When a PR recently mentioned that she’d been reading my blog, I broke out into verbal spasms. ‘No!’, I cried. ‘No! Don’t do that! No, what I mean is yes, please read it but I haven’t updated it for ages and honestly it’s a bit embarrassing to have not posted in so long and… and…’
The PR was very polite and insisted she loved reading the story about my niece rescuing Christmas. Even in June.
If not blogging, what have I been doing for the last six months?
The first half of 2018 has been full of writing, just none of it for the blog. Magazine writing, and latterly copywriting for corporate clients, has taken precedence. I’m in no way complaining about that, and I love the variety that comes with the freelance life.
Here are some of my highlights:
‘Say no to plastics in your bathroom’ in Planet Mindful, Spring 2018– print only but if you’re quick then I think this is still available.
This is a true story about the time my niece, Jessica, saved Christmas.
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Jessica.
She lived with her dad, mum, brother Joseph and Lola the dog. Jessica liked dancing and playing the flute, but most of all she loved curry. Her whole family knew that her favourite breakfast was leftover curry from the night before.
Jessica was a funny girl who made everyone laugh.
She was also very kind and loving – so much so that in 2016 she managed to save Christmas all by herself.
One day in the week before the 25th, Jessica and Joseph went to stay with Auntie Rae while their mum was at work. They were only going round for an hour but Auntie Rae wanted to think of something fun to do.
Her first idea was to go to Crave, the best coffee and desserts shop for miles around, but it wasn’t open that day.
She racked her brains until she remembered the large box of Christmas decorations sitting in the garage. Although it was already 19th December, Auntie Rae and Uncle Mark had not put up a single decoration.
They didn’t even have a tree.
This was very unusual. Auntie Rae had always loved Christmas and often did lots of festive things, from baking to decorating to writing cards.
This year was different.
This year there was no Christmas cake, no Christmas decorations nor had she written Christmas cards.
Auntie Rae was sad that there was no Christmas in her house this year but she couldn’t feel any December magic. She’d had a difficult year and was poorly with a naughty brain that made her feel sad a lot.
One day recently she’d been so sad that she even missed going to eat turkey and Christmas pudding with her friends.
This showed how bad things had become as Auntie Rae never said no to Christmas pudding.
On the day that Jessica and Joseph were coming round, Auntie Rae decided that although she didn’t want to get the decorations out of the garage, she would retrieve the box because they might like to do something with what was inside.
She went outside and dragged the large plastic container back into the house and left it by the piano.
In the afternoon, Jessica and Joseph arrived with their tablets to play on. Auntie Rae was pleased that they wouldn’t be bored but also felt a little bit sorry as she had begun to quite like the idea that they might put up some decorations. So after they’d taken off their coats and had a glass of fizzy pop, Auntie Rae nervously asked if they’d like to have a look inside the box.
Joseph said no thank you, instead he would watch what they were doing. He did watching very well, sitting in the big winged armchair, curled up with his game, for the next hour.
Jessica, however, did want to see what was inside.
Auntie Rae felt even more sad when she saw all the lovely things that she had collected over the years but hadn’t the energy to get out before now.
She also felt a glimmer of hope, knowing that having Jessica there would make a big difference.
She was right.
Jessica got to work straightaway, finding five matching silver candle holders and putting them on the coffee table.
This first step encouraged Auntie Rae to put the sprig of plastic mistletoe near the front door. It cheered her up no end, and she smiled as she suddenly had an idea!
Auntie Rae wobbled on a chair as she reached a large glass jar down from the top of the fridge.
She and Jessica sat together on the floor, working like Santa and his top most elf.
Auntie Rae unravelled the fairy lights and twisted them round the inside of the jar while Jessica sorted out the silver and glass baubles. Once she had them all, she began to add them into the jar too. Then Jessica also found a big red ribbon that she wrapped around the outside of the glass.
When they were finished, Auntie Rae carefully placed the almost full jar on the end of piano. With a bit of wiggling and pushing, she managed to get the fairy lights plugged in down the back.
Like the shepherds on the hillside when the throng of angels came down to tell them of Jesus’ birth, they stood filled with both excitement and trepidation as Auntie Rae pushed the button to turn on the three hundred bulbs.
Ta dah! They worked first time, filling the space with a gentle golden glow.
The two workers stood back, satisfied with what they had created.
They high-fived before eating mini mince pies in celebration. After that they chilled for five minutes, scrolling through the WAH Nails Instagram feed and discussing which manicure they liked the best.
Rested and revived, they moved on to another project.
This time Jessica hole-punched some Christmassy postcards and Auntie Rae threaded them on to string to make a garland.
After Jessica had gone, Auntie Rae again balanced precariously on a chair so that she could festoon their second creation across the bookshelves.
As she was doing this, Uncle Mark came home from work.
‘What’s been going on?’
he asked, surprised to see there were decorations scattered around their home when Auntie Rae had been uttering ‘Can’t we just skip to January?’ for weeks.
Auntie Rae explained what she and Jessica had been up to.
She gave Uncle Mark a big hug and a kiss under the mistletoe by the door then, with a lump in her throat, whispered ‘I’m actually feeling happy and festive now’
– all thanks to Jessica, the girl who saved Christmas.
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Looking back at December last year, I clearly was going through some kind of jedi like phase of great wisdom because there are several blog posts from then that I’ve felt moved to share again this year.
(An alternative reading is that I’ve not been able to dedicate the same time and thought to the blog this year because I’ve been busy writing commissions).
This particular posts spoke to me today as I’m definitely feeling the pressure of the Christmas shoulds. I should have done so many things for Christmas, from make a cake to put up decorations to craft my own wreath from pom-poms (okay, so the latter is somethin
g that I really *want* to do).
I haven’t done these things and more and while deep down I know this isn’t a problem,
I’m still getting stressed about it.
So here’s a reminder as much for myself as anyone else that use of the word ‘should’ is not a good sign. If you enjoy the post or find it useful, please do let me know! You can share it on social media using the buttons below too.
When this post is published, I shall be holed up with my partner is a cottage on the beach on the south coast.
Back in August, we decided to have a getaway from Christmas Day until New Year’s Eve. We found the right accommodation on the same day and booked up immediately.
It’s only as Christmas has drawn closer that I’ve begun to question our decision. I’ve never regretted our choice – on the contrary, I think it’s a brilliant idea, all the fun of the festive build up but none of the hassle and anti-climax – but it has raised big questions about my sense of obligation.
Should a good daughter not see her parents on at least one of these days?
Should a good auntie miss Christmas with the fast growing children?
Should a good daughter-in-law whisk her partner away from his family at this time of year?
Should I be allowed to do what I want rather than what others expect of me?
The cunning among you may have spotted that all these questions are united by that most dreaded of compulsions, ‘should’.
As any pop-psychology book will tell you, use of the word should (and its close cousin, ought) is a sure sign that you don’t actually want to do something but feel somehow compelled to by pressure, be it societal, familial or even internal.
Christmas is a classic time when should based decisions come to the fore.
You may want to stop at home with your young children but feel obliged to drag them round all the grandparents instead.
You may want to cut down on your spending but feel it would cause uproar if you stopped buying gifts for all the extended family.
You may want to opt out of Secret Santa at work but fear you’ll look like killjoy if you do.
I could list fifty more examples off the top of my head.
Alas the Christmas shoulds are compounded by the New Year ones.
It is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in their lives made a resolution at the end of December based on something they feel they should do.
The perennial favourite is weight; many of us know that feeling that we should lose a stone – or three.
My personal bete noir has been growing my nails. I’ve felt obliged to quit picking my nails since at least age six. Every year I’d vow that was it with my disgusting habit. For the start of 1999, I even vowed that I would ‘Grow my nails like Jenni’s’, Jenni being a friend at college whose hands I greatly admired.
It took me sixteen years, yes sixteen years, to fully acknowledge how ridiculous that particular variant of the resolution was. My own sheer willpower is not enough to overcome genetics.
My own vision of ‘how things should be’ will not override the reality of how my nails look.
I finally realised this and accepted the truth of my hands when using the bathroom on a research trip to UC Davis in July 2015.
It was a very precise moment, like a thunderbolt. This is how my hands are, I thought, and how much more mental energy do I want to expend fighting that? Not a lot, it turns out, and I’ve had a more harmonious relationship with the bits on the ends of my arms since.
If only it were so easy with every other ‘should’ that crosses my mind!
That said, there is one useful lesson I have learnt from overcoming my belief that I should grow my nails like Jenni’s:
Naming the sense of obligation can help to dispel it.
Externalising it, rather than keeping it in our heads and our hearts like a dirty secret that we are betraying, can seriously undermine its power.
I don’t just believe that this applies to me; I feel that anyone could benefit from talking about their most controlling sense of should with another person or even journalling about it.
Therefore ahead of this New Year’s Eve, I encourage you to make a list of the 12 Great Shoulds in your life – one for each month of the year.
What dozen shoulds or oughts make you feel obliged and trapped?
As my example of ‘growing my nails like Jenni’s’ suggests, the more ludicrous the better!
Here are the 12 Great Shoulds that continue to taunt me:
I should be 7.5 stone because that’s the weight I was at some point in 1997 (aged 15)
I should always have a tidy basket of spare towels, perfectly folded and stacked
My car footwells should always look like they’ve just been vacuumed
I should never ever miss the birthday of a friend or family member because this makes me an evil and uncaring person (this has been an especially tough one in 2016 as my mental health struggles have made remembering birthdays and getting to send cards difficult)
I should maintain every aspect of my house to an exacting standard of cleanliness and taste. Every. Single. Thing.
I should be better at yoga than I am. In fact, I should be considering yogi training.
I should always have a completely full tank of petrol. Even when I’ve just returned from a long journey, I ought to have filled to the very top again en route.
I should never ever need to use an ATM but ought to have a reasonable quantity of cash upon my at all times.
I should always have six months of savings put to one side
I should not display any pictures of myself or of me and my partner together anywhere in our home
I should pack away all the garden furniture and plant tubs at the onset of autumn and not leave them out over winter (can you tell that’s a current nagging guilt?)
I should not experience or display any sign of human nature but rather maintain an aura of complete perfection at all times and on every occasion. To reveal even the slightest weakness or flaw amounts to total failure.
For Heather, a friend who always speaks straight to my soul.
A reprise of one of my favourite blog post from last December. It seems as timely as ever.
On Friday I showed up at a friend’s house for lunch.
I knew I was seeing her between meetings she had and was told we’d be eating soup. I expected to rock up to a tin of Heinz and a few slice of brown bread, but on arrival I was greeted by a table fully decked out for a Christmas celebration, even though there were only two place settings.
We had a festive themed table cloth and party crackers as well as a table laden with homemade soup, crusty bread, croutons, a cheese board, salad and three different desserts.
Reader, I felt thoroughly spoiled.
Topped with paper hats, we had a merry time together, sharing a meal and heartfelt thoughts.
As I left, further blessed with a glass tree decoration that she had forged herself, I knew we had taken communion together.
You don’t need bread and wine to share communion with someone.
I don’t think you need to view the act of communion necessarily in a religious way, although obviously it comes heavily laden with Christian associations. At its heart, the act centred on Jesus and his closest mates sharing a meal between them.
Isn’t that something we all know can be a special occasion, one that seems to take on emotional significance beyond the actual act of eating and drinking?
Surely that is that purpose of communion, a transformative experience that changes us?
Friendships are important because they help to remind you of who you are, whether at your best, your worst or simply your core.
Unlike familial or romantic relationships, there aren’t rites of passage or dedicated days where we can honour and celebrate our platonic ties. This seems a shame, an oversight somehow, as if they are not as important in our lives as relatives by blood or marriage.
Yet we are able to mark the significance of friendships over and over again if only we are mindful of what’s happening around us.
We can share communion, a treasured bond, a life-affirming moment with them whenever we sit down and talk, preferably with food and drink on the table between us too.
We can experience the most spectacular thread of connection even if we were only expecting to have half a tin of reheated soup.
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Most Wednesday mornings, I listen to the Happier podcast with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft as I get ready. Today I almost choked on my toothpaste as I heard them talk about their eighteen for 2018 idea, inspired by a listener’s thirty-five for their thirty-fifth.
Thirty-five for their thirty-fifth! That’s what I’m doing too!
As I explained in my original post, when my friend Catherine at Midlands Minimalist told me about her husband’s fiftieth birthday resolution to do fifty things, I set myself a quest to complete thirty-five activities between my thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth birthdays (19th July 2017 to 2018).
Unlike the other Happier listener who created a thirty-five at thirty-five list, who cleverly planned a great mix of activities and new habits that would enhance her happiness, mine are a random and idiosyncratic selection. I’ll bear her thinking in mind for when it comes to #36at36quest!
Here’s an update on how my #35at35quest is going
As my thirty-fifth birthday approached, I felt haunted by the many things I thought I’d have done by now. I’m not talking about major life events but smaller activities that just seem to have slipped by, like finally getting round to finishing Middlemarch (I’ve read the first hundred pages two or three times). This feels particularly pressing as George Eliot and I are from the same home town and I’ve always felt some strange connection to her for that reason (and being born in hospital named after her).
I bought a copy with the book token that I received for my birthday. Good quick progress! Alas it’s been sitting next to my bed gathering dust since then.
2. Try colonic irrigation.
Because why not?
Maybe this is a good treatment to try post-Christmas indulgence. Add to January to do list.
3. Try craniosacral therapy.
Another ‘because why not?’. Another with no progress.
4. Visit Paris alone.
My partner gifted me the Eurostar for my birthday but I’ve yet to get round to booking it. There’s a theme developing…
5. Visit a Greek island
Spent a heavenly week in Santorini at the end of September.
6. Hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak
Ticket booked, going in May.
7. Watch The First Monday In May.
Hardly a film classic but hey, this is my list! And this one is now completed. When I was ill and bored last week, I snuggled up on the sofa and popped this on. A great insight into the powerful world of high end fashion, culture and publishing, but mildly disheartening watching all the beautiful people while feeling snotty, sweaty and generally gross.
8. Go to St. Ives in Cornwall.
People have recommended the Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount while I’m down there. A springtime trip, I think.
9. Travel to Stockholm.
A family friend has conveniently moved there! I’ve asked for Swedish krona for Christmas and will be heading over early in the new year.
10. Try African food.
Another with no progress. I’m going to take up the tip from the Happier podcast and print the list out and pop it somewhere I’ll see it so that I won’t forget what I want to do!
11. Revisit Warwick Castle for the first time since 1990.
It’s a major historic site just twenty miles from where I grew up and now live again but I haven’t been since a school trip when I was seven. I’m going to look out for special offers for entry in the new year.
12. Swing across monkey bars.
From the start, I predicted that this is the most likely not to be achieved. Still looking that way.
13. Drive a sports car.
Thanks to the FCA Group, I spent a happy week in the summer cruising round in a beautiful Fiat 124 Spider. Huge fun! I loved it and felt like Elizabeth Taylor the entire time. Little Niece and Nephew loved it too!
14. Get a Margaret Dabbs pedicure.
The *ultimate* treat for feet – and one to schedule for when the weather begins to warm up and sandals come out again.
15. Get a photo at Land’s End.
See number eight. Will tick the two boxes off together.
16. Visit Bristol.
This British city seems to have everything going for it, including a vibrant arts and culture scene. I’m embarassed that I’ve never been , not least because I’ve good friends who live there.
17. Make a Christmas cake using my grandad’s recipe.
My grandad was a baker and the last proper cake he made was for my christening in 1983. I have a handwritten copy of his recipe for making a Christmas cake but it’s now 13th December. Is it too late to make a Christmas cake?!
18. Learn some German.
Haven’t done this but am learning Swedish thanks to the Memrise app! Useful for #9.
19. Go up the Shard.
20. Visit the British Museum for the first time since 1997. Shocking, I know.
I walk past both of these on at least a monthly basis yet have still failed to go in either building. However my partner and I are planning a day trip to London between Christmas and New Year so hoping to get two big ticks then!
21. See Stonehenge.
To do on the way to or from #16.
22. Learn to make Florentines.
A friend who is a great baker has offered to show me how. I wonder if she has time in the next week or so…
23. Read a book on Korean history.
I wrote this before the current nuclear crisis kicked off. It feels a bit too terrifying now.
24. Master a song on the guitar.
I was thinking possibly Take Me Home Country Roads as this was the first song I learnt on it when I was a teenager. I just need to pick up a guitar. The one in our living room would suffice.
25. Rebuild my emergency savings pot.
Hmm, no progress again. The perils of trying to build up a career as a freelancer!
26. Try a pickled egg.
This item provoked more reaction than any other on the list. Pickled eggs divide opinion! A friend kindly supplied the goods, a fancy Chinese spiced version. It was tasty.
I’m building up to try one of the eyeball looking ones from a chip shop as I don’t imagine that they’d be as refined.
27. Learn the proper names for clouds.
Another reason to print the list off and leave it somewhere prominent. I’d totally forgotten about this.
28. Come off all my mental health medication.
A big tick for this one. I am now off all my medication having gone cold turkey about a month ago. I definitely DO NOT recommend this course of action. Not a good idea.
29. Visit a Japanese garden in autumn.
My family friend who has moved to Sweden bought me a voucher for this. We had a lovely afternoon out in October visiting this oriental corner of Lincolnshire.
30. Go to a fun fair.
Why is it so difficult to do things that we want to do?!
31. Learn to use a sewing machine.
Despite two generous offers of help with this, I haven’t done anything about it. Retrieving the machine from under the bed might help.
32. Visit the Lake District for the first time in twenty years.
Another one to be scheduled. Looks like the next seven months are going to be busy with weekends away!
33. Have a day out in Leicester.
I live about fifteen miles from this city and haven’t been there for several years, and even then only to a work event at the university. Maybe another day out for between Christmas and New Year.
34. Clear out Google Photos.
2014, 2015 and 2016 are sorted. A strangely satisfying task!
Back in July, I visited the Home & Gift Buyers’ Festival in Harrogate. It’s a huge trade event where producers display their wares to the retailers and buyers looking to add new lines to add to their websites and shops later in the year. I wrote a series of posts featuring those makers that I met on the exhibition’s ‘Eco Trail’, including some fantastic festive themed firms.
Somehow it’s now December (how?!) and it seems like a great time to draw attention to those companies with a seasonal edge again. Keep This Cracker, Nauseni and The Recycled Candle Company have great stocking fillers as well as everything you need for your Christmas centrepiece.
Let me know what purchases you make!
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Upon realising the amount of waste generated each Christmas by single use crackers, Bea Thackeray came up with her own solution: reusable ones!
After some experimentation, she perfected her model. You fill the gift box centre with whatever your choose, thread the snap through and pull as normal – except the whole thing slides apart rather than rips, so you can use them again! All you have to replace are the snaps, which she also sells. Genius!
There are also options for wedding favours and other occasions.
From £3.10 for the crackers; £1.10 for six replacement snaps.
Founded in response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Nauseni (now-se-ni) strives to empower Nepalese women by offering skill development and income generating opportunities. The firm works closely with teams of women artisans who they have trained to produce needle felted ornaments that reflect the centuries of wool making crafts in the Himalayas.
You know how there’s wax leftover whenever you’ve finished burning a candle? Well the clever chaps at The Recycled Candle Company go round collecting this seeming waste product from London churches, pubs and hotels then they recycle all the bits into beautiful new ones. Isn’t this the greatest recycling story that you’ve ever heard?!
All of their candles, votives and firelighters are beautiful but check out their miniature Christmas trees!
When Myton Hospices invited me to undertake a style challenge at their new vintage fashion focused Myton Fargo charity shop (so named because of its location on Far Gosford Street, the new creative quarter in Coventry), I got somewhat carried away in creating outfits from their amazing vintage, retro and second hand stock.
Aside from putting together a few separates, these outfits required approximately zero styling on my part.
The garments speak for themselves.
Covering a range of styles and eras, as well as different price points, they highlight the fantastic stock curated by store manager Angela at Myton Fargo.
They also show the huge possibilities that are available if you decide to shop and dress second hand.
To showcase this, I thought I’d bring all these outfits together side by side.
According to my research at the weekend (that’s the kind of dedication I’m willing to undertake for you, dear readers #mayhaveboughtadresswhileIwasthere), a few of these pieces are still available.
But rather than focusing on the specifics, however fab they are, I want to emphasise what you can do with second hand clothes – and some of this is definitely second hand, rather than it’s trendier sibling, vintage.
It may take a bit of effort and commitment to dress this way, but the rewards are huge. Second hand clothes are cheaper, individual and arguably the best way to build an ethical wardrobe.
If you don’t already shop second hand, pop into your local charity shop when you have half an hour to spare and see what takes your fancy.
And please do share with me what you come away with! I’d love to see the results.
Here’s the best of what I found at Myton Fargo.
#OOTD Number One
I fell in love with this blouse as soon as I saw it tucked on the rack. What I wanted to show with this combo is that wearing vintage doesn’t mean impracticality or looking outre – it’s totally possible to mix gorgeous old clothes into a wearable for work look.
At the same time, the unique older pieces stop officewear looking boring. Win win!
£4 for the blouse
£9 for the skirt (complete with original tag saying £25 from Next)
Love this example of Christmas clothing – check out the detail on the blouse for what makes it perfect for December!
£4.00 for the bauble blouse
£7.00 for the skirt
#OOTD Number Three
I labelled ‘Visit to a country pub outfit’ when I was making notes on my choices – sometimes I really do think in fashionese!
Wherever you’d wear this, the two high end items are absolute gems. The Johnstons cape is made of the softest wool; it’s like wearing a blanket. The trousers are an archetypal example of Ralph Lauren – I can’t believe they showed up in the English midlands!
£25.00 for the cape
£25.00 for the trousers
Total = £50.00
#OOTD Number Four
Another day, another insight into the fantasy scenarios I create in my head. I named this ensemble the ‘Someret House ice skating outfit’ (although it’s totally okay to switch that to the Rockerfeller Center ice skating outfit if you prefer!).
The presence of actual ice skating boots makes this slightly less strange, I guess – and they epitomise how diverse the @mytonfargoshop stock really is!
£20.00 for the dress (brand new with labels)
£12.00 for the Topshop faux fur gilet
£10.00 for the ice skates
Total = £42.00
#OOTD Number Five
This Studio 54 esque look is perfect for injecting some disco glamour into your wardrobe at any time of the year – glitz *and* shiny patent flat shoes to dance the night away in.
This was one of the first dresses I spotted during my Myton Fargo adventure and I knew immediately it had to feature. The dress ticks the sequins trend, which will be big this season and for SS18. And of course they are fab for Christmas!
This outfit also demonstrates what great buys high street vintage can be. The dress has the original 1980s/90s Next silk label inside. Anything with this is in a sign of quality. Their clothes were far pricier then than today and signalled a good investment.
This is something I always look out for.
£10.00 for the dress
£12.00 for the shoes, which are Marks and Spencer Limited Collection and look barely worn.
Total = £22.00
#OOTD Number Six
Of all the Myton Fargo outfits I’ve featured, this is one of my faves as each of the three elements is so effing awesome!
1) Vintage midi-dress with a winter floral pattern. The attention to detail is fantastic, and it has a concealed zip under a buttoned top section.
2) Levi jean jacket in a classic style. You’ll never wear this baby out!
3) Gorgeous tan boots. No other description needed.
£6.00 for the dress
£25.00 for the wear-forever Levi jacket
£8.00 for the boots
Total = £39.00
#OOTD Number Seven
I love this combo but that’s true about every single item I’ve included! The coat was amazing quality as well as just all round fabulous. It ended up going home with a volunteer after her first shift at the store!
£35.00 for the coat
£6.00 for the Marks and Spencer Autograph dress
£6.00 for the shoes
Total = £47.00
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