A Thoughtful Advent

Didn’t they realise the only way to change things was to act? – Tamora Pierce

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Oh, merry December! ‘Tis finally Advent – the season to be jolly! Last year we inaugurated our own humble December traditions to mark our first year living under the same roof: a gilded paper star laced with twinkling lights hung in the bay window and glossy coloured baubles threaded onto twine and slung from the picture rail. A jar of 24 assorted chocolates for him, from me, and 24 Lindt truffles tucked hidden about the house for me, from him. I’m already enjoying revisiting these youthful customs again this year (so is my stomach.)

As we reach the end of this sad year – a year full of nasty surprises – these small, simple rituals feel more important than ever. They offer a way of anchoring ourselves in the present, and of connecting us to the past. They are a welcomed comfort, a distraction from fretting over much about the dire state of the nation.

But more than ever, I’m aware that this is a luxury many cannot afford or are unable to indulge in. That doesn’t feel right. I want to help. I feel a need, again more than ever, to connect with my fellow human beings. I feel more galvanised than ever to put a little light into the world in this, the darkest of months. I’ve thought long and hard about the best way to do this and later, about whether to publish the list I have compiled (which feels at best, cheesy and at worst, sanctimonious), but today I gave my change to a homeless person, donated money to charity so that a young single mother somewhere can open a gift of her own on Christmas Day, and helped a stranger find something misplaced, and I feel better for it. So much better; as if the ways thing are is not as irrevocably terrible as things have often felt in the last few uncharted, unnerving weeks. I’ve noticed that strangers have also shown me kindness, too, and I feel better for that too.

I think we could all do with feeling a little better after this disquieting year. I wonder whether, just maybe, such acts are our most powerful weapon in a world that so often feels all sorrow, all despair – 24 small, sincere acts of kindness which are mostly free and mostly simple, but guaranteed to add a little brightness to this strange, tangled place we call home.

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1 Sit down to write a note, by hand, to someone you love. Write to tell them why you like them, and how much they mean to you, and that you wanted to write simply to let them know. Post it the same day.

2 Invite a friend or a neighbour into your home for supper and make them a meal from scratch. In a society ruled by convenience and speed, I still think this is one of the sweetest, simple gifts we can give those we love.

3 Buy a cup of something warming for the homeless man outside the coffee shop, or your colleague toiling away upstairs, or the person behind you in the queue. Or all three.

4 Make an extra portion of your supper, package and deliver to someone sleeping rough on your usual route. It’s something that is so easy to do, but that will make such a difference to someone’s day or night.

5 Give time, money or donated goods to a charity or cause you believe in. If you don’t have the time or resources to do that, why not buy your Christmas cards from a charity shop or purchase a Christmas gift for someone particularly vulnerable this year.

6 Leave a copy of a much-cherished book on the subway, a park bench or in a coffee shop and scrawl a happy note in the inside cover. Please take. I hope you love this book as much as I did.

7 Write a letter to someone who might be feeling especially lonely at this time of year. You can write to an elderly person or a soldier or send a Christmas shoebox to a child in need.

8 Make a gift by hand for someone you love. Putting in the time and effort to make something personal is always appreciated, whether it’s a simple Christmas card, a baked sweet good, or a knitted something cosy.

9 Reach out to someone you’ve fallen out of touch with and let them know you’d like to keep in touch and how much they mean to you.

10 Sign a petition for change, whether it’s funding education for vulnerable young women, improving conditions for rough sleepers or protesting the Snooper’s Charter. Find more at change.org or, for the UK-based, https://petition.parliament.uk/

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11 Wrap your pressies in recycled wrapping paper (shockingly, the UK generates enough wrapping paper every year to stretch to the moon!) or, for a totally free, eco-friendly option, in newspaper or old sheet music. Finished with red ribbon, it’s as planet-friendly as wrapping gets – without compromising on elegance.

12 If you’re able to, give blood. And if you’re between 17 and 40, join the bone marrow registry. It’s easy.

13 Sign up to be an organ donor if you’re not already. It’s never been easier.

14 Volunteer. Offer to cover a shift at your nearest charity shop, ask your local community centre how you can help, or browse Do It for plenty of options in your local area.

15 Support your neighbourhood shops – the greengrocer, the independent coffee shop, the farmer’s market – and buy local. It pumps funds into the local economy, builds community and is almost always more ethical than buying at national chains or from big brands. Put your money where your mouth is. (The Pool published a fantastic guide to ethical Christmas shopping this year, here.)

16 Donate unwanted warm clothing – coats, hats, scarves, wool socks, boots – to charity. Shelter, for those based in the UK, is always a good bet. For an eye-opening, heartbreaking look at the UK’s housing crisis, I highly recommend this BBC documentary my friend helped to produce. Harrowing but necessary viewing.

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17 Leave a book, or a piece of fruit, or something else nice on your stoop for a passer-by to pick up (Leave a note saying “Take me! Free!”) We found a perfect desk and a lovely wicker basket on the next street last weekend, and are planning to pay it forward and make a neighbour happy in return this weekend!

18 Put a bowl of water and a plate of breadcrumbs outside. Winter is a tough time for birds; they can use all the help they can get!

19 Look for reasons to pay genuine compliments to people. Really notice the people that you interact with on a daily basis – the woman who serves you coffee, the man who sits on reception at your office. Look them in the eye, smile, thank them. Tell them you appreciate the care they take when they greet you day after day, or that you thought they handled a tricky situation with grace, that they make your day a little brighter. Look for the best in people and acknowledge what you see out loud.

20 Buy a newspaper, one that covers the issues and doesn’t shy away from the truth. Better yet, commit to a subscription and help to support reputable print journalism. It’s more important than ever.

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21 Attend a religious service, perhaps one held by a denomination or faith you know little about or don’t belong to. I’m not a Christian, but I’ll be going to a church service this year, listening, learning and reminding myself that despite our differences, there’s plenty of common ground.

22 Offer to do something helpful for someone: pick up your mum’s dry-cleaning, iron your boyfriend’s shirts, offer to cat-sit your neighbour’s kitty, stock the fridge for your roommates to come home to. Be thoughtful, without expectation of any reward in return.

23 Write to your MP. Tell them about the issues you care about. Tell them what they’re doing right, and what they might improve on. Tell them what you’d like them to focus on when representing you, and how they can best propound your views in parliament. Tell them you appreciate their hard work.

24 Give someone a hug, a proper one. Hold them tight. Squeeze them. Tell them just how much you love them.

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I’d love your suggestions, so please feel free to comment away below the line. I’d really like to add new ideas to my list, and hope to continue striving for small but not insignificant acts of goodness going forward, Advent or no. Happy December one and all, and thank you – as always – for stopping by. I so appreciate it. x

Poem For The Weekend #59

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Messenger
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

– Mary Oliver

Winter Walks | A Postcard From Dedham Vale

We marked the date in our diaries over a month before: Saturday November 26th, we’d meet somewhere roughly in between Norwich and London, after far too many months apart. Long-time readers of this humble blog may remember my friend P from the days when we lived, quite literally, beside the Danube and saw each other almost daily. We miss each other now we live in different cities – so November 26th it was!

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Little did we know what a glorious late autumn day it would dawn, the air cool but not biting, the last burnt orange leaves clinging tightly to tree branches. I rose early, munching jam on toast and almost-black coffee before hightailing it to Liverpool Street to catch the train outta dodge. I spent the hour’s journey knitting happily away, bathing in the golden sunlight streaming through the windows and listening to my sweet father-and-son seatmates discussing the respective merits of liquorice laces vis-à-vis liquorice pencils. Current affairs, ladies and gents.

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I met P (dressed in pink shorts, hardy boy!) at Manningtree station; a great base for walkers, perched on the sleeve of Dedham Vale. After snapping a few photos of the map at the station we started walking, chattering away as we caught up on many months of news, trailed by a particularly rowdy group of young, raucous ramblers. I quietly admired the shy beauty of late November and its overgrown brambles, brittle burdock seed heads, footpaths laced with muddy puddles and rusty grasses cloaked in caramel light. It was especially beautiful in the gorgeous, blond, buttered sunlight of early afternoon.

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After a little way, we stopped to admire a particularly dense, sunlit thicket of brambles, naked branches and shivering twigs. To our delight, the branches were dotted with deep purple berries – sloes. On closer inspection, the wild blackthorn trees were aching with fruit. We couldn’t have picked them all if we’d tried! But we gave it a good go, hastily fashioning a bag out some brown paper and getting to work.

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Sloe berries are best picked after the first frost, when the berries are yielding enough to be easily squeezed between finger and thumb. I wouldn’t try one straight from the tree – an unfortunate young man (one of the rowdy ramblers, aforementioned) ambled by and decided to sample one, believing us to be picking fruit to eat fresh. “They’re…erm…really….quite…tart,” he managed to mumble, cheeks hollowed out, all colour drained from his face, looking as if his very head had been sucked inside out by a hoover. Poor man! They’re best used to make sloe gin, pickled or made into preserves. I know which one I’ll be plumping for…

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Our paper bags full to bursting, we left the sloes behind, building up a brisk pace as we talked about work and cities, politics, family and the future. There’s something lovely about walking and talking, isn’t there? Such natural partners, and the introvert in me (all of me) savours talking deeply in the outdoors, tailoring the rhythm of the conversation to our footsteps, eyes trained on the path ahead.

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After what seemed like not very far at all, we took a sharp right turn and officially set foot in Dedham Vale – an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Essex-Suffolk border. It’s a truly idyllic part of England, known for its rolling hills and flint-faced churches borne of the age when the burgeoning wool trade brought riches to the vale’s small towns and villages, almost overnight. It’s also a place full of memories for me. My mother grew up here, and I spent many happy hours of childhood running wild along these paths, getting stuck in the mud, holding my grandmother’s hand, being carried home sleepy on my uncle’s shoulders. John Constable’s famous paintings depict it beautifully, with such accuracy of light and shade, if you can’t get there in person.

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Before long we arrived in Flatford, of Constable fame, of course. In summer the little settlement on the banks of the Stour teems with pleasure boats, families rowing down the river and tourists snapping Willy Lott’s famous cottage. In November it is a much more timid affair – we caught sight of a vividly blue kingfisher fluttering amongst the branches of a beech tree, the water at this time of year populated only by ducks in their lustrous winter finery.

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From Flatford (a lovely place to stop for tea, had we not been racing the daylight) we walked up the long, steep hill to the village of East Bergholt. My grandfather lives in a little house on the edge of the village and that was our final destination. Having telephoned only hours earlier, it was delightful of him to accommodate us young spontaneous people at such short notice! On our walk through the village, we admired the pastel-fronted cottages, the flint church built in 1350 (home to the heaviest bells in England) and a particularly doting tortoiseshell cat. So doting it begged for a picture with P!

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As we neared my grandad’s house, the handsome chap below trotted over to say hello – curious and watchful. P held out his hand with a little grass and we both stroked his soft downy mane, trying not to feel too bad about our lack of food offerings. (We really should have run back for one of those apples for the poor fella.)

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Walking on, we quickly arrived at my grandfather’s little house, where we were greeted gladly after a similar months-long separation. His wife had baked her signature 20-minute cherry buns for the occasion and we were treated to two cups of tea, our first mince pies of the season (it is Advent tomorrow, after all…) and a cosy drive back to the station in the fading light with full stomachs and rosy cheeks. Truly scrumptious.

Americans In London

Back in August (where has this year gone?) we had forty-eight precious hours in London with our beloved Washingtonians – friends turned family – and boy, did we pack those hours to the brim.

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To begin: Green Park, boughs kissing above the walkways, a violinist plucking notes from the gloom. Buckingham Palace (munching our sandwiches on the fountain – “why yes, we did eat lunch with Her Majesty!”) Then on to the royal pelicans in St. James’, the kitchen garden abundant with chard, and cabbage, and wild-running perennials. The rain coming thick and fast now as we strode across Horseguard’s Parade, headed for the river. Over Jubilee Bridge to the South Bank, where children frolicked in the sprinklers in spite of (or because of) the downpour. Along to the Tate where we saw Dali, Mondrian, Warhol – unparalleled wonder – and the whole city sprawling before us from the rooftop of Switch House. Home for butternut macaroni and sleepy heads on pillows. 17,792 steps and 23 floors.

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Saturday, we covered Regent’s Park and the secret garden, and the rose garden too – Lovely Lady, Ingrid Bergman, Champagne Moment, Sexy Rexy abundant. We ate our homemade sandwiches among the hosta leaves, nibbled bare by some junebug or other, watched the clouds scuttle above our heads. Through Primrose Hill, past pushbikes and plant pots overflowing and sherbet stucco fronts, onto the thronging streets of Camden Town where we stopped for scoops at Marine Ices for a well-earned rest. Onto the bus, then the tube, to the museums – Apollo shuttles, penicillin, Watson and Crick’s genome, entire galaxies covered in an afternoon. Home again to the Crescent House for Lulu dhal and cookies, charades and tea. 14,421 steps, we stopped counting the floors.

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Sunday, coloured already bittersweet by the evening’s approaching farewell. But we packed it in still – Metropolitan line all the way to Barbican, up, up to the green reaches of the Sunday Conservatory. What treasures amid the brutalism!  Pockets of the city new to us to – sunflowers and Cockney accents on Columbia Road, every woman and every man within a 2-mile radius cradling a bunch of floral beauties as delicately as a baby, swathed in brown paper, shedding scent along the street. The bus to Southwark Cathedral, two envelopes of roasted almonds from a growling vendor on London Bridge as the sun waltzed out from the clouds. Too many steps to count.

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Glum faces as departure neared…

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One last photograph of all of us, together.

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It was everything.

(photos) on film, digital and iPhone by me and Ashley

Bright Spots | Of Late

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You may have noticed words have been spare, here, of late. Even my sister’s on my case. Her foreboding gaze (I jest) is enough to get any writer into gear. So here I am again, a bashful returner, and somehow it is late October, we have wound back the clocks, and already at five, the thick dark blanket of night is being tugged, wilfully, across the sky. The air smells of woodsmoke and cedar, of bonfires and black. Light the colour of clementines scatters through the leaves, themselves an array of oxblood, mahogany, peaches, foxtails, wine.

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I have three excuses for my absence (not that I feel the need to excuse myself, but it’s a good story.) One evening, alone, I slipped and cut my thumb, badly, on a tin can (I know, I’m so glamorous I can hardly bear it either.) A careening ride to the emergency room in my landlord’s car ensued, followed hours later by six stitches and orders to stay away from aluminium. Then I started throwing up on buses, felled by the sort of ferocious virus often rumoured to lurk in hospital corridors. All this high drama occurred during the busiest week of the year at work, which necessitated nine to nine days even before the injury, and even longer nights afterwards, sutured hand or no. By the time it was all over I was pale and exhausted, avoiding the kitchen, and stooping like a ninety-something. A few weeks away from the internet, soaking up the newly cool, fresh air – that air that smells of woodsmoke and bonfires and black – was just what the doctor ordered.

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I’m back, and happy about it. For now, three bright spots, of the last week: a foggy autumn morn’, the kind made for storybooks, chattering on the sidelines with Grandma, and Grandad, and Auntie, as Cousin played football in the gloom. Saturday morning, when he jogged to the supermarket for raspberries and hot cross buns, just to make me smile. And the afternoon that followed, wandering the hallowed halls of South Ken’s museums with one of my dearest friends.

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What are your bright spots, lately?