Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Christmas 2014 blog post Anthology

Just in case I go missing again in the run up to Christmas and you're desperate for something seasonal to read on this blog, here is the annual, updated for 2014, Everyday Life on a Shoestring anthology of Christmas blog posts, past and present.

If you're looking for a recipe, a homemade gift idea, a good Christmas book to read, or a corny cracker joke, then you might find what you need here! I've added 'A Simple Christmas' button to the bar at the top of the blog's home page so that you can easily find that peppermint cream recipe at a later date...

Everyday Life on a Shoestring Christmas traditions, Christmassy photos...they're all here! Just click on the link to be taken to the relevant blog post.

Santa comes to Corsham, 2012!

And here Santa is in 2013!

How to make an advent Christmas crown

Vegetarian mincemeat recipe

Christmas Pudding recipe

Christmas Cake recipe

Millionaire's Shortbread recipe

Peppermint Creams

Chocolate, orange and almond torte

How to make bath bombs

How to recycle candles into new candles for great gifts!

Easy Peasy Icecream recipe

Christmas Jokes

Christmas Music

Christmas Poetry

Christmas Books

Operation Christmas Child - Shoeboxes

Travelling in the UK at Christmas? Links to travel news here

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Pause in Advent - Week 3

(Oops, as well as Pausing in Advent, there's been an unintentional pause in blogging for the last couple of weeks, ...did I mention this time of year can be hectic?)

Time for another Pause in Advent - that chance for a reflective pause amidst what, for many of us, is a busy time of year as we prepare to welcome the light (in whichever sense you celebrate that - religious or not).

One of my favourite parts of this time of year is the music. Granted, all the old favourites are being trotted out on the radio and in the shops, and I do tire of some of those. But each year there's a new surprise. Often it's been discovered at a school concert: a few years ago it was A Wriggly Nativity - one of the better off-the-peg nativity packages that some UK primary schools buy into these days. One year it was the secondary school choir performing a Tears For Fears number - not your usual Christmas fare but very moving.

This year is the first year where we have no primary school Christmas show to go to and neither child is performing in the Comp's Christmas concert, so we have had rely on the oldies for our Christmas musical thrills. Yesterday Grandad's Choral Society's performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio. In its own way, just as exciting as A Wriggly Nativity. Not least because a tier of Basses and Tenors were balanced precariously at the back of stage and there was a real possibility that someone might fall off the stage, Reception class style. Thankfully there were no accidents. Not many musical surprises either. Bach's very dependable.

No, this year's new discovery for me is 'People, Look East! (Carol of the Advent)'. The words were written by Eleanor Farjeon (who also wrote Morning has Broken) and set to an old French melody. I came across this carol at a concert where it was one of the 'all join in' carols for the audience, most of whom, like me, did not recognise it. I really like this Youtube version without the lyrics, so for this week's Pause in Advent I give you the tune and the words separately. If you're feeling very Christmassy you can karaoke along with the video...

People of the East, Carol of the Advent
People, look East, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house as fair as you're able,
Trim the hearth, and set the table.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch, when night is dim.
One more light the bowl shall brim.
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and moon together.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels, announce, with shouts of mirth
Him Who brings new life to earth.
Set ev'ry peak and valley humming
With the word, "The Lord is coming!"
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon

Angela at Tracing Rainbows is hosting PiA this year, and if you visit her blog you can find links to the other bloggers taking part and sharing their Pauses

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A Pause in Advent - Week 1

This year I'm joining in with some other bloggers for A Pause in Advent. 

It's a blogging tradition that goes back a few years - a chance for a reflective pause amidst what, for many of us, is a busy time of year as we prepare to welcome the light (in whichever sense you celebrate that - religious or not).

Angela at Tracing Rainbows is hosting PiA this year, and if you visit her blog you can find links to the other bloggers taking part and sharing their Pauses

I'm hosting the "Pause In Advent" here - continuing the tradition started by Floss

Perhaps you're thinking that finally this is the point where my writing becomes deep, meaningful and full of insight. Sorry! You'll have to visit some of the other Pausers for that.

Over the weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would write and I'm afraid the best I could come up with is a toilet. 

A toilet.

But not just any toilet - this toilet in Cambodia:

It's twinned with the toilets at the Friends' Meeting House in Redland, Bristol*, where I happened to be using the facilities on Saturday. Its photo hangs above the wash basins along with its longitude and latitude so that you can be locate it on Google Earth.

This gave me pause for thought, quite literally. I'd never come across toilet twinning before but what a fantastic idea. Simple but so thought provoking. I've already thought of a few toilets around here that could be twinned.

The scheme, organised by Cord and Tearfund, allows people or organisations to fund raise to twin an existing toilet or toilets in a home, organisation, village or town with a community in a developing country that does not have a toilet, so that they can build one. 

Shockingly only 1 in 3 people in the world has access to a toilet and many health and hygiene issues result from this lack. For me, this really puts the excesses of Christmas into perspective, especially in the light of all this new fangled (over here in the UK) Black Friday/Cyber Monday nonsense.

This season I'm going to pause gratefully and remember the riches I already possess, including clean water and my very own flush toilet, right here in my house.  Even if I only pause for a minute every time I go to the loo, over the next few weeks that'll add up to a substantial pause in Advent...

* Sorry I didn't think of taking a photo of the Meeting House toilets - it felt eccentric enough taking a photo of the photo of the Cambodian toilet...If you imagine a few clean toilets in cubicles with wash basins and squirty soap dispensers you've pretty much got the Bristol picture...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Getting my own back on the self service check out...

Generally I avoid the self service check outs at our local supermarket. It never runs smoothly, for countless reasons: bar codes not being accepted on reduced items, the machine not liking library books already being in my own shopping bag, stuff being accidentally scanned twice, unexpected item in the bagging area...All of which then entails standing around waiting for an elusive shop assistant to come and bail me out.

Instead I prefer dealing with a human. (I am that annoying middle-aged lady in front of you in the queue who likes to chat to the shop assistant and pay with the exact money, spending hours ferreting around in the dark recesses of her purse for that final penny.)

Husband can't be doing with all that. He brings all his loose change home. Some of it goes in our Wallace and Gromit Grand Appeal collection box and some of it gets dumped in a pot.

And every now and again, when I'm feeling stony broke and I've got just a few items to buy I empty the contents of the pot into a bag and take it to the supermarket and use it all in one go at the self service check out.

This was the highlight of my day today (I know, I know, I lead a very exciting life). A whole £5 of what feels like 'free' money!

It is not an activity to be done in a rush. I make sure I pick a quiet time in the store so I can savour feeding the money in a few coins at a time. It's like being at the penny arcades on a rainy day at the seaside, especially when the machine spits a few coins out.

Sometimes it all goes smoothly and my small act of defiance goes unnoticed. Other times the machine cottons on to what I'm doing and starts to get annoyed. It puts its cash gobbling conveyor belt into reverse and makes unpleasant mechanical noises because it knows I'm sticking it to The Man, to all those soulless automated procedures everywhere that put real people out of a job, and to all those Coinstar machines that change your coins into notes but take a fee for doing so. I won't be beaten. I always win this particular battle, however many shop assistants I have to enlist onto my side, and you know what? I'll be back with a bagful of coppers another time..

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Stir Up Sunday - Super Scrimpers style

Two years ago I blogged about Stir-up Sunday here. I'll quickly recap for those who have got better things to do than flit around blogs reading old blog posts. 

It's the last Sunday before Advent and the Collect for the day (the 25th Sunday after Trinity) gives Stir-up Sunday its name, serving as a reminder to church goers to get the pudding ready so it had time to mature before Christmas:

'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord,
the wills of thy faithful people, that they plenteously bringing forth
the fruit of good works,
may be of thee plenteously rewarded.'

Other Stir-up Sunday traditions are that the Christmas pudding should have thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles, and that the mixture should be stirred in an east to westerly direction - that in which the wise men travelled.

This year I was not sure whether to bother with making a pudding. We're on a tighter budget than two years ago and if you're buying in the full list of pudding ingredients it does not come in cheap. Although I love all the rich, spicy, fruity Christmassy stuff, the rest of the family are not that bothered. I could go and buy a ready made pudding for a couple of quid and nobody would mind.

But you know what? Although there's plenty that I don't like about the typical 21st century Christmas one of my favourite parts is sharing the traditional celebratory foods with family and friends. And I enjoy preparing that food. Quality rather than quantity. I'd rather spend more on the ingredients for a good Christmas pudding and less on biscuits and chocolates.

So I set about looking for a budget Christmas pudding recipe. I didn't have to travel far. There's a whole thread devoted to the topic in a forum on Martin Lewis' Money Saving Expert website. And Channel 4's Super Scrimpers has a Christmas pudding recipe. I ran with the latter as I already had most of the ingredients.

Here's Dev demonstrating the method:


50g breadcrumbs
50g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice
150g sultanas
150g dried fruit
50g flaked almonds
2 grated apples
rind and juice of one lemon and one orange
100g butter
100g brown sugar
2 eggs
6 tbsp brandy
4 tbsp milk
2 tbsp treacle

Mix all the ingredients together well, and put into a greased pudding bowl. I made two small puddings.

Puddings waiting to be steamed.
As ever, I deviated from the specified ingredients; I purchased a bag of mixed fruit and used that rather than using half sultanas and half mixed fruit. 

I downgraded the alcohol content (if you don't have brandy or rum to hand, buying a bottle will bump up the cost of a Christmas pudding hugely) to the cheapest fortified wine I could find - a drink called Scots Mac , which is a blend of British wine and whiskey (it's only a fiver so don't get too excited about the whiskey content). The idea was to hide the bottle, once I'd extracted six tablespoonfuls for the pudding, until Christmas. However there's no point in doing this if it tastes foul, so we've had a couple of sherry glasses each - purely for scientific reasons, to see what it's like. (Very drinkable, it transpires). To cut costs further you could leave the alcohol out completely.

Dark brown sugar happened to be in the cupboard rather than soft brown, so I used that. Similarly I used golden syrup rather than buying a tin of treacle. 

Ooh and I didn't have an orange so I left that out...Actually this epitomises my entire approach to cooking - if it's not going to make too much difference to the end result, exclude ingredients or substitute with what I already have. It makes good sense if you're keen on reducing your food waste.

One reason for making your own Christmas pudding is that you get to enjoy the waft of Christmas spices while it steams for hours, so I ignored Dev's microwave instructions entirely (plus we don't have a microwave) and steamed my pudding in the slow cooker (medium heat for 7 hours).

Written down it all sounds like a real faff. What a lot of fuss just for a Christmas pudding. Actually it's really easy and one of those things where, anyway, it's the process rather than the product/journey rather than the destination.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Trying to recreate a little bit of Leicester in Wiltshire...

There are no Afghan restaurants around here, so my trip to such an eating establishment in Leicester last week was an experience I won't forget in a hurry. Aubergines (eggplants) were a key feature of the menu - when I found one lingering in the cupboard back at home, it seemed fitting to give it the middle eastern treatment.

I'd never made it before but have always loved the name: Baba Ganoush.

It's simple to make this yummy dip. Roast two medium aubergines (or one large one in my case).

(I realised afterwards that although slicing the aubergine seemed a good idea, it does leave some dry edges when it comes to the mashing part of Baba Ganoush.) The roasting takes about half to one hour in a hot oven.

Baba Ganoush sprinkled with paprika

Peel and scoop out the flesh. The instructions in the recipe I used advised letting the flesh drain, but this would would have resulted in barely any aubergine, so I ignored that part.

I went straight to blending it in the food processor with 2 tablespoonfuls of olive oil, 2 tablespoonfuls of tahini, a tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 garlic clove with some parsley and mint (I used dried but fresh would have been better). I've always liked tahini but it might not be everyone's idea of a store cupboard staple - I guess you could use a spoonful of natural yogurt instead or a handful of sesame seeds. 

Serve with some flat breads. I make these A LOT. Especially when we've run out of other bread. I discovered I've saved lots of flat bread photos in my blog photo folder over the months. It's about time one of them reached the light of day at last. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe works every time for me:

250g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil
150ml warm water

Mix together and briefly knead. I can get 8 small flat breads out of this amount. Divide dough into 8 balls and roll thinly. Cook for a couple of minutes on each side. I use a griddle frying pan.

Everyone enjoyed the Baba Ganoush but we decided it's probably not an everyday recipe - it takes an awful lot of aubergine to make a small amount of dip...

Aubergine facts:

  • Low in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • High in fibre, potassium, vitamin B1 and vitamin B6
  • Rich in antioxidants

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bicycle, bicycle...

This weekend Husband cycled over to Bradford-on-Avon to watch the film Bicycle which is described on its website as a "humorous, lyrical and warm reflection on the bicycle and its place in cycling and its place in the British national psyche". 

Here's the trailer for the film:

The reviews I've heard are good - Husband says it's an upbeat and inspirational film depicting all aspects of cycling from Britain's Olympic successes to ordinary people using bikes as everyday transport, and Richard from our local community bike project rates it highly too - you can read his review here.

The film looks at the history of cycling in the UK and considers why the enthusiasm for cycling waned in the 60s and 70s when cars became more affordable, train services were axed by Dr Beeching, and the first motorways were being built.

Britain was not alone in facing such transport changes but did not foresee or forestall the possible impact in the way that other European countries did - Holland, for example, continued to invest in infrastructure for bikes. Even today in the UK, spending is weighted heavily towards car drivers - £70 per head is invested in roads and only £2 per head on cycling, as opposed to £20 per head on cycling in Holland and £30 per head in Denmark.

It definitely feels as if there is a sea change at the moment. Cycling is gaining in popularity; when Husband spent a few days in London cycling from Hanwell into the city every day earlier this year he was overawed by the number of commuting cyclists - in places they are so many that they control the road.

And yet, despite all the environmental, social and health benefits of cycling there is still much to be done to make cycling feel like a safe option for everyone in the UK. The film supports those such as Chris Boardman, who are lobbying the Government to raise spending on cycling to £10 per head.

If you'd like to watch the film, it's showing at a few selected UK venues before the end of the year. Or you can purchase the DVD (it would make a great Christmas prezzie for the cyclist in your life!). Check out the Bicycle film website for more details here. 

I couldn't think about the title of the film without humming the Queen song in my head, but I'm told that obviously the film is of such quality that it would never feature such a glaringly obvious link on its soundtrack.

I still can't help humming it though...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Crafting inspiration

One of our half term treats was a trip to the American Museum in Bath to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition, just in the nick of time before it finished. (Thank you Jean at Shrimpton and Perfect whose blog post about the exhibition jogged my memory).

An American-born artist, Kaffe is known for his colourful designs. He started out as a traditional artist but after a trip to Scotland fell in love with yarns, learned to knit, and since then has worked across many crafts including knitting, patchwork and needlepoint. Kaffe is the primary knitwear designer for Rowan Yarns.

You couldn't not love this exhibition. 

Outside we were greeted by a tree of pom poms, decorative lampshade thingies and some yarn bombing.

A colourful medley of Kaffe's books, rugs, artwork, wool and cushions began the exhibition enticingly.

Need I say more? The photos speak for themselves...

This one's for my sister - she loves tatting!

Beautiful quilts

Even the beige section was fun 
A huge Hollyhock needlepoint

Gorgeous knitting
Although the Kaffe Fassett exhibition is over now, the museum and grounds are well worth a visit in themselves; they are in a fantastic location - high up on a hill at Claverton, on the edge of Bath, with views to die for. 

We last visited the museum when Daughter was in her Pocahontas phase as the museum has a good section on the Native American Indians but there are many interesting displays about the development of America and replica rooms from different periods of American history, featuring authentic furniture and artefacts. The museum also boasts a spectacular collection of quilts. 

My knitting mojo did resurface after this in the form of a purchase of a big ball of wool in Aldi (Kaffe probably doesn't source much of his yarn there but if he doesn't mind the high acrylic content he'd love their colourful yarns, I'm sure...) This is for knitting a present for my sister.

If she's lucky it may be completed in time for her 50th* birthday.

* She's currently in her early 40s

Monday, 3 November 2014

Half term holiday romance...

Firstly, many thanks for all the helpful comments on my last blog post about jam-making. I have only just caught up with blog business as I've been busy rekindling some old loves over the half term holiday...

Me and the Youth Hostel Association go back a long way - about 33 years in fact. I've blogged about my Youth Hostel love before, when we camped at a couple of Welsh Youth Hostels in summer 2013. When my sister bowed out of the long drive southwards to our house from Sunderland this half term and suggested we meet half way instead, for an aunties' and cousins' two night mini break, where better to stay than a Youth Hostel? Especially when you can book a 6 bed family room for all of us for £50 a night. That's cheaper per head than some campsites these days.

If it wasn't for the green YHA sign,
it could pass for a country hotel...

Hathersage Youth Hostel, in the Peak District, served all our needs. Comfy bunk beds, a large self catering kitchen, dining room and lounge. And lots of other friendly guests amenable to sharing tea/a bottle of wine/playing board games/cake (delete according to your age and the time of day). 

Our room did have a faint whiff of school changing rooms but we couldn't decide whether the smell was already embedded or if the trainers belonging to the runner in our party were to blame.

Stepping stones across the River Derwent

From Hathersage we were able to explore the local area without needing any transport other than our legs. We walked a couple of miles up the River Derwent for a flat walk when the weather was misty, and on the clearer day we walked up to Stanage Edge, the largest gritstone edge overlooking Hathersage. We made sure that one of our walks included a detour to see the grave of Little John (Robin Hood's fellow outlaw). Even legendary figures have graves you know.

Stanage Edge
Being able to do most of our exploring on foot was important, as the Wiltshire contingent had indulged another of our loves - trains. By booking in advance through thetrainline.com with our Family and Friends railcard, it was just about affordable (twice the price of our room - eek) and made for a much more pleasant (and environmentally friendly) journey than the five hour drive would have been. The railway line across the Pennines between Sheffield and Manchester even stops at Hathersage itself, so we could walk to the Youth Hostel from the station.

My new love this half term is most definitely for Hathersage itself. A no nonsense village (unlike some of its touristy neighbours such as Castleton), in beautiful surroundings. I'd definitely visit again - for one thing I'd like a dip in the heated outdoor swimming pool (that is still open at this time of year, but only at weekends so we didn't get to try it out), and for another, the waffle menu at the Hathersage Social Club needs further investigation... 

(All my own opinions here - no sponsored links.)

Do you have any favourite Youth Hostels or places in the Peak District? Any suggestions for other good places to visit that are half way between Wiltshire and the North East?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Jam musings

I'm not a natural domestic goddess. Far from it. Enthusiastic maybe, but not always very successful. And definitely not a natural.

Over the last two and a half years of blogging about our attempts to live a more wholesome, sustainable life (which naturally includes lots of cooking from scratch) there have been lots of runny marmalade/runny chutney/runny yogurt/runny fudge incidents. 

Even my knitting turns out, if not runny, then the knitting equivalent of runny - loose. Don't mention the cardigan for the new born niece, who's now two, that never got finished. 

So it's good to celebrate when things go well. This year the jam actually set. And I mean, really set. Like, #canturnthejarupsidedownanditdoesn'tfallout set. Yay!

My random jam musings
  • If there's ever a time when I master jam-making, then it's sod's law that it will coincide with the time that sugar starts being outed as, not just tooth-rotting, but on a par with cocaine. Lighting up parts of the brain 'like a Christmas tree' on MRI scans, I read somewhere. And not in a good way. All around me neighbours and family members are giving up sugar whilst I'm buying kilos of the stuff to preserve fruit. I feel faintly guilty that I'm flying in the face of public health guidance every time I spread a bit of jam on my toast. :-( 
  • Why has it taken me this long to realise that buying 'preserving sugar' or 'jam sugar' will guarantee that jam or marmalade sets? Perhaps advanced jam makers can live dangerously with ordinary old granulated sugar, pectin, or pectin-rich fruits like lemons or apples. But not me, I'm sticking with jam sugar from now on. Every time.
  • The expensive Kilner jam thermometer that I bought a couple of years ago (to try and rectify some of my 'runny' issues) looks lovely but I don't think it is at all accurate. It gets to a certain point and then the needle just sticks, even when I can see that the jam must be getting hotter. Boiling the jam vigorously for ten or so minutes without testing with the thermometer seems to work fine.
  • The minute the damsons are ripe, is the time to make damson jam. This year they went from hard to ripe to mouldy really, really quickly and I was almost too late.
  • Once you've got the jam sugar and the boiling business sorted, you can pretty much make jam out of anything. It feels like cheating to buy a big bowl of plums from the market for £1 and make plum jam (like I did once I realised my jam was miraculously setting this year and I ought to make the most of it), but I guess it's not. And buying frozen fruit is not off limits either. Just simmer any old fruit with a sloosh of water until it's soft, then add an equal amount of jam sugar (did I already mention the jam sugar...) until the sugar is all dissolved. After that, boil the jam in a mad scientist kind of way for ten minutes or so, and that's all there is to it. Test to see whether it's setting by blobbing some on a saucer that you have already cooled in the freezer. If it's not setting readily, boil it madly for a bit longer. Fridge or freezer jam is made by the same process but using half the amount of sugar (less guilt) therefore needs to be kept in the fridge, or frozen once made, until use. 
  • Ladling the jam into a jug and then pouring it out is far less messy than trying to ladle it directly into the jars.
And I think that's possibly all there is to say about jam. Or is it? Any top jam-making tips or favourite recipes? Do you swear by a thermometer? Are you avoiding sugar or do you think fruit jam counts as one of your five-a-day...

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Life Changing Magic of Tidying book - giveaway winner!

All entries for the book giveaway were numbered in order of commenting, and Son drew number six as the winner, so the winner is the sixth commenter, Emma Croft!

As Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Waste Minimisation Officer, Emma is a truly deserving winner. Long term readers will have met Emma on the blog before. She was our mentor for the Slim Your Bin project we took part in last year. Check out her work in Wiltshire here. ( Note: We love Emma lots but the draw was definitely not a fix and her number was genuinely pulled at random!)

Emma Croft, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Waste
Minimisation Officer, leading a tour of our local recycling centre
in Calne.

Somehow it's a little bit reassuring to hear that even a recycling pro like Emma is still up for learning more about decluttering. 

I wonder what Emma would do with a bin bag FULL of cuddly toys?

You see we've been doing some enforced decluttering. Son has a new (new secondhand, of course) table in his room at which he will be spending long hours studying now he's in Year 7..., and the table had to take the place of a large wooden chest full of cuddly toys. 

Time for a cuddly toy cull. Those Teletubbies are not played with any more.

Soft toys have to be one of my least favourite things to declutter. There's a sentimental reason for keeping each and every one. 

I'm sure that Marie Kondo, author of the Life Changing Magic of Tidying, would have us ditch the lot, but we couldn't do it. Half have gone to the charity shop, the beanie babies have been downsized to a shoe box and those with the most sentimental value are in a box in the airing cupboard...

What do you struggle to declutter?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A 'life-changing' book giveaway!

I could always use a little help and inspiration when it comes to tidying and decluttering, neither of which are strong points of mine. When I saw The life-changing magic of tidying - a simple, effective way to banish clutter forever by Marie Kondo in our local bookshop, I thought it would be ideal for a light May half term holiday read - maybe her system would be so simple that I could truly banish clutter by the end of the holiday and return to work having changed my life. I even promised to invite the bookshop owner and her assistant round for supper if it worked, so that they could see my decluttered house.

Joking aside, I know that reading books, blogs and websites about decluttering doesn't work. You have to actually get on with it in real life, and not worry too much about having different bags for keeping/discarding, and zones, and doing it in the right order and whether you're carrying it out correctly or not. I still bought the book though. I find the Japanese philosophy of Wabi sabi inspiring, and I figured it would be interesting to get the Japanese take on decluttering.

If you think that I'm giving away the book because I implemented all the advice and no longer have any need of it, then you'd be wrong.

I did read the book (it is a quick read) and enjoyed it, but I haven't yet banished the clutter. I'm still working on that one. I've absorbed the main messages of the book though, so in the interests of letting go of stuff (there's a big section on how to declutter your books...), it's time for Marie Kondo's book to leave my house in order to benefit one of you guys, and for me to carry on tidying.

If you would like to enter The Life-changing magic giveaway, leave a comment on this blog post by Saturday 7pm (BST) and I'll pick a winner at random. I'm happy to post this book anywhere in the world.

In the meantime here are some top tips from the book:
  • One of her main arguments is to tidy in one go rather than little by little because you'll see instant results. Part of her reasoning is that tidying "is not the purpose of your life" and that you will be able to "pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life" 
  • Discard rather than store. 'Nuff said. 
"To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose."
  • The biggest question to ask yourself when decluttering is "Does this spark joy?"
  • Folding clothes rather than hanging them is a more efficient way of storing them. 
  • Books on shelves are dormant, so only keep those you love and will read or refer to again.
  • Be ruthless with papers, letters, study materials and cards. Discard everything that doesn't need to be kept.
  • Pursue ultimate simplicity with storage - use drawers and boxes which you already have rather than buying anything fancy.
  • Store bags in another bag.
  • Appreciate your possessions and treat them well.
"Being surrounded by things that bring joy makes you happy,"
  • Letting go is more important than adding.
  • Designate a place for everything.
  • Store all items of the same type in the same place.
  • Send stuff off joyfully and launch it on a new journey.
There are a lot of common-sense ideas that we already know, and, counter intuitively, ideas that go against the standard decluttering advice out there (the tidying in one go rather than 15 minutes a day) which all goes to suggest that there's no one right way to do decluttering, other than to just do it. 

Where it differs from other decluttering schemes is in the Japanese anthropomorphism of your possessions and indeed, even your house. Kondo suggests folding socks rather than 'balling' them in respect for the hard work that they do on your feet, and that clothes will be happier hanging with others in the same category so that they can relax more fully. 
"Everything you own wants to be of use to you."
You know what? I like the idea of thanking my coat for keeping me warm, and greeting my home every time I return. And when it comes down to it, I'm happier following Marie's advice to have a conversation with my house so it can tell me where it would like me to tidy, than following a prescriptive, step-by-step, decluttering programme designed by someone else!

As yet, the house dialogue is still continuing here, and the bookshop owner is still waiting for her supper invitation...

Don't forget to enter the giveaway!

Friday, 10 October 2014

World Mental Health Day 2014 and our top mental health boosting activities

Today is World Mental Health Day, promoted by the Mental Health Foundation (an organisation who research, develop services and campaign against the stigma that surrounds mental health and learning disabilities). 

Find out more about World Mental Health Day 2014

World Mental Health Day 2014 is highlighting schizophrenia. This is not a condition that I know much about, but given that it's one of the most common, serious mental health conditions (statistically, one in 100 people will have one episode of schizophrenia in their lives), there's a fair chance that someone I know may need support one day and I'm grateful that WMH Day has prodded me into learning more.

I had a hazy, outmoded impression of schizophrenia as 'split personality disorder', but summarising it very briefly, it's a long term condition where sufferers may lose touch with reality, see or hear things that are not there, hold irrational beliefs and may appear to act strangely because they are responding to these delusions. 

When I began writing the blog I may not have intended it, but one of the recurring themes for me has been about the contentment (and resultant good mental health) we have found when engaging in activities which are simple and cost very little. I'm not saying that this is a preventative measure for serious conditions such as schizophrenia, whose causes are uncertain and for which clinical treatment and psychological intervention will be necessary, but in terms of reducing everyday stress and anxiety, there's much to be said for slowing down and un-complicating life. 

When I thought about some of the things that I know boost the mental health of my family, I was glad to see that they have been the themes of previous World Mental Health Days. They include some of our top mental health boosting activities:

Mealtimes  provide 'social and psychological benefits, to share anxieties, have them listened to and hear other perspectives.' 

This one's a biggy for me - producing healthy food (without spending too much) and sharing the food and good conversation with family and friends makes me very happy.

It has even been claimed that more family meals together equates to less drug and alcohol use by teenagers.

An Autumn Walk

Looking after yourself including 'keeping active, drinking sensibly, doing things you're good at and caring for others'. 

I've shared many of our walks and cycle rides here on the blog. You know the adults here like the odd glass of red wine and we like doing things that we good at (or would like to get better at, like playing musical instruments).

Tea and cake with friends!

Tea and Talk. This is possibly my favourite thing in all the world! I also like my own version, without the talk, Tea and Read.

Mindfulness - a mind-body based approach to really paying attention to the present moment. This is another personal favourite. I've had a longstanding interest in meditation, but completed an 8 week mindfulness course last year and use some mindfulness techniques in the adolescent anti-anxiety programme I work on. With a personality that verges towards the 'worrier' end of the spectrum, a regular mindfulness practice helps keep me grounded.

The Mental Health Foundation's Be Mindful website is a great place to start if you are interested in finding out more. Although many mindfulness practices stem from the major religions (in particular, Eastern religions), the standard mindfulness programme is secular in nature and suitable for people of all faiths, or none.

I don't force anybody else in the family to meditate but I do try and ensure that the children have some quiet screen-free time every day.

Screen-free evenings definitely ensure better Sleep for all of us. Actually sleep has never had its own World Mental Health Day, but I would put it high up on the list of activities that promote good mental health. Not too much and not too little, a good 7-8 hours sleep can really boost happiness.

All of these activities are intertwined. Eating healthily and exercising makes it easier to sleep while sleeping well makes it easier to eat healthily and gives you the energy to feel like exercising. Practising mindfulness makes it easier to carry out all those activities with more attention.

It is worth mentioning the theme for last year's Mental Health Day too, Older Adults. Old age may bring problems of loneliness, isolation, depression and dementia. WMH Day 2013 focused on how we can ensure that the good mental health of older people is supported through lifestyle choices, better social connections and active citizenship. The Mental Health Foundation publishes a guide: 'How to look after your mental health in old age' which is downloadable for free. It's good to see a private elderly care home in Salisbury, Gracewell Healthcare, rising to this challenge through meaningful activities and events such as arts and crafts, yoga and organised relaxation walks. 

However old we are, from the very young to the very old, we all have mental health, whatever its state, and according to the Mental Health Foundation, at any time one in six of us will be experiencing some form of mental distress. World Mental Health Day is a really good reminder that it is worth paying as much attention to our mental health as we would to our physical health.

What's your favourite mental health boosting activity?