January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
After much deliberation, I have decided to leave this digital home for a new nest. From now on you can find Mrs M’s musings and experiments at Mrs M’s Curiosity Cabinet.
Thank you to everybody who has followed my antics here, whether an occasional reader or a regular visitor. Thanks also for leaving comments, starting discussions, challenging my ideas… I hope you will continue to follow my adventures in curiosity at the new home.
Please pop over to the new page for my thinking behind my new haunt, and sign up for regular updates. There are various technical options to keep track of my wanderings, so I hope you will find one that suits you.
This site will stay active for some time but all past posts (and your lovely comments) have moved too so the whole anthology will stay together.
December 31, 2014 § 13 Comments
It’s true: time really does seem to move faster the older you get. It seems like only five minutes ago that I was readying myself for 2014 and now 2015 is upon us.
As I survey the past twelve months, it feels like it has been an important year, maybe even a turning point. There were precious few major upheavals and no once-in-a-lifetime adventures but amongst the seemingly ordinary ebb and flow of daily life, I spot significant milestones, the confluence of experience, skills and ideas, appropriate endings and exciting beginnings.
The year started with a new job, one I resigned from before the first quarter was out. To the Mrs M of five years ago, this would have seemed like madness. I would have stuck with it for eighteen months or a year as that would have been the ‘sensible’ thing to do or it would have looked okay on the CV. But to me, quitting a job that made my heart sink within a month of starting felt utterly right. By resigning I was putting myself first rather than perpetuating old, destructive habits of putting an employer’s, organisation’s and clients’ wishes ahead of what was good for me. It, of course, also meant I had to trust in my value and potential and that too felt like a major breakthrough.
If 2014 started with working out what I most definitely didn’t want, most of the year revolved around pursuing and nurturing the treasures I do want in my life: the relationships, skills, soul food,… In a nutshell, 2014 was the year:
- I became an auntie, a doting and eccentric one just as I have always wanted to be. Whilst my niece’s arrival has not triggered any desire to have children of my own, I am smitten with her. I am also enjoying getting to know my siblings in their guise of parent, uncle and aunt and love having carte blanche to spend a lot of time in the children’s section of bookshops;
- I learnt one of the oldest crafts known to man, pottery. To my delight, and slight amazement, I not only discovered I love this most traditional of skills, but that despite my arthritic hands, I am quite good at drawing vessels out of clay. Don’t even get me started on my fascination with the chemistry of glazes…;
- I started to pitch my writing for publication, resulting in a feature article in print, mentioned in passing here, and more glowingly here and here by a couple of lovely bloggers. (Note to self: I must increase self-promotion efforts in 2015, no matter how icky it feels). I also, in an “oh-sod-it” moment, decided to turn an idea into a book proposal and have started to submit it for consideration. Having written one book proposal, ideas for others are already bubbling away in my brain;
- I shared many a conversations with like-minded souls, both online and off, who like me are trying to make sense of our relationship with each other and the material world and the contradiction of abundance and impoverishment in our society. Some discussions reassured me I was not going quietly mad on my own and fed a sense of solidarity and collective effort. Others led to encounters when I happened to be in the same city, like a delightful evening in Edinburgh with The Inelegant Horserider just days before the Scottish Referendum, or to the exchange of tips on cooking, growing, dyeing, sewing… with curious souls from the US to Sweden;
- I embraced knitting small items. Constrained by clothes rationing and arthritis on the one hand and spurred on by the arrival of my niece, the constructive defiance in a post about knitting your own hand towels and a thoroughly generous gift of yarn on the other, I focussed on small pieces in 2014: baby clothes, flannels, socks, mittens…; and
- I stopped fighting my body, even if this meant letting go of longstanding habits that were interwoven with my identity (e.g. the heat seeking tea addict) and of social expectations (goodbye vino and hair dye!), or embracing the eccentricity of writing or playing the violin in fingerless mittens (like some character from Austen or Dickens who has fallen on hard times). Turning 40 may have given me the confidence to care (even) less about norms and conventions than before but deciding to direct my time, finite energy and physical strength to those things that are truly meaningful to me is intrinsically tied up with my interest in sustainability.
In a similar vein, 2014 was the year I took creating what I wish existed to a new level, prompting me to ‘pounce’ on chance remarks made by likeminded individuals with the suggestion we turn this ‘thinking aloud’ into reality. Sowing such ideas is much like sowing seeds. Some fall on rocky ground, some drift off with the wind, some fall prey to the weeds of busy lives… Occasionally, though, one falls into fertile soil and with the right gardeners to tend it, the seed takes root, not necessarily into the seedling we expect but into something beautiful with the potential to nourish those who enjoy its fruit. I am currently fertilising and training just such a seedling together with Wendy (of Roof Top Veg Plot), a fellow writer, gardener and thinker, so keep your eyes out for an exciting new venture in 2015, one based around words, ideas and nurturing!
December 23, 2014 § 2 Comments
Apparently it was Panic Saturday last weekend. I’m not sure who thinks up these names. Is it the media desperate for a headline or retailers eager to persuade us to spend more before stores close for a whole 24 hours over Christmas? Needless to say, there was not a hint of panic in my dealings on Saturday.
As we are blessed with excellent independent shops in Greenwich, Mr M and I strolled out to do our normal weekend grocery shopping. The queues outside the butcher were a little longer than normal but perfectly calm. The cheesemonger and grocery shop were doing brisk trade, as usual, but not so brisk that there wasn’t time to taste a new variety of cheese or exchange a little banter with Jason in the greengrocer’s. After completing most of our shopping we briefly stopped in the Co-op to stock up on olive oil, toilet roll & aluminium foil for the ‘duration’ before wandering home calmly.
The rest of the day I busied myself in a relaxed fashion with some food preparation, correspondence and a spot of knitting.
Serene in the kitchen
There is no denying that Christmas is only a few days away. As we are not entertaining any children over Christmas, we probably have an easier ride than most. There are a few traditional dishes and special treats but we don’t go over the top on the food front. I draw up a balanced menu for the Christmas week, just as I do any other week of the year, spreading out not only the meat, fish and vegetarian meals but also the rich dishes and sweet treats.
On Saturday, whilst others were panicking in retail venues, I rustled up some adult candied peel, as well as my normal weekend loaf and a batch of cinnamon biscuits. Making candied peel is very simple: it involves citrus peel, in my case orange peel, and a sugar syrup.
Accounts of the water to sugar to peel ratio vary widely as does the drying times. The lovely Lucy of Food, wine and other pleasures makes a particularly luscious version but it takes days to dry. As my tooth is not so sweet, I opt for less sugar (roughly equal parts sugar to peel) and less liquid. The result is a touch of sweetness and a good hint of sherbet due to the fruit’s acidity, the bitterness of the pith and the generous dash of Cointreau. Using less syrup means the candied peel is dry in about 36 hours and ready to dip in dark chocolate.
It may be time for a little Christmas indulgence but that’s no excuse for wastefulness. I therefore juiced the oranges before peeling them and boiled the juice up with the orange pith, the squeezed flesh and a couple of pints of water (including the liquid left over from boiling the orange peel) into a light orange juice. This became the basis for one of Mr M’s favourite desserts: orange & Cointreau jelly*. As pith is naturally high in pectin, my thriftiness saved me about of a third of the gelatine needed when using commercial orange juice! This frugal approach also means the dessert is a little lighter and not cloyingly sweet.
Having made a start on the Christmas treats, I then settled down with a little old-school correspondence.
I have a bit of a hit-and-miss attitude to writing seasons greetings. I suppose my approach to greeting cards is pretty much like my approach to gifts. I believe in generosity – if anything the world needs more of it – and I love giving presents but I don’t really see the need to pin them to Christmas (or birthdays for that matter). Sometimes friends and family receive gifts at Christmas, sometimes on their birthday but mostly just when I spot something that I know will delight them.
So it goes with cards. I send some Christmas cards and some hand-penned letters. Not a round-robin epistle but a carefully considered letter or a note in an attractive card that isn’t necessarily seasonal. So on Saturday afternoon I got out the Basildon Bond and my calligraphy pen and enjoyed myself for a couple of hours writing letters to friends in far-flung places.
Then I turned my attention to a spot of knitting. I took a break from the various gifts I am making because there is no reason why they can’t be a New Year’s Day gift or a cheerful late January present, just as the winter hits its cold, dark post-Christmas depths. I switched the wireless on and relaxed with my cardigan project: a very simple, classic woollen cardigan using Excelana, one of my favourite British yarns. As one programme drifted into another, the left front grew. When I finally put down my knitting to start supper, I could hear the telltale sounds of rush hour: heavy traffic and urgent horns, probably from frazzled people who had braved the shops. I wondered whether their Saturday had been as enjoyable as mine…?
* Jello rather than jam to my North American readers (although I have been known to make orange & Cointreau marmalade too before now).
December 17, 2014 § 3 Comments
It has been an exhausting few months. Productive, definitely, but physically and emotionally draining. I recently submitted two key proposals; one academic and one literary. It has been thoroughly draining but something interesting happened when I finally sent off the submissions.
Kernels of ideas
Getting to the submit button involves work of course, a lot of work. Some of it is visible and obviously industrious but much is invisible, occurring only in the neurological passages of the senses and the cogs of the mind.
The first phase barely looks like work at all. There are the months of conscious living, senses permanently alert, the observing, registering and reading, the filing away of shards of information and impressions… Notebooks and archiving software come into play to some extent but mostly snippets just disappear into the complex circuitry of my mind. With time, continuous feeding and patience the data is processed. Hints of a hypothesis and hazy concepts emerge. Yes, they will require further research and refining but ideas firmly set up camp in my mind and, with them, the certainty they are worth exploring further.
At this point the conscious research starts and before long I’m surrounded by articles, newspaper snippets, book chapters… with key thoughts highlighted and ideas scribbled in the margins. Notebooks fill up with a few lines of a thought, penned hastily before it evaporates like a will-o’-the-whisp. A file appears on my hard drive with pages of disconnected passages and paragraphs that capture half-moulded opinions and hunches.
The demons circle
Before long these fragments morph into unwritten theories or ideas. At this point it is essential I start writing, not the finished product, but paragraphs that capture the essence of the idea and where it might take me. These paragraphs, which start the process of turning mental meanderings into a piece of work and form the basis of a proposal, are however some of the toughest to get down. Even if the data has percolated into a robust idea, even if I am determined to turn it into something substantial, even though I love the act of writing, fear of the blank page pops up. I know full well that once I have written the first few paragraphs, I will be away but I procrastinate by reading yet another article or checking another source.
Procrastination is completely normal. New students to published authors and almost everyone in between seem to experience it in some form. Suddenly anything and everything is more appealing than tackling that blank page: ironing Mr M’s shirts, scrubbing the bathroom, doing my tax return…
Driven by the determined idea that has implanted itself in my brain (and often an external deadline too), I finally write the first lines. The opening paragraphs of my proposal gradually take shape. Before long the sentences are flowing out and I hit the recommended word or page count in the submission guidelines, which brings me to the next big hurdle: editing the first draft.
Squaring up to the demons
If fear keeps me from the blank page, dread stalls the read-through of the rough first draft. Dread that I have written complete and utter rubbish. Dread that ideas that seemed worthy and cogent in my head have fizzled into insignificance on the page. I know from experience, from all the press releases and contracts to the blog posts and academic essays I have ever drafted, that once I start editing, I will thoroughly enjoy the process. It is one of the most annoying contradictions. Mrs M the wordsmith loves the métier of using words and syntax to refine and clarify thoughts; Mrs M the originator of ideas is petrified of revisiting the first draft!
After much cajoling and procrastination the wordsmith wins but not before the demons have landed a few punches. The second, third and however many more re-drafts are not nearly as painful. The wordsmith in me is in full flow by then but therein lies a danger too.
Revising and editing can be a tactic to avoid the next hurdle: handing the work over to somebody else. Just as I am satisfied that the draft is as good as it will ever be and I open the email or electronic form to submit it, the enemy within truly rears its ugly head. Bruised from the previous rounds but determined, it throws out all the insinuations it has been held back; it taunts me with old insecurities; and it pounces on past ghosts, memories of which still have the power to unsettle.
At this point the only thing to do is give the demons a resounding punch in the stomach and hit ‘submit’ but it takes energy and self-belief and leaves me feeling drained. However, stunned by my own boldness, I also feel oddly invigorated and am aware of a small but important window. Staring out those measly bastards gives me a shot in the arm. The pesky sods will be back before long but whilst they are still wondering what hit them, I can use the adrenaline surge to get to work on the next project, to tackle my next blank page…
Since hitting the submit button, I have started work on a few more projects that have been in the pipeline for some time. There will be some changes around here, some new ventures in 2015… and hopefully a slightly smaller, slightly weaker cohort of demons to pester me.
December 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’ve written before about how rationing forces me to distinguish between needs and wants but as the second year of my clothes rationing experiment draws to a close, I am gaining new perspectives on both.
I have not bought a skirt (or pair of trousers for that matter) in over four years. I could quite easily justify a new one. As I’ve been wearing my two staples pretty much continuously for the last few years, they will probably need replacing before too long. The denim skirt may struggle on for another year before the seams perish; my black corduroy one will hopefully last two more (if I get it relined).
Why have I not modestly splashed out on a new skirt or pair of trousers for so long? Is it due to the rationing? In a way, yes, but not in the coupon counting sense. I have not bought a new one of either as I simply haven’t seen anything that I liked enough to tempt me, so why waste coupons?
Mulling it over, I’ve realised that rationing has not necessarily dissolved the desire for certain garments but it has certainly eroded my longing for most of the currently available incarnations. In many ways, this clothing experiment has changed my baseline. Much like I have lost the taste for nuts and ice cream due to lethal allergy and a mild intolerance, the desire for many colours, shapes, fabric… has evaporated entirely.
If wants are fading, where do I stand on needs? Obviously, in its narrowest meaning, needs cover the clothes on my back and a change of clothes in the wardrobe but that extreme was never the intention of wartime rationing and neither is it mine. I’m thinking of needs in terms of enough to be pleasantly comfortable.
So how am I getting on with balancing my needs with rationing, particularly as stock starts to wear out. This year, quite a few undergarments, socks and stockings have given up the ghost as elastic has perished or darns have worn through again. More items are threatening to go the same way. The leather on my long winter boots is perilously thin; there’s the denim skirt that’s on its last legs; and my black trousers are clinging on thanks to some strategically placed iron-on fabric.
On that basis, I can definitely justify some new undies, a skirt or pair of trousers and new boots. Despite this list of ‘needs’ I have actually struggled to spend all my coupons this year, not least of all because I can’t find any staples that I like enough to consider, let alone that pass muster in terms of quality, environmental and ethical considerations.
I suspect my wartime peers did not have the luxury of being this picky about style and colour due the level of shortages and the likelihood of the coupon allowance being slashed in subsequent years – by 1945 resources were so short that it had shrunk to a paltry 24 coupons! With such constraints, I imagine people thought of all purchases as essential stock (rather than in terms of needs or wants), stocking up when they could and making do with colours and shapes that may not have been their first choice before the war.
Although I am still fussy about the shape and colours of my outerwear (even though it really should not be a problem to find a classic pair of side-zipped wide legged black trousers!), I too increasingly regard clothes shopping as sensible acts of stock replenishment, with a bit of frivolity once in a blue moon. Quite a healthy view and a very satisfactory outcome from two years of rationing!
This ‘information’ film is unconnected to this post but I’m quite amused at the lengths wartime ladies could go to make the most of one dress. I suspect the tailored cut helps!
So what have I actually spent coupons on in recent months? Restocking accounted for most of my remaining purchases: undies (4 coupons), leggings that function as tights (2 coupons), cosy homemade socks (1 coupon), a sensible, dark, warm cardigan (still on my knitting needles but accounting for 5 coupons).
A new scarf/shawl accounts for a further two. This is unashamedly an indulgence as I have several already but due to my chilly disposition and its warmth and ability to transform wardrobe staples, it is one I have no qualms about allowing myself.
Total coupons spent in 2014: 56.5 coupons
So with only a few more weeks of the year left, I still have 9.5 coupons, enough for a pair of trousers – should I spot those elusive classics – and a bra or a pair of boots – if I find any that I like and are comfortable -, a bra and another pair of socks.
I also managed to avoid purchases by my ongoing make do and mend efforts – or make, do and mend, as Jackie, a fellow ‘rationee’, has redubbed it. Darning the darns on two pairs of socks saved two coupons and a T-shirt from a charity shop a further five. I’m also working on a pair of multi-coloured stripey fingertip-less gloves, using up odds and ends of skeins (2 coupons). They’ll hardly be the height of elegance but they’re only intended for use around the house to keep my hands warm whilst I work on the computer.
Total coupons saved by making, doing and mending: 22.5 coupons
November 28, 2014 § 7 Comments
Today is Black Friday… an American retail term that has in recent years arrived in Britain. From what I understand, US retailers typically offer discounts on the day after Thanksgiving to encourage a flurry of spending and many British shops have started to follow suit. This time last year Make Something Month was launched as an antidote to mindless buying and as a way of encouraging us to fall in love with things in a more meaningful way.
As a seasoned maker I embraced the idea wholeheartedly, even after Christmas had been and gone.
The experience & know-how armoury
Making things, whether it’s growing vegetables, preserving fruit, baking bread, knitting woollies, throwing pots or just turning scavenged woods into a cold frame is inherently satisfying. Yes, it may involve a little effort and dexterity but it plays to my curiosity, creativity and the very human desire to understand our world.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, when we garden, bake, mould or construct…, we are more actively engaged with biology, chemistry, physics, maths or engineering than we ever were at school. Baking a cake or loaf may not seem to have much in common with the test tube experiments of my schooldays but it is a very real form of reorganising chemical elements. Nurturing the soil and plants in a few pots on the patio involves a closer observation of chemistry and biology than I was probably capable of as a teenager. And regular readers know that I consider hand-knitted socks to be a fascinating piece of engineering.
Although I may not be able to articulate what I’m experiencing in scientific formulae, the more I make, the more I understand the world, or rather the more bits of half-forgotten information suddenly make sense. I recognise patterns and discover the characteristics of different materials. Like many who regularly bake bread, hands-on experience (literally) has taught me how to tweak the ratio of water depending on the type of flour I’m using. As a gardener with a few seasons under my belt, I can tell by looking, feeling or smelling the soil or compost what types of materials I need to add to achieve a healthier, more nutritious balance. And with a little practice, even an occasional dressmaker like me knows how to adapt a pattern for different types of fabrics, much as an engineer or architect knows which materials can support which structures.
Does this type of knowledge actually matter? Arguably not in days when we can buy pretty much anything we need. However, the more insight I have into everyday processes and materials, the more capable I am of recognising quality products and avoiding wholly unnecessary goods and services. Thanks to a little hands-on experience and curiosity about how things work, I can spot when builders or plumbers are over-specifying; when marketers try to sell me three products where one, or none, would do; or where supermarkets try to scare me into disposing of produce because of random “best before” or “display until” dates.
Making skills and hands-on experience save me pennies at the very least and in many cases bring a lot of personal satisfaction, especially when I stumble upon a skill that, to my amazement, I’m better at than I could ever have imagined.
Making and generosity
Making not only makes us more savvy. It makes us more generous, a sentiment that Make Something Month plays on most beautifully. It urges us to make something for ourselves, something for a relative, something for a friend and something for a stranger or somebody we’ve never met. This last suggestion is a particularly delightful twist as it extends the generosity that is common to many makers.
Like many other bakers, growers and makers of things, I’m forever sharing weekend baking and home-made preserves with family, friends and visitors. Surplus homegrown produce, even something as simple as a bouquet of herbs, is regularly left on my neighbours’ doorsteps. And hand-knitted items are routinely bestowed on family and friends.
I enjoy both making and giving and believe that both the item given and the act of receiving touch family, friends and relations. It therefore stands to reason that making something for a stranger or somebody I’ve never or barely met, can generate this double delight too. In my experience, however, it does so much more.
It starts conversations, whether it’s a conversation between me and the recipient or a conversation between the recipient and a third party. In many cases I’ll never know the details of those conversations but I know they will ripple out and on. This type of giving also sows seeds. In a society with structures and institutions that try to reduce us to cogs in a GDP-generating machine, it suggests we might be more than consumers. In an ever-faster paced world, a handmade gift from a (near) stranger suggests we have been noticed, that we have, however fleetingly and simply, touched somebody’s life. Most importantly, it reminds us that generosity is incredibly precious and powerful.
For all these reasons making things, including something for a stranger or someone I hardly know, is a regular feature of my life and, if you haven’t tried it yet, I would encourage you to… You would be amazed at what it can unlock!
In the last few years I’ve seen lots of references to ‘gift economy’. Whilst commentators who use it have the best of intentions, the term makes me cringe and I avoid it at all cost. I am a big fan of barter as an alternative means of exchange, a different type of negotiated currency. But “gift”, like hospitality, is a much wider concept. Gifts and hospitality are the foundations of a reciprocal culture, which is much wider than a simple quid pro quo or another form of debit or credit logged in those parts of our life that are scrutinised by double-entry bookkeeping accountants. The real worth of gifts lives off the page. They build value by being spontaneous and random and taking on a momentum of their own!
November 24, 2014 § 10 Comments
A couple of months ago I made a major breakthrough with my music learning. The progress was barely discernible at the time. If anything, the turning point felt excruciatingly frustrating but a turning point it most definitely was.
I have been learning the violin on and off for years but it’s only in the last two that I really committed the time and practice I needed to tackle this challenging instrument properly. (Trust me to pick an instrument that was both keyless and fretless!) A recurring shoulder injury didn’t help matters. Neither did changing tutors several time to find one who was a good fit. The biggest blockage, however, was me.
It was not that I was reluctant to practice. If anything, I practiced too much for the snail-paced progress I was making. I grasped the physics of how to get a certain tone out of a particular finger position; I understood how I was supposed to hold the bow; and, apparently, my left wrist was unusually good for a beginner… yet something still wasn’t working.
When tutors went over music theory I was fine. My mathematical brain understood the different lengths of notes, helped by having learnt their names in a language that refers to them as fractions rather than by random names. Between my schoolgirl recorder classes and choir days I had learnt enough key signatures to know those in a beginner’s repertoire; and I could read dots on the stave well enough to know where my fingers had to go. But for all this technical understanding and theoretical knowledge I was still making painstakingly slow process.
Then one afternoon, rather despondent with how it was going, I tried something new. I took a 16-bar tune that I had been practicing for some time. I turned my back to the music stand and tried to play it from memory. It was painful and I felt… ancient! As I child I would absorb songs and poems like a sponge and regurgitate them with ease after only a couple of readings. Three and a bit decades on, with a short-term memory shot to bits from chronic sleep deprivation, it was all I could do to string two bars together. But after some frustrating bowing and finger movements, two bars became four and four became eight…
The next time I returned to the tune, my fingers sort of knew where they were going. Okay, I had to remind myself here and there but many segments had stuck. And without the brain having to process the data flow between my eyes and fingers, there seem to be more computing power to direct to relaxing my bowing hand and focus on the rhythm. Suddenly, the latter was no longer just a time signature and dots of different length but it was alive in the tune. My brain, or was it my fingers or even my body, were internalising beats and pulses.
Having noticed an improvement in this one short tune, I tried to learn another in the same way, and another and yet another… It seemed to work. Letting go of my analytical side, the one that clung to the music score for dear life, was terrifying and initially frustrating but it seemed to unlock something. It allowed me to discover patterns in another way, by hearing and feeling them.
Once I relinquished the safety blanket of sheet music a little, I started to enjoy my fiddle classes a lot more. I am getting better at learning by ear; am more able to pick up a tune again when I get lost in class; and my timing and tone have improved vastly. With my fingers internalising the patterns of the music rather than slavishly following the page, I have found I can actually reproduce songs learnt on the violin on other instruments without too much thought. I have even found myself playing short pieces in a different key so I can practice them in a way that is less offensive to the neighbours.
In trusting myself to learn the way children pick up music (or languages for that matter), I have made more progress in a couple of months than in years. And best of all, I’m enjoying playing the violin so much more now, especially in group, which is of course why I took up the instrument in the first place!