US titles that we were unfamiliar with. Ivy and Bean was her favourite find of that day. While Ivy is the good girl character, and her best friend Bean is the less predictable one, they both share enough of the other one's qualities to not end up as stereotypes. The level of detail here is one of the main draws, allowing younger readers to really picture the adventures they are reading about. Again, this is the first in a long series, so lots to build on here if your daughter clicks with these two lively, realistic characters.

If there are any other moms out there who are around my age (44 this week!), you will already be more than familiar with Ramona! I loved Ramona growing up. It was so amazing to me that there was a "naughty" character in a book! And poor Ramona isn't really naughty, of course, she is just extremely individual and high-spirited, like soooo many kids, so this was a reassuring discovery. No matter what scrapes she got into (and there were plenty), her family still loved her and made sure she understood how things worked for next time.

It was great to revisit these stories as "the mom" and see them from a whole new perspective. One night I heard wild howls of laughter coming from my daughters' room. My husband was reading out loud to the two of them and had changed the names of the main characters (Ramona and her bossy big sister Beezus) to the names of our daughters, which was hysterical because their personalities are a very good match and they loved hearing "themselves" acting out the goings-on in the book! Clever man!

And last, but certainly not least, is Clementine, another character in the same vein, but with a personality all her own. She lives in an apartment block in New York City, as the daughter of the porter, so there is a hint of Eloise at the Plaza, but this is a modern tale and Clementine is never deliberately naughty. Her behaviour is more in keeping with Ramona; she finds the world a little bewildering as she sees things a little differently from everyone else. Her dad is brilliantly realized and it's nice to see a male parent taking centre stage. Her mother is an artist and also figures prominently, but Clementine and her dad have a special bond that is quite common for this age group in real life, so I thought that was a clever addition here. We have a whole collection of these in hardback as my daughter couldn't wait for the paperbacks to come out! A very good sign!

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Wonders of Coconut Oil

Really, the question is: is there anything virgin coconut oil is not good for? The more I read about this stuff, the better it gets! My mother, who is always ahead of the curve, has been singing its praises for several years now and, finally, it seems the word is spreading. I was desperately looking for a way to help a good friend with bad feet. His unidentified condition sits somewhere between eczema and athlete's foot and conventional treatments have not helped. As I was casting around for a solution, my eye fell upon a little book called Virgin Coconut Oil by Dr Bruce Fife that my mother had bought me last year, so I had a quick flick through to see if any help lay within.

Dr Fife is also (respectfully!) known as "Dr Coconut" and for good reason. He is evangelical about virgin coconut oil and after having read the book, I can see why! Virgin coconut oil possesses the holy triumvirate of antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, so no matter what you are trying to treat, virgin coconut oil will most likely help. In the Philippines, they call it the "drugstore in a bottle".

Here are just a few things that it will help with: digestive problems, nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, skin rejuvenation, yeast infections, high blood pressure, cold sores, pain reduction, rosacea, dental health, Alzheimer's, eczema, parasites, boosted energy levels, epilepsy, healthy skin and hair, inflammation, immune system function, improved cholesterol ratio, chronic fatigue syndrome, kidney stones, thyroid function, preventing cancer, diabetes and heart disease…. I could go on and on, but you can read more on its uses and benefits, as well as all the scientific stuff, at the Coconut Research Center.

It can also be used topically as a beauty aid. My mother ditched her regular skin creams a while back and has been applying neat virgin coconut oil to her face and body ever since. I think she won't mind me telling you that while she is in her late 60s, she has the skin (and good health) of a woman at least 20 years younger. She is beautiful inside and out, as well as being hugely inspirational, full of curiosity and blessed with wisdom (these are her own traits, not derived from the coconut oil!) and I am so lucky to be the beneficiary of all of these qualities. She actually looks younger than I do in the picture below, but I will be gracious and share it anyway!

Now, back to my good friend with the bad feet. I suggested he clean them with some colloidal silver first and then apply the virgin coconut oil directly to the raw and blistered skin as often as he could throughout the day. Within hours, he reported an improvement. The pain and infection were both gone by the next morning and he was able to wear shoes without wincing for the first time in a week. And at the end of Day 5, the skin is almost completely healed. There are no known side-effects to using virgin coconut oil (unless, of course, you are allergic to coconuts!), so if you have a condition that you would like to heal, why not go ahead and give it a try!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Eating Seasonably: November

Oh, dear, we are now halfway through November and have we been eating seasonably? Well, no, not exactly. We have been eating lots of healthy, home-cooked meals, but I'm afraid my energy levels did not stretch to experimenting with lots of new seasonal vegetables. However, all is not lost: we have simply added October's edibles to November's list. Much of the autumn/winter veg overlaps by a good few months anyway, so we are still in the game! For November, we have: red cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes, clementines, pomegranate, chestnut, quince and potatoes. I made a beautiful potato dauphinoise on Sunday night, but forgot to take a picture, so you will just have to take my word on that one!

You will also have to forgive me for cheating slightly on the chestnut and quince. Now, I am all for going back to basics, but I do not have the energy for making quince paste from scratch just now. I still wanted to enter into the spirit of things, though, as well as introduce my daughters to this tasty delicacy, so I have bought a pot to support the lovely people who are making good use of these extraordinary fruits. I like mine with a bit of Manchego cheese, and possibly a biscuit….

The chestnuts, too, are pre-prepared and I am thinking chocolate-chestnut cake. I realize this doesn't overly highlight the chestnuts, but really, who doesn't think "cake" at the beginning of any new venture?

And, finally, I am sure most of you are aware of the Jerusalem artichoke's fearsome reputation for giving people wind, so I thought I'd try a recipe I came across recently that makes crisps out of them! I will, of course, let you know how we get on with all of these wonderful, seasonal goodies, but do bear with me if I don't manage it by December 1st!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Georgette Heyer

I absolutely love Georgette Heyer. I was introduced to her a few years ago by one of my dearest and most erudite friends (and fellow bookworm), Jane, who told me most emphatically that I must read her, and I always, always read whatever Jane tells me to for she is never wrong! In fact, she was shocked that I wasn't already a fellow fan. (Shh, don't tell her, but I had never even heard of Georgette Heyer at that point and when I perused a few of her books at the bookstore I could not fathom what all the fuss was about!)

However, from the very first paragraph of Lady of Quality I was hooked. I finished one chapter and was unable to stop myself from starting the next. The truth is they are the most guilty pleasure: a feisty damsel and a roguish anti-hero, whom you know from the outset will end up together, but the journey to get there is not to be missed. Heyer excels at pacing and is the high mistress of linguistic sparring, and I love all the Regency details; rather bizarrely, as its not "my era" at all.

I really cannot beseech you strongly enough to indulge in one of her stories — any of them! Most recently, I was kept up late at night by These Old Shades, which is as good a starting point as any. All of her books are tremendously well-observed, sharply witty and desperately romantic. The perfect antidote to almost any of life's maladies. When you are in the mood, there's really nothing better. As India Knight says, "They are triumphantly good!" Indeed they are!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Books for Girls: 7-11

I worked in publishing for a decade, the last few years editing children's books (which I loved!), so when I got pregnant you know I was hoping to share my love of books (and huge library!) with my first-born. Luckily for me, she too was a bookworm. However, when her little sister came along a few years later, I found myself with what can best be described as a Reluctant Reader.

Not being quite able to accept that there are people on this earth who don't love books as much as I do, I made it my mission to try to dig out titles that would win her over. We've had varying degrees of success and I'm sure there are those of you out there with the same dilemma (judging by how many times I've been asked for recommendations!), so here's a little round-up of some our recent successes. Depending on the kid, these books would probably be most suitable for the 7-11 age range, and all have strong boy characters too. I think they would be enjoyed by both boys and girls, but as I only have girls, I can't vouch for that!

Our all-time favourite: The Whizz-Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders. (And, joy of joys, we just discovered the sequel, The Curse of the Chocolate Phoenix, two days ago and are already on Chapter 4: hurrah for Kate Saunders!)

These books follow the adventures of London twins Lily and Oz. Their father's ancestors were famous chocolate-makers as well as clever sorcerers and when they move into the old family home (with the old, boarded-up chocolate shop downstairs), Lily and Oz find themselves drafted in by the SMU (Secret Ministry of the Unexplained) to help uncover a plot to steal an old recipe for some very magical and very dangerous chocolate. The plot is fast-paced, but easy to follow, with likeable characters and fantastical settings. Saunders writes with wit and charm and is great at building suspense. We had trouble stopping at bedtime each night, and that is about as good a recommendation as I can give! These stories also lend themselves perfectly to being read out loud.

We are also huge fans of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series. When the girls were younger, I read the entire series (all 12 books!) to them out loud. It took us a year, but we were all a little bereft when we finished the last one, although I think I was the only one who cried! Ha! So, I was happy to discover a modern writer writing in the same vein. Helen Moss has really captured the Blyton spirit of adventure in her Adventure Island series. We started with The Mystery of the Whistling Caves and if you like this exciting tale of stolen treasure in Cornwall, there are 11 others (with more on the way) to gobble up.

Both my daughters have always loved history and so The Mystery of Wickworth Manor by Elen Caldecott ticked an extra box there. It is set in the present day and follows Paige and Curtis, who are on a school trip to a stately home. Curtis finds an old portrait in the attic and he and Paige have to put aside their differences if they want to solve the mystery of who the boy in the painting is and why his story has been kept a secret for over 200 years. Caldecott manages to deftly weave the history of the slave trade into a story that also tackles how it feels to be at the cusp of moving from primary to secondary school. She writes engagingly on issues that kids worry about, and her characters feel genuine.

My final offering for today is in a slightly different vein, but one that might just get your child reading. They are calling them graphic novels now, but for all intents and purposes, they are cartoons! I am a huge fan of anything that gets a kid to open a book and am not remotely snobby about what they read. I figure as long as they are reading something, that something will lead to another something and they will find their own way into the rich world of literature.

Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules! series is "highly recommended for all ages" by the Library Journal and judging by the wide age-span of kids that have told me they love Amelia, I have to agree. Here's what the critics are saying about them:  "delightfully drawn", "comic genius", "full of heartbreak, humor and high drama", "honest" and "poignant" as well as "side-splittingly hilarious". These are all-encompassing tales of what it's really like to be a kid nowadays. What can I add, but "Buy them!"

That's it for today, but I have another whole round-up for this age group to come, which I'll publish before Christmas in case you need some good gift ideas, as well as some suggestions for the 5-8 age group. And if you have any books that your kids loved, I'd love to hear about them!

Friday, 1 November 2013


I have been focused on authenticity for a few months now and it has thrown up many interesting things. One of which is simplicity. It's a concept that's been bubbling around in my mind for a while now, but I haven't been able to quite put my finger on what it means to me. So, after two weeks of activity with my girls over half term, I climbed back into bed today with a copy of The Simple Things (and, no, the irony is not lost on me!). I love this magazine and suggest you go and get yourself a subscription as soon as you finish here!!

Jennifer Kavanagh sums up simplicity in Issue 15 perfectly: "But what does simplicity mean when it's applied to our own daily lives? When we strip away the unnecessary, the extraneous, we become more truly who we are, and as such we reveal the potential we were born to express.

What's the point of simplicity? If in simplifying our lives we're stripping away the inessentials, then the real questions are: What's left? What's my purpose? What we "clutter" our lives with can take many forms. By the very process of removing the clutter, the answer will become clearer."

How perfect is that? Basically, simplicity leads to authenticity, which leads to harmony! One of the simple things that has crept slowly into my life over the past couple of years is gardening (although I use the term loosely). We have a large terrace that is longer than it is wide and how we use it has been evolving. We wanted to love it and use it more, but the decking was ugly and unkind to bare feet. This spring we replaced it with fake grass and hurrah: the space was transformed! We are now out there all the time. It is beautiful to see so much green (all year round!) in the city and it really feels like a garden now.

It is soft to lie on and is never muddy. The kids can play (think space hoppers, paddling pool....) or just hang out (beach towel, book, lemonade...) and my husband enjoys the deck chair and a glass of wine as the sun goes down. Me? Well, I am still surprising myself with ways to articulate my creativity and have found the garden to be a place where I can indulge my love of colour.

We had a hot summer this year and so a palette of cool whites and purples (see pic above) felt just right...along with our vegetable patch. Now the temperatures are dropping, I've been craving the blazing autumn colours of my childhood in Michigan: deep, bright reds, burnt oranges and glowing yellows (see pic below). I asked my lovely greengrocer, John, what he could do and he came back from the flower market yesterday with a stunningly simple array: "true red" giant cyclamen and some chrysanthemums that seem to incorporate all the colours I described to him in one!

It took me all morning, but I got them in just before the rains came. They are making me so happy that I could just sit here quietly all afternoon and look at them. For me, that is the perfect definition of simplicity.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013


I over-eat when I am bored. And when I'm anxious. And when I'm tired. And when I'm a whole host of other things too. It's just a habit and I am aware of it. Sometimes I am even aware of it while I'm doing it....and I still do it anyway! That's when I have conversations with myself that go something like this: "Why are you eating? You aren't even hungry. Yeah, well, I can eat if I want to. It tastes good. I deserve it. But you'll get fat. You hate your podgy stomach and, look, you are making it worse. Right now! I know, leave me alone. I'm going to eat it anyway and now you are making me feel bad about it."

Any of this sounding familiar? We all have little habits that we'd rather not have. Ultimately, I suppose it's about comfort. I over-eat when I need comfort. Food soothes me. It does taste good and it feels like a treat, but more often than not, I regret it afterwards because the things I choose to eat are junky
and make me gain weight. I can't do enough exercise at the moment to counterbalance that, so I am left with a feeling of discomfort. Not so great.
So what can I do about it?

My first port of call is always my Zen practice. Just being aware of my habit, recognizing when I am about to eat habitually and then choosing whether or not I want to do it. Often this works. Other times it doesn't. When it doesn't, I still have my awareness of the habit, so I can then make another choice. I was reading recently about quitting smoking. (I don't smoke, but someone I love too much to lose does.) There's a website called Love Not Smoking that makes some clever recommendations that can be applied to any habitual, addictive behaviour.

First up: find a distraction! Apparently, a craving only lasts for 90 seconds, so if you can find something to sufficiently distract yourself for a mere minute and a half, your craving might just pass all of its own accord. There's a fun list of distraction suggestions on the website. Another idea: take four deep belly breaths. This is a tool that I use ALL the time. It seems to ease all manner of ills. When I am anxious, it calms me down. When I am tired, it perks me up. When I need to hush the voices in my head, yep, it works on them too. Try it. It really is amazing and the best thing is that it is free, works anywhere, is very discreet and you don't need any equipment!

Just to be clear, I have no problem with eating treats, just with doing so out of habit. In fact, earlier this week, my youngest daughter and I were at an American candy store here in London and carefully selected a Twinkie and a Hostess chocolate cupcake. We came home, cut them in half and ate them quietly together, savouring every bite. Well, I was savouring every bite. She was looking at me with a look that said, "These are kinda gross, Mom, but you are enjoying them so much, I'll just roll with it." She's sweet like that, and besides, she did not grow up in the US so has no nostalgic affinity to Hostess goods. Probably for the best....!

Friday, 25 October 2013


We are lucky enough to have a "man on the inside" at TCHO, award-winning New American Chocolate makers. This is amazing bean-to-bar stuff with an incredible team of creative chocolate fanatics behind it and impressive ethical credentials to boot. These guys really, really love what they do... and it shows.

They have just launched a new range called TCHOPairings (front three in picture below), which we recently received and devoured. The Strawberry Rhubarb Pie being my particular favourite! If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself with a free hour or two in San Francisco, do head over to Pier 17 and take a tour of the factory. It's fascinating and has a delicious gift shop you won't be able to resist!

Another treat that ended up in my possession was a bag of Baking Drops. Shortly thereafter, while I was pondering what to do with these tasty little morsels, I came across a recipe for chocolate nut clusters and that put paid to my pondering! They are supremely simple to make and the results are impressive, even gift-worthy... bookmark this one for Christmas!

Sadly, TCHO is not yet widely available in the UK, although I've heard that paul.a.young have started to import it. It appears to sell out quickly, though, so you might want to call ahead before making a trip. You can, of course, use any chocolate you like for your clusters. You could also use a variety and then package them up together for a nice visual effect. Or you could just do what I did and eat them all yourself while feeling virtuous with each bite. What? Nuts are good for you!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Time Keeper

Mitch Albom writes with a special kind of magic. His books are filled with soul and wonder and I find them incredibly uplifting. They are short and easy to read, but don't be fooled. He has packed an enormous dose of humanity and inspiration into every sentence. He tells fables, really. Modern-day ones, but fables nonetheless. It is not a genre common to our times and most of the others I have come across are preachy, and of little value beyond petty moralizing. Albom, however, brings so much heart to his stories.

I have just finished The Time Keeper and all the way through reading it, it increased my awareness of time to an almost comical level. "Coincidences" were everywhere, examples of things referenced in the story presented themselves unsubtly into my life, and I found myself constantly pondering time: how do we spend it, waste it, lose it, find it? Do we control it or does it control us? Each moment is an opportunity to make a choice. Are we choosing wisely? It was a book that made me think a lot about how I was spending my time and a book that I fully engaged with.

Albom takes you on a journey, asks you to ask questions of yourself about your life, and entertains you along the way. He is never preachy or prescriptive or judgemental. He always treats his readers with respect and lets them make up their own minds about the deep themes he disguises in such light packaging. I know of no other writer like him and I am already looking forward to his next book and what it will teach me. I can guarantee it will be wrapped up in hope, which is a joyful thing to share and he is nothing if not generous.

If your heart needs lifting, please treat yourself to this beautiful tale of redemption or indeed any of his previous books. His message is simple: your life is precious — value it well. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of that and Albom's books are lovely reminders, told with wisdom and grace and a touch of something a little bit extraordinary.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Santaverde update

Woah, there, stop the presses! In my befuddled state a few weeks ago, I managed to order not the Aloe Vera Hydro Repair Gel that I normally use, but something called Extra Rich Beauty Elixir instead! It has been sitting on my dresser ever since, ready to be posted back at some unknown time when I assume I'll have more energy, but it finally dawned on me that that day may never come and it would be far easier to just crack it open and use it.

As you know, I am wary of putting oils on my face, but as you also know, I am lazy as the day is long. Furthermore, we are heading into weather that dries the skin out and I am running out of my face cream, so perhaps this was not a mistake, but actually a fortuitous foresight on my behalf...albeit on a very subconscious level! And so it was that I opened the very nifty packaging. It is in a dropper bottle, but has a little button on the top that you push to both suck up and then dispense the oil. Okay, I am a sucker for that kind of thing and, besides, it looks very chic.

The first thing that hit me was the smell. It is (as always!) hard to describe. Let's just say it has been so cleverly crafted that I am unable to pick out any single notes, but all together they make a rather ambrosial aroma. (No, I can't believe I used the word ambrosial there either, but it really is the right word!) It is warm and slightly sweet, a bit fruity, but with some earthier notes that hold it in check.

The main oils are apricot kernel, almond, sesame seed, evening primrose and dog rose, backed up by passion fruit seed, purple passionflower seed, orange, rosewood, bergamot and geranium. Can you see my dilemma in describing that mix? All I can say is that it is a lovely, uplifting scent that makes me happy and feels wonderful on my skin, so all-in-all, a "mistake" I will be repeating when this little jar runs out.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Knitting Circle

When I was in the depths of despair last year, I signed myself up for a weekend workshop for beginner knitters. I was so heavily medicated I could barely follow the instructions, but I found it soothing to be sitting in a cosy basement underneath Loop, a lovely old-fashioned knitting shop in Islington. The women were kind and there were biscuits and bottomless cups of tea and I felt safe and cocooned there: something I needed very badly at that point.

Then, as is its wont, life got in the way and my knitting was put aside and over the months I forgot how to do it. Luckily, my friend Loralie, who is much more "crafty" than I, gave up her time this morning to get me back on track. I am now the proud owner of a slightly wonky, very narrow scarf project, and I couldn't be happier. Wish me endurance!

All of this is a very roundabout way of introducing you to one of my absolute favourite authors: Ann Hood. She wrote her first novel in 1987, the year I left home, and over the next four years she wrote four more, all of which I loved. Sometimes we stumble upon an author who seems to voice all the thoughts in our own head, but they have managed to make sense of them somehow and weave them into a narrative that is not our own but somehow helps to clarify our own confusion and make us feel understood at the same time. And so it was with great excitement that I found Ann again after over 20 years.

I was still coming to terms with my diagnosis at that point and was so relieved and grateful that she was back to make sense of it for me. And I was amazed at the synchronicity of The Knitting Circle being about knitting (or so I thought) as I had just signed up for the above-mentioned knitting class! It wasn't until I started reading — which felt just like being back in the company of a long-lost and much-missed friend — that I realised the book was actually about grief.

At first I thought, "Oh, no, I can't read this right now", but I didn't want to put it down. I was enjoying the company of the characters and feeling comforted — which is what finally made me see how much grief I was carrying: grief for the life my heart failure was making impossible, grief for the lack of energy that meant I couldn't do everything I wanted for, and with, my children, grief for the way it was affecting all my relationships in one way or another. I am a giver and I had been firmly relegated to receiving... something I discovered I was not so good at. What else would I lose?

The stories of the women in the book cover all kinds of loss and reading them became cathartic and uplifting. Life carries on and carries us with it in whatever shape we find ourselves, but there is always the possibility that our new and unexpected (and originally unwanted) life will be a better one. A year later, looking back, I can say unequivocally that this is true. While I would, of course, wish to be completely healthy, there are so many lessons I have learned because of my illness that I just wouldn't have learned otherwise and I am grateful for the opportunity to make better choices about my life. I'm sure Ann Hood would approve.

Saturday, 12 October 2013


What do you do when you are stuck? When a mood descends and you are unable to lift yourself? When circumstances seem too big and too heavy to shift? I have had a week of being tightly wedged between depression and frustration and have been too tired to do much about it besides climb into my bed and feel sorry for myself. I find this tremendously boring and so usually end up getting up again fairly quickly, but this has been a longer run than usual and it has me thinking. I have spent the last several years building up a pretty hefty box of tools for healing, on whatever level, so why I am still lying here?!

Exercise is often prescribed for depression. Well, it's a possibility....

Muffins might also help.... but too many and I would have another whole problem entirely!

I'll tell you what helped, in the end, and that was communicating. I sent my misery out to a few trusted friends and they all responded and by doing so managed to reconnect me to the bigger grid. I had fallen off and just needed that helping hand of friendship and empathy to get back on again. It happens to us all at one point or another and, ultimately, it wasn't so much what they said, but more that they were right there and happy to share their energy with me when I needed to feel connected to something bigger than myself.

One poor friend was in A&E for a minor injury, but was big-hearted enough to send me jokes (really awful ones, at that!). Another sent me a funny picture of herself doing some building work while wearing pink rubber gloves (don't ask!). Another took a minute to drop me a few lines while she was waiting for a meeting to start. These are all busy women with issues of their own to contend with. The fact that they took the time to send some love my way made all the difference and I am so grateful to them all. There is a quote by Meister Eckhart, a medieval theologian, philosopher and mystic, that I love:

"If the only prayer you say in your entire life is Thank You, that will suffice."

Hopefully, regular posts will resume next week, but I know that if I dip down again I will not be alone. I hope that if you, too, are feeling down yourself or know someone who is, that you take a few minutes to communicate. The other thing that helps me is writing this blog, so thank you for reading.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Last Runaway

Most of us don't like change. It is scary and unnerving and rocks our safe, little worlds. But (there's always a but, isn't there?!) in my observation, change usually brings out the best in people. It forces us to dig deep and find that inner resilience we all possess, but that we'd rather not use too often, thank you very much. And so it is that today I am pleased to offer you something a little more erudite than of late: Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway.

Chevalier is one of my heroines, and one of the most intelligent and engaging writers I have ever come across. She has the patience of an academic researcher combined with the ability of a master storyteller. She has nailed it again here with a gripping tale revolving around Honor Bright, a young Quaker girl who sets sail from Dorset in 1850 with her about-to-be-married sister to start a new life in America. However, before they reach their destination, her sister succumbs to yellow fever and Honor is left to build an entirely different life than she was expecting for herself in this strange and often hostile new land.

Chevalier manages to combine a tense tale of the Underground Railroad with a potted history of the art of quilting as well as giving us an incisive view into the lives of the pioneering Americans of that time. The issue of slavery runs deep through America's history and conscience and Chevalier has tackled the subject beautifully, laying out the moral, economic, cultural and personal aspects without any preaching and all the while spinning her fast-paced tale.

There is a stunning amount of detail here to weave in without bogging down the storyline and it is to her unending credit that it only ever serves to enhance her writing. It is this level of detail combined with Chevalier's very visual writing style that allows her to paint extremely vivid pictures with her words. In my mind's eye, I can see quite clearly everything she describes, from the patterns on the different styles of quilts to the frontier farm that Honor ends up on. My heart pounded as she described hiding in a hayloft waiting out the attentions of the slave hunter and she made me feel slighty queasy when describing Honor's seasickness on her month-long voyage to America.

If you had told Honor when she set out from Dorset what she would be capable of in the New World, she would not have believed you. This is her story of resilience and the ability to adapt to change during difficult times, both on a personal and national level. It poses questions that we would still do well to try to answer, both for ourselves within our own lives, but also at a larger remove. Honor Bright is a compelling character who stayed with me long after I finished reading. She fully embodies the pioneering spirit of the young America she finds herself in, even though at first she does not recognize this in herself.

If you want something with a little meat on its bones, but that still grabs hold of you and won't let go til you've turned the last page -- this is it.  I read this book in three days, staying up late into the night to find out how Honor reconciles the choices she makes. It is gripping and wholly believable, with a safisfying ending, which two-thirds of the way through the novel I was wondering how on earth Chevalier would pull off.... but pull it off, she most certainly did!

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Eating Seasonably: October

I'm a little slow off the mark this month, partly due to my own sloth, but also because I had trouble finding some of my key seasonal picks for October in the shops! Shame on them! In the end, I managed to track down everything except a marrow. I have become a little obsessive about cooking something tasty with one, so keep an eye out for the November round-up to see if I pulled it off! In the meantime, we have an autumnal cornucopia to be getting on with: sweetcorn, Cox apples, aubergine, sweet potato, butternut squash, fennel (moved on from last month as we didn't get to it!) and pumpkin, which I suspect will end up being carved into a jack-o-lantern instead of eaten, but hey.... we'll roast the seeds!

As for September, we started the month strong with an apple and blackberry crisp, thereby ticking off two items at once. The crisp was delicious: cinnamon-sugary with a good crunch, tempered by just the right amount of tang from the ripe, juicy blackberries. Then I remembered why I don't like Bramley apples: they are tart and mushy. They remind me of school dinners. Blech! I'm sorry, I realize to criticise the Bramley in England is tantamount to blasphemy, but I stand by my opinion. Next time I will use Braeburns.

Next, I made an exciting discovery. Since I have been eating seasonably, I have been more aware of what is on offer in the grocery store and one day I noticed a display of cobnuts. I had read about them in a couple of places within the previous few days, so I jumped at the chance to try them. They are lovely: sweet and moist with flesh slightly reminiscent of a coconut. I also stumbled upon some greengages. They were so delectable that I have probably eaten about 20 of them in the past week or so. They were definitely my favourite find of the month.

And then we come to the Big Fail: the dreaded fig. I have no idea where my fig phobia comes from, but there it is. I bought several punnets with good intention and each time they all withered away until they became even more unpalatable than before. I give you Exhibit A, below.

I could not bring myself to eat one. Oh, the shame... What can I say? I'll keep trying and let you know if I overcome my reticence!! Did you try anything new this month? Or spot something that caught your eye that you'd never seen before? I am on the lookout for salsify. No, I didn't know what it was either. Turns out it's a root vegetable, a bit like a long, narrow parsnip, that belongs to the dandelion family. I suspect I might have some opposition on this one from the kids....!