A Bumper Harvest of Greengages

Delicious greengage chutney

Last night the boys gathered the last of our bumper crop of greengages. It’s the first year we’ve had a proper crop after planting the tree about 6 (or more) years ago. This afternoon, while the younger members of the household variously sunbathed on the beach at Budleigh Salterton, played football or cycled 130km with clubmates Mum got to grips with the harvest. Chutney-making is the kind of cooking I love. There’s plenty of therapeutic repetitive chopping and stirring and you can give full rein to your creativity.

I had about 2 kilos of greengages, stoned and quartered. To these I added 4 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped. These were donated by a neighbour (ours aren’t ready yet and there were none to be found in the supermarket this week). Next went in three medium red onions, chopped small, a large knuckle of ginger, peeled and grated, 400g raisins, a kilo of preserving sugar, 750ml cider vinegar and a spice mix (2 tsps each of ground cumin, ground coriander, pink peppercorns, mustard seeds, a tsp of cardamon pods, a cinnamon stick) and a pinch of salt. I  boiled it up and then simmered for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. Then ladled it into 11 sterilised jars which have been stored in the pantry ready for Christmas boxes.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in August.

Wellbeing, it’s elemental. Part 2: Water

Our windowsill basil was looking the worse for wear this morning but it soon plumped up after a pre-breakfast soak in the sink. I know how it feels. At school I always have a water bottle with me; at home I’m never far away from the coffee machine. I need a metaphorical soak in the sink, to ditch the decaff for an infusion of cucumber and mint.

Drinking two or three litres of water a day is the kind if routine which benefits mind and body. One glass of warm water and lemon first thing, one glass with a tablespoon of cider vinegar before meals and several more glasses of a mint and cucumber infusion is my ideal. All good for liver function, keeping hydrated and stimulating the brain cells.

Like many things at the moment, it’s part of a decluttering regime, a desire to pare back and simplify life to prepare for what is sure to be a busy, strange and potentially stressful term back at school. If I can cultivate the habit now, it’ll be well established when life gets hectic.

Cheers!

 

 

A crisis, getting rid of the clutter and a bit of creative thinking

Pembrokeshire beach

I’ve been caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of too much schoolwork and all the home chores I wanted to catch up with in the first weeks of the summer holiday – achieving not very much in either sphere. No surprises there! When you’ve been working from home since late March, the lines become somewhat blurred. It’s hard to know where to focus the limited energy you have left after spending hours on Zoom. A few days away beside the sea in Pembrokeshire, walking, reading and spending time with those I love did me the world of good. Yes, the very ones I’ve been holed up at home with for three months.

I never fail to return from a holiday with some ideas for lessons, a determination to maintain a healthy work-life balance and renewed vigour with which to tackle the pile of work which is waiting for me. Usually I have an idea for a novel too – but that’ll have to wait until I’m retired.  A break allowed me to recalibrate my relationship with social media and curate my Twitter feed – an excellent idea on a regular basis. It turns out this was the start of a general declutter which there simply hadn’t been time for during the height of lockdown remote teaching. I’m already feeling more energised and creative. I hope my students are taking time out and will be able to return to school refreshed and determined to be equally creative in their approach to their studies when they return to school.

Here are my top tips.

  1. Establish some rituals. If you get up at the same time every day, check your emails or instagram feed at certain times, exercise on the same evenings every week, this will become second nature and you’ll free up time to be creative.
  2. Have fun, connect with others, especially those who have different ideas to you. Be open-minded and kind.
  3. When thinking about solutions to problems believe that there are no bad ideas. Don’t self-filter. Jot everything down as viable. Then think through the options.
  4. Watch films and read books – especially the read books bit.
  5. Exercise and do it alone, without music and your phone at least some of the time. Silence and exercise = creative energy.
  6. Practice devotion not discipline. The former has more of a positive vibe.
  7. Learn to love lists. Unloading your cluttered mind onto paper is another beneficial way to shift a creative blockage.
  8. Know when your peak work moments are. These are the times when you are at you most creative. Leave the mundane jobs for when you’re more tired.
  9. Create something every day. Practice makes perfect. Sowing a seed which will become a beautiful plant, making the best scrambled eggs on toast you can, knitting -yes, I know. Me recommending knitting – anything you’ve made is beneficial to your mental health and your creative confidence. If you can do something small then the next step is much easier.
  10. Do it now. This is about having the confidence and an open-minded approach to allow you to take risks, have a go, avoid the shackles of perfectionism.

I’m following my own advice.

 

 

Wellbeing, it’s elemental. Part 1: Air

My pile of summer holiday reading has included this little gem. It couldn’t have come at a more apposite time. Standing in queues, spending hours in front of a computer screen zooming with pupils, calming anxious teens or fretful toddlers, worrying about what the ‘new normal’ will look like…..we all need to draw breath. But how do you know that you are doing this most fundamental aspect of life well?

Last time a book about breathing landed on my desk it was also a good time. I was uber-busy and about to introduce a learning program to help my students manage their time better. I know all about breathing in, focusing on something positive or colourful and breathing out a few times to reset my mental attitude or those of my children. I’m aware of the benefits of slowing down my breath to promote a feeling of calm, of keeping my airways clear, my posture open and balanced and my feet literally grounded to promote mindfulness. And yet I hadn’t really considered the benefits of nose-breathing or the pitfalls of over-breathing. Even a few small adjustments to the way we breathe can affect our health. It can “jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, halt snoring, allergies, asthma and auto-immune disease and even straighten scoliotic spines”. As a natural optimistic sceptic I want to believe that this is true, but I needed the evidence. James Nestor has drawn on thousands of years of medical texts and some recent cutting-edge studies as well as subjected himself to a fair degree of experimentation to provide it for me.

I know some people have got fitter and leaner during lockdown – but I haven’t. I suffer from an auto-immune disease – and it hasn’t miraculously cleared up whilst I have been wandering the garden in my pyjamas in the early morning with a mint tea in my hands. And someone (or some several) in the house snores! Being disciplined about breathing correctly is a relatively easy way to kick-start my journey back to tip-top health before school begins in September. The book has an appendix of ‘breathing methods’ and there are some video and audio tutorials of these techniques, and more at https://www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath

If you are feeling less than healthy or anxious or hopeless or like me busy but in need of a bit of a boost, begin by paying attention to your breathing. It’s fundamental to your wellbeing ….and it’s free.

 

 

Lammas Eve

Pic from Lammas Sabbat Index

Teachers do their spring cleaning in the summer hols – especially when the Easter hols disappeared in a haze of preparing to switch to online teaching. I’ve given myself a deadline of the end of the month – Lammas Eve (or Juliet’s birthday, if you are an English teacher, who can shoe-horn a Shakespeare reference into most sentences). There are kitchen cupboards to clear out, clutter to clear and windows to wash. A neighbour has started up a Saturday Share-it Day where anyone in the town can put out unwanted goods to be re-homed. It’s helped us enormously whilst the charity shops have been closed. This week there will be another box of goodies available in our front garden..

I’ve written about celebrating Lammas before. The beginning of August feels like more of ending than high-Summer to me. Some of our garden crops are over, I’ve already started thinking about the Autumn bulb planting and placed an order to be delivered in September and – dare I say it – the nights are drawing in. I’m not sad. I love the Autumn. It appeals to my agricultural and teaching heritage. I can harvest crops and start making chutney for the store cupboard and give full vent to my passion for stationery. (Surely every teacher has one?)

This Lammas I will bake bread and prune some of the herbs which are going over. The mint needs a severe pruning and parts of a lavender hedge which has fed the bees for weeks are looking grey and droopy. I read somewhere that one of the traditions of Lammas is to fashion a besom from twigs, decorate it with green and gold ribbons and a few sprigs of mint. I like to find time to create something every day and this will allow me to use up some old pea sticks and the mint prunings to make something which will be useful for  sweeping up the remaining lavender petals from the terrace.

Happy Lammaside. May your harvests be bountiful, your store cupboard full and everything in your house spick and span.

Time for a trim

A trip to the hairdresser is long overdue. I’m beginning to look like Hagrid’s little sister but a text message from Annie who has been cutting my hair since she left college has reminded me that I have only twenty-four hours to wait. To celebrate I have given one of our lavender hedges a bit of a trim.

My love of lavender is well-known. It’s such a versatile plant; I’m partial to a lavender scone and harvest copious amounts for pot pourri and sleep sacks. Above all, it’s good for the bees. And yet it’s only comparatively recently that I have learnt to prune it properly.

I grew up being told never to cut into the woody stems or it wouldn’t flower again but even the most careful pruning would often result in a hedge with some gaps and less than luxuriant growth. I had to replace plants every 3-4 years.  Then I had an epiphany. I decided to cut back my lavender plants to about 9 inches, even into the wood when I pruned in August. I reckoned there was a 50:50 chance of survival and was prepared to replant if necessary. It wasn’t!.

Now when I prune the lavender in August when the flowers have turned from blue to grey and the bees have had their fill I’m not afraid to prune back into the wood, to just above some fresh shoots The plant pictured is one I planted 15 years ago. Proof that a good trim can keep a plant healthy and looking good. I hope the same it true for humans.

Pembrokeshire promise

This week we took the teens whose summer plans had crumbled back to the scene of many of their childhood holidays. A last-minute booking of a comfortable cottage adjoining farmland in Lamphey, Pembrokeshire led to a few sunny days of coastal walks, beach cricket, reading, picnics, clifftop  ice creams, garden boules, sunset chip suppers, beer and a late-night box set of Foyle’s War.

More of a mini-break than the promised holiday but it did us all a lot of good to be together by the sea. Not that we’ve been short of time together since the end of March. It might be the only beach time we get this summer. I’m glad we made the most of it.

We’re planning a Winter version at the end of the year.

The comfort (or confinement) of routine

It’s the end of term but we are in that weird no man’s land of having undergone weeks of working from home where one day can be much like another. It doesn’t feel like the school holidays.

For weeks social media has been alive to the sound of parents wondering how to navigate the minefield of getting their teens out of bed and on with the business of the day. Now that the holidays have arrived maybe they will be able to relax a little.

I love the relaxed feel of a school holiday but have discovered over the years that having a routine of sorts even on lazy days keeps me grounded and productive. With three teenagers whose exams were cancelled in the house we haven’t been too disciplined over the last few weeks but have gently encouraged a sense of purpose and a goal for each day – however small. There are still boxes of ‘stuff’ to sort under beds, spring cleaning to do and files to archive. It’s happening slowly.

Smudging

Seven weeks in lockdown hasn’t been that bad. Truly. Yet the lack of a focus for three teens who have had their examinations cancelled and their holiday plans dashed and two parents working flat out from home could possibly stir emotions and make them bubble up periodically. It’s natural.

This morning I cut back a hefty bunch of sage which had been overhanging the garden path and it’s now drying in the kitchen. I think I may do some smudging around the house in the near future.

Before you roll your eyes and think I’ve lost the plot or reverted to my Druidic ancestry there is some science behind this traditional practice of cleansing your home of negative and stagnant energy. It releases negative ions that fight against dust and pollution. Research has also shown that it can clear 94% of bacteria (for up to 24hrs) which is why it’s great to use when you’ve been feeling a little under the weather.

Here’s how. You can buy beautifully packaged but slightly expensive white sage smudging sticks or make your own from cuttings. I’m using garden sage which is not strictly correct as you’ll see from the comments which follow. Artemisia is the plant to use. Bind round the leaves with string so that you have a tight bundle. Gather together a flameproof bowl, matches and the bundle. Open the windows, light the end of your stick and blow out the flame, leaving it smoking gently. Then make your way around your house carrying the sage bundle over the bowl, wafting the smoke into all areas as you progress. You’re  aiming for gentle puffs not thick black fumes that leave your neighbours phoning the fire brigade and all the smoke alarms ringing out.

It works. And no do I look like I would do this when the teens are around to engage in friendly banter about mum’s bonkersness (is that even a word?). First thing in the morning is a golden opportunity. Teenagers in lockdown don’t rise at 6am, unlike their working parents.

May Day

I can hardly believe it’s the beginning of May but the winter squash on the kitchen windowsill and the lush growth in the garden is proof that it is. For the first time in years my seed sowing is more organised than sporadic. I have peas, beans of various varieties, beetroot, rocket, chard, carrots, lettuce and spinach growing in amongst the flowers and shrubs.

I’ve written about May Day before but this one is different. No trips out to National Trust properties, no May Fairs, no picnics, except in our own garden and no fire – although when I get that fire basket for the terrace we will be able to sit outside and chat in the chill of the evening.

I love a bit of tradition, as you know. Staying out all night, watching the sunrise and bathing your face in morning dew appealed to my younger self; dressing a tree and making a floral crowns and baskets was the stuff of parenting toddlers.

Now I’m drawn to making Hawthorn Brandy, much more sedate for a woman of mature years. You will need a bottle of brandy and at least one cup of hawthorn flowers, plus a little sugar to taste. Mix the ingredients together and leave away from direct light, for at least two weeks. Shake occasionally. Strain, bottle and enjoy. Hawthorn is renowned as a tonic for the heart.

May is a good time to start a new project. It will be good to fuel my energies into a new enterprise after weeks of lockdown but I have welcomed the time to reflect and plan rather than rushing into anything whilst continuing the business of teaching my students remotely and spending time with my family. I’ll share progress soon.

 

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