Here we are, five days into December and already galloping our way towards Christmas. I managed to complete my ‘Do One Thing’ challenge and have given myself a couple of days to exhale before giving some feedback.

Firstly, I’d like to say that it’s all about community. The park runners who baked; the mums who ransacked their homes to come to the swap-shop; the willingness of people to wash cups instead of using disposables and those who donated to great causes. I am so grateful to my friends at Belfast City Council, Brenda McMahon, Mary Brady, Gráinne McMacken and Jackie Fraser who took time to chat with me about recycling and to share ideas.

This is just a quick bit of feedback and I’ll send more on at a later date:

  • A massive thanks to Ormeau park runners who raised £300 for the Burma Campaign from our coffee morning on Saturday the 23rd November. I spoke to a representative from the charity yesterday when I transferred the money and he was audibly moved when he heard the amount we were donating.
  • At the start of the month some friends came round for lunch as part of ‘The Big Broth’ event and between a few of us we raised £50 for the charity ‘Centre Point’  for homeless people. This shows how having a small event at home can be a most worthwhile endeavour, and provide an opportunity for a catch up too.

  • I am thrilled that the PTA at my children’s primary school has been so receptive to ideas of how to minimise our use of plastics.  We have changed a few traditions at our Christmas Fair: this year Santa will give books instead of selection boxes, and we have also invited a couple of local store holders with a commitment to environmentally friendly products.
  • The Hospice Shop and Oxfam on the Ormeau Road were the happy recipients of a few bags of toys and some bric-a-brac from the Swap Shop. That evening was such a success that we’ve vowed to do it again. My children benefitted extremely well from the event and it has ignited their enthusiasm for a few games and jigsaws they hadn’t played with for ages too, but weren’t ready to part with. We’ve all decided it was the party that has kept on giving.
  • I’d like to thank the fabulous Nuala Walls down in Riah Hair on the Ormeau Road. Upon enquiring what happened to all the magazines in the salon when they were out of date, Nuala said ‘Have Them!’ and contacted me to lift a boxful on Friday 30th. I delivered most of these to Anadale Nursing home, but took out the Marie Claire and Red,  as I didn’t think the elderly residents would appreciate the articles on ‘My adventurous sex-ploits’ in the former. (I may be wrong: maybe it would liven up their day nicely.)
  • I sent a petition off about protecting our libraries and the MP for South Belfast sent the following in response:

Dear Helen,

Thank you for your email and for taking the time to contact me to outline your views about library provision.  I fully agree that Libraries play a key role within our communities, not just for educational purposes but also to provide a community space and other services.  Library funding is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, however, I am happy to do what I can to support and protect this great community service.

Kind Regards,

Emma Little Pengelly MP 

  • We’ve actually been visiting our local library more since November as now I know some of them are under threat I’m determined to use them more and show support. Yesterday my girls suggested that we go to Cregagh library and raced ahead in excitement. We got a great welcome and I even got peace to browse, while they took a wee seat to themselves.
  • By far the best thing about the campaign is the number of people who have chatted to me since, and said that they are making their own presents (and giving me homemade gin, that was an unexpected delight) and who are going to organise some events of their own. People I didn’t know very well at all volunteered to bake for me and help with washing up at parkrun. I feel indebted to all my friends on the Ormeau Road who are so supportive and  willing to help. When one looks at the news, the world doesn’t feel like the kindest place at the moment, but a quick flick through my mental notepad and it’s all the good stuff coming to the fore. Thanks all xx

Twice in a row now I’ve managed to turn my Fridays from Black to Green, and show a gentle rebuke to the mounting barrage of ‘BUY IT NOW’ e-mails pinging into my in-box. This morning I donned my wooly cardigan and off I zoomed to Portview Trade Centre in East Belfast to take part in a Winter Wreath Making Workshop, to raise funds for the charity Shared Threads NI, which makes and sends sanitary products to women in the Third World. The money from our donations today will be used to send 200 hygiene kits to a women’s prison in India; all organised by the indefatigable Kirsty King.

I was thrilled when Kirsty contacted me to say she was organising one of her creative events, and it was doubly serendipitous that it coincided with the last day of my month long challenge.

 

 

Any hint of winter blues were swiftly banished when I entered the huge airy space on the top floor of the Portview Building, with panoramic views over the city. Kirsty’s friend Janice guided us through a wreath making demonstration, before we took our places at a long table, somewhat reminiscent of the old Fairy Liquid ad when I was a child. Then we made small bunches of greenery: holly, fern and hydrangea, gathering and twisting with twine around a rose gold ring, making our wreaths as wild and bushy or as minimalist as we wished. I could still smell the sweet citrus scent of the dried orange from my finger tips  an hour later. I rarely do much gardening, and I don’t work with my hands much, aside from the usual toil around the house. I found this process to be restorative and invigorating. Jenny encouraged us to keep the twine and wire so when the season is over and the leaves lose their lustre,  we can make another one with freshly cut produce . ‘My kinda gal’ I thought.

I met a former work colleague and a few acquaintances from times past, and spent a splendid morning, drinking coffee, chatting as I wound and pruned. I want to do this again. I want to try different arty activities for a taste of something new and different and support a great cause while I’m at it. ‘Can we do one?’ said the children when I got home and they clapped eyes on my wreath. ‘I’d love that!’ I said, and I meant it. It would be a brilliant activity to do as a family. Often little hands tap at screens instead of working with natural stimuli, and I would love this type of sensory stimulation for them. So more of the same, Kirsty and Janice. We’ll be back!

(Thanks to the the lovely Meg on coffee duty too.)

You may not think of yourself as a writer or have much inclination to do so. Or perhaps you think you would like to write, but fear not being able to produce anything worthwhile, which discourages you from starting.

I look at my children and they are always drawing and scribbling away. The youngest child is asked every Monday to write a few lines about her weekend, and she came home MOST frustrated this week because she had run out of space and she still had ‘SO much to say.’

As a primary school child I loved writing short stories and poems. It was my favourite activity and then somehow, when I went on to secondary level, the urge began to dry up, then petered out altogether. I had one teacher in particular who tried to encourage me, but some message had by then filtered through to my consciousness that there was no point; I just wasn’t a writer.

Despite giving up on writing creatively, I still continued to write in the form of letters. My third year of university I lived abroad was fastidious about sending missives home every week. I enjoyed writing these immensely and it was little like keeping a journal. On any of my travels since I have written long e-mails to friends and family. I’m so grateful to have done this, as re-reading them now I am transported back to those times and memories which would otherwise have been forgotten.

Writing is by far the most therapeutic activity I’ve ever done. It  surpasses the running, the yoga and even my trips into the mountains. It’s difficult to carve out the time to settle down and write as often as I like, and it’s easy to go for days without putting down anything of substance. However, writing has allowed me to look at how the past has shaped me, and to gain a different perspective on events. As a process it can be challenging and frustrating, but ultimately, I’ve found it to be healing.

Much of the memoir work I’ve done may never be shared or published. It is the process which was important for me, and the friends and mentors I have met on my literary journey.

This Christmas, perhaps in place of a material gift, you could research a writing class and see if between the School of Open Learning at Queen’s or The Crescent Art’s Centre there’s one which could suit you.

So today, consider taking a few minutes to write. Whether it’s a letter or a journal or a response to some stimuli, give it a try and see what happens. The first time I told a story at the Tenx9 story-telling event in The Black Box, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to to fill the allotted 10 minutes. As it turned out, I was at least 200 words over the word limit and had to do some serious editing.

Unleash your writer within, and it may surprise you.

I’ve recently joined a FaceBook group called ‘Plastic-free living tip swap’, which I can recommend having a look at if you’re trying to reduce your reliance on plastic. It’s incredibly difficult to avoid plastic altogether but there are some brilliant suggestions on there, and it’s also reassuring to know that other people are equally as bothered about the environment as I am.

So to get me started this year, I’m wrapping any Christmas presents I’m giving in brown paper. Ordinary wrapping paper can’t be recycled so this is one small step to limiting waste. I have tissue paper left over from last year so the above parcel I’ve wrapped in brown roll I bought from The Works, then chopped up pieces of newspaper to decorate. Strangely therapeutic, if I’m honest. And hey, the minimalist look is meant to be in, isn’t it?  Last year I used newspaper, which I quite liked too, but I was definitely eyed with disdain by some who clearly viewed me as a Scrooge-like sort of individual. Or just a nutter.

Anyway, should you be interested, check the site out as it’s most informative and challenges me to take my efforts on step further.

 

Remember when I started this challenge and was grumbling about November being miserable? Well, this is the weather I was talking about. It’s not just the wind and the rain either: it’s the snarled up traffic and the soul-less frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday: all that bulls**t that heralds the arrival of the ‘festive’ season.

So where better to head this wintry morning than Studio Souk on Ann Street, to meet crafter and workshop facilitator Alison Pascoe who creates beautiful macramé wall hangings and plant holders.

Alison has an eye for using space creatively. ‘Every home needs plants,’ she tells me. ‘They are the lungs and filter of the house, and with a few clever hanging tips, you can create another dimension to a room, regardless of size.’ With the addition of a curtain rail, she shows me how to hang a few potholders, and I see immediately how a space can easily be transformed.

 

It isn’t just physical space that can be enhanced either. The process of starting with a single strand, and the focus required to tie the knots to create macramé pieces, is mediative and therapeutic. I think I might have to jump aboard this trend: I could do with a bit of down time and distraction.

 

Alison is part of a collective of makers in Belfast who would like to cultivate a culture of skill-sharing. Starting In January she will be running more of her macramé workshops, which have proved extremely popular with hen-parties and groups celebrating birthdays. ‘People are keen to spend their time in different creative ways,’ she says. ‘Instead of shopping or  nights out, groups want to gather and learn and chat, leaving with something that they’ve made themselves.’

You can read all about Alison’s products and workshops on www.astrlfibres.com. I’m definitely motivated to get knotting and invite some new energy into the house.

Incase you were in any doubt, Christmas is fast approaching, or so our major retailers are insisting anyway. We’re currently arranging our annual Christmas Fair at school, which is brilliant way to give some of our local artists and crafters an opportunity to show off their wares. Fairs are one of my favourite ways to do any shopping I need to, as they enable us to shop locally and support makers and doers in ur community.

The great thing about writing an independent blog is that I can give a great big shout out to some of the stall holders coming; namely     Earth Made, Tropic, Stella and Dot and Neil’s Yard.

I’ve volunteered at a few events over the years though, and in an effort to get things tidied up and away, recycling is often low on the list of priorities. All rubbish tends to get bunged into the same bag and is thus contaminated, so materials which are easily recycled end up being sent to landfill.

Thus, today’s ‘One Thing’ to consider over the few weeks is to help if you’re at any event where this is likely to happen. While activities are in full swing, if you are organising a craft fair or any kind of festive gathering, set out a few clearly marked bins for cardboard, plastic, compostables and mixed waste.

When we spend time at home fastidiously separating our waste, at bigger events it is irksome to think that overflowing bin liners full of rubbish are simply chucked out.

My husband is also fed with me coming home with bin bags which I upend in the yard and proceed to plunder through, sorting what I can. It’s not a great look, me in my marigolds, amidst a pile of rubbish. But it’s one I’ll leave you with anyway.

 

Phew, this was one busy weekend! Swap-shops, fundraisers and all the usual chaos that comes with having excitable youngsters, who were in particularly exuberant form these last few days. I thus felt I totally deserved a Clover Club cocktail at 5-45 in town by myself, but it was a pretty hectic lead up to the indulgence.

This morning I was up before six, which is un-heard of unless I’m catching a flight or soothing an ailing infant. However, I didn’t mind forgoing a Sunday lie-in as I popped down to Radio Ulster  to have a chat with Kim Lenaghan about my ‘Do One Thing’ project. After such a cracker soirée on Friday and the response to the coffee morning yesterday I was bursting with vim and vigour.

My only worry is that I’m beginning to sound like a bit of a tool: banging on and on about cups and being nice to people. I’m sure there’s folk out there, who would happily do me an injury with the plastic cutlery I keep railing against if they see just one more of my posts on facebook. So be it, I have to say. I firmly believe there’s a better way, and if more of us make a conscious effort to scrap or limit our reliance on disposable products, then we’re onto something, both for the sake of our wallets and the environment.

I have recently read Emilie Pine’s excellent memoir ‘Notes to Self’, and in her final essay she writes about fear, and how it stops her students, and girls in particular, from speaking out in class, lest they are ‘perceived as being brash or arrogant.’ She goes on to say:

They were not born with these fears. They were not born feeling inferior. They were taught it. I know this because I was also taught it.

Always when I’m writing or telling a story or speaking on the radio, there’s a voice, (or several if I’m honest,) telling me to sit down and shut up. ‘What would you know?’ it says. ‘Think you’re  some sort of authority on well-being?’ Scoff scoff, it goes. ‘And who would want to listen anyway?’ It’s a right auld targe, this voice.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a woman, and we’re taught to sit quietly and behave and not annoy anyone, or whether it’s just my insecurity. There’s many I’m sure, who couldn’t care less what I think about the environment or my bouts of depression or my career change. But I they can always unfollow me or stop reading if I prove too much of an irritant. I’m clawing my way out of that place of feeling frightened all the time. It’s an exhausting and frustrating experience, being afraid to speak up.

But it’s not just about talking, it’s the doing which makes a difference. This morning my older daughter had a special Mass with her Beaver Scout Group. Afterwards there was a ‘spread’ and tea and coffee and I baulked a bit when I saw all the disposable cups for juice. I gathered up what I could to reuse and stayed behind to help and wash up the rest, having a great chat with a couple who I’ve barely met, even though their child is in my daughter’s class. It was lovely and we discussed better ways to recycle at the events and ideas for the future. (Poor folk got my life story.)  I took home a bag of mixed waste to see what I could recycle and compost and I thought to myself, well if I show I’m committed then maybe people won’t mind me sticking my nose in so much.

And then, what bliss, LSB took the kids to the cinema and I took myself into Lush and had a hand and arm massage with a ‘Pearl’ hand cream bar, as part of Serenity Sunday. I bought the hand cream and a bath bomb for the kids, then instead of shopping for stuff I didn’t need, I took myself off for a cocktail in Bert’s Wine bar, just myself and the Guardian magazine. It was the most gloriously stress-free hour I’ve had in a long time and it was delightful. Not so sanctimonious after all then, turns out I can treat myself rightly.

Who doesn’t love a caramel square? That’s what I thought anyway when I was thinking of different events during my month of ‘Doing One Thing’ to bring about some positivity throughout November. It’s hard to feel too grim, when you’re tucking into a slab of The Mothership’s chocolate cake, or one of Gerry’s brownies, especially if you’ve just run 5km and therefore totally deserve it.

The lovely organisers at Ormeau parkrun agreed to my putting on a coffee morning upstairs in the room at the Ozone where we normally sojourn for a cup of tea or coffee.  Of course, I only mentioned it to a few people last week, and had planned to make most of the baked goods myself, with a bit of help from my mum. I was therefore almost beside myself with relief and delight when one by one, runners started to volunteer their baking services. This morning people arrived with trays of shortbread, fifteens, coconut macaroons, rocky roads and cupcakes. One park runner’s teenage daughter  had toiled away other Friday evening, creating beautiful iced carrot cake buns, which vanished so quickly it could n’t be caught on camera. Thanks Christie!

I felt quite overcome with emotion and was a bit teary, though this may have had something to do with the throb in my temples form last night’s over-exuberance on the wine. Still, one cup of tea and a paracetamol later, my spirits were once again buoyant, as first the buns poured in, and then the cash.

 

I wanted  to raise money to support The Burma Campaign UK, which is charity which works with the displaced Rohingya people, a minority group in Burma who have been driven from their homes by the Burmese military in an act which can only be described as ethnic cleansing. Despite the atrocities directed against them, the plight of the Rohingya has been largely ignored by the Western World and the perpetuators of the crimes against them have yet to be held to account.

Sometimes it’s brilliant to be able donate clothes and excess belongings and redistribute these to those in need. However, in cases such as these, it’s money that is needed  to provide access to clean water and medical aid in the squalid camps in which the Rohingya find themselves. Today at Ormeau we raised £265 from a single coffee morning, and some people donated directly to the charity on-line.  Huge thanks to everyone who came, ran, baked, ate and donated. You were wonderful.

(Please excuse the lack of park runners in the photographs. The room filled up so quickly that taking pictures was an impossibility, and got in the way of serious cake-eating.)

 

 

 

Car after car snaked around the entrance to the retail park opposite Forestside near our home. Drivers looked tired and frustrated and I was equally so, since I just wanted to pick my kids up from school and had to sit through the red light three times in the snarled up queue.

I hate how this ‘Black Friday’ frenzy instills a sense of desperation and panic. My in-box has been filling up with all sorts of missives over the last few days. BUY NOW! OFFER ENDS SOON! HURRY UP! Feck that, I said, and organised a swap-shop with my friends. Ding-Dong went the bell at 8pm, and my triathlon ladies landed in, laden with toys and clothes and bric-a-brac. The cat wasn’t long legging it up the stairs when she heard the sound of craic arriving at full volume. Little heads peeked down over the bannister, eyeing up the
bags. We sipped bubbly with a splash of Chambord and surveyed the loot, before my utility room became the designated changing area and outfits were tried on and snapped up. One pal walked away with three dresses and a pair of matching shoes. There were jigsaws for children’s stockings and jewellery and cuddly toys. (I also made this feta cheese and honey dip of which I was EXTEMELY proud.)

‘What the hell is this Black Friday lark about anyway?’ we debated. Traditionally it was the Friday before Christmas when everyone got off work, went on the lash and decked all round them. I’m not sure this one’s much better with people bankrupting themselves over nonsense they don’t need. The BBC did at least report that Which? magazine showed that 9 out of 10 offers were no better than reductions throughout the year, should one care to look past the mania and do some research.

So, don’t succumb to the commercial hype. Ask your friends round, share your still-lovely cast-offs and have a raucous evening, oversharing details such as how your new menstrual cup got stuck and you had to sit on the bathroom floor googling videos of American women offering advice how to remove it. (That was me, obviously. Apart from the issues with extraction, I can totally recommend the Tulip Cup, by the way. I just need to get over myself.)

One word of advice is to put away all the stuff BEFORE your children descend upon it with gusto, as though Santa has made an early trip. ‘I’m definitely keeping this,’ said the Small Child, gripping a pink and white teddy round its neck, while wearing a dress and a t-shirt over her pyjamas.

Today the WhatsApp was still a-buzz with pictures of children in new clothes and playing board games. I’ll do a charity drop some time this week with what we didn’t swap and  The Hospice Shop on the Ormeau will also benefit from the night’s craic. I can heartily recommend Green Friday everyone.

 

 

Today it’s Thanksgiving in the US, and I have never, in all my life been to any class of Thanksgiving Event. Happily though, I’ve recently met a new friend who happens to be married to an American chap, and they’ve invited us to join them for a meal this evening with friends who are over from the States.. ‘How very jolly,’ I said, ‘a chance to drink wine of a weeknight, for a festive reason, as opposed to a feeling of desperation about life.’ My friend is Romanian, and shares a similar life view, as one prone to feelings of despondency but who keeps up and at it anyway.

My children are extremely excited and bouncing to and fro like chimpanzees on acid. It’s very wearing, but I suppose one should embrace childish enthusiasm instead of feeling irked. Alas, I am prone to feeling irked or peeved,, which is why I started writing in the first place, as a means of working through my frustration, and spewing my vitriol out as words upon a page, instead of directed at a significant other. It has, to a great extent worked, and LSB would testify that I’m not nearly as sour as I used to be.

Another tool I’ve employed to overcome feelings of negativity, is to list things for which I am grateful. When I do this, I smile more, and am more inclined to say thank you.

This morning I received a letter in the post from the Centre Point charity, thanking me for the money I raised from the ‘Big Broth’ event, where my friends came round and ate some soup to help homeless people. It warmed me that they so quickly acknowledged the donation and in turn I want to thank my friends who came and made me laugh that day, and my mum and brother who cooked most of the soup for me since I’d been off drinking Guinness in Galway until the day before.

Maybe we should adopt some of the sentiment of Thanksgiving here in Ireland. We don’t have to roast another turkey and chow down pie with sweet potato and marshmallow (does anyone REALLY need that in their lives?) but a day to ruminate upon what is good and rich in our lives might be good. Curmudgeonry as I am, I can’t recommend saying ‘thank you’ enough.