Simplifying Life With Food

Family favourite that stretches back decades

A couple of things recently have got me thinking about food (again!), and the stories and memories we all have around it – although I’m always interested in food and need little excuse to think or talk about it, share or enjoy it!

I was talking with my adult daughter about food costs, and how we both create meals in similar ways when we’re short of money – she learned from me, and I from my mum, although we all put our own spin on those lessons from childhood. The tools over the years may change, along with the ingredients, but the basics of thrifty shopping, batch cooking and freezing, using the whole oven, slow cooking, and so on, haven’t changed much since my mum learned (probably) similar lessons from my grandparents.

Home made cake for my youngest son several years ago, what memories!

The conversation awoke food memories from my childhood, connections across time between the 50-odd year old me of today and my childhood self – happy, sad, funny, they’re all worthy of remembrance, because they’re part of what made me.  

When I cook familiar meals from my childhood, the chopping, stirring, and smells are a form of wizardry, culinary alchemy if you will, conjuring up visions of the tiny kitchen of my childhood home.  Here, my sisters and I learned how to peel vegetables and bake, we ate breakfast at the tiny table, especially when my dad was away working.  I can close my eyes and I’m transported back to my seat at our bigger, living room table: setting it for dinner or tea, occasional extra places if we had visitors, waiting for mum to bring the food in.  Mum could make a meal from seemingly empty cupboards – creating healthy (and filling!) meals for three hungry little girls was no mean feat with next to no money! 

There were amazingly happy meals, full of laughter and daftness, where we stuffed ourselves silly, but also ones filled with tension, anger, or sadness, when we were too choked up to eat.  There were favourite meals and treats, and also food that I hated then, and loathe to this day, even with my mum’s amazing cooking skills. Liver and onions? Fried black pudding? Absolutely not! THE best soups I’ve ever had in my life? Home-made raspberry or bramble jam, on freshly made bread? Yes, please! The occasional roast chicken on Sunday, with crisp, slightly salty skin, that we fought over, followed by the rice pudding – whose skin we were happy for our parents to fight over!  

We didn’t have a fridge until I was 11 in the late 70s, so mum bought fresh meat on the day and kept it in cool in the cellar, or sent one of us to the shop for frozen fish fingers just before tea – these were a rare treat indeed! Having a fridge with a tiny freezer meant that she could then shop when she liked, and keep said fish fingers for another day.  Mum sometimes tried other food novelties in the 70s, but we usually preferred her cooking!

Close your eyes and listen to Lemn Sissay’s food stories!

This brings me to the other thing – an interview with Lemn Sissay on the BBC, where he was asked about his life in five dishes.  As a fellow Northerner, a couple of these resonated, but it was the way he wove those food stories around his life experiences at the time of eating each dish that got me thinking. His description of arctic roll was filled with such nostalgia for me, too – have a listen to the interview, only half an hour but it will leave you longing for a chip butty, jerk chicken, or that arctic roll, even if you’ve never eaten them!

If we had to do the same – choose a handful of dishes that meant something to us throughout our lives – what would each of us choose? 

Sharing my friend’s beautiful food along with honest conversation – priceless and memorable

Would you pick the safe, joyful food memories – the birthdays, celebrations, Christmas, weddings?  Or would your choices be more painful, or sad – the mealtime when your parents fought, a loved one’s funeral tea?  The first meal you cooked for a boyfriend or girlfriend, or the first one as a newly-single person? Is one more comfortable than the other?  Maybe we could embrace all of them, surrender to the sad as well as the glad, remember the lost people AND the weddings, the uncomfortable situations AND the laughter. 

Home made mince pies hold lots of memories through the years!

If we sit around each other’s tables, share food and stories, tears and laughter, be vulnerable and authentic, then maybe we become stronger together, more connected.  Maybe keeping the stories inside, unspoken and unshared, gives them a bigger hold over our memories – bringing them into the light of the tea table (yes, I’m a Yorkshire woman and we have dinner around 12-ish and tea about 5!) could diminish some of the pain or sadness when shared with others around that table.

Lemn said that ‘food simplifies matters’, and that neatly sums up what I’ve rambled about a little here – maybe we can’t solve the world’s problems over dinner or tea, but we can share each other’s pain and joy somewhat over a home made meal. I’d love to create spaces for people to come together with me, to share our favourite foods and our unspoken stories – definitely an idea brewing!

What five dishes would you choose to tell part of your life story?  I’d love to know – please do share with me on any of the platforms where I have a seat at the table.  Next blog post, or somewhere online, I’ll share five dishes that mean something to me – although I’m sure I could pick many more, as could we all!   

Connect with me on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook, and share your memories!

Endings and Beginnings…

Lots of ends on my final weave pieces!

I’ve just reached the end of the first year of a Foundation Art degree in Textiles Practice at Bradford School of Art – long name for something wonderfully creative! It’s been a struggle at times, with a part time job and family demands to fit in alongside the course, but I’ve got through by the skin of my teeth. I now have a break until September, but I’m still going to be creating art – there’s a summer project for college (fairly low-key), I want to create art for ME, and I feel the need to write again.

Speaking of writing, I entered a competition at Kirklees College where I’m also a student (part of a group for parents) and won second prize – total surprise as I did it simply for the experience! Here’s my entry if you fancy a read – please do feed back in the comments, would love to hear what you think.

I Accept

River’s hands shook as she locked the car door, fingers suddenly unable to manipulate the key.  Fear sat heavy in her stomach like a pound of lead, making her feet drag as she slowly opened the gate to the long path that snaked towards the old house.

She looked at her watch at the exact moment that her phone buzzed and vibrated with a text message. The phone fell from her startled fingers.  Swearing at her own clumsiness, she picked up her phone and saw, “Where are you? We’re waiting! xx” followed by a string of smiles and heart emojis.

River sighed – almost a sob – and forced herself down the path to the door.  Her mind was in spectacular overdrive, screaming at her to run away, warning her there’d be no acceptance here, just like at home, telling her to disappear without trace likes many other times: rejection was to be hers, always.

But hope always keeps a fierce, tiny fire burning inside River – maybe THIS time it would be alright, perhaps THESE people would turn out to be her tribe, finally…

She stood at the door, ancient wood creaking as it warmed in the late spring sunshine, the smell of wild lavender, rosemary, and mint wafting towards her from the madly, deliciously fragrant border.

About to let her dæmons win, she had just turned to retreat towards the gate when the door was flung open and Elspeth hurtled towards her in sheer delight, squealing about River’s new haircut, and how her parents were DYING to meet her, darling…!

Allowing Elspeth to drag her inside, River was suddenly picked up like a child by a huge bear of a man with eyes identical to Elspeth’s – he hugged her tightly, with a hint of tears in his gorgeous green eyes, and pecked her cheek.

Barely had she drawn back in the breath he’d squashed out of her than Elspeth’s mum swept River into HER arms, clouds of flowery perfume accompanying each movement.

Wide-eyed with shock, River gawped at the couple – so different from her stiff, unyielding parents, clinically cold in their judgement of her, and of who she was.

Elspeth’s parents were excited to meet her – yes, the River who’d been cut off by her family for the supposed sin of changing her name and coming out at the grand old age of 30. River, who’d been rejected by those who should have accepted all her differences, now stood in the embrace of her fiancée and her delighted, accepting parents.  There was an older brother, who kept grinning and ruffling her hair like he was HER brother, and a younger sister who demanded to know where River had got her boots.  Last, but not least,  the most beautiful black cat with startling blue eyes – the double of her beloved Shadow she’d had to leave when her parents rejected her for the last time – wound itself around her ankles, purring loudly.

For the first time ever, she felt truly at home, accepted for herself, and part of a family.

Finis

The rules stated that the story had to be under 600 words, so I had to edit my original – prompted by an idea during one of Juliet’s writing club sessions. I’ve always loved writing, it’s given me a creative outlet for years when I felt I ‘couldn’t’ paint or draw, but I’ve gained confidence in myself through Juliet’s classes. If you’re curious about doing some writing, pop over to her website – here – for details.

Why not have a go at something creative, something you might not usually consider, stretch yourself a bit? You may be surprised at what happens, or maybe it sparks off something and takes you down an unexpected route, the ‘road less travelled’ and all that delicious uncertainty?! Let me know in the comments, or pop over to my Instagram account or Facebook page?

Can I have a word…?

Worth remembering!

Words have always fascinated me: what we say and how we say it, the phrases we use in birthday or sympathy cards, words spoken in anger or in love, the thousands of books I’ve probably read, our endless interactions on social media with all its pitfalls, from how we encourage our babies to speak to the almost incomprehensible jargon of technical or legal documents.  Words and language are so vital to being human that the deliberate withholding of them is often seen and used as punishment.

Some words are hard to write, but evoke wonderful memories!

We use words and language as weapons, to cut and hurt, but also as a warm blanket in which to wrap the lost and bereaved.  We simplify our talk for children and those who don’t speak our language, and we also take delight in speaking other languages to show that we can communicate outside our own, sometimes narrow, communities. Words have huge power – writers, thinkers, scientists, and artists have recognised that for millennia – but many of us don’t think about this too deeply.

Says it all…!

Our own self-talk shows how powerful words can be.  How many times have you ‘talked’ yourself into or out of something?  I wonder if you’ve ever convinced yourself that you’re an amazing human being, or that you’re totally worthless, just because of the words you’ve used?  I think language is one of the greatest evolutionary developments in humans, and we don’t often appreciate it.

Words make you think…

Humans have developed the most amazing, detailed, precise, descriptive, beautiful, but also bland and terrible words to communicate everything about their lives.  From the humble shopping list, that carefully chosen verse in a card, the resignation letter, scientific research, years’ worth of diary keeping, school or college assignments, love letters, to critical theatre reviews, breaking up with a girl/boyfriend via text message, a letter confirming a medical diagnosis, the best and worst of literature, or cruel and shameful words that can break families or communities – we spill out our hearts, tell our stories, and send basic information with a myriad of word combinations.  Words can change how we think, feel and believe, for better or worse; they can stop us in our tracks or they can offer support and guidance, they can even change or bring down societies.

‘Atlas of the Heart”, Brené Brown

Our choice of words can change how we feel about or approach our personal lives, too. It seems to be a thing at this time of year, when people are thinking about change, to choose a word (or words) to help guide or shape the months ahead.  Using some simple exercises, you can work through a series of words, narrowing your list down to a handful from which you can choose (usually) one word to guide you through the year.  Some people have more than one, have a separate word for different areas of their life, or change them through the year for various reasons.

Very apt for this time of year…

I’d been thinking for a while about how I hoped 2022 might begin and progress, and then, lo and behold, not one but TWO of the groups I’m privileged to be part of both had a session discussing this very thing!  I think the fact that both groups (Juliet and Clair’s WOW, and Deborah’s Impact) thought along the same lines tells me that 1) I’m so lucky to be involved with some amazing, like-minded people, and 2) during these dark, grey months of post-Christmas, we’re all looking ahead and hoping for or planning change – and happy for anything that helps this process!

Some people find this process of choosing a guiding word quick, easy work – they may have been thinking along the ‘right’ lines already, and just needed some focus to enable them to narrow down their choices.  Others may need time to work out where they are right now before they can begin to think about their future, even just a couple of months ahead, and so the mild discipline of following some simple exercise is invaluable.  Neither approach is wrong, there isn’t a wrong/right way with this stuff – it’s more about having some time to think about what matters to you, and how that word can lead you through times that might be challenging.  It’s also about being open to changing your word if it doesn’t serve you, or if your ideas, plans, or circumstances change – don’t rigidly stick to your first word if it’s making you miserable!

You could think around the words you’re considering – see their dictionary definitions, look at words with similar meanings, consider how they might apply to your hopes and dreams for the year, maybe even try them on for size in another language – looking at things, especially words, from a different viewpoint often makes all the difference (rather like people, in fact!).

Shift sideways slightly for the meaning that fits

There’s a saying about a picture painting a thousand words, but if we didn’t have those words how could we begin to describe what that picture is telling us, what we feel when we observe it?  How could we debate its merits with others, or how could we explain the image to someone from a different culture or who can’t see it (whether they’re blind or absent from our viewpoint)?  Then that image becomes something that only the viewer can appreciate, love, hate, or absorb information from.  We need those thousand words then to explain and understand our experiences.  

Does this picture paint a few of those ‘thousand words’?

After all these words, are you wondering whether I chose a word or two to guide me through 2022?!  Well, I’d had an inkling even before I did the exercises in each group, a couple of words have been whispering to me for some time, and finally I heard them.  I keep coming across the following quote:

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” Mary Anne Radmacher

I’m usually a quiet person, I observe and rarely put my head above the parapet, and when I do speak out it’s because something matters deeply, so this quote sings to me.  The root of the word courage is Latin for heart – cor – and later the French word coeur, and courage originally meant to speak from your heart, although it’s more often synonymous with heroism or bravery nowadays.  I think that ‘courage’, with both meanings, is a word meant for me – speaking and behaving from my heart and becoming braver in what I say and do in 2022. 

Even my morning cuppa quote is rather suggestive of courage!

I’m considering a second word, too, and I’m still working through this one.  It’s somewhere around joy, happiness, contentment, beauty, glorious, but I’m still absorbing what these words mean to me before I decide.  I also want (need?) it to work with ‘courage’, so I have a little work to do yet – I’ll let you know how I get on!

I’m curious about your guiding words for 2022 if you’ve chosen, could you share in the comments below? If you’re not choosing one/any, that’s perfectly fine, it’s not for everyone and we all have our own way with words!!

Sun, Sea, And Fear…

Beautiful Newquay!

After several months, maybe more, of various sorts of stress it was wonderful to spend last week in Newquay (Cornwall, UK, for international readers), and get outside in that marvellous coastal fresh air! I’ve wanted (needed?) some sea air for a LONG time, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

There’s something about being near the sea that’s very different from other outdoor environments: even in a coastal town with traffic the air is somehow cleaner, fresher; the light is clearer by the coast, no wonder so many creatives and artists feel drawn to places like Newquay in order to paint/draw/write/make; and being so close to the sea itself is truly awesome, in the proper use of the word. Renoir, Monet, Hokusai, Turner, and so many others depict raging seas, catastrophic storms, or heroic sea battles, whilst Turner and Monet, plus artists such as Beryl Cook, have also immortalised more ‘seaside’ images of our fantastic coastlines.

Many a poem has been written about the sea, from Samuel Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘, to John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever‘ (one of my favourites!), and Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest‘. As with artists, there’s something that pulls writers and poets again and again towards the coast, that digs deep into the heart of island people who have a love and healthy respect for the beauty and power to be found at the edge where land and water meet.

Almost tropical!

I have the sea in my blood, as do many Brits I suspect: my dad and his father were both Merchant Navy men through and through, spending all their working lives on the sea, and both grew up near the sea; and my other grandad spent time in the Royal Navy during WW2. Some of my best days out/holidays as a child were spent by the sea – although we went many places, the sea definitely had me even then. However, as a poor swimmer and a fearful child in general, the sea has also always held a tiny dread for me: what if I get taken by the current? what happens if the ship sinks? and all the other nightmares we tell ourselves as scared little children, when we can’t swim, or we’re far away from home.

Part of that fear is totally normal and healthy, of course. It makes us cautious of getting too far out of our depth when we’re paddling at the seaside or taking our first sea swim. We wouldn’t last long if we disregarded the lifeguards’ or RNLI advice on how to be safe on the beach or out at sea. But that fear also grows disproportionately, and stops us from enjoying ourselves in this best of environments, can result in us being terrified of exploring even safe areas of the coast, frightened to have a dip in the sea (although in our often-cold seas that’s sensible!), or taking a boat trip.

Last week, during our trip to beautiful Cornwall, I was very brave (for me) and did things I’m usually fearful of doing. We went to Go Ape one day (a tree-top climbing adventure setting) and I clambered about on rickety rope and wood paths between the trees, 20 feet in the air. I was terrified at some points, and came close to panic at going further along the worst stretches, but had to continue so that my 14 year old (who’s also rather nervous of similar activities!) wouldn’t see just how scared I was. It was an important lesson for me. Firstly, that logically I knew I was safe, being tethered by a harness and strong ropes, and secondly that I could manage long enough to show my son that we CAN do hard or scary things, at least for a short while!

Eek…!

Second Big Thing was going out early one morning, alone, to sit and paint in Newquay harbour. I’m getting better at calling myself an artist, but perfectionism still gets the better of me and insists that I’m not really, and that I have to do the work over and over, to practice before doing the ‘real’ piece. I’ve also had a lifelong fear of being alone, so just leaving the guest house and walking to the harbour, even in daylight, was a Big Deal! Well, I sat there in the cool air, drew a few basic lines in pencil, and then PAINTED STRAIGHT AWAY!! I know it’s a normal thing, but sitting there, drawing straight from life, no second chances, trying to capture the changing light and the way the sea was gently rolling in and out, drew me in and I forgot that I’d gone out alone, no one was holding my hand and telling me it was ok.

The view…

…and my version

My third Big Thing last week was actually going INTO the sea to swim around a bit with a lovely friend who moved down to Newquay several years ago. She’s a big advocate of stepping out of your comfort zone, of trying something different, and of sticking two fingers up at fear. On more than one occasion, she said to me, “What would you do if you weren’t scared?” Spot on, my friend! I’ve spent large parts of my life so far being too scared to try: in case it goes wrong; in case no one likes it (or me); what if I don’t like it, and all the rest.

Glennon Doyle speaks about doing Hard Things, whatever that looks like for each of us. In a similar way to my friend’s comment, she encourages us to try a little bit more, to face that uncertainty, and to accept that, yes, it may well go wrong. So what? Didn’t kill you, did it?! Most importantly, did/do YOU like it, and do you now have the confidence to try again, to push a little further?

That’s what this week has taught me, or rather opened my eyes to – that the things I’ve always feared aren’t as bad in the doing as in the imagining of them. I know I’ll slide backwards – progress isn’t linear, after all, but I’m choosing to believe that I am moving forward much more than I’m moving in reverse. My week of sun, sea, and a tiny dose of fear has been just what I needed to re-awaken my creativity, and inspire me to write, make, draw, and paint.

To this end, I’ve appropriated part of our garage as my dedicated art/creative space. Hubby’s stuff and cluttered shelves have been sorted/tidied/swept as needed, I have a couple of re-purposed filing cabinets to store a lot of my art materials, and have moved in an old table to work on, and even got brave enough to put fairy lights on hubby’s motorbike to soften mechanical look of the garage! It’s a work in progress, and I’ll post some more, updated photos next time, but starting the work is the Big Thing. I felt a little fearful in taking up space – literally and metaphorically – as I’ve absorbed a decades-old message of women being small and quiet, but that little voice in my heart is speaking a bit louder, boosted by the lovely Juliet and the others at WOW (see Juliet’s site for more info if you fancy joining us!)

New art space taking shape…

…means glamourising the stuff I can’t move!

What is YOUR summer gifting you this year? I wish you the courage to face your little fears like I’m trying to do – and I think succeeding a bit, too! – and the excitement and realisation that it IS worth facing them, because on the other side are wonderful things!!

Let me know via the comments – I’d love to know what you all think!

You can join me over on Instagram, too! Find me at yorkshire_wellies.

Who Are We?

This is me…

…and so is this little tot!

Do you know who you are, what you do (or want to do), where you’ve come from, or where you’re going? You can answer these questions as frivolously or as deeply as you like, but I invite you to have a think before you frame a reply.

I can tell you all sorts about my childhood, jobs I’ve had, my family set-up, and so on, but I find it almost impossible to talk about ME – my wants and dreams, the things I love or dread, what excites me or terrifies me, my thoughts and feelings.  Maybe it’s down to habits formed in early childhood, or perhaps a lifetime of busyness combined with people-pleasing, that old stereotype of daughter/wife/mum putting others before herself all the time.  

A few of the things that make me, me

Whatever the reason, I’ve got my early 50s without really knowing myself, but I feel a real desire to change this, and get to know what makes me ‘tick’.  This might be very uncomfortable at times, and I might not like some of what I find out, but I’ve felt drawn to this work for a few years, and I’m also rather curious.  I suppose it’s research, of a sort, into myself, with the end result being able to tell my story – past/present/future – for and to myself, but also to anyone interested enough in reading it.

Telling and writing stories I can do, but not when it comes to myself, it feels like showing off or putting myself front and centre. I feel torn between feeling invisible, and also not wanting to be noticed – a psychologist would find that very interesting, no doubt!  However, talking to someone else about yourself, in a safe space, and then letting them tell your story feels more comfortable, and other people don’t have your emotional ties to the information.

To this end, I recently had a couple of conversations with Clair Wright, of A Social Nature, who has now launched her new offering of exactly this – telling your story.  Some of it was a little emotional for me, probably will be for most people if you’re basically telling a brief version of your life story.  Clair is very good at taking in everything you say, reflecting back, and asking more questions to get a sense of the answers to the questions I asked at the top of this post – and then turning all your ramblings into a coherent and well-written version of yourself.  A great experience, especially when you’re trying to find out how/where you want to place yourself professionally, and will make an excellent springboard for next week’s post – watch this space! 

Do you know yourself, what inspires or infuriates you, what makes your heart and soul sing, or cower in fear? I would love for you to let me know about yourself – pop down your thoughts in the comments!

Out Of Hibernation

Hello, World, I’ve been submerged beneath a murky, deep blue-grey haze of anxiety, depression, and extreme weariness for a while until recently, only able to function like an automaton: fed everyone, bare bones of housework and grocery shopping, got to work. I was ‘here’ physically, but mentally not anywhere at all, really. Even before the massive changes to our lives these past ten or eleven months, I’ve often hated this time of year and its post-Christmas anti-climax. It’s cold, usually very grey, people don’t socialise much, and I feel in limbo with nothing creative to do or upcoming events. This week, I’m feeling more ‘awake’ and, for the first time in ages, my fingers are itching to write and create. I even offered to make my teenage son a drink this morning, to which he looked at me suspiciously, wondering what I was ‘after’!

Maybe it’s that we’re now past the shortest days, and there’s a bit more light in the world – literally and metaphorically – so we can feel our way back up to the surface, blinking a bit in the light. That light shows up how awful we feel or look, highlights the dust and mess in our homes and lives, but it can also show us the little things and people that we miss when it’s all so dark. I don’t feel quite as alone and adrift as I did; I’ve had some very much appreciated support from a few people to whom I blurted out how bad I was feeling. Human beings can be awesome at times! There suddenly seems to be some creative activity to get involved with, or maybe I haven’t noticed it until now, being so far below the surface. There are little whispers of hope and change in the form of Covid vaccines being rolled out, and the faint promise of life slowly returning to normal – the end may not be in sight yet, but it feels like it’s just over a hill that we haven’t crested yet.

Coming out of hibernation is a curious feeling: you feel like staying snuggled up in bed (whether literally against a cold, dark morning, or metaphorically retreating from the world) but you’re also aware of minute signs of the earth beginning to wake up, and your mind and body begin to wake in sync. Even when your heart and mind have been in dark places, those little clues that the world hasn’t ended start creeping their way into your soul, like persistent weeds slowly working their way through concrete. You become aware of those little parts of you that crave the sunlight, fresh air, and company coming back to the surface and, amazingly, you actually WANT to go outside into nature, to write and create beautiful things, even if it’s just in tiny bursts now and again. You begin to feel glad that you ARE still here, after all, that your world didn’t end, that you’re a semi colon and not a full stop!

First art of 2021, half done

This week, I’ve started painting again, done a bit more “proper” cooking, and even ironed a few bits of laundry!! I also treated myself to Sara Tasker’s “Hashtag Authentic“, which has been on my wish list for ages, and beginning to feel inspired once more – maybe Yorkshire Wellies and I do have a future together! Do visit Sara’s Instagram account for some amazing inspiration, it may encourage you in your own creativity. I’ve also signed up to a new writing course from my (also amazing!) friend, Juliet Thomas, of The Curious Creative Club, she’s such a powerhouse of energy and inspiration, another website and Instagram account I’d highly recommend investigating. Fearne Cotton’s “Speak Your Truth” is the other book I’m currently reading, very easy to read but also powerful, one more recommendation this week.

Full of inspiring photos!

My second ‘book of the week’, excellent read, too!

I’ll keep this first post of 2021 short and sweet, but will be back next week with more to say, and with more creativity to share with you all! What’s your January looked like this year? Have you felt/been more positive, done anything new? Did you run at 2021 or have you eased yourself into it gradually?! Do let me know via the comments, or find me on Instagram at yorkshire_wellies and let’s have a chat!

New year? Better, different?

A suggestion for a more contemplative new year?

Well, here we are at the end of the oddest year most of us have ever known! Sometimes, at the end of a year, we cast a glance behind us, maybe we note the highlights or things we’d rather forget, and then look forward just a little to the coming year and make a few plans.

Even those of us with bad mental health have had some good come out of this year. I’ve learned how much I value being able to slow down properly, not just in short bursts at the weekend, and I recognise when I need to say no to things, even if I can’t do it as often as I’d like! I’ve started to get to know myself – no mean feat in your early 50s! – and understand what professional help I need. I’m hopeful that 2021 will bring the resumption of much-needed mental health services for so many. This year I allowed myself to be more creative, with a little less perfectionism and self-criticism – oh, they’re still there, those faithful (faithless?!) companions, but I can nudge them into the background a little more than before.

Random dots, joined up to make a picture of sorts from 64 Million Artists’s challenge January 2020
Refreshing my embroidery skills at a class early in 2020
Late-night doodling when the urge to create took over!

Creativity in any shape has kept me sane this year, no exaggeration. Being creative is correlated with positive mental health, there’s so much evidence for this. There’s also evidence that NOT being creative is directly linked with poorer mental health – suggesting that the actual act of being creative positively affects mental health, that the lack of creative activity is detrimental to our well-being and development. Before you say ‘oh, but I’m not creative, I can’t draw/paint/sing…”, stop, and think for a minute. Human beings are inherently creative, it runs through our DNA, and has always been the driving force for our survival. Somewhere along the line, an ancient relative had the idea of building shelter to protect them from the elements, making tools from sticks and stones in order to increase the types of food they could eat – remember the old phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’? When faced with a problem, humans are usually pretty good at creating a solution. Unless you’re a Bear Grylls type and love going off-piste into the wilderness, you’re unlikely to be making a hut from branches and leaves, or foraging for berries and mushrooms, but you CAN build creativity into your life, consciously and with intent.

2020 has been chock-full of problems and challenges, but the unintended consequences have often been very positive. I bet you know at least one person who’s learned how to cook or bake from scratch, taught themselves a new skill or craft, done some gardening, or re-invented their home surroundings. Being forced away from our usual routines, and being able to explore in a way we haven’t done for decades, has been a game changer for many people I know, and they’re enjoying and keeping those changes. They’ve re-discovered something deeply buried that makes them feel different, something that matters, and they want to hang onto that. One family member started growing a few herbs and salads in her garden, and teaching her children to cook – now her vegetables consume most of the back garden and her children are masters of bread-making and roast dinners – valuable skills for the future and so enjoyable! A friend picked up her pencils and paintbrushes after a long hiatus and is now making some beautiful and amazing art.

My point is that we are all born makers, do-ers, dreamers, thinkers, artists, cooks, seamstresses, wanderers, teachers, writers, growers, architects, engineers, and so much more, whether we give ourselves conscious titles or not. We used to accept our natural abilities to do these things, and follow where our curiosity led us, but society has slowly specialised and categorised them. Our thinking has narrowed too much, and we often deny our inherent creativity; we classify skills and people rigidly, put ‘experts’ on pedestals and tell ourselves we’re not ‘good enough’; we talk ourselves out of (or overthink) activities that could be more relaxed and pleasurable.

This coming new year, as we’re still in uncertain times given both Covid and Brexit situations, we could give ourselves a new year gift of deliberately exploring some new form of creativity, to allow ourselves a little haven away from current anxieties. Who knows where it might lead?! You can find books, craft kits, and more, on offer in the sales – pick out one or two that won’t break the bank. The free Libby app allows you to electronically borrow library books; perhaps you could read something different, a new writer, some poetry – you may be inspired to write your own! If money’s too tight, have a wander of some creative websites. There are a number of creative challenges starting in January that often cost nothing more than your time.

Juliet, of The Curious Creative Club, talks about the power of playing around and experimenting in her current blog, if you fancy a read and some inspiration. She’s created a ‘play’ list of 12 different creative activities for 2021, you could try something similar; you may enjoy something totally new or go for the familiar in picking up a previous craft. 64 Million Artists (don’t be daunted by the title!) has a 3-way challenge for January. You can choose creative challenges by one of three inspiring creatives, or go off-piste to receive random challenges from any of the three. Then there’s Susan Yeates’ 30 Day Sketchbook Challenge, which is a marvellous, free-range way of interpreting and creating art. Sites like Instagram are full of creative images, ideas, and people to inspire you – if you follow an artist, singer, maker, see who THEY follow and discover some new creatives.

I’m going to explore some of my own ideas over the next year – some I’ve suggested above, and others haven’t quite taken shape yet – and see where they take me. How about joining me, and see what happens?! I’ll be sharing my 2021 over on my Instagram account, I’d love you to join me and share yours, too!

I’ll just leave you with the thought below, hope it makes you think as well as smile!

The Final Countdown

Hello, and I wonder how many of you now have that 80s song of the same name as an earworm?!

An Advent calendar I made a few years ago, soon to be in use for my youngest children

This week I’ve been thinking about how close we are to the end of the year: less than 5 weeks and we can say goodbye to 2020, with all its topsy-turvy strangeness, and look towards 2021 with a little hope. Yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent for Christians, when candles start being lit to welcome Jesus at Christmas, one extra candle each week until we have four, gently shining as a welcome in our homes and our hearts. It’s no coincidence that mid-winter festivals of light have been with us since ancient times: fires and candles help to keep us hopeful and sane throughout the dark periods of the year. The word ‘advent’ is derived from the Latin ‘adventus’, and translated from the Greek word ‘parousia’, both meaning ‘coming’. The origins of this ‘coming’ are different from the now-traditional 4-week period of anticipation leading up to Christmas, but we could also use this time to think generally about this most unusual year drawing to a close and the new one yet to arrive. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or not, a little reflection and forethought could be useful for us all, without getting mired too far into the past or the future.

Little pinpricks of light on a dark evening

I’m sure many of you are thinking about gifts for the people you love, if not already in the midst of buying. In this year of massive changes, could you think differently? Buy locally, from small, independent makers and artists, to support your local community and economy? Just A Card is a national movement supporting and promoting every kind of small and individual creative venture you could think of – take a look at their Instagram account for some inspiration. Perhaps, instead of buying new objects, you’re more inclined to support charities and similar organisations, who need our support more than ever this year, in the absence of their venues/shops/collecting tins being available. There’s still chance to sponsor animal charities, dedicate a tree, support food banks and local charities, give a little of yourself and your time. Maybe this year is the right time to look outwards a little more, to open our eyes to see who may be a little more in need than ourselves this year.

That said, perhaps the countdown to the end of this year is also a time to think about more than Christmas: maybe the time we’ve had, especially during the spring and early summer, has enabled you to really think about your life, work, and passions like never before. Perhaps a little navel-gazing can be a good thing, to allow us a bit of the right sort of selfishness – to look after our own dreams for a change, maybe to put a couple of things into place in our lives that we’ve often yearned for? That thing you’ve always wanted to do, that you imagined doing once your children were old enough to need a bit less attention, that you thought you were never good enough at, or that you told yourself you never had time to pursue? What if the events of this year were partly the universe giving you a gentle nudge, to encourage you to think deeper about the thing? Could you spend these last few weeks of 2020 really thinking seriously about it, do a little research, look deeper into your heart and mind?

Create your own light until the days lengthen again

I know it can be so hard to look forward into the darkness, especially after such an incredibly uncertain year – we feel like digging in our heels and pulling the covers over our heads sometimes, we want to hibernate and hope to wake up into a better world. So, let’s try to lighten ourselves up a bit now (no pun intended!). After all, by the time we get to the end of these five weeks, the days will have begun to lengthen ever so slightly – by the time Hogmanay’s here we’ll have a few more minutes daylight at either end of the day.

So maybe it’s not really a final countdown to the end of something, but more the start of counting down to a new season, a new beginning, and looking towards a different way for the new year? Many children will start their Advent calendars tomorrow, along with plenty of adults I know, so how about spending a few minutes thinking about an extra countdown, as you enjoy your chocolates, cheese, or mini drinks from your calendar?!

I’d love to hear your thoughts – find me on Instagram or Facebook and we can have a chat.

Make It Different

A tree bauble inherited from my mum – can’t wait to get my home all twinkly and festive!

Hello from a wet and windy West Yorkshire!

It’s exactly 6 weeks to Christmas as I write today and I’m now into festive planning mode – how about you? Have you finished your gift buying and wrapping whilst you work from home, or haven’t you begun to think about this year’s Christmas yet? Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, having bought a couple of gifts, or stashed away a bottle or two and got some pigs in blankets in your freezer?! Are you feeling saddened that this year will be very different in a negative sense? Wherever you are on the Christmas prep spectrum, you could spend the next 6 weeks deliberately, and thoughtfully, making this year memorable in positive ways.

Cosy nights are here now – why not curl up in a blanket and do your Christmas planning?!

6 weeks is long enough to begin embedding some new habits and trying something we might not have before, or maybe resurrecting festive ideas from our childhoods or years gone by, with a modern twist. There’s plenty of time for baking – remember all the sourdough and home cooking the nation got excited about back in the spring and summer?! – trying your hand at making cards, or even making gifts for your family. More than ever this year local charities and community organisations are desperate for help in various ways: donations for food banks, clothing/uniform banks, telephone befriending, and also cash donations – so many ways to give a little to your neighbourhood without spending much money, if any.

Instead of physical gifts, especially if we can’t visit in person to deliver, how about virtual gifts of various types? You could adopt an animal, to support a wildlife charity or guide dog association, or buy gifts from places like the RNLI (close to my family’s hearts). Last year, I gave my nephew and his wife the gift of a tree dedication in a small forest near them in Wales, from the Woodland Trust. How about an old-fashioned, hand-written letter? If you have small children at home, suggest they do a drawing or their own little note, too, and send a big envelope, fat with lots of news and chat, to someone you know. Even if they’ve seen what you’re up to via social media, there’s still something exciting about receiving a proper letter in the post. There are some lovely writing papers available from the likes of Paperchase, amongst others.

Homemade gingerbread biscuits are always in demand in our family – dead easy to make

Even the most nervous of cooks could have a go at making edible gifts for those people you can actually visit. There are many sweets and chocolates that are simple and inexpensive to make, you’ll learn a new skill, and the recipient has a handmade gift – what’s not to enjoy?! Have a look on the BBC Good Food website for some inspiration! If you really feel that you can’t make your own gifts, then why not support small, independent businesses and artists, many of whom have struggled this year? With no fairs and festivals, their incomes have dropped massively, but so many are open to online ordering. Movements such as Just A Card are vital beacons for producers of lovely things; you can find them on Instagram for inspiration.

Fill your home with light on long, dark evenings

In six weeks we’ll have reached the shortest day of the year, too, and the days will slowly start to lengthen. We can still make the most of the reduced daylight by getting outside when we can, and then making our homes cosy with twinkling lights and candles as the light dips. Get a stew going in the oven or in your slow cooker, wrap up and put on your wellies or walking boots and brave the weather – once you start walking you’ll soon warm up. There’s something about being outside, even if it’s cold or drizzly, that feeds your soul immensely, especially if you have access to wide open spaces and woodland. I’m very blessed to live in a part of Yorkshire where there’s such an abundance of greenery right on my doorstep, I’ve really no excuse to get out there!


Foggy days outside are strange, but fascinating!

Five minutes from my house and I’m right in the middle of a gorgeous little wood

I hope I’ve given you some inspiration for the coming weeks, and for Christmas ideas. I’d love to hear what you’re going to do – let me know in the comments or share your ideas on my Facebook page – Yorkshire Wellies! Have a good week and enjoy snuggling up on these dark evenings!

Creative

The faintest, hopeful hint of a rainbow to encourage and inspire!

I opened a notebook recently to start looking for something in particular, and it fell open to a page where I’d written a couple of guiding words, partly on the back of a Psychologies’ InstaLive that Juliet did in July. She’d suggested working through some words that appealed to you, sitting with them for a while, and then choosing one that really sang to you. At the time, I’d chosen two because I really couldn’t decide between them, FAITH and CONTINUE, which resonated for many reasons, not just from a creative point of view. I wrote a post about these words in July and, having just re-read it, it’s still true and pertinent now, maybe more so as we’re heading into another lockdown: it’s familiar territory now, and we may feel tempted to slip back into less helpful habits, and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, or it’s because it’s cold and dark. Holding onto some sort of faith (whether for you it’s of the religious or spiritual kind, or faith in your abilities), and trying to continue with any sort of routine, will help to keep our minds positively occupied, even when it’s cold and wet outside, or we can’t do our usual activities.

It was serendipity that I saw these words again, as some parts of life currently feel a bit chaotic. We’ve had joiners in to fit new wardrobes and the upheaval has been dreadful, with LOTS of dejunking and tidying up still to do! I look at all the mess and my heart sinks, but I can choose to have faith and know that as I continue our home will become a real sanctuary, instead of feeling like a sort of prison of clutter – physically and mentally (and give my husband the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’!).

Messy hallway made even messier with new wardrobe components!

I know from experience that living in a state of such disarray is not good for one’s mental health, and not at all conducive to creativity – maybe this contributes to the mental blocks I have around creativity. My mind’s always been filled with fantastical images of things I want to create, but they’re often stymied by the darker, less helpful stuff. Back in July, as I was thinking about these guiding words, I was probably trying too hard to make art, write, and be creative. I think I was making it into another chore to do, trying to force creativity instead of simply sitting with ideas as and when they arrived, and then allowing them to breathe into life. Maybe creativity is about a natural birth, instead of a Frankenstein’s monster of artificiality?

Don’t like this one bit, definitely trying too hard and not in the flow!

Happier with this one, felt more ‘with it’ as the brush strokes swept across the paper

Maybe, too, not allowing myself to be creative because of that other monster, Perfectionism, has contributed to chronic anxiety and depression? A research article by Leon Brenner notes that those with depression experience an improvement in their symptoms when they regularly participate in creative activities, as shown in previous research. All of us can vouch for this anecdotally, too. Maybe more importantly, from my point of view, he claims that the areas of the brain correlated with creativity and depression are linked to each other, and that a lack of creativity may actually trigger depression. It seems that when there is a deficit in one of these areas, then there is a deficit in the other, and vice versa, a sort of balance. No wonder, then, that being creative lifts our mood significantly: if we are creative we feel measurably better, and when we’re better we feel much so more creative! I find this totally fascinating, and could explain a lot about my own experiences, relating to both creativity and mental health – I feel more research coming, with a definite researcher bias!

This week could be a good time for us to begin exploring some creativity, to research for the weeks ahead, as we fast approach a second lockdown in England. With shorter days, less chance of pleasant weather for walking or gardening, and very little to do outside of work or school, maybe we could put firm plans in place to pre-empt any lowering of our moods. Shops shut? You can still order art supplies online like my local shop offers, browse new cooking ideas via sites like BBC Good Food or Delicious magazine, or Jamie Oliver (and get your food shopping delivered, of course!). You could look at Instagram accounts (including mine!) for many creative ideas. Can’t get to the library? There is a myriad of online book clubs, groups, and bookshops you can use, and you can even borrow e-books from your library via the Libby app. There are any number of yoga, pilates, dance, and sport videos online to keep you physically creative, too. If you don’t feel that you are creative, or don’t fancy any of these suggestions, ask any children in the vicinity – they’re often an excellent source of creative inspiration and you’ll be able to surgically remove them from their tech for a while – win/win!!

Planning in some sort of creativity is a good habit to make for yourself, especially now, and especially at this time of year. Habits can take around six weeks to start becoming embedded; the neurons in your brain need at least that length of time to make the ‘grooves’ of their pathways deep enough for your actions and thoughts to become familiar. So I invite you to take advantage of this second lockdown and the weeks afterwards (about 6 weeks in total) to begin to encourage your creativity – by Christmas you could have at least one new skill under your belt! My sister suggested I could watch The Home Edit on Netflix, or follow them on Instagram, which I’m going to try – apparently they’re a giggle but very effective! I’m hoping that this will inspire me to finally get my house turned back into a properly organised and cosy home – this will be my lockdown project this time and it could get me back into tidier housework habits. It’s down in black and white now, so I’m committed to making it happen (hoping that the folks in my accountability groups are reading this…!)!

It might not be this fast, but watch out for a future blog post when I ‘edit’ my home!

I’m not suggesting that you try every new hobby you come across on Pinterest or Instagram (unless that’s what you fancy, of course!), BUT you could plan a little creativity into lockdown and make it yours. A new recipe that you and the children have cracked together; painting an early Christmas card to post abroad; research how to prune that straggly apple tree in your garden; encourage and help your children to research something that fascinates them and then tell the rest of the family or their class.

I’d love to hear how you get on, let me know in the comments here, over on my Instagram (including your pics!), or on my shiny new Facebook page. Stay safe, and take care of yourself – the WHOLE you – see you soon!