Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

christmas-card

Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

christingle

There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.

 

Happy January!

No, the title of this blog isn’t a contradiction in terms. I admit that January isn’t always the easiest month to love, but, if you persevere then you will discover its good points.

I am still basking in a warm glow created by the happiest Christmas I have had for years. Possibly since I was a child myself. It was perfect. No-one was ill, no-one argued, no-one cried. The presents I had chosen for others were well-received, and the presents chosen for me were delightful. We saw family and friends, sang carols round the Christmas tree, went to the circus, snuggled up with new books or DVDs, ate a ridiculously huge amount of delicious food, drank fizz at lunchtime (not every day) and I even got a couple of lie-ins.

I was worried that such a lovely Christmas would make the return to normal this week particularly painful, but it really hasn’t. I think the secret of a contented January is to be nice to yourself. It is a mystery to me why people choose this month to start an extreme diet or a gruelling exercise regime or to dip a toe into teetotalism. I mean, seriously. This is already a month where finances and waistlines are likely to be tight, which involves getting up in the dark every single day, and which is a long, long way from the next holiday. Please don’t make things more unpleasant for yourself.

I admit that I am trying to cut back on eating chocolate with every single meal and several times in between as well. Twice a day is probably sufficient. And we’re all going vegetarian for the week this week, but that is mainly because that is the food I fancy right now, after eating goodness knows how many pigs’ worth of bacon, sausage and ham over the last few weeks. My Christmas dinner contained processed pork in no less than four different forms – sausage meat stuffing, crispy bacon over the top of the turkey, sausages to accompany the turkey and pancetta with the sprouts. But the veggie food this week is about comfort rather than self-denial. On Monday I made a potato, mushroom and parmesan gratin which we had with tomato and avocado salad. Last night was big bowls of warming lentil and spinach daal. Tonight is Turkish style baked eggs, and tomorrow veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. When I’ve run out of energy and inspiration on Friday we’ll probably have pasta with some kind of tomatoey sauce containing any veg still left in the fridge. And cheese. And garlic bread.

The house looked a little bit bare after the decorations came down, so I treated myself to some fresh flowers, and decided to try a little de-cluttering.flowers Anna was off school for an inset day on Monday, so we spent the day clearing and sorting. After a successful cake sale in the autumn to raise money to help refugees, Anna’s next project (decided on by her) is to hold a jumble sale in our front garden in the spring. We’ve already filled four nappy boxes with outgrown toys and clothes and unloved books and knickknacks, and it has never been easier to persuade Anna to part with things she never plays with but develops a sudden violent affection for when I tentatively suggest they should go. Much to my delight, Anna then decided she wanted to play at being a cleaner, so I gave her a duster and off she went.

Yesterday I spent two hours doing an extremely tedious but necessary financial spring clean, which was soul-destroying at the time, but gives me a great feeling of self-satisfaction now it’s done.

I’ve also given my blog a little New Year makeover. I needed to take the Christmas theme down, and much as I love the cupcakes I had previously, it suddenly didn’t feel quite right to go back to, and I tried to find something slightly fresher and crisper – what do you think?

ancient houseFinally, although I know I won’t be saying this by March, I am rather enjoying the colder weather for now. It’s still not really cold for January, but at least I can now justify one of the snuggly cashmere cardis I smugly purchased in the spring sales and which have been sitting, loved but unneeded, in my drawer ever since. Walking through Walthamstow Village this morning also reminded me just how beautiful January can be. Just as long as you don’t try to give up chocolate!

Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent: Christmas

xmas cakeWell, I had to end with Christmas, didn’t I? Regular readers of this blog and my Advent posts in particular will probably have picked up that I absolutely adore Christmas. I don’t want anything Christmassy to intrude until December because I feel it spoils it, but from 1 December, bring it on. I love the carols, the candles, the cooking, the eating, the choosing gifts and receiving them, the little family rituals, the cheesy Christmas tunes, Anna’s palpable excitement (which is about to shoot off the scale). Everything.

I also love the message of Christmas. I blogged before about my ambivalent relationship with Christianity, but equally how can I not warm to the message of Peace on Earth? One of my absolute favourite carols is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and I can’t hear it without crying. Partly because it was my Nanna’s favourite and so reminds me of her, and partly because of the verse

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Somehow Christmas brings alive the possibility that we might hush our noise and listen to the angel song. There is so much redolent symbolism. Stars and candles giving light, angels giving messages of peace and love, the evergreens with which we decorate our home reminding us even though the days are the shortest and darkest new life will return.

I love spending time with family and friends. Of course that isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to Christmas. But life can get so busy that it’s great when Christmas forces us to pause and take time away from work and day to day responsibilities and worries. In fact, Christmas brings together almost everything that makes me happy which I’ve blogged about this Advent. Family, friends, husband, daughters, food, home, baking are all crucial to making my Christmas special.

Thank you for reading my blog this Advent. I’ve been so touched by all your comments and the positive feedback I’ve had. I’ll be back after Christmas, but in the meantime I and going to turn on the TV for Carols From Kings, and wish you and your families a very happy Christmas however you are celebrating.

Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.

Twenty-first Day of Advent: London

I have debated whether to include London in this series. Not because I doubt it makes me happy, but because I have blogged about my love for it extensively before. However, we took the girls into the West End this evening to see the Christmas lights, and that decided me. oxford st

My wonderful, crazy, busy, crowded, chaotic, exciting, vibrant, lively, lovely city makes me too happy not to earn its place. We’re so lucky to be a 20 minute tube away from the heart of it. Husband is off work now, so I left him in charge of the children and I went into town a bit earlier, so I could give blood. A combination of that not taking as long as I expected, and Sophia’s nap at home being longer than usual meant that I ended up having an hour to kill before the rest of my family joined me.

It was very strange. The office where I used to work is on the next block to the Donor Centre, and so this is very much my old stamping ground, but it has changed so much. The cafes I used to frequent have mostly changed, but I had fun doing a little window shopping and then having an indulgent Cioccolata Fiorentina in Carluccio’s whilst re-reading Katie Fforde’s feel-good novel The Rose Revived which is a pre-Christmas must for me. carnaby street

When the others arrived we wandered through the streets of Mayfair, admiring the magical fairyland lights and gazing in awe at the window displays of shops too posh for us to think of even walking into. I saw a pair of pretty, delicate diamond and emerald ear-rings in one Bond Street jewellers, and although they were a mere snip at £6995,00, husband did not respond particularly positively to my suggestion that they’d be a nice little extra stocking filler. We looped back up Carnaby Street – one of my favourite streets in Central London, and always with amazing Christmas lights, and finished up by having spelt flat breads topped with all sorts of delicious things at Flat Planet. This place is a family favourite of ours, and it was the first time we’d taken Sophia since she started on proper food;  happily she seemed to enjoy it as much as we did. And I have a triple chocolate Ben’s cookie in a bag, just waiting for me to devour very shortly. I might even have a Bailey’s with it – after all, it is Christmas!