Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Extra special gifts

It’s that time of year again where we are all to be found wandering glassy eyed about the tinsel bedecked high street listlessly thumbing over packaged presents with an ever increasing feeling of desperation that we will never get the blasted Christmas shopping done. Fun, isn’t it? There is nothing like giving a present that you really can’t wait to give but when Christmas comes around and present giving en masse is required it can all become very panic making. I spent an afternoon wandering about the shops yesterday and returned with some glittery twigs and a fake robin for my trouble. Lovely for the Christmas explosion in my living room but not exactly what I was hoping for when I set off.

I long to give well thought out personal presents that don’t immediately end up in someone’s bottom draw but it really is much easier wished for than done.  It’s the annual dilemma but a very privileged one to have as the problem really arises from the fact that we all have so much already. I tend not to give charity gifts to my family as I like to get them something for themselves, I'm a fan of homemade gifts for that, and I intend to do the same this year. I did however decide to use the charity gift scheme to add someone else to my Christmas list this year as well as the usual trinkets to my friends and family. I don’t say this to give you warm fuzzy feelings about how nice I am (that would be a grave exaggeration anyhow!) but in the hope that it might give you and others a merrier Christmas if it is something you decide to do yourself. 

I’m reading a book at the moment called Cutting for Stone which is set in Ethiopia. One of the main characters becomes a gynaecologist and a condition I had heard of before is mentioned in some depth – obstetric fistula. There are details about it here if you wanted to read up but needless to say it is a terrible, yet curable, affliction that has women cast out of their communities. In the gospel stories a woman reaches out and touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed and it has been suggested that this may be what she was suffering from. Women were cast out of society for the condition then and they still are now. So for Christmas I decided to save some pennies and buy someone an operation to fix a fistula. I did this through Mercy Ships, who I know do great work around the world. UNICEF, Oxfam and others all do similar schemes offering all sorts of gifts from equipment for a safe delivery of a baby to a hundred vaccinations against measles. That’s a gift that won’t end up gathering dust and what better to give at Christmas than new life? That's what the season is all about after all.

Happy Advent lovely blog readers.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

My All

I feel like this blog should have some stirring Mariah Carey soundtrack running in the background but luckily for you I’m not that cruel. Yesterday I had some meetings about a rather significant opportunity (cryptic or what?!) and it made me think about what it means to give your best. Perhaps craving to give your best is a residue from those days of being given a gold star colouring in with such intense concentration that you go nearly through the paper or perhaps, slightly more healthily, it’s the satisfaction of seeing your potential realised. Perhaps it’s simply the satisfaction of a job well done.

 I remember vividly the feeling of studying for my A Levels. It was an unbelievable amount of work. It felt insurmountable at times with absent teachers and high grades to aim for to get into University. Do you remember that feeling of being so utterly stretched? When I was studying for my degree I remember reaching what I thought was the limit of my abilities and the absolute joy of going further than you thought you could. Or writing my Master thesis and desperately googling ‘food to help your brain work’ as I struggled to read the manuscript for the one millionth time. It is hard, hard work but oddly I know I’ve come to a place where I desperately want to give my all like that again.

It’s very easy to become dulled in day to day life. When the cheerleading of adolescence is over and you have to make your own opportunities. What you once thought of as your A* abilities are just that - stars blinking away in the distance that you can’t even remember possessing. I honestly think I forgot that I worked that hard for my University of choice until I was reminded of it yesterday. It was the first time in a long time that someone said ‘that’s good,’ and ‘you have something to offer’. Too often it’s easier to work within the limitations set by no one but yourself simply because no one challenges you on it.

I also think it comes down to motivation. Frankly it is difficult to summon up the desire to give your all when you spend your day creating mail merges. Of course there is a place for this routine, day to day stuff. Tackling the washing pile is never going to be a life changing event but on the flipside we only have one opportunity to see what we are made of and what we have to offer to fellow mankind (not to be too dramatic!). And more importantly only one today, one now, to do that in. I find it easy to see the potential in my friends and family but it feels big headed, and very un-British, to have a serious assessment of your own abilities and potential. But I’m more and more convinced that it is only through this honest reflection that you can really figure out what it is that you have to offer. 

And who says where the buzz of giving your all is going to come from? For me, I need it to be my day to day work - of that I am very sure. For others it’s signing up for a marathon or putting the Women’s Institute through their paces with their latest craft endeavour.  What I do know is that it takes courage. It’s so much easier to say ‘I bet I would win Masterchef if I had a go,’ or ‘I could totally get a Phd.’ It’s much harder to try and risk the possibility of failure. For some reason it seems to get harder to take these kind of risks as we get older. Perhaps it’s more embarrassing to get it wrong or to even admit that you still want to try such foolhardy schemes! 

When faced with fearful moments I have a formula I have been using and it is simply this - what is more important to me? In this case is it more important to me not to fail or is it more important to me to try and possibly succeed? The answer plays itself out in little decisions every day. Gosh life is scary, but isn’t it FUN!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Brainwashed by Sylvanian Families

They may look cute but their intentions are sinister! (from www.sylvanianfamilies.com)
A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the Argos catalogue (the laminated book of dreams for all you Bill Bailey fans!) and I came across an arm chair that I thought would be perfect for our living room. It was upholstered in deep red fabric with wide arms, perfect for curling up in with a book. Then I looked at the price - £5.99, surely not! This must be some sort of wonderful, magical error! My finger hovered over the ‘Buy Now’ button. And then I realised it was a toy chair, for Sylvanian families. Oh the disappointment.

That same week I was wandering around the covered market in Oxford. It was particularly blissful as it was a Friday morning and therefore had all the fun of a Saturday minus the hordes of people impeding your progress and preventing your speedy access to caffeine. I wandered into my favourite tea shop and purchased a delicious smelling bag of pear tea and then on to the florist for some beautiful red lilies. As I wandered past for my favourite baking supply store, feeling utterly happy and relaxed, a thought struck me. This was what I used to do with my Sylvanian families. I set up a little community in my cupboard and walked them from store to store picking up their groceries and bunches of flowers. Sylvanians were in my home décor, my weekend plans. The thought struck me - I’ve always wanted to live on a river boat. I had a Sylvanian river boat! The Sylvanians even have control of my dreams! I could almost see my giant furry puppet master in the sky pulling the strings. 

Where else to go in times of crisis but a fellow sufferer? A friend of mine, who for her own good reputation will remain nameless, has recently set up her Sylvanians again in an airing cupboard. She is 32. When her husband suggested visiting children could play with them we both scoffed at his foolish suggestion. You can’t let children play with Sylvanians! We were exceptional children who had saved up for months for the racoon family and so treated with the love and care they deserved. Modern day children, with their sticky fingers, not so! When I told my friend of the disturbing echos from my childhood I had been experiencing not only did she know exactly what chair I was talking about but also said ‘Oh yes, haven’t you realised my house is basically a full size Sylvanian house?’ Scary. And true.

They say all things come in threes so I was not surprised when this week, while watching Kirstie’s Homemade Britain, another childhood behaviour that lives on in me came hurtling to the fore. Kirstie was entering a craft competition based on the book The Secret Garden. I remember reading it again and again as a child so it’s little wonder it has entered into my adult psyche. I had pretty much forgotten the story until Kirstie started making felt robins. It was the robin that led the little girl to the Secret Garden. My gaze went out of the window to my bird feeder. Designed to attract robins. Oh my.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Indulging the inner fun seeker

I am quite convinced that sometimes the best thing to do is whatever you bloomin’ well like AND that this is good for your health, happiness and general well being. I practice what I preach by holding regular evenings where the star guest and only one who needs pleasing is ME - the last of which featured a Jane Austen DVD marathon and an extraordinary amount of chocolate. This may seem like extravagance but nay friends, how can you be a good friend/employee/partner/daughter if you don't take care of yourself every once in a while?

I have taken this well and truly on board this week and have booked myself into a one day bargain Creative Nails course courtesy of Groupon, aka my new best friend. I love, love, love having my nails in an array of colours and my nail varnish collection was one of the (many) things that shocked my other half when we moved in together. This is coming from the man who owned 15 (no word of a lie) identical white t shirts. No glittery goodness there folks.

As life has been demanding all sorts of sensible thinking recently (shocker) I have been particularly sensitive to my need for fun. I can count the number of things on both my hands and my toes (beautifully polished of course..) that I do because I know I should or because I need to clothe/feed myself and my nearest and dearest. But how often do you get the chance to do something just because you quite fancy it or because it just seems like fun?It is far too rare!
Whenever anyone comments on my brightly coloured nails I always say it makes typing less boring when one is chained to a desk. This is TRUE and it is also the reason that I believe a nice bunch of flowers or a bird feeder is a very good investment for your mental health. It’s these things that make you stop and smile in the day, and don’t we need those things in our hundred-mile-an hour existence?  I’m finding the autumn to be a great time for this. How can you be grumpy when there are piles of orange leaves to kick and a big fluffy warm scarf round your neck?

So I for one am very excited about this little day trip to learn the art of the manicure. I am also very excited about the MAC goodie bag I will get at the end of the day, more nail varnish for the collection! My husband will be so pleased!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Who's afraid now?!

I love crafting but up until today I have had one persistent nemesis. The sewing machine. This began at school when we had to make oven gloves. Most of us spent the majority of the class trying in vain to untangle our sewing machines while glaring at the person gliding effortlessly through their project and ending up with a vintage apron that would look at home in Liberty. Our sad offerings found their way into the loft for 'safe keeping' much faster than we made them.

When I was in my early twenties I went to Zambia and visited a bunch of ladies who were sewing clothes and homewares to make some extra cash. They had gorgeous antique Singers and as I sat in front of it I thought, 'Yes! I can do this! I could have one of these in my home and make curtains and dresses and all kinds of wonderful things.' Oh how optimistic! Half an hour later I was being removed from the machine by the Zambian ladies having butchered a shirt that they then patiently unpicked. They gave me another go but I was beyond redemption. This was enough to convince me that me once and for all that sewing machines and I do not mix.

I do love all crafts though and lots of friends have taken pity on me as I painstakingly hand sewed all my creations and offered me a shot on their sewing machine. With images of past disasters in my minds eye and not wanting to wreck anyone's family heirloom machine I have always said no and merrily continues my (very) slow progress of hand sewing. This week however I discovered just how cheap some machines are these days. Cheap enough to not worry too much if I destroyed it on my first attempt. That combined with a tempting range of projects in the new series of crafting with Kirstie Allsopp convinced me to give it a go. I reasoned that it is possible machine may have changed in the last fifteen years...perhaps. So here it is – my new baby!

After a brief sidetrack caused by my thinking I had lost some parts that were actually the base of the machine, I was sewing! AMAZINGLY fast! I even managed to re-thread the machine several times and make half a string of bunting. The only problem I can now foresee is  an attack of the usual over enthusiasm I develop whenever I discover something new. If I'm selling on ebay, everything that isn't nailed down goes, if I'm painting furniture you're best not to sit too still on the sofa or you might end up with a coat of duck blue eggshell and primroses painted up your legs. With Christmas coming up I'm hoping to put this enthusiasm to good use and knock up some gifts and decorations. Not more sewing machine fear for me!