Begin it now….

‘Every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’

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 I have to confess that I am quite partial to a quote or two. To my mind, the only good thing about Facebook anymore seems to be the plethora of feel good quotes that appear on a daily basis in my news-stream. I have even started collecting them in their very own word document, with the excuse that  they will be good for my book, but really that is just a ploy to be able to waste a bit of time cutting and pasting

But if I am brutally honest, much as I love them, even the best of quotes very often illicit little more than a knowing a sigh or an appreciative nod before I simply soldier on with my daily life, grappling with the same old issues and no more enlightened than I was before I had happened upon them.

But occasionally, very occasionally, I read something and it seems to magically apply to something I have been thinking about for some time, and then the quote comes alive. I think that’s what they mean when they say ‘serendipity’.

It happened to me at the weekend. I was taking my kids to the Ashmolean museum in Oxford – which incidentally, if you live near by or happen to be visiting I could not recommend more highly.  It is beautiful, possibly one of the most beautiful museums I have ever been in- cleverly curated, beautifully lit and really well laid out. And as a helpful bonus they have really fun ‘treasure hunt’ trails for kids, which mean that even a six year old can be suitably entranced for a well over an hour on a snowy spring day.

On the wall in one of the first galleries was Lao Tzu’s famous quote ‘Every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. Its not the first time I have read it, nor I suspect will it be the last. It is one that seems to be standing the test of time (to put it mildly).

On this particular occasion though, whilst I was standing in the moodily lit gallery and being dragged towards the really quite incredible Egyptian mummies, it may as well have been written as a pink neon sign. I had one of those proper ‘light bulb’ moments.

At this point, you probably need a bit of back story.

So, I am writing this book on motherhood. Or at least that’s what I say I am doing. And I genuinely have been doing a lot of research and thinking about it an awful lot, plus- as you can see- I am blogging, which – I tell myself- is all part of the process. I have even brainstormed chapters and worked out, tentatively, what will go where. The truth is, I am ready to write.  Not to say that I won’t keep researching, or brainstorming, or changing things around. But whichever way I look at it, I need to start getting words on a page. And yet, I haven’t been able to. In fact, for several weeks now I have found every excuse under the sun- sometimes as banal as ‘must put another load of washing on’- in order to avoid the simple act of sitting down to write.

But there’s the thing. It’s a simple act. It’s Lao Tsu’s ‘single step’. It could be as little as a sentence or a word, and I would have begun. I do not, as I have been saying to myself, have to ‘write a book’. I have to write some words, some sentences, and then some more sentences which become paragraphs and chapters and on an on.

And the key thing is, everything in the world is like this. Not just the more grandiose projects ike  ‘I am going to write a book’ or ‘build a rocket’ or ‘learn slovenian’, but everything everything everything we do or need to do can be broken down into tiny little, bite-size and eminently do-able chunks- be it making an easter bonnet ( this afternoons endeavour), throwing a children’s party ( the hardest by far, give me a book anyday) or running for parliament.

The implications of thinking like this are HUGE. In fact, borderline terrifying because it means that the world really is our oyster and we can, in theory at least, do just about anything. But it also means that nothing needs to be that terrifying, massive, impossible project that we can’t even possibly start.

In fact, rather aptly, it reminds me of another quote by Goethe- who is apparently considered to be Germany’s Shakespeare – which goes something like this

  ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now’

And thanks to Lao Tzu, there really are no more excuses.

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When the days feel long, remember that the years are short.

A few years ago, when I was dealing with the endless demands of three children who were all much younger and needier, I was given a piece of advice that I am eternally grateful for. On a day that had begun at six am, in which I hadn’t had the time to sit down for a proper meal, and which had involved being seemingly surgically attached to at least one of my children for the whole day, a family friend who was staying with us at the time, said to me

‘ Just remember, when you can, and in amongst all this chaos to stop and notice what a wonderful time you are having. Because I don’t think I ever did. Looking back, the time when I had young children was the happiest of my whole life, and yet I didn’t know it until it was over.’

All too often, and especially when we are doing something that relies on our every resource, we haven’t to the time- or more importantly don’t take the time- to stop and disentangle the joys from the hardships. We – often in a sleep deprived haze and convinced we haven’t enough hours in the day nor energy to use them well- see only the work, the tantrums and the ways in which we might be doing something a little better. All too often, and without realizing it, we live as though it is some sort of marathon, and we are striving to get to a particular point or past a particular threshold. We often put things off, in the mistaken belief that one day we will be ready, or everything will be in place. And yet, as John Lennon is so often quoted as saying ‘Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans’.

I confess that I don’t remember to think like this all the time. Far from it.  Like most other people- I get caught up in my daily existence, forget to see the wood for the trees, and am so often deep in random thought that I barely notice who is in front of me let alone take time to appreciate them.

And yet every now and then, those very wise words ring in my ears and I do stop- even if its just for a moment- and take the time to breathe it all in.

And god I am grateful that I have done, because the truth is from this

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has felt like the blink of an eye.

If you have a spare minute and fifty eight seconds, I really recommend you watch this video which says it all, much better than I possibly could.

 

brownies, glorious brownies…..

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. — JRR Tolkien

I have to confess that I find this time of year torturous; taunted by a day of brilliant sunshine and all the signs of spring only to be plunged back into winter proper. It’s grim out there today, again. And I read (though am choosing not to believe) that winter is not over with us at all yet and March is going to be anything but balmy.

So what to do, when faced with the prospect of another cold and rainy weekend?  Only one thing – and it’s the same one that I have been doing all winter but the only one that hasn’t yet lost its lustre- and that is to hunker down, and feast. If it sounds as though I am advocating comfort eating, then I am. But it’s more than that. I am talking the whole cannon of food- the reading about it, the cooking it, the feasting on it, the gathering friends over it. It is one of the great plusses of the modern age, that food and everything spawned from it has become such a pleasure, a virtual art form. We don’t exactly live to eat, but we are doing a lot more than eating to live.Cookery books themselves have become like veritable works of art and markets and farmers markets and specialist food shops have sprung up out around every corner- and if you really do live in the middle of nowhere then there is (dare I say it…in a whisper maybe) that the internet can get you the ingredients for an Ottelenghi special practically overnight.

I am not always in the mood to cook- and when my kids were very little it was literally the last thing on my mind. The fact that you never actually get to eat a hot meal for the first few months and the prospect of cooking it one handed – like some sort of circus act – is enough to put off even the most avid culinary expert. (But for you there are the cookery programmes – all now on tv catch up- which you can breastfeed in front of. So even you don’t have to miss out entirely on this food- fest that I am advocating.)

The truth is, there is the possibility of whiling away hours and hours, no even days, of dreadful weather with food. When I was young I used to find my mum, propped up on three pillows in bed, voraciously reading a cookbook as though it was an un-put-down-able novel. It used to seem strange to me. I think I might even have laughed at her. Fast-forward thirty years, and that is me (yes its true, there’s no escape, we will become them). I confess to liking nothing more than to trudge from my larder, arms laden with books, only to sit by a fire (or propped up in bed with three pillows) dip into them all, ripping out stubs of magazine pages to mark the recipes I will probably never get round to but love the look of.

(Obviously this particular activity can only take place when your children are otherwise engaged i.e happily ensconsed with a film. BTW- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is especially good because it’s over two and a half hours long. You could even suggest they watch it twice.)

And then there is the feasting and merriment that comes with having friends around. As that can sometimes be stressful to prepare for, the (rare) joy of winter is that it suits one pot wonders; tagines, curries, slow cooked beef stews or the ‘prepare in advance and then chill out on the day/night’ dishes like lasagnes and fish pies. And did you know, that that lovely uplifted feeling you get from being around a table with friends is not just the wine talking. Studies have shown that our oxytocin levels actually go up when people are around a table and eating together (oxytocin is the ‘love hormone’, the same one that is produced having sex, and apparently – I recently heard- when eating dates?!), so whats not to like about that.

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Best of all, children seem to all really love cooking. Two year olds can mix cake batter, three year olds can crack eggs. And then twelve year olds can do a five course meal on their own if you’ve start them young enough! So when you are fresh out of ideas for indoor play that does not involve a screen – which quite frankly by this stage I am: how much drawing and Uno and ‘shithead’ can one stomach?- then head for the kitchen.

And if the prospect of a family cook-in this weekend tickles your tastebuds, then I have the ultimate recipe- chocolate orange and beetroot brownies. Cosmo and I have made three batches in as many weeks and as yet we have suffered absolutely no diminishing marginal returns. They are just as good third time round as they were first, and I defy you to eat just one. I only stop at three because I know I should.

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The recipe is care of Kitchen & Co By French and Grace, which has been my bible this winter – and has gone straight in at number one in my ‘top five recipe books of all time’ list. Desert Island stuff it is, and if you haven’t got it I would recommend buying a copy (Amazons sells them here but even better hot foot it down to your local book store and ask them to order you one in- its often as quick- and that way we keep those little treasure troves alive)

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  chocolate orange beetroot brownies

 Makes 1 large tray

 3 small uncooked beetroots

250g dark chocolate (minm 70% cocoa solids)

250g unsalted butter

250g caster sugar

3 free range eggs

zest of I orange and juice of half

160g self-raising flour

~Boil the beetroot for about half an hour until tender to the point of a knife ( I often do a massive batch and then use half for these brownies and the other half for a beetroot dip).

~Blitz the beetroot to a puree in a blender and set aside.

~Preheat the oven to 180 degrees/gas mark 4. Lightly butter and line a baking tin at least 2cm deep.

~Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Add the butter in cubes and leave to melt, stirring once or twice.

~In another bowl, whisk the sugar and the eggs until smooth and creamy. Stir in the melted choclate, orange zest and juice and then add the pureed beetroot. Sift in the flour and then stir until combined.

~Pour the mixture into a tin and bake for 15-20 minutes.

~Attempt to resist eating them all at once. Almost impossible.

 

 

Lessons in Death

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Our neighbour, the one of a kind John Kalinowski, died very suddenly & completely unexpectedly this week, and it has cast a real shadow.

Death is a funny thing, because we know it is the one certainty in life and yet it always seems to come as a shock and we are, for the most part, wholly unprepared for it.

I confess to feeling knocked sideways by John’s untimely departure. In part, I am broken-hearted for his wife and worry about how she will ever recover from the shock. More selfishly, I feel we have been robbed of a truly unique character- ex-manager of madness and Procol Harum, a great liver and lover of life, a man of endless positivity and boundless enthusiasm. What is remarkable to me, is that it is only with his death that I realise how much I valued his being here, and how in all the small ways- the talks over the garden wall, the crossing paths on dog walks, the borrowing tins of tomatoes when we had run out and were desperate- he was in fact, a big presence in our lives.

Community is like that. It provides a framework of small encounters that then make up the fabric of our lives. We know that immediate family are important; our children, our partners, our parents and we might actively cherish our close friendships. But it is actually the other people; the neighbours, our babysitters, the couple who run the local shop or the flower seller at the weekly market who calls you ‘love’ and looks delighted to see you- it is these people that inform your every day and stop the world from being the anonymous place that it is sometimes accused of. It was these relationships I moved to the country for and it is them, as much or perhaps even more than anyone else, that sustain me day to day. I often lament, in that kind of broad brush way, the loss of community in the world and the loneliness we all often feel because of it, and yet I have a very real community here, one that I wasn’t even properly aware of, and one that now has a very big hole in it.

As my eight year old son, Marcus, said rather movingly on the day he found out about John’s death ‘We have lost a friend today, mummy’. Indeed we have. And he was a dearer friend than I had ever really contemplated.

 

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”― Mae West