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....!