Sitting on the roof terrace of our apartment in Ortigia the other week, espresso in hand, sun on my back, and enjoying the kind of noisy peace you get in a town. It occurred to me that one doesn’t need much to be content – happy even. Around me I could hear the bickering of other people’s children, the buzz of the ubiquitous scooter down the narrow streets and the hovering of the local Nonna. But on that terrace I was at peace. All I needed was the time to sit there and let all that was around, wash over me. It strikes me that that is not a bad plan for life in general. Keep it simple.
The Italians certainly embrace simplicity with their food. An octopus salad is exactly that; octopus in the form of a salad, with perhaps a little lemon juice olive oil. Famously, pizza should only ever have three topping ingredients; tomato, cheese and one other. If the produce is of the best quality, why complicate it? The core flavours sing all the better.
A simple tomato salad
Tomatoes – a range of colours and sizes are best. Tomatoes always taste better straight off the vine, and certainly when at room temperature. Don’t keep them in the fridge!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & pepper
Slice the tomatoes into fairly thick slices, before tearing a few basil leaves over them. Season and drizzle with a little good extra virgin olive oil. Serve.
I often struggle with living in the moment and keeping things simple, getting caught up in the logistics of the event or the next meal to be planned. Simple meals need less planning, yet somehow bring more joy. Sometimes the simple things are the best.
I’ve recently got myself a new camera. For those of you interested, it’s an Olympus Pen E-P1, which I got secondhand from a local independent camera shop. Yes, we still have one, and what’s more they offer an amazing service with endless advice and information. From its inception, the photos on the blog have been taken on my iPhone and I’m sure I’ll be continuing to use it. But, I’ve begun to want to improve my photography skills, to play with how images are composed and exposed; and to do this I needed a more advanced camera.
To be honest this post isn’t really about the camera, or the better images I hope to create and share. It’s about the ideas of a clearer view on life. I’ve really begun to look at life with a growing sense if optimism. Whereas before I’d always look at reasons for not doing things, I’m now tending towards “let’s give it a go”. For me this is a seismic shift. I’d always been a positive person, but that had totally gone. Now it’s returning, it’s easier to see things through a clear lens. Not rose tinted like I maybe did in the past, but clear, realistic.
Like Monty Don, in his book ‘Growing Out of Trouble’, it seems the “earth keeps me sane“. I’ve come to recognise that I need to be outside some of the time each week to maintain my mental health. It’s been something that I have realised over the last year. Whether it be going for a weekend walk with the family, an afternoon at the allotment, or just an evening stroll to the seafront. If I’m feeling low, one way I can help myself is to get outside.
As a teacher I always thought that I had done well to avoid an office based job, with its connotations of stuffiness and a lack of natural light. After all, my classroom was blessed with large windows down one side, and a beautiful village green beyond them. Yet, I still spent much of my time inside, and evenings at home were usually spent working in front of the computer. In many ways this was not too far away from the office based job I prided my self in avoiding. Now I have time to go to the allotment, I can enjoy the space and fresh air of the plot, and it undoubtedly has had a positive effect on my mood. Growing things just adds to this positivity and feeling of wellbeing; again Monty Don sums it up brilliantly when he says
“we all get – and feel – better for being outside and growing things … Looking after something else always results in looking after a part of ourselves“.
He’s right, nurturing plants does fulfil something in people, allowing them to recognise what they need to do to flourish, as well as what the plants need.
Bread is the lifeline of millions of people across the world, with 99% of UK households buying bread it is undoubtedly a integral part of our diet. On a basic level it’s a simple prepared food, and as such the basic ingredients haven’t changed in thousands of years. I love baking and I love the whole process of making a loaf; its a very mindful thing, offering time to think and allowing you to do something physical which has a satisfying end product.
I’ve made bread on and off over the last few years, but recently I’ve been getting more in to it. Although not working at the very early times of commercial bakers, making and kneading the dough before the school run has become a good way for me to start the day. With the positive benefits of bread on my mental wellbeing in mind, I discovered Bread Club. It’s been set up by a community social enterprise run by Community Chef in nearby Lewes. The basic premise is that communities used to have their own bakeries and everyone had a relationship with the baker, the oven, the community bread; and this is something which we should reinvigorate. In addition, the mindful nature of bread making is something we can all benefit from. Bread Club in Lewes is a group of people who produce real bread for subscribers to the club, providing those who subscribe with weekly fresh, lovingly crafted bread.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve started a course of bread making training with Bread Club and the Community Chef, with a view to developing a similar project in Hove. Though a stressful experience in many ways (I still find meeting new people a challenge); working with a small group of bread lovers, making bread and enjoying lunch, has been a highlight of my week. So far we’ve focused on the basics of bread and how the different variables can be controlled to get a great loaf, as well as developing an understanding of enriched doughs. We always leave holding bags bulging with warm bread, and I fill the train home with amazing bread aromas. I can’t wait until next week.
I’m dead chuffed to be shortlisted in the FOOD category for the BIBS (Brilliance in Blogging Award). If you think I deserve to be in the final then please vote for me by clicking on the picture below. Thank you for all your support!
As readers may have noticed, I like to make something from nothing, to ‘Make Do and Mend’. There’s something really rewarding in finding a ‘lost’ item and finding it a new purpose. When I see pallets now, I don’t think of rubbish; I see possibilities, fence panels, vertical planters, even tables. At the allotment I can do that, I can look at things in a different way.
However, I’m still learning to bring this way of thinking into my thoughts about life in general. I used to be able to do it; I was even quite good at it. But since my depression I’ve found it all too easy to lose myself in one frame of mind or thought process. As I suggested, I’m getting better at it, but I’m not there yet. To use the lost and found analogy; I’ve been lost and I’m beginning to be found. Losing confidence and facing depression and anxiety has possibly been the hardest thing I’ve had to cope with in life. It has totally altered my life and the things I desire from life. Initially I was totally lost, but with the support of friends and family, I’ve dragged myself upward, leaving work and learning to appreciate my family more in the process.
Although I’ve begun to find myself again, I now face a different kind of loss. What to do next? Rather than the isolation of deep depression, its a feeling of being lost in a crowd. Like the child in a crowded supermarket looking for their Mum, there’s loads of people who could be their mother; for me there are lots of things I could do, but which one is the right one?
You make me feel so young
You make me feel like spring has sprung
Every time I see you grin
I’m such a happy an individual
Mack Gordon “You Make Me Feel So Young”
Spring is the season at the allotment when things start, and need to start, happening. Despite it not quite being March, every visit to the plot brings another shoot or stem emerging from the ground. Some seeds have been sowed, with many more to go, and new life is starting to peep out of the seed trays in the greenhouse.
My life is a little like the plot at the moment. Like the allotment, my emergence out of the dark and malaise of depression and anxiety is showing a few signs of life. As we enter spring I feel that I’m starting to turn a corner. I’m beginning to think about the future and what I might do with it. The allotment has shown me that I can succeed at things, but crucially my break from work has also taught me that I need a life that works for me and all the family if I’m to be happy.
Last week I found a jar of seeds saved from last year. Unfortunately they were a random mix of unknown seeds; but I’ll sow them and see what emerges. In a way I’m in a similar situation to the pot of seeds. Inside I have the potential to do a lot of things, but what will it be and what might stop me finding it? When will the shoots emerge, and what will it grow into, are still questions I ponder on.
I’ve blogged before about the benefits to myself of an allotment. It continues to be a place I can achieve peace and relaxation, as well as have small horticultural successes. It seems that I’m not alone in seeing the mental health benefits in having an allotment. Last month my local allotment association published a press release with the results of a survey they had been carrying out.
92% of plot holders either agreed or strongly agreed that allotments improved their mental health or provided stress relief.
Many people across my city are gaining from the health benefits of spending time on an allotment; whether it be through a sense of purpose and relaxation, or a place of exercise. Given that NHS England estimates the cost of mental illness in England alone at £105 billion a year, allotments seem to be extremely good value.
So, if you’re in need of a new start, a new project, a new outlook on this stressful world; then why not get gardening, get a allotment.
This Christmas I’ve tried to make a few of the presents I’ll be giving. One of my motivations for this has been a financial one; it’s often cheaper to create your own and the extra effort is always appreciated. However, the main reason for making things comes from a quote I came across a while back when thinking about ways to improve my happiness.
Time set aside for making good things for family and friends becomes a luxury in itself.
The great people at Action for Happiness have a ten keys to happier living, and the first item is giving; scientific research suggests that helping and giving to others boosts happiness and life satisfaction. Since discovering this idea I’ve looked at making things for others slightly differently; recognising the benefit it is giving me, as well as those I’ve made things for or shared things with. So look out for some homemade gifts making their way onto the blog and under your Christmas trees; and remember that by receiving them, you’re helping me to be happier.
Since going on my sabbatical I have been thinking about something I can do that is worthy. Not that teaching isn’t, but I hanker after being helpful and being able to be proud of myself. Helping others is not only good for them and a good thing to do, I’m hoping it will make me a happier person too.
So today, I’ve been volunteering with FareShare outside my local branch of Tesco as part of their #everycanhelps scheme. The premise of this is that shoppers donate tins and packets of food as they come out of the supermarket. This food gets distributed to the local food bank and other community food organisations by FareShare. The #everycanhelps scheme lasts for the whole weekend (29th November-1stDecember) and is being held across the country; with donations of food going to local causes. I noticed the other day that our local Coop Food also had a trolley for FareShare donations – so there is opportunity beyond the weekend to do something for others and make yourself a little happier.
During a break from giving out a list of foods that could be donated I grabbed a coffee from the local Caffè Bar Italia and noticed that I could help further by not only buying myself an espresso, but also purchasing a caffè sospeso (a suspended coffee). This is an idea based on Italian traditional goodwill, allowing someone who can’t afford it to pop into the café and enjoy a prepaid warm drink. like Tesco’s involvement with FareShare, perhaps the big coffee houses should embrace the suspended coffee and give our communities an opportunity to help the less fortunate.
You see, every little thing can help others, and hopefully yourself.
As the first frosts hit the plot, its time to clear away the final signs of a summer of growing. The ever-growing nasturtium have wilted under the frost and the courgette plants have long given up producing their fruits. With the weather dry and bright, if a little chilly, I’ve taken the opportunity to clear and dig over the big bed at the front of the plot.
I always used to hate digging, but recently have found it to be a very therapeutic activity. First of all its a good workout; apparently you can burn 600-700 calories in an hours digging, and even three hours of general gardening burns a similar amount of calories. The active part of having an allotment really helps to clear the head and increase motivation, but I find that the very nature of turning over soil to start again is a useful metaphor for trying to forge a new balance and direction in my life.
I also took the opportunity to add some organic material, manure, to the soil. Although we’ve been improving the soil since taking on the plot, it still benefits from the addition of some well rotted manure to loosen and aerate the clay soil. Hopefully the winter frosts can help to break up the soil and lead to a fertile start to next year.