A little effort goes a long way

I had to go to a meeting at work the other day. My job doesn’t usually involve attending meetings very often. But this particular one is held three times a year and I go along to take the minutes.

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The subject matter is very technical and complicated and although I feel as if I’m following the discussion at the time, when I come to write up the minutes later, it becomes blatantly clear to me that I don’t even have a basic understanding of the subject. It’s not my normal, everyday line of work. It’s a job that I inherited from one of my previous bosses. I’m not even sure now quite how or why she got involved in it but when she left, the job fell to me and I’ve been doing it ever since.

As I was getting ready for the day, I found myself thinking that I’d make a bit more effort than usual. I don’t know why really – it’s not as if I needed to impress anyone or as if it would make even the slightest difference to my ability to understand the subject! I think it was more about preparing mentally and psychologically for the day ahead. So I took a little more time chosing what I’d wear and how to accessorize – picking a ring and necklace in the same colour and took a little more time with my makeup. And it felt good. I’m sure I left the house standing a little taller and straighter and ready to face the day. And it made me realise that the effect of making even a small effort can go a long way.

I read somewhere years ago that Susannah Constantine (of Trinny and Susannah) said that it’s all the more important to make an effort on the days when you don’t feel so great about facing the day ahead. And I’d definitely agree based on the way I felt on the morning of the meeting.

It’s very easy to slip into routines and find ourselves doing things the same way all the time.  I’m sure the vast majority of us fall into these habitual routines – with the clothes and accessories we wear, the food we buy and meals we prepare, the way we carry out certain tasks – whether that’s at work or at home, and even down to the effort we put into communicating with other people.  I don’t believe it’s necessarily a case of being lazy. Sometimes it’s easier to do things the way we’re used to doing them because it requires less thought and is easier to fit into our busy life. And really if you know that doing something a certain way works – then why not carry on doing it?

But I think there’s also an element of keeping within our personal comfort zones at play here. People usually associate the concept of stepping out of their comfort zone with taking big, scary steps. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Even doing small things in a different way gives you a different perspective and can give you a boost of vitality – even confidence. Something as simple as wearing a piece of jewellery to work that you normally only wear at weekends or when you go out, can make you feel different. It can feel almost the same as the boost you get from wearing or using something new that you’ve just bought or been given.

Routine and habits are not necessarily bad things – in fact, in many ways they can provide structure to our lives. But equally I think it’s good to mix things up a little from time to time and to be wary of allowing too many areas of our lives to get stuck in a rut. Little changes – or little efforts – can go a long way to keeping things interesting.

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There’s something in the air

There’s a definite sense of spring being just around the corner. The snowdrops in my front garden burst into life a few weeks ago and the crocuses joined them shortly afterwards.  When they first started to flower, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of wonder. Not that I’ve never seen snowdrops or crocuses before or even that I’ve never had spring flowers in my garden before. But just something about the renewal of life in spring, the constant cycle of the seasons. The fact that nature never forgets to regenerate and come back to life after its winter rest.

And now the daffodils are out as well and delicate, pretty pink and white blossom is appearing on trees everywhere.

The days are getting noticeably longer. It’s no longer dark when I get up in the morning and we’re almost, almost at the point in the year when it’s still just about daylight when I put my key in the front door when I get home from work. And I’ve woken to the sound of the dawn chorus on a couple of mornings.

Over the past few weeks my thoughts have been turning to spring cleaning. It somehow feels like the right thing to do and makes me wonder if maybe the old cliche is actually more of a human – even an animal – instinct.

Over Christmas – which does seem ages ago now – I re-read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying. At first I felt a little disappointed in myself and slightly ashamed that I needed to read the book again. I had thought that having read it a year ago and having done some de-cluttering, that would be the end of it and that I’d never need to de-clutter again. But I was encouraged to read Marie Kondo herself commenting on Instagram a week or so ago about the difference in people’s reactions when they read her book for the second time compared to their first time. So it seems that I’m not alone!! And if I’m honest – I know that I didn’t completely de-clutter my home last year so the job hasn’t really been completed.

But most of the spaces that I tidied and organised last year have stayed that way and I have to say that a lot of them do make me smile when I see them. Using small boxes, lids, even small jars and pots to organise the contents of a drawer definitely works – it’s a great way to stop things becoming a tangled mess! and makes it much easier to see what’s in there and find what you’re looking for.

So my partial success is spurring me on and I’d say that I have more faith and confidence than I had a year ago that it works and also that it is sustainable.

Yes – there’s definitely something in the air. A sense of new life, a sense of fresh beginnings. And for me there’s a feeling of renewed energy and enthusiasm to clear my home of some more of the things I’ve been holding onto for too long in an attempt to take another step closer to creating a simpler and less cluttered life.

Quick dinners for dreary days

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On the days that I work, I don’t usually get home until around 6.30pm.  By then I’m starting to feel hungry so a dinner that’s going to be quick and easy to prepare always gets my vote – and especially so now that the evenings are colder and darker.

One of my go-to recipes for nights like this is a one-pan, stir-fry style dinner. It’s an amazingly, endlessly versatile recipe that makes use of whatever I’ve got – whether that’s fresh ingredients or something left over from a previous dinner. In fact – it is invariably a combination fresh and leftover ingredients.

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My usual starting point is to get my frying pan out and on the hob. You could use a wok if you prefer. I then add a little oil to the pan – sunflower, olive, rapeseed or coconut and let this heat through. Coconut oil works particularly well with potatoes so if I’ve got leftover potatoes to use up, I’ll normally use coconut oil. The next ingredient to go in is usually some chopped or sliced onion and maybe some garlic. And from there – the ingredients will be whatever I’ve got to hand.

This could be leftover poultry, meat or fish, leftover grains – such as rice, quinoa, bulgar wheat, leftover cooked vegetables – carrots, green beans, potatoes, pre-cooked pulses such as lentils, chickpeas or beans.

In terms of fresh ingredients – it’s best to use things that will cook fairly quickly such as leeks, peppers, shredded leafy greens and so on. If you have root vegetables – these are best cut into very fine julienne strips or spiralised so that they cook in around the same time as the other ingredients. You can also use a vegetable peeler to make thin shavings of root vegetables. I would normally add these to the pan immediately after the onions to give them a little longer to cook.

As a general rule – add the ingredients that will take the longest to cook first and those that just require re-heating later.  If you’re adding any green leaves that are a little more delicate, such as rocket, spinach or chard – these can be added towards the end so that they just wilt rather than being cooked to oblivion! Even if you only have a small quantity of something, it’s worth throwing in. And at least that way it doesn’t go to waste.

Add seasoning to the ingredients and gently stir everything to make sure that it all gets cooked evenly. It should be ready in about 10 or 15 minutes. Very often I sprinkle some seeds into the mixture a minute or two before it’s all cooked.

You can also add a couple of eggs to the recipe. When the other ingredients are almost cooked and don’t need to be stirred around any more, use a wooden spoon to create a space or two and tip the eggs into the space/s to cook. I find that adding a lid to my pan helps the eggs cook through more quickly.

I’d say I cook my dinner using a variation on this theme at least once every week – the possible combinations are pretty much endless. And it seems that it doesn’t really matter what I put into it – it always turns out tasting good.

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If you missed my previous post about a quick and easy pasta recipe, here is a link to it. Hopefully you’ll find some inspiration in one or both of these posts for some quick, easy and healthy dinners!

The power of the drishti point

Those of you who practice yoga will, undoubtedly, have come across what is referred to as the ‘drishti’. It means the gaze point – where or what you should be focussing your eyes on in any given yoga posture. For example – in Trikonasana or triangle pose – your gaze should be towards your raised hand. Whilst in Paschimottanasana, the seated forward fold, it should be towards your toes. In other postures, it can be towards your navel or to the left or to the right. And in some postures – such as Navasana (boat pose) and Padmasana (lotus pose) it is the nose – which can be a little tricky to master without going cross-eyed!

In reality – gazing at your nose is more easily achieved by focussing on a point somewhere just in front of your nose. Inevitably, in order to achieve this, a softer, almost unfocussed gaze has to be used. And whilst the nose drishti may be one of the trickier ones to grasp, I believe it teaches us how to adopt a softer gaze – which is, after all, what we should employ with all drishti points, rather than a hard, determined stare or glare.

navasana

The purpose of using drishti points at all is more about giving you somewhere to point your eyes whilst discouraging you from looking at objects and/or other people around you. It is human nature, after all – or maybe it’s just our modern day conditioning – to spark thoughts about what we observe. And whatever those thoughts may be, whether it’s ‘that window over there needs cleaning’ or ‘I like that pink top that Anne is wearing. I wonder where she got it’ or ‘wow Alan’s back looks really flat in his forward bend’ – they are all distractions from what we are supposed to be doing on our yoga mats – which is, of course, to be practicing yoga!  And a degree of withdrawing our senses and focussing on ourselves and the moment we are in are all part of yoga.

One of my yoga colleagues seems to have perfected the art of unfocussed gazing. On several occasions I’ve tried to catch her eye either to mouth a ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ during self practice sessions – but have been unable to!  Her gaze is obviously so unfocussed but at the same time so steady that she is oblivious to most of what’s going on around her. Now that helps me to understand how yoga can become a meditative practice…

Although probably every yoga teacher I’ve ever had has talked about drishti points and I would have said that I understand them, I have a feeling that my understanding and ability to implement them is about to go to another level. I’ve been making a conscious effort over the past few weeks not to look around me during yoga practices. It’s actually made me realise how much I do look around me – even if only surrepticiously sneaking a look at the person on the mat next to me. But what I’ve also noticed is that it does make my practice somehow feel more contained, almost more personal. So I intend to keep on doing it and see where it can take my practice – and me.

trikonasana

This all got me thinking about how often we all compare ourselves to others in our everyday lives. How we make observations and, I’m sure, often then jump to an incorrect conclusion about other people and their lives. I think it’s quite easy to convince yourselves that everyone else has more than we do, is more talented than we are, is happier than we are… When in reality – most of these thoughts are almost certainly fabrications of our own minds.

I’m not suggesting that we should try to become solitary islands and stop taking inspiration and ideas from other people but I do wonder if many of us could learn a lot about ourselves and maybe feel deeper levels of contentment if we made a little effort to focus on what we already have and what we can already do rather than constantly comparing ourselves to others, which so often leaves us feeling lacking and inadequate.

As autumn arrives

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Autumn has very definitely arrived in the UK. There’s a slight chill in the air in the mornings and the nights are noticeably starting to draw in. There are conkers on the ground and bunches of bright rowan berries and rosehips everywhere. And even on sunny mornings – it doesn’t feel the same as a summer’s day. There’s a sense of summer receeding and of a cooler, quieter period of rest approaching.

My birthday is towards the end of August and I always take time off work around then. It’s almost a self-imposed rule that I don’t work on my birthday. I sometimes wonder whether this stems from school days when my birthday always fell during the summer holidays so I was never at school on my birthday. And I’ve carried it on into adulthood and working life.  This means that I generally find myself going back to work at the beginning of September having had a week or so off. Quite often this feels reminiscent of  going back to school at the beginning of a new school year.

And with it comes a feeling of settling back down into routine and thinking ahead to challenges and projects over the coming months.

The autumn is a good time to consolidate what has happened so far in the year. A time to bring things to a conclusion before settling down for a time of rest and dormancy during the winter. It’s a good time to start thinking about closing down the year, finishing things and tying up any lose ends.

But the approach of winter isn’t all doom and gloom – after all there are some fabulous foods to be harvested and enjoyed during these months. Autumn always makes me think of fruit crumbles – and in particular apple and blackberry crumble. I made one a few days ago and thought I’d share my recipe. The topping isn’t a traditional crumble topping – it’s more of a granola. I think it works quite well as it retains some crunch on top whilst softening slightly underneath where the granola comes into contact with the fruit.

So here is my recipe which will serve 4:

650g fruit  – I used one Bramley apple, one Braeburn apple and 225g blackberries

Sweetener  – such as honey, agarve syrup, date syrup

100g oats

50g seeds  – you can use just one type of seed if you wish or a mixture

100g nuts  – again a mixture of different nuts works well although Brazil nuts tend to be a little too earthy tasting so probably best avoided

25g butter or coconut oil

Spices such as cinnamon, ground ginger or even a little cacao powder

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Heat the oven to 160 degrees C.

Prepare the fruit and chop into pieces. Put the fuit into an ovenproof dish with a couple of tablespoons of water and a couple of tablespoons of your chosen sweetener. You could, of course, use sugar if you prefer. Add some spices to the fruit if you wish – apple and cinnamon always work well together. Put the dish into the oven for 10 minutes to soften the fruit.

To make the topping – break the nuts into small pieces. I do this by putting them into a plastic bag and gently bashing with a rolling pin. Mix the nuts, seeds and oats together in a bowl. Melt the butter or coconut oil and add to the dry ingredients together with a couple of tablespoons of your chosen sweetener and any spices you’d like. If you’ve already added spices to the fruit, be careful not to add too much more to the topping mix. A little cacao powder added to the topping is rather nice!  Mix all the topping ingredients together and spread onto a baking sheet or shallow dish. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes. If you prepare the fruit and topping first, you can cook them at the same time – although separately.

After 10 minutes, stir the topping around a little and add it to the top of the fruit. Return the dish to the oven and cook for a further 10 to 15 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the topping has browned a little.

Enjoy your crumble either hot or warm with custard, cream or yogurt.  And if there’s any left over, you can eat it cold for breakfast the next day with some yogurt.

 

Remembering 9/11

It’s 11 September today. It’s 15 years since that 11 September. The one that I’m sure virtually everyone in the world refers to as 9/11 – whether they’re American or not.

And like millions of other people – I have a crystal-clear snapshot memory of where I was and what happened as the news unfolded. I was working in Letchworth and sharing an office with two younger lads. One of them came back from his lunchbreak at around 2pm and said that he’d just heard on the car radio that there’d been a plane crash and the plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My other colleague jumped onto the internet and within seconds we were watching the news coverage. I don’t think much work got done that afternoon. And the afternoon seemed endless. I remember having an overwhelming desire to be at home with my daughter.

I also remember being in the office within a day or so of 9/11, looking out of the window and seeing a plane in the sky. I was fairly certain it wasn’t heading straight for my office building but I couldn’t help imagining the fear and horror that I would feel if I thought it was.

And going back many years before 2001, I can remember when I was a teenager and first reading about the atom bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima. I experienced a similar feeling of devastation and a sickening realisation that something irreversible had happened and that the world could never be the same again.

The difference with 9/11 is that it was during my lifetime. I have very clear memories of this defining moment in history as it happened.

Just the mention of the date sends a chill through my body and I feel a profound sense of sadness. I have a similar reaction if someone says 15 January or if I see it written – I have a feeling of being stopped in my tracks. This was the date my Dad died and although it’s quite a few years ago now, it’s as if just the mention of the date has some kind of power over me.

And then there are the happy dates – like my birthday, my daughter’s birthday, other birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas. The dates that invoke a feeling of celebration, of love and of happiness.

Good enough is good enough

I was first introduced to the concept of good enough being good enough many years ago, in the early 1990’s when I was a single parent with a young child. I came across a course/group called Parentlink. It was aimed at all parents – not just single parents and the idea behind it was that being a parent is probably the most difficult thing that any of us will ever do and yet no-one teaches us how to be a parent. The course covered coping strategies for the endlessly challenging situations that most parents find themselves in, a little about understanding behaviour – of both children and adults! But I think the lesson that has stuck with me over the years is to accept that good enough is good enough. Being a parent is incredibly challenging and no-one can be expected to get it 100% right all of the time. I’m not entirely sure that I fully grasped the concept at the time but it is something that I’ve gone back to time and time again and I think in many ways – I’ve understood it more and more as the years have passed.

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It’s not always an easy principle to adhere to. We live in such a competitive world where so many people seem to be constantly striving for perfection, to keep up with others, to reach goals or targets that they’ve been set – or even that they’ve set for themselves. It can be difficult to accept that just getting by, just surviving is sometimes the best that we can do. As long as no-one gets hurt or dies – we have, in a small way, achieved something. Not every day of our lives can be full of high-achieving perfection.

In work situations I’ve come to realise that it’s just not possible to get everything right all the time. Sometimes we lack knowledge, sometimes our concentration slips and sometimes we misjudge things and make mistakes. Usually there’s no catastrophic outcome and most things can be corrected or amended. So in the grand scheme of things, our mistakes don’t usually have any lasting effect. And how many times do we hear that a mistake isn’t a mistake if we learn something from it?

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I’m quite often reminded of the good enough is good enough principle when it comes to my yoga practice. I currently do is described as a half Ashtanga Primary series practice. Although – to be fair – I’m sure it includes a lot more than half of the postures in the whole series!  I practice alongside people who do the whole Primary series, some do the 2nd series and one or two are working on the 3rd. I have to remind myself frequently that my practice is my practice – it’s what I can do at the moment – and also that a lot of my fellow yogis are a lot younger than I am!! I have to remind myself of the benefits I get from doing what I can do. I may never move on to the 2nd series – and that’s fine – there’s enough in the Primary series for me to aspire to and work towards. I’m certainly not going to give up because I can’t see how I’ll ever be able to get my legs behind my head or execute a perfect handstand…

Maybe what matters is that our intentions are good and honest and that for the majority of the time, we try to do our best. We all have off days – or weeks – or even longer periods of time when motivation may be low for any number of reasons. It’s all part of being human – part of the cycle of highs and lows that life goes through.

I do think that in our daily lives, it’s important to have goals and standards. There are probably things about ourselves or the way we do certain things that most of us could work on gradually improving – if we wanted to. It’s good to accept that some things, some days don’t work out as we’d planned or hoped they would. But the world doesn’t come crashing down around us and very often, we have another opportunity to try. And I think very often we are our own harshest critics and sometimes we would do well to remember that other people don’t always see us the same way that we perceive ourselves. How often have you left the house in the morning feeling that your hair is a mess or that your clothes don’t really go together – only to be complimented later in the day? Or how many times have you produced a piece of work that you weren’t entirely happy with – to then be told that you’d done a good job?

A plus paper Parentlink 2_ Report card