How to be good?

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What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!

On the Jumble Trail

I have always loved shopping. As a child it was a real treat to go into town with my mum on a Saturday, just the two of us while my dad and brother did ‘boy’ things. She’d treat me to a fry-up in the C&A cafe (showing my age now), or delicious cakes in our favourite little cafe on a side street. My favourite shops then, aged about ten were good ol’ C&A and Tammy Girl.

Then when I was into my teens I’d still spend Saturdays hanging out in town with my girl friends. A Spicy Bean burger and a milkshake in Burger King, and longing looks at the clothes we couldn’t afford in TopShop, River Island and Miss Selfridge, before buying a new brightly coloured nail varnish and getting the bus home.

When I had my own pay check to spend and was working in Central London I could sneak out at lunchtime or after work to browse the shops and Oxford Street, and I had the money to treat myself sometimes. I will fit into that much-beloved size 10 leather pencil skirt again one day…

After having children, actually going to the shops could be less pleasurable. Tantrums and sticky fingers and cramped (or, heaven forbid, communal) changing rooms made it more chore than pleasure. Luckily for me I became a mum in the age of internet shopping. It’s a great way to pass the time when you’re pinioned to the sofa under a breastfeeding baby, and you can try the clothes on in the privacy of your own bedroom. Preferably by candlelight for that flattering glow. I also discovered some new favourite brands for my dress-like-a-mum style – hello Boden!

yellow dressFor me, though, there is no shopping experience more pleasurable than hunting down that elusive bargain. I’ve blogged before about my fabulous local Sell or Swap group, and how much I love combining local community with the chance to acquire some lovely new treats. Yesterday was one better than that with a local Jumble Trail. Around one hundred local people put a stall outside their house, selling off their unwanted goods, and the rest of us enjoyed the very British experience of a jumble sale in the pouring rain. I took the money I’d recently made on Sell or Swap to spend, and for the grand total of about £30 managed to get Anna a huge pile of books in the Rainbow Magic series which she is obsessed with at present, a beautiful turquoise gravy jug which looks lovely on my dresser and can even be called in to service for gravy dispension as required, a yellow chiffon dress, a White Stuff skirt with a cute bright pink bird print, an Orla Kiely scarf and a stunning navy blue silk top embellished with silver sequins for me, two pretty dresses for Anna, and a gorgeous wooden rocking horse for Sophia. rocking horseOh, and some home-made cakes, of course! I was on a total high at my lovely haul of stuff, but also at the chance to catch up with local friends, and meet some more. My idea of a perfect Sunday!

Fourth Day of Advent: The little things

My first few posts in this series have been about really big things. My husband and daughters are obviously the foundation of all my happiness, and, I would argue, the NHS is a foundation stone of the nation’s. Generally speaking I think that experiences and people make me happier than things and possessions, and I suspect that these Advent posts will reflect that. On a day to day basis, though, there are lots of little things, which are only things, but which make me smile, or give me a happy glow each time I see them.

A few years ago my friend bought me a set of Cath Kidston tea-cups for my birthday. I love them. They sit on the dresser in my dining room looking beautiful, and they’re the perfect size for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate. So it would be rude not to indulge really.cup

I have a necklace, just a simple silver heart on a chain, which my husband bought me for my 25th birthday. I wear it a lot because it seems to go with everything and because it makes me feel loved and special.

The free beauty magazine Boots produce every couple of months, makes me happy. As does the free Waitrose food magazine and those nice little recipe cards you often get in supermarkets. They make me especially happy once I’ve filed them away in my special recipe folder. I know, I’m a geek.

For me the very first stage of preparing for Christmas is getting my Nigella Christmas cookery book down off the shelf, and starting to plan menus for all our various festive get togethers. This year was even better as my Christmas organiser, a present last Christmas, also got it’s first outing. I know, I’m a geek.

candleI had a mini shopping trip around Walthamstow this morning, buying Christmas cards and a few other little stocking filler bits and pieces, and, a real treat for me – my Christmas scented candle. In life before children I lit candles a lot. I find them beautiful and romantic and fascinating just to gaze at. We ate dinner by candlelight most evenings and I loved nothing more than soaking in a candlelit bath for hours on end. Somehow there hasn’t seemed to be as much time for that over the last few years, to say nothing of the obvious risks of having candles anywhere near little fingers. I still have candles in my bathroom, but generally the closest I get to using them is giving them an ineffectual swipe with a damp cloth every few weeks (months) to remove the dust which has built up. I’m also fussy. Cheap scented candles never smell anything but artificial to me, and always remind me of toilet cleaner. I do know I’m weird about smells – I’m almost phobic about those warm wet wipes you get in Chinese restaurants or on aeroplanes because I find the fake citrus scent so upsetting. Which my husband thinks is hilarious. Rather than have a cheap candle I’d much rather put a simple tea-light in my oil burner with a few drops of lavender or bergamot essential oil. But luxury, high-end, organic, frankly pricey, scented candles are another matter. I only let myself buy one a year, at the beginning of December, and then I light it every evening, and often during the day if we have guests. I always choose something that feels seasonal – this year I’ve gone for orange and clove. It’s in pride of place on the mantlepiece, and I’m really looking forward to lighting it for the first time this evening.

All little things, but ones which I appreciate every time I use them or wear them or see them, and add their little bit to my daily happiness.

 

Yellow Shoes and Happiness

Today is one of the coldest, wettest, rainiest, windiest days in May I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. My garden path this morning looked exactly as it does in autumn – almost impassable with slippery wet leaves. The difference is that today they were green not brown.

Anna had an eagerly anticipated school trip – a visit to the local fire station, with a picnic lunch in the park en route. She set off cheerfully enough with her exactingly specified packed lunch (can you buy cheese and onion hula hoops, please Mummy, and can I have tomatoes sliced in my cheese sandwich but also separate cherry tomatoes as well?), but I seriously hope that the teachers had a wet weather contingency plan or there will be thirty very soggy Reception children to collect later. I am disproportionately annoyed with the weather for spoiling their treat, and am very much hoping that the chance to explore a fire station makes up for a ruined picnic.

The cattens are coming in soaked and shivering from the garden and leaving little muddy paw prints over everything, and the wetter they are, seemingly the more voracious their desire to leap onto my lap and be cuddled.

With all this wet weather misery, I could feel my spirits sinking, and decided that retail therapy was the only answer. I pottered down to the local shopping centre, dry enough under my voluminous raincoat hood, but decidedly unglamourous and with severely restricted side vision. Then I got my first little victory of the day. Boots were selling Cadbury’s Mini Eggs! This is a bit of a lifesaver for me, because in a weak, hormonally induced fit of chocolate craving a couple of weeks ago I ate Anna’s Mini Eggs. I thought, amongst the plethora of Easter goodies, she might not notice the absence of one little tube. How naïve of me. I promised to replace them, but then was confounded by the total absence of Easter confectionary from all the shops. I’m sure that previously crème eggs and mini eggs have had almost year-round availability, but suddenly, less than a week after Easter they’d all vanished. Every time Anna asked about them I had to prevaricate, and I was getting increasingly panic-stricken, wondering how many Smarties I would have to buy to make up for it. But then, suddenly Boots was my saviour. I bought a replacement tube for Anna, and a spare one (already consumed) for myself. Now all I have to do is resist eating those…

As well as mini eggs, I also treated myself to some Sanctuary body lotion – I’m assuming that at some point over the next few months the weather might be such that I’m willing to shed some of my myriad layers and expose bare flesh. Just in case that doesn’t happen, though, I also bought two pairs of black leggings, so with those and my trusty cardies, maybe a scarf or two, and perhaps my wellies, I can and will start wearing summer dresses even if the weather doesn’t improve.

yellow sandalMy final purchase, though, really was a triumph of hope and optimism. I bought some yellow sandals! The thing is, yellow is one of my absolute favourite colours, but I have pale skin and fair hair, and it really does me no favours at all. My husband isn’t too keen on incorporating a lot of yellow into our interior décor, although I’ve snuck a bit into Anna’s room, so I’ve always felt deprived of yellow in my life. Having a daughter who has inherited her father’s warm olive skin and dark eyes, therefore looking gorgeous in sunshine shades, has helped a little bit, but I still lacked any yellow of my very own.

I spotted these sandals in Clarks a few weeks ago, and have been mulling the purchase over. The pros were that they looked comfortable, and not too high, but did have a definite heel. My days of 3 or 4 inch stillettos definitely ended with the thin blue line on the pregnancy test nearly 6 years ago. Summer shoes now are generally Birkenstocks, ballet pumps or Converse, but last summer I did slightly crave a shoe which could look a little dressed up on the odd occasion I go out for dinner, but which I can still manage to walk in. I was a little concerned, though, that yellow shoes, however desirable wouldn’t actually go with anything.

However, after several weeks of thinking it over, I noticed today that they were £10 off, and available in my size, so I just went for it. And am pleased to report, after a morning of extensive research, that they go with lots of stuff. And, did I mention? They’re YELLOW!

So I defiantly spit in the face of rain and wind. I have yellow sandals, and mini eggs and I’m happy!

Back to my roots

Liverpool SkylineHome is where the heart is, so they say, and as my husband and daughter live with me in London then that is undoubtedly my home. London is my home by inclination as well, and the things which a lot of non-Londoners dislike about the city – noise, busyness, number of people – are lifeblood to me. Although I wouldn’t mind slightly cheaper houses. However, I’m a Scouser by birth, and not a Londoner, and my parents and several close friends still live in Liverpool, which means that a small piece of my home, and therefore heart, remain in the amazing city I was born and spent 18 years in.

I’m writing this post at my parents’ dining table, shortly before going to the station to catch my train back down South. I’ve just had an amazing few days catching up with the people I love up here, and am feeling rather sad at the prospect of leaving. Although also looking forward to seeing my husband, who didn’t come up this time, and to seeing how the mice have been getting on in my absence. Probably started legal proceedings to claim squatters’ rights.

The overwhelming thing which always strikes me when I’m back in Liverpool is the friendliness and warmth of the people. I was in the Liverpool branch of Cath Kidston yesterday, buying a laptop sleeve, if you’re interested. In the few seconds it took to process my credit card payment, I’d exchanged life histories with the girl on the till. She was genuinely excited about the fact that I’m about to have a book published; I was interested to hear about her ambitions to move to London and study art. In my experience that level of easy friendliness with strangers is very uncommon in London, and I didn’t find it particularly prevalent in Oxford or Birmingham in the three years I spent living in each of those cities respectively. Slightly subjective analysis, and rather limited scope for a truly scientific study, but I’m going to ignore that and press ahead with my conclusion that there is something particularly special about Liverpool.

Anna and I have both been spoilt to death by my parents – lie-ins, roast dinners, homemade cake (me), endless stories, new books and clothes, lots of loving attention (her); and the free babysitting on tap which enabled me to have a fabulous day catching up with friends.

N, with whom I’ve been friends since we met at nursery aged 3, lives in New Brighton now, so I had a lovely trip to the seaside in the almost-Spring sunshine for lunch, some girly pampering (my third ever manicure!) and a lot of chat. New Brighton has changed a lot since my nanna used to take me there as a little girl – still amazing sweeping views over the Mersey estuary back towards Liverpool, but now a whole pile of trendy bars and restaurants to go with it. The guy who did my nails was making me rather jealous by describing how he walks his dogs for miles along the beach every morning – the one thing which challenges my commitment to London living is the temptation of living by the sea.

I then hopped on the train back to Liverpool city centre and did a little light shopping in the brilliant Liverpool One with my birthday vouchers. I love Liverpool One as it combines indoor and outdoor, shops and leisure opportunities, the new space with the old, far more effectively than most modern shopping centres, meaning that it feels like a real living space, rather than a soulless temple to the gods of retail, and has enhanced Liverpool city centre, rather than detracting from it. Coincidentally, my ex-next-door-neighbour in London was part of the team of architects which designed it.

I then got the bus down to a little neighbourhood Italian, Santino, on Smithdown Road (not far from Penny Lane, for those whose geographical knowledge of Liverpool is mainly influenced by the Beatles), and met J, J and L – friends from secondary school, which scarily means that we’ve known each other for over 2 decades now. I don’t see them very often, but there’s a lovely relaxed familiarity with people you’ve known for so long, and we had a really fun evening. Although I did get into trouble with the chef for being unable to finish my huge portion of delicious linguine ai gamberi.

And then, in a further hark back to my schooldays, my dad picked me up, and as I went home and to bed, awash with sentiment and Pinot Grigio, I pondered a little on the emotional difficulties, but also the privileges, in having two cities I call home.