Saturday, 6 June 2015

On wildness

It's Sunday and I should be gardening.  I should be tidying, chopping, weeding, pulling things up and throwing things away.  But I'm not.  Why?  Because I rather love the wild.
Yes, the garden is becoming a bit of a jungle but I like that - I like the profusion, the abandonment, the sheer greenness of it all.
"A green thought in a green shade" indeed...have you read The Garden by Andrew Marvell?  Do, do.
Then it puts me in mind of Hildegard of Bingen and her veriditas, her greening...that juiciness of spirit.
There is a craving in my soul for the green, for the wild wild green...not for neat rows of flowers forced into obedience but wild, wild, abundant, reckless, feckless green.  Nature left to its own devices.  The beauty of frond and flower, of curl and crevice-cling.  So, I leave it be.  I just sit for a moment, a blessed moment, while the house sleeps, watching the branches lazily sway, moved by invisibility - the wind's negative image.
It will take a special person to love this house, this garden... Will they change it?  Of course they will. Everyone seeks to impose their will, their vision, their desire on their abode.

Does it matter? Of course not. Everything changes.

Might you love the Bonkers House and its feckless garden?  Check out its blog.
Or visit the estate agent's website and see it here.  Come view - I won't be here...I'll be a spirit hiding in the green.  

Monday, 1 June 2015

On being thingless in Dulverton. And balls.

So, James and I were walking Dan out over the fields by the river, me half-trotting to keep up with his loping stride (when did he get so tall?).
On the narrow track on the way back, we came across a middle-aged couple with a spaniel.
'Is he a male?' called the woman, gesturing at Dan.
'Er...yup,' I replied, slightly discombobulated by the question which contained its own answer.
'Is he intact?'
'Er...' I paused, thought about it, thought about what a strange phrase that is.  'Er, no.'
Poor Dan.  Having his balls, or rather his ex-balls, discussed in public.
'Oh good!  Only she's about ready, you know...' gesturing at the spaniel who looked about ready for anything, in the way that spaniels do.
Oh okay.  TMI already.
It put me in mind of when we used to live on the Levels and there was a certain track beloved of dog walkers.  You'd walk along and people would call out, imperiously: 'Dog?' to which the correct answer was not, 'Of course it's a dog, you stupid bint!' but 'Yes!' to which the person would either nod and say, 'Ditto!' or instead call, 'Bitch!'  Only in England.

Anyhow, we smiled, walked on and James, Dan and I paused at the cricket ground, leaning on the fence (me and James, that is) and watched the match for a bit.  It was all so calm, so peaceful, so rather delightful in that quaint bucolic traditional English way.  The sun shining.  The thwack of ball on bat.  Oh lordy, back to balls again.
And so we were.  Because something thwacked into my leg and it wasn't a ball but Dan, pursued by the not quite but almost on-heat spaniel bitch.
And that voice again: 'Is he male?  Is he intact?'

Wait.  We'd been here before.  Were we on some kind of Möbius loop?
'Er, yes... and no,' I said.
'Oh!  He's mounting her!'
I shrugged.  'Well, nothing will come of it.  He can't do much.'  Rather wistful at how it would have been rather lovely to have some mini-Dans.
'Do you know any good dogs?' asked the woman.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Spaniels?  Good spaniels.  For mating her?'
What?  Did I look like a dog pander?
'Er, no,' I said. 'Maybe try Woods?  Paddy will know.'
'Good point.  Where do you live?'

It all started to feel a bit Kafka-esque, as if I were being interviewed for some job for which I hadn't applied, of which I knew nothing.  My dog breeding failure soon compounded by my lack of any kind of expertise whatsoever.
Had I watched the latest play at the town hall, she asked.
'No,' I said.  'It's not really my thing.'
'Hmm.  What about the ballroom dancing?  Do you do that?  Is that your thing?'
'Er...No, not really.'
'Well, what is your thing?' she demanded, sounding deeply irritated at my lack of thing.
'Er...'  I paused, feeling deeply pathetic.
What was my thing?
I used to have things.  I used to have interests, passions even.  When did I become so disinterested, so apathetic, so thing-less?
'That's it,' I said to James, when we finally escaped, wiping a sheen of sweat from my brow, with a strong suspicion I'd flunked the exam. 'I need a thing.'


Sunday, 31 May 2015

Post a poem. The Seafarer - an Old English lament of loneliness.

There's been this 'thing' going round on Facebook, asking people to post a poem a day for four days. My old pal Cheryl tagged me along with the three other members of our short-lived Yellow Dog Sex Toy Clan (don't ask, it's better not to know) and it made me think.  I'm not good with poetry, not really.  But I pondered and The Seafarer came to mind.  When I was studying English, I really loved Anglo-Saxon/Old English/call it what you will. I think I've told you this before.

There is something about going far enough back into a language that the letters themselves are different, that it isn't just a case of altered spellings and word-shifts; it really is a different tongue. Plus the poetry of this time showed society at a seismic spirit-turn - seguing from paganism to Christianity.
There are many poems of this period I love but The Wanderer and The Seafarer were my favourites, and The Seafarer nudges ahead by a briny nose (because I love the sea).  It's raw, it's sensory, it's tearing and yearning in a way that might surprise.

So I looked it up and read it again and found myself in tears.  It had a huge effect on me when I first read it, aged 19 and fresh at college.  All that crisp alliteration and word-smash, like swords crashing together, like waves scything against the bow of a boat, alone, small, hopeless in stormy seas.
Just listen to it...

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð And now my heart twists
ofer hreþerlocan,                         out from my breast,
min modsefa                                 my spirit
mid mereflode,                         out in the sea-flood,
ofer hwæles eþel                         over the whale's path
hweorfeð wide,                         it soars wide
eorþan sceatas -                         to the corners of the world -
cymeð eft to me                         it comes back to me
gifre ond grædig;                         greedy and longing;
gielleð anfloga,                         the sole(soul)-flier screams,
hweteð on hwælweg                 urges onto the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum                         the unresisting heart
ofer holma gelagu.                         across the waves of the sea.

Want to read it all?  This has a pretty good translation alongside.  Ezra Pound did his own version but, to my ear, it's not so good.
After all these years I can still remember the debate over 'anfloga' - does it refer to some specific breed of seabird (I once sat through a whole lecture on that particular question) or even a cuckoo (surely not?).  And, because the text was a bit hard to read in places, whether it should be 'hwælweg' (whale-path) or 'wælweg' (death-way).

It doesn't matter, not really. It's a poem of intense loneliness, of loss and yearning. An elegy of exile, of the cold - physical, emotional, spiritual.  A journey - not just over a stretch of sea but through life maybe; towards death certainly.
Re-reading it, I find myself remembering my 19-year old self, how disconnected I felt, how separate - or was that just general late teenage angst and romanticism?
Reading it now I am surprised how much it still resonates, all these years on.  I am surprised, too, at how lonely I feel.

I have never considered loneliness; never really understood it when people complained of it.
I have always loved my own company, lost in thought or not-thought.  I have been self-sufficient, independent, aloof maybe (some might say).  I enjoy company - with the right people - but am never lost alone. But, I am beginning to wonder, is that really true?  Is it healthy?  It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm aware that many people are doing normal nice things - out with families doing stuff together while I'm here, all alone-e-oh, reading Anglo-Saxon poetry. Which is fine and good.  But then again, there is a sadness - a feeling of opportunities missed, of time never to be recaptured.
When I think back, back to when I first read The Seafarer, there was a balance of sorts in my life. Whenever I went out too far on that sea-flood, that whale-path, I would have people to tug me back to the mead-hall, to anchor me with warmth and laughter.  Maybe I need some fellow warriors?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

REVIEW: MIMI Green Goddess Fresh Face Mask

So, as I was saying a while back, I used to love making up my own skincare creams and unguents.  But nowadays I just don't seem to have the time, energy or, let's be very honest, the inclination to faff around sourcing stuff, mixing and murgling. 
Then Juls of The Body Retreat said (on Twitter, as you do), 'I reckon you'd really like MIMI kits.'  And one thing led to another (the way it does on Twitter) and Jess, the founder of MIMI, offered to pop a kit in the post for me to try.

The weather was gorgeous this Bank Holiday weekend here on Exmoor so, having powered through house cleaning and a mega dose of clutter clearing, I figured I'd relax in the garden with the mask.

MIMI kits are all 100 percent natural - absolutely no parabens or petrochemicals.  I like that.  I also like that absolutely everything you need is provided in the kit.  It is deeply irksome to start out doing something and then realise that, really, you needed to go shopping for essential bits and bobs first.  All you need to add to this is water.

The packaging is neat - all wrapped up like a letter, clasped in green (of course) tissue paper.  Everything is neatly named, so you can't go wrong.
Open it up and there's enough here for four treatments.  Here's what you do:
1. First up you pop a green jasmine pearl (detoxifying and skin-protecting) in a mug and add hot water.  The pearl (which looks like a gnarly old seed) unfurls in the heat and you sip the fragrant tea, remembering to leave just a bit for the next stage.
2. Next up is the Green Goddess Powder, a mix of Fine Green French clay (that absorbs excess oil and impurities from the skin, then tones and revitalises); Rhassoul mud (a mineral clay from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco) that helps to cleanse and soften the skin; and Spirulina that gives a mega boost of vitamins, minerals and amino acids to the skin.  You shake one measure out into the mixing pot and add enough jasmine water to make a smooth paste.  
3. Add a few drops of oat oil (soothing and calming to the skin) and mix with the spatula provided.
4. Cleanse your skin thoroughly (I used Celgenics Deep Cleansing Lotion - a new discovery of mine) and then use the hairband provided to keep hair off your face.  
5. Apply mask (I started off with the spatula and then used my fingers) and relax for up to ten minutes.
It dries out quite quickly, which is why this pic has a rather unpleasant two-tone effect - as if I've got slugs wandering over my face.  It tightens swiftly and, really, you wouldn't want it on for more than the ten minutes (I left it a bit longer and then rather enjoyed gurning so it cracked and bits dropped off.) btw, ignore the odd bits on my neck - I had this idea that it might look graphically interesting.  I was wrong.
Then you simply remove the mask (warm water and cotton pads do the trick) and gently rinse  your face.  If you've remembered to keep some cooled Green Jasmine infusion, you can tone with that (I drank it all, so didn't).  Then you pop on some moisturiser (I stuck with Celgenics - this time using their Moisturiser Plus) and - ta-da! - you're done.
I looked a bit 'glowing'  (aka pretty pink with slightly red splodges) but my skin felt really good - toned yet soft.  
I had pondered getting some pals over for a pamper-session with the remaining ingredients (there's enough for four masks) but I might just be incredibly selfish and keep it all for myself.  I confess that, when I opened the pack, I thought it might be all too much of a faddle but, actually, it's simplicity itself and it does feel good to know it's completely fresh.

The Green Goddess mask kit I tried costs £22.  MIMI also do a night face oil kit (£35) and a body rub (£25).  They would make really nice presents and I could also imagine they'd be great for teenage daughters having friends over for sleepovers.

Good call, Juls, good call.
Check out MIMI here. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Magma in the heart - a super-volcano of emotion

It's getting harder and harder to breathe.  It really is.  I have a huge pain in my chest, lodged in my heart, and it won't shift. Today it's beautiful on Exmoor, the sun is shining and the garden is looking soft, shy around the edges as if someone started to rub them out. Green blends into green, so many shades of green - there aren't enough words for green. Nowhere near enough.  Not in English.  Is there a more verdant language I could learn?  I feel the urge to speak in Greenish.  Did you know that there are more shades of green recognised by the human eye than any other colour?  How come we do it such a disservice?  Maybe because we are more enamoured of grey? 

Mind you, look at this - a Colour Thesaurus!  Not bad, not bad...but still...
The house hasn't sold yet.  Maybe I am holding onto it too hard?  However much I tell myself that moving is good, moving on is good, change is good, my heart sobs at leaving this place.  Yes, it's a wilful house, a tricksy house, but it is just so damn beautiful.  And, you know me, I fall in love so hard, so fast...with houses.  

Moving to the city will be...different.  Moving to a very small, very normal house, will be...different. I tell myself I don't need space - I can find space in my mind - but still... 

So, in the meantime, I am still shedding, trying to cast off all the 'stuff' that can be forgotten in a large house but can't be hidden away in a small space.  It's not just physical, is it?  It's not just a question of piles more books to be given away.

And I went on Pinterest, as you do, looking for some kind of wayward oracle (even though I find it harder and harder to believe in oracles these days) and found this (left).  And there's truth in that, I feel.  I cling, I cling by the very nibbled-down remnants of my fingernails.  

I think I'm calm; I think I'm being all chilled and Zen but, you know, it's bullshit.  Underneath the surface, it's all bubbling like bloody magma.  I'm a sodding volcano. 
Talking of which, I am having BIG volcano anxiety at the moment.  It's been floating around a fair bit for the last few months but really erupted as James was teaching me about natural 'disasters' as part of his geography revision.  
'You know about Yellowstone, right, Mum?' he asked.
'Sure,' I said.  I went there, way back when I was 20-something, as part of my crazy 'around the USA in 21 days' trip.  
'You know the whole thing's a caldera, don't you?  You do know what a caldera is, don't you? Yellowstone is one freaking supervolcano, right?'  
Yup, I knew.  But I think I had conveniently blanked it from my mind.  We talked about what would happen if it blew - and, you know, it's scary freaky.  
'Where would be safe?' I asked.
'It would affect the whole world,' he said, sadly. 'But they reckon it's not that likely it's going to blow any time very soon,' he continued, trying to be comforting (since when did sons have to comfort their mothers?). 
And, as I sat here, writing this post, I began to wonder - I was talking about magma, wasn't I?  Not lava?  So I Googled and the first hit was less than reassuring...have a look

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Why do we do stuff that makes us feel crap? Was Freud right?

Why do we do stuff that we know makes us feel crap? Why do we hurt our bodies and harm our hearts and minds?

I know what makes me feel good. It's so very simple.  My body feels great when I eat light, easily digestible food (and not too much of it).  When I cut out alcohol and coffee and too much tea.  When I exercise, when I do yoga, when I stretch and sleep well.  My mind smiles when I meditate, my heart smiles when I laugh.
When I'm on retreat (doing all of the above) I feel pretty good.  Last year on holiday in Poland I added lake swimming, cycling and kayaking to the mix and felt fabulous (well, apart from a couple of rogue nights on vodka).

So what happens when I come home?  What's to stop me carrying on with what clearly works? Nobody is making me eat shit; nobody is forcing me to down half a bottle of Cointreau in one sitting. I can't make an excuse of time. I could easily fit in an hour of yoga and meditation; a salad or soup takes little more time to make than a crap sandwich.  Okay, so I can't go lake swimming or kayaking every day but I have weekends, don't I?

It's as if I want to scupper myself; to hurt myself.  Why? Why?

I remember when my (adopted) father was alive.  His doctor told him that unless he radically overhauled his diet and started exercising, he would have a heart attack.  It was that simple.  He chose to keep eating (and eating and eating) and to sit on the sofa.  He had a heart attack - a fatal one.  So, effectively, he chose to die.  It sounds brutal but that's the bottom line, isn't it?

Was dear old Freud right?  Remember, he reckoned that we all have 'an innate death drive' that impels us to pursue our own downfall and death.'

I hate to believe that.  So I started mosying around the Internet and found that what I'm doing is called 'self-defeating behaviour' (nice to have a name for it). It's defined as 'any deliberate or intentional behaviour that has clear, definitely or probably negative effects on the self or on the self’s projects.'

I carried on reading through the psychological literature and, really, it struck me as a load of twaddle. I read about 'trade-offs', about 'self-handicapping', about 'counter-productive strategies'.  I read about how we're more likely to behave in a self-defeating or destructive manner when we have low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or emotional distress.  Apparently 'highly distraught' people are more likely than others to do self destructive things. Well, doh.

Then, apparently, there's 'self-regulation failure', a lack of self-control.  When self-regulation is working right, we can prepare for situations and adapt to situations.  We can make sure we succeed, or allow ourselves to fail (because sometimes failure is useful).

Okay, but why?  Is it back to Freud?  Is there really an urge to entropy?  Or is it lack of hope?

Today I am trying...once flip the switch.  I've done it before so I know I can do it.  If I've done it once, I can do it again, right?  So I went to the gym and did some yoga.  I am trying to switch my mind, to feed myself messages that support health, life, happiness rather than sickness, failure, misery.  Because, really, it's all in the mind.  Don't you think?
Yes, yes, that's a baby least to you all Cross Fitters out there.  But steps.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Man and Superman - it's a (National Theatre Live) Shaw thing

'Do you and James fancy coming to the cinema on Thursday, with me and Gabs?' said Rachel.  'My treat.'
Cinema? An evening out? Entertainment?  Free entertainment?
'Sure!' I said.
'Exactly!' she said.
Turns out she had tickets for Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw.
'But that's a play thing,' I said.
'It's a National Theatre Live thing,' she said.
Turns out that the National Theatre has started filming certain productions in front of live audiences in the theatre so that us benighted souls out in the boon-docks can get a bit of know, something to save us from our relentless foxhunting, pheasant shooting and kamikaze cider drinking sessions.

I confess my heart sank a bit.  Back in the day I used to review theatre in London and, awful but true, it sort of put me off live theatre. And the one thing that can be worse than live theatre is live theatre filmed.  The only advantage I can see is that you get a decent seat; no chance of being stuck behind a pillar or with an infeasibly tall person plonked in front of you.  Rachel knows me; she could hear the curl of the lip, the crinkle of the nose.
'It's got Ralph Fiennes in it.'
'Oh come on! You know...Ralph Fiennes?  Voldemort!'

I paused.  'Hang about.  How did you persuade Gabs to go?'
There was a very long pause.
'Er...I went a bit heavy on the "Superman" bit and...sort of coughed over the "Man and" bit,' she said.
I nearly choked.  'So my poor little godson thinks he's going to see some version of Superman?'
'Yup,' she said brightly.  'I'm going heavy on the popcorn.'

I really didn't think James would countenance it for five seconds but, to my utter amazement, he shrugged and said, 'Sure.'
'Exactly,' I didn't say.  Nor did I say that it was billed at three hours and forty minutes.  Silence is golden.

Five minutes in and he was glaring daggers at me.  'It's a play!' he hissed.
I smiled brightly and broke open the popcorn.

What can I say?  I'm not going to reprise my theatre critic days but, suffice to say, it was well-acted, very well-acted.  I found myself in awe of Fiennes' memory, above all.  The man (like many men, has to be said) doesn't stop talking, an incessant flow of rhetoric.  The modern setting looked pretty good but sat uneasily with the social set-up (woman needing man as guardian, when father dies).

The highlight, for me, was the hell scene.  Apparently this was commonly excluded from past productions which seems nuts because it is, as far as I see, the crux of the whole production. It's what stops it being another comedy of manners (a reverse Taming of the Shrew, a quasi Emma). Shaw explores the basis of love, the nature of...well...nature, inspiration, eternity and the meaning of life - clothed in Nietzschean concepts of life affirmation and the Übermensch.

Anyhow.  At some point, we left, nearly four hours later (James having given me one of his 'you are the worst mother in the entire world to keep me up so late when I'm in the middle of GCSEs...and for theatre' looks) and walked back to the car.
'I don't get the superman bit,' said Gabs.
I frowned.  Poor lad.  If James had found it interminable, how the hell (ho ho) had he stuck it out?
'I mean, that bit where she says, "Tell me where I can find the Superman?" and the Devil says he hasn't been created yet, and she says that she will look for a father for the Superman.'
We looked at him.  'Huh?'
'So he hasn't evolved yet, right?'


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Politicians are pants, courgettes are bananas and other arty oddities

So I had written this long, self-obsessed, whining, pathetic post but then, before I could post it, I had to go to pick up James from school and, when I came back, I stumbled across this picture of...A Variety of Unprocessed Foods Cut into Uncannily Precise 2.5cm Cubes by Lernert & Sander
Mesmerised, I was.  Quite mesmerised.  You have to look closer...
In fact, you really should go and see the whole lot - they've been printed on a website called This is Colossal - here's the link...
In fact, the whole website is really worth a look.  All kinds of intriguing things but mainly a blissful obsession with food-related art.  Take these, for example - Graft Tableware: Biodegradable Utensils that Look Like Vegetables
Seriously pretty, huh?  
Not to mention these...and, no, that picture is not digitally produced, not at all.  Which does make you wonder...why? But then, it's Art.  Not saying I'd want to spend hours, days, whatever finding out how to arrange apples like that but I'm sort of reassured that someone has the time, energy, ingenuity, discipline and panache to do so. You could argue that one's time could be spent in more useful ways...I dunno, saving the world or something but, hey...sometimes we need to make space for things that are totally useless but somewhat beguiling, no? 
And then there's this...banana disguised as a courgette.  Because, let's be honest, every time we see a banana we think, 'Ha, masquerading as a courgette, are we?'  Or is it the other way around?  You don't?  Me neither.  But then I'm not an artist.  

Actually I just love this site sooo much, it would be easy to sit here all afternoon, scrolling through and showing you great bits.  But, hey, go discover for yourselves...just report back with the juiciest bits, huh?

Oh, and one last thing...that amused me a press release through about these...
Yup, politicians printed on pants.  Or rather, politicians are pants.  Genius.  Pure genius.  Do you want Boris on your bottom,, on second thoughts, let's not go there.  I leave you to make up your own captions.  Please share.  So far it's been a totally pants week and I need all the laughs I can get. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

5 ways to help with GCSEs, A levels and, well, anything really

I am neck-deep in revision, up to my eyeballs in osmosis and diffusion, global warming and biodiversity, Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men.  Yes, James is in the throws of GCSE exams and I'm trying to do my bit to help.  It takes me right back to my own exams, O levels of course, and how my own mother used to do sterling work.  Truly, she was tireless and patience personified.  It's entirely down to her that I can still memorise vast chunks of Latin, a plethora of dates around the 1830s and a bunch of biology definitions.  Useful?  Well, not really, not as far as life goes but that's exams for you - what do they really teach other than the ability to store information?

To be fair, as we go through James' coursework, there does seem to be more joined-up thinking these days.  Biology cross-fertilises Geography and Chemistry - a wider picture is drawn.

It's easy to be overwhelmed - there is a lot of information there that he's required to retain.  A heck of a lot.  And he wants to do well, of course he does.
It's a tricky thing, parenting at exam-time.  How can you best encourage without pushing?  What is the most useful stance to take? far, this is what I've been saying.

1. Get perspective.  Yes, GCSEs are important but, in the scheme of life, they're not the be-all and end-all.  Try your very best, put in the work you know you should and, truly, after that there is no point in stressing.  You can't control what topics will come up but you can control the way you react to a paper - both during the exam and afterwards.  Don't waste time stressing over what has been and gone. It's in the lap of the examiner.
2. Change your mind.  It all comes down to attitude - the messages you feed your mind will alter your entire psychological and physiological response.  Tell yourself you like exams, you enjoy exams, exams are actually - yes - fun.  You might not believe it at first but keep going and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It works in the same way as affirmations - the more you bombard your psyche with a positive message, the more the subconscious will work to make it a reality.  Why should you enjoy exams?  Because when you enjoy an activity, you are putting yourself into the 'zone', into a place of calm, focused awareness.  Of course, your friends might well mock this attitude - so I advise keeping this as a secret ally.  Whenever they whine and moan about how much they hate exams, are scared of exams, dread exams, just nod while repeating quietly to yourself - 'Not me, I love 'em!).
3. Focus on the now.  There is so much anxiety about exams, so much energy wasted on fretting about the future and so much energy wasted on lamenting the past.  Keep focused on what you are doing NOW.  Whenever panic rises, breathe - breathe slowly and deeply, flooding your mind and body with oxygen.  Practice the 'right now' trick - ask yourself if you are okay 'right now', right this very moment.  Of course you are!  There's no point stressing about the exams you've already done - they're gone.  History!   You need to motivate yourself enough to put in the work for future exams, of course you do, but there's no point going rigid with fear over what hasn't happened yet.  It's a waste of energy.

4. Don't create drama.  It's easy to create drama about things, we all relish a bit of arm waving, shouting, wailing and gnashing of teeth but, really, what good does it do to throw books around, rail about the unfairness of exam topics, the hopelessness of teachers, and so on and so forth.  If you've got a load of tension built up, I advise a good session of cushion bashing to release muscular tension, or some kind of tough physical activity - a run, a cycle, some vigorous car washing or vacuuming (clever ploy, that last one, huh - kills two birds with one stone).  But cushion bashing is best.  Why?  Because it is so stupidly pointless, you quickly realise that all the drama is a bit...silly really.

5. Watch your food and drink.  Keeping hydrated is hugely important.  Your brain can't focus if your body is crying out for water.  I'm not a big fan of energy drinks - I'd stick to water or coconut water.  Food for exams?  Well, you don't want to be dozing off in the middle of an exam, so I'd say go for a light but nutritious protein and veg - tofu stirfry, cheese and veg frittata, or - for the meat-eaters - grilled fish and veg, chicken kebab and salad.  Nuts make a good snack.
 Steer clear of heavy carbs (bread, pasta, baked potatoes) as they can make you dozy.  Equally, don't be tempted to scarf sweets and chocolate - they will spike blood sugar levels which will then crash, leaving you feeling lethargic.

I could go on, but those are the five major ones that we're finding useful. You can find all the technical stuff on revision online easily enough.  Final note to parents - do remember that, ultimately, it's not our business what our son or daughter does re exams.  It's their life, their exams, their future. Tempting though it may be to berate and nag or shout or sneer, resist at all costs.  To be honest, it's counter-productive - ten to one you'll make them want to rebel, to stick two fingers up by flunking the lot. Motivation has to come from within, it has to be intrinsic. Carrots (rewards for good results) or sticks (withdrawn privileges, love, approval) won't work.

What else can you do?  Be there, ask what support your child needs and try your best to offer it. Some might want you to help with revision (if so, ask them what would be most useful for them - remember they aren't you, so what worked for you might not work for them).  Some might just appreciate being left in peace, with occasional snacks and drinks being taken.  Some might want to offload anxieties, just to talk about stuff.  Some might appreciate being encouraged to go outside for a kickabout, see friends, have a night off.

You know what?  These are actually pretty good tips for life in general really... don't you reckon? Good luck, one and all.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Quaker wisdom for a shaken and stirred society

I've been watching social media today with sadness, as people tear one another apart over conflicting political beliefs.  So I came off Twitter and Facebook and was wandering through some old files and came across a piece I wrote for the Daily Mail many many years ago.  As I read it through, it struck me that it could be worth putting out again.
It's about a book, published back in 1998 called The Quaker Book of Wisdom
Here's what I said back then...

Life’s tough.  We battle every day to make sense of a world which seems to be spinning increasingly out of control.  Sometimes, with all the cruelty, injustice and intolerance in society, it seems the only answer is to hide away and try to shut out the world.  But a way of dealing with the madness may come from an unlikely source. Quakerism with its unique silent worship began nearly 400 years ago but its teachings seem tailor-made for today’s world and its troubles.   Quakers base their lives around simplicity.  They value simple honest tenets such as truth, conscience, non-violence and service.  However they don’t turn away from the world but embrace it, finding a way of integrity through the moral maze of business, family and education.  

Robert Lawrence Smith who comes from a long line of Quakers, has encapsulated the Quaker way of life in a small but soulful book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom.  In it he explains the main Quaker philosophies - and how to apply them to daily life.  He doesn’t demand we all become Quakers - or even subscribe to a religious belief:  the book just gently nudges us to think of other, maybe better, ways of living.

“It is my ever-growing conviction that the compassionate Quaker message badly needs to be heard in today’s complex, materialistic, often unjust and discriminatory society,” says Smith, “The circumstances of modern life give far too little nourishment to our common humanity - to goodness, courage, common sense, reflection, wonder, patience, understanding.”
Many people, generally suspicious of orthodox religion, find comfort in the Quaker message. “Quaker precepts offer a lifeplan, a clear map which can provide us with all the advice we need to live contented, honest, serene lives,” explains Smith, “The simplicity of the Quaker message makes perfect sense to children often confused by a violent society.”  Above all, he insists, “Quakerism is a pragmatic faith - based on life and its experiences.  It looks to nature, to society, to family rather than to complex philosophies or esoteric teachings.”

I don't think you need to be religious, to have 'faith', to see that Quaker beliefs have a lot going for them.  I love that they can all, very easily, be incorporated into everyday life.

SILENCE:  For Quakers, wisdom begins in silence.  Quakers believe that only when we have silenced our voices and our souls can we hear the “still small voice” that dwells within each of us.  Only by listening in stillness for that voice and letting it guide our actions can we truly let our lives speak.  Quakerism is a very practical pragmatic religion and silence is valued by Quakers because it is, quite simply, useful.  The practice of silence - and it does take practice - is rewarding because it clarifies our lives, while offering a bit of a time-out for our souls.  If we can locate, at the very centre of silence, our individual “still small voice” we will have found our greatest ally in life.  Because, if we listen to that voice with an open heart, it will guide us through the most challenging crossroads of our lives.
Take time each day just to be silent.  You don’t have to go for deep meditation.  It need only be five minutes but just sit quietly with your thoughts.
Don’t race to fill a gap in the conversation - learn to listen and only speak when you really have something to say.
Enjoy silence when it comes.  Don’t automatically turn on the TV or radio.

TRUTH:  Sadly we live in a world where it is virtually taken for granted that many of the people we listen to are not telling the truth:  we distrust the words of politicians, the press, advertisers, salespeople.  But despite our society, we need truth.  Truth is the best that is in each of us - the part of us that is drawn naturally towards the good, towards God.  If we listen for the truth - for the best that is within us - then our lives will begin to “speak”.  As George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said, “Truth comes from within.  It is the basis for daily life, like the food we eat.”  The search for truth is a lifelong pact with our inner lives that encompasses seeking the truth, recognising the truth, speaking the truth, and living the truth.
Start by being honest with yourself:  ask yourself how you really feel; what you really want; learn to listen to your body and your mind.
Be truthful in all your dealings - with children and adults; friends and colleagues, family and strangers.  Weed out white lies; don’t fob children off with half-truths; be honest with salespeople.
Remember that lies and even small deceptions can undermine relationships.  But be careful not to be cruel in your truth-telling.  Sometimes silence is the best option!
If you have any doubts, listen to your conscience, the still small voice.  What does it say - honestly?

SIMPLICITY:  For many Friends, simplicity is the cornerstone of their lives.   However it is frequently misunderstood.  The simplicity of lifestyle the Friends extol is not based on forsaking worldly goods and pursing some vision of a less complex bygone era. Nor is it about finding a quiet corner where you can contemplate your life and feel good about yourself.  In a nutshell Quaker simplicity is not about how much you own but how much you let your possessions own you.  “What do I need?” is simplicity’s fundamental question - a question which stands in strict contrast to our favourite national pastime of shopping!  We gain a false and fleeting sense of self-esteem from our ability to purchase things for ourselves and our children.  Yet we often finish our shopping trips feeling unsatisfied and depressed.
If you engage the whole family in fun activities - hiking, camping, picnics, shared activities - children won’t feel the need for so many toys to keep them amused.
Don’t waste your time or your money.  Keep good track of your accounts but don’t let money rule your life.
Find time for simple wholesome rituals - sitting down for family dinner; spending time in nature; baking bread or a cake together.

SERVICE.  For Quakers there is a direct link between worship and service.  The search for truth, which begins in silent contemplation, finds its expression in action.  Friends believe that the reason we were put on earth is to help each other, to make this a better world.  They ask themselves: What can we do to make the world healthier, happier, less violent?  The first generations of Quakers in the US took up the challenge by working for the abolition of slavery, fair treatment of Indians, and humane conditions for prisoners and patients in mental hospitals.  True service, they believe, responds to need wherever it exists in the human family - not simply to the problems of our direct kin, close friends and political allies.
Try not to turn your back on society’s problems.  Start to look at problems like homelessness in the eye, rather than trying to avoid them.
Look for small ways to be of service to others.  If you see someone struggling with a heavy bag up a flight of stairs, could you offer to help?  Might you guide a blind person across a busy road?  If you have a quiet moment at work, could you help someone who’s overloaded?
By all means give to charity but could you spare time to be of more direct help?  Think about volunteering your time, not just your money.

Robert Lawrence Smith also offers ten nuggets of advice - Quaker life lessons to help live the simple life.

1. Seize the present.  Make the most of your time every day of your life.  We usually let time slip away from us by continuously thinking ahead to the next activity, the next day, the next weekend, the future.  We live on constant fast-forward.  Instead try to take advantage of today.  We may be impermanent, but we are surely not insignificant.  Everything we do matters.

2. Love yourself, whatever faults you have, and love the world, however bad it is.  It’s often hard to love ourselves and even harder to love the world around us with all its faults.  But look for your good points, rather than focusing on the bad.  And start to look for good in the world too.

3. Stop talking and listen to what you really know.  You know a lot in your heart and through your common sense.  Learning to trust your own mind, with its wonderful richness and versatility is how you find out who you really are.  Hold high expectations for yourself and for others.  People rise to expectations.  Listen to your gut; trust your instincts and your common sense.

4. Play a team sport.  Playing with a team teaches you to be ready for anything and that there is only so much you can control.  You experience the happiness that comes from doing your best and from performing well.  You learn to keep going despite overwhelming odds and learn how to win and lose - hopefully both gracefully.  Playing team sports is a powerful antidote to self-centredness.

5. Accept the fact that your life is only partly in your own hands.  Often we don’t have the luxury of making choices.  Our lives are lived as if we were riding a canoe down a strongly flowing river, just trying to stay upright and get to the end.  Character is measured by how we deal with the reality.

6. Believe in the perfectibility of yourself and society. It’s easy to be cynical but try to resist it.  Instead dare to be an optimist:  optimism builds and creates.  Develop an attitude of expectancy, an inner bounce that is based on faith in the bounty of the next day.  Believe always in the goodness of people and the fact that things can be made better.

7. Make your love visible in the world through your work. You’re likely to funnel most of your waking time and energy into work.  Make it count.  Take it seriously.  In work you can express your own moral voice.  Find a sense of self-worth in your work by making yourself an instrument for healing, for service.

8. Seek justice in the world, but not in your own life. Life is unfair.  There is no shortage of injustice in the world, but equally no end to the ways you can work to correct it.  However don’t get hung up on the unfairness you may perceive in your own life.  There will always be others with more talents, more resources, and more advantages.  Work with what you have and never look back.

9. Look for the light of spirit/God/good in every person.  It’s easy to see people’s dark side - their petty greeds and prejudices, their selfishness and fear. The challenge is seeing the divine in other people.  In the only sense that really matters, we are all equal:  there is something of God (whatever you conceive that to be) in every person.

10. Let your life speak.  Have the patience to be silent and listen for truth.  Then have the courage to let the best that is in you direct your actions.  Recognise that your true identity is nothing more or less than the way in which you conduct your public and private affairs - the way in which for good or for ill, you let your life speak.

A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith (Gollancz).  Click the pic for more details.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

I have seen my bowels - and they are beautiful. On bowel-scope screening and free drugs

A few months back I got an invitation.  Now, back in the day, I used to get invitations to swish openings, to fancy press events and smart hotels.  Now I get invites to bowel scope screenings. Welcome to middle age.
But seriously, I had no idea that the NHS was now screening people for the early signs of bowel cancer.  So I opened the leaflet and had a read.
Turns out that bowel cancer (colorectal cancer) is the third most common cancer in the UK with about one in eighteen people getting it in their lifetime.  Except, wait.  I've got two leaflets here and one (the NHS one) says it's the third most common, while the other (Cancer Research UK) states firmly that it's the fourth most common (after breast, lung and prostate).  Oh, come on guys, make up your minds!
One of those realistic conversations one has...
Anyhow.  I read on and thought, okay, why not?  I think people tend to fall into one of two camps - the 'I want to know' type and the 'I'd rather not know, thank you very much' type.  I'm a want-to-knower.  Also, as a health writer, I felt duty-bound to try it out and report.

So, I said yes.  And promptly forgot about it.  Until a small box turned up in the post.  For a moment I got excited (I do so love a parcel) until I realised that it wasn't a nice present but a home DIY enema kit.  Holy shit (to coin a phrase) - is there no getting away from having to shove things up my arse?

Anyhow, I did the enema, as instructed, and drove off to the hospital.  Now, maybe I hadn't read it all properly, maybe I was a bit cavalier about the whole malarkey, but I really did think I was going to pop in, lie down, have someone take a quick gander and that would be it - all done and dusted and out in ten minutes.  So I was somewhat puzzled when I was given a pile of forms to fill in and someone stuck a plastic wristband on me.  Next up, I had to put on one of those bloody awful hospital robes that ties up at the back.
'I've got all the ties, haven't I?' I said to the nurse who came to fetch me, marching merrily out into the busy corridor, trying to keep my dignity while wearing a billowing tent and socks.
She took a look and shook her head.  'Er, you might want me to just adjust that.'
Bare-arsed to the Endoscopy department of Musgrove Park Hospital?  Great.

We trip-trapped down the corridor to the procedure room and four faces looked round as I walked in. All smiling cheerily, suspiciously cheerily.  How many people does it take to do a bowel scope screening?  Five it appears.  Five nice jolly smiling people.
'Do you want Entonox?' said the nurse by my head (she got the best end).
'Entowot?' I said.
'Gas and air,' she said.  'Didn't you have it when you had babies?'
'Oh, right. Of course. Yes.'
'There you go.  So you know how to use it?'
'Hang on, it was sixteen years ago.  I was having a baby, for pity's sake.  I can't remember anything apart from Lowri Turner building a shed.'
She looked puzzled but decided against pursuing the topic, clasping the mask over my nose and telling me to breathe in deeply.
Hang about, why on earth do I need pain relief for a bit of bowel prodding?
'Deep breaths,' she said.  'Long deep breaths.'
'Like yoga, huh?' I said.
Mine was much prettier actually. 
'Oh, if you can do yoga, you'll probably be fine,' she said.  'To be honest, it's mainly the men who need it.'
Now why doesn't that surprise me?
Anyhow.  It was fine, totally fine.  At one point they pump some carbon dioxide inside to open up the bowel and that feels a bit...odd...but, truly, it's not painful.

'You're doing awfully well,' said Julie, the nurse practitioner who got the coal face, so to speak.  I resisted the urge to tell her that I was a dab hand at having things poked up my backside.  It might have spoiled the mood.  As it was, we had quite a jolly time, all told.  Nice bunch in endoscopy (no shit job jokes please).
'Your bowel is really clear, really clean,' said Julie.
Of course it is!  I mean, it bloody well should be, what with all those juices and Clysmatics.  So I copped a look and, she was right, my large intestines are really rather photogenic - all pink and perky. I wondered about asking for a snap (kinda like when you're pregnant and they do an ultrasound) but thought it might sound a bit odd.

'Nice stool there,' she added. Seems I not only have beautiful bowels, I also have perfect poop.  What an accomplishment.
She then announced she was taking out the carbon dioxide, which was a relief - sudden visions of floating off into the ether with an over-inflated bowel sprang to mind.  But then I got another vision of my bowel deflating like a sorry for itself party balloon and had to fight the urge not to laugh.

I got a nice mug of tea and a packet of biscuits and drove off, comforted in the knowledge that my bowels are tip top tickety poo.

Anyhow.  There you have it.  So, if you get invited to one of these things, you know what to expect.
While we're here, I reckon I should share the symptoms of bowel cancer.  These are from the NHS leaflet which, in the interests of 'plain English', has decided to infantalise its entire vocabulary which, given it's aimed at people 55 and over, is a trifle disconcerting - particularly because, in the writing of this post, I appear to have fallen into sync with it.
- blood in your 'poo' (poo?  really?)
- any changes in your bowel habits.
- an unexplained lump in your 'tummy' (see what I mean?)
- 'poo' that is looser than normal.
- unexplained tiredness or weight loss, and bloating, swelling or pain in your 'tummy'.
If you have any of these symptoms for more than three weeks, the NHS suggests you see your GP - it doesn't necessarily mean you have bowel cancer but, if you do, the earlier it's found, the better the chances of successful treatment.

What do they suggest to lower the chances of getting bowel cancer?
- be physically active
- eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and other high fibre foods.
- eat less red meat and less processed meat (why eat meat at all, I ask?)
- cut down on alcohol - the more you cut down, the more you reduce  your risk.
- keep a healthy weight
- be a non-smoker.  If you smoke, it's never too late to stop.

Who do you think will get my vote?

'Are you going to vote?' James asked over lunch (tortilla, in case you're interested).
'Yes,' I said.  
When I was young, I used to wear a badge saying, 'Don't vote; it only encourages them'.  I thought myself an anarchist, falling in love with the drama and sheer naughtiness of it.  But actually, as I've grown older and less wise, I find myself pondering more and more about anarchy as the ultimate aim. It's a misunderstood term, by and large.  The word comes from the Greek - anarkhos - meaning, simply, without a chief/ruler.  In a political sense it denotes the absence of government, absolute freedom of the individual - a stateless society.
Anarchy asks that we are utterly, totally moral within ourselves.  That we hold ultimate responsibility.
Anarchy holds the state to be immoral.  Can you argue with that?
Who was it that said, 'The most dangerous people in the world are those who know what is best for others'?
Whoever it was, they have a point.
I'm a dreamer, huh?  But, see, I don't trust politics.  I don't trust politicians.  They all say they know what is best for others.  It takes a certain kind of person, I feel, to become a politician.  The bossy, know best, sort.  It's another truism that the people who probably should be in politics, wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. While those who probably shouldn't, fight tooth and nail for power.  Power.  That's the key, huh?

Meanwhile, back in our kitchen, Adrian got up from the table. A little too noisily, the chair scraping a little too violently. 'I suppose you'll be voting Green again,' he said, nearly spitting out the word.  'Green', that is, not 'again'.
'Most likely,' I said.
'And what do you think would happen to the economy?' he said, turning rather red, or was it green?
'What economy?  There won't be an economy if we don't have a functioning planet,' I said with a smile.
He marched off.  And that was our first (and probably last) political debate of the election. :-)
It made me smile because it put me in mind of my parents.  My father was staunchly Labour; my mother firmly Tory (possibly the only Tory-voting Guardian reader?).  Come elections they would have poster wars - ripping down one another's posters from our front window.  It got very heated. Politics usually has that effect.  So, here we are again - Adrian true Blue, me a bit water melonish?

Of course, going back to the Greens, they're not as squeaky clean as you might think when it comes to environmental issues - but they're a darn sight better than the rest.  Quite seriously, the finer political points do rather become meaningless if we don't have a home planet, don't you think?  And a lot of the things that get us hot under the collar fade away if we start to think of our 'state' as the whole planet, not just places with boundaries determined by random historical and geographical decisions; if we think of our 'people' as the human race in general, rather than our 'class', our 'type', our 'race', our 'sort'.  

Maybe I just want to shuffle things up a bit.  A lot.  Because, heaven knows, we're in a right pickle the way we are, aren't we?
Is it a wasted vote?  I don't think so.  Everything has to start somewhere.  Remember, not so very long ago, there wasn't a Labour party.  And the 'real' work, the real change, doesn't come from outside, from the dictats of any political party or government - it comes about within each and every one of us.  It comes when we change ourselves.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Is Niacin the cure for schizophrenia, alcoholism, migraine, arthritis and heart disease?

Now, this is interesting.  When I was in Portugal I read a book called Niacin: the Real Story (click on the cover for more details).

We were taking Niacin four times a day to dilate blood vessels (and so speed up the elimination of toxins from the bloodstream).  In addition, we were told, it would push blood deep into underactive tissue so it could be repaired with vital nutrients.  'It also stabilises blood sugar and repairs DNA' said our detox manual.  
Now I've never really thought about Niacin before but this book made me think long and hard.  
Niacin (vitamin B3) is tiny - it's smaller than even the simplest sugar - just 14 atoms.  Yet small is beautiful in this case and it plays a role in over 500 reactions in the body.  It seems that a whole host of diseases can be caused, or exacerbated, by having too little niacin.  So - rather obviously - a whole host of diseases can be cured or improved by supplementing niacin.

What kind of diseases?  Well - cardiovascular disease, natch.  Niacin can help tonify blood vessels and can lower levels of harmful cholesterol.  However it's also been shown to be hugely helpful in cases of arthritis, Parkinson's, migraine and, goes without saying, pellagra (a condition caused by total or extreme niacin deficiency).

What really smacked me between the eyes was the way it can cure (yes, cure) schizophrenia.  Back in the early 1950s a medical doctor, psychiatrist and bio-chemist, Dr Abram Hoffer, started researching niacin.  By 1954 he performed the first double-blind, placebo-controlled (ie gold standard) nutrition studies in the history of psychiatry.  Dr Hoffer was head of psychiatric research for a Canadian province and he made one important observation - people with schizophrenia had very similar symptoms to people with pellagra. He also observed that when niacin was added to flour (it's used as a flour improver), about half the people in mental health institutions recovered enough to go home. But what about those who didn't get better?  He started treating them with niacin.  Not just small doses but hugely high doses - up to 3,000 milligrams a day.  Crazy?  Well...he cured schizophrenia in about 80 percent of cases.
Impressive?  You bet.  Standard drug therapy doesn't achieve that.  But guess what happened next? The American Psychiatric Association blackballed him.
Why?  Hazard a guess.  How much does niacin cost?  Can you patent it?

The research is compelling and I find it pretty shocking that it's not more widely known.  It also seems likely that niacin can help in more generalised depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar.  The book also suggests it's a gentler and more effective solution for hyperactivity and ADHD in children than that chemical cosh Ritalin.

What else?  Oh yes, it can be a huge boon for anyone wanting to kick alcohol.  The book even gives a prescription for people who want to knock booze on the head which goes as follows:
10,000 mg vitamin C
3,000 mg Niacin (taken through the day in divided doses)
2-3,000 mg L-Glutamine
2-3 tablespoons of Lecithin
200-400mcg Chromium polynicotinate
A high-potency multi-vitamin and mineral (containing 400mg magnesium)

Interesting, huh?  Anyhow, please don't take my word for it.  But if you suffer from any of the conditions mentioned, it might be worth checking it out.

Meanwhile, I'm buying these:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Mountain-Monk Enku - In Heaven's River

A small parcel arrived the other day.  Inside was a book, pleasingly square, entitled

In Heaven's River: Poems and Carvings of Mountain-Monk Enku

It's a tribute to the life and art of the 17th century Japanese 'Mountain Monk' Enku. Not heard of him? Me neither.  

Enku's life didn't start out too well - he was orphaned at seven when his mother was swept away in a flood. 

'For my mother's life
This monk's robe substitutes.
May the Dharma form
Ten thousand generations.

He become an itinerant monk but he was also a sculptor and a poet, carving countless Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Shinto Deities and folk gods.  Some were whittled with just a few strokes from small shivers of wood; others were hewn from tree trunks and carved with precision.  
At some point, Enku retreated to a cave, an open-faced cave in a mountain forest.  Before it, a stream. Here he meditated and continued his vow to carve 120,000 Buddhas.  

Was he a lover as well as a monk and an artist?  He was undoubtedly a romantic.  Some of his faces seem stern and foreboding but the majority have a peaceful, gentle mien - they smile.  
This is a lovely book, one to dip in and out of, letting the eye gently curve, the mouth softly wink, the mind beat and the heart rest.  

Buy it from Zenways if you can.  There's also a selection of T-shirts and cards - see here.
Or, if you are wedded to Amazon, click on the pic.

Some examples?  Of course...
Let me turn to a page at random...

Round moon
Shining moon, once again
I bow to you.'


'On this journey
In peoples' minds.
Life so short
And no time to talk.'

And finally...

'Endurance - 
The lotus flower in the mud;
Eight or nine petals, despite all
Blooming - 
The divine altar.'
Oh, and all profits go to Aid for Japan - caring for children orphaned by the 2011 tsunami.