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?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Another frugal first!

I'll be honest with you, even though secondhand is our go-to for absolutely everything - cars, clothes, books, furniture and household appliances, and although I'll happily mooch around junk shops, secondhand book shops and charity shops for hours, the thought of a car boot sale used to make me feel a little faint. 

Maybe it's the sheer overwhelm of row after row of stuff or the depressing sight of all those planet-killing cars. Perhaps it's the prospect of haggling (which I'm useless at) or the stressful Sunday morning Son and I once had, directing cars at a huge car boot sale as a fundraiser for Cubs (some people became very grumpy and rude if they couldn't park their cars right near the entrance or in the space reserved for disabled drivers).

But spurred on by other frugal bloggers' buying and selling successes, and with the aim of getting nearer Daughter's fundraising target for her Iceland expedition next year, we finally plucked up courage and took ourselves and a car full of tat that we had been accumulating over the summer, to the local car boot. We had procrastinated long enough and there are not going to be many more fair weather Sundays this year, so it was now or never.

How much for the grumpy old man in the woolly hat?

Here's what we learnt.

  • Get there early for a good spot. We arrived at 7am.
  • Doing a car boot sale in October is chilly business. I wished I'd taken a coat and gloves, and we were both thankful for the flask of coffee we had thrown together at 6.30am.
  • We had been told that the dealers will try to rummage through your stuff as soon as you arrive, and indeed they do. One guy was even shining a torch into the back of our car to check out our trash treasure. 
  • It's oh-so-true that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Things that we thought would never sell, did, to our surprise. There will always be a place in somebody's heart for a mug with cats on it or an ugly little bedside lamp. I also hadn't expected that I'd be able to sell Husband. One lady thought his woolly hat/shorts/wellies combo rocked, and was disappointed when, after some consideration, I decided I wouldn't let him go for less than a fiver. Maybe I'll pop a Santa hat on him and stick him in a Christmas raffle.
  • Selling at a car boot is actually very sociable. We met people we hadn't seen for ages, and lots of buyers wanted to have a good chat and tell us why they were buying their selected items.
  • Things that sold well were kids' books, small bric a brac items, toiletries, shoes and boots. We had a lot of clothing that I thought would sell well, but didn't.
  • We have better self control than we thought - we barely spent any of the takings - just £2 on a ream of recycled printer paper, which we needed anyway, and I blew a whole 10p on three good writing pens.
I have no idea what constitutes good takings but considering we didn't have any big ticket items, we were glad to go home £40 richer, especially as we didn't stay until the bitter end.

Now we've done one, I would definitely feel more confident about selling stuff there again, and I would also feel happier to go and hunt for bargains. Although the nature of car boot sales encourages car use, obviously, if stuff is being kept in circulation and out of land fill then that's got to be a good thing hasn't it?

If you're a car boot enthusiast with any top tips I'd love to hear them! Or are car boot sales really not your thing?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Second child syndrome

Son, 11 and a half, is child number two.

He knows this because he has counted up the photos on display around the house and has pointed out many a time that we fall short as parents. There are more of Daughter, child number one, than there are of him. One day I mean to rectify this.

He made the transition to secondary school this year, and this reminded me that when Daughter started there two years ago, with the hopes and fears of a mother sending her firstborn into the unknown, I composed my own Irish blessing for a child starting secondary school.

I don't ever want to be accused by secondborn of making a public fanfare for Daughter but not for him, so I revisited it.

It still holds its own, but I have had to make a couple of changes, based on our experiences so far this term. I've been surprised that I could forget that the transition might be different for each child. They're both very happy at school with good groups of friends but one child needs far more help with organisation than the other. You can decide for yourselves whether it's the girl or the boy...

Good luck with your secondary school career, Son, and may your trousers turn up in lost property soon. And good luck to anybody else who's made a big transition this academic year (or anybody who is parenting someone who's made a big transition).

May your pencil case always be full.

May you write down what your homework is, do it on time, 
or at least come up with a plausible excuse when you don't.

May you steer clear of the smokers and dog poo in the alley on the way to school.

May you not lose your phone, your trousers, your sweatshirt or your PE kit.

May you not get bullied.

May you have good friends and be a good friend to others.

May you work hard and try your best even when it's not easy.

May you keep your smile and your sunny disposition.

May you do all that you need to do so that you can travel in the direction of your dreams.

May you be happy and healthy.

And may you always return to a warm home and people who love you at the end of the school day.