Monday, 20 November 2017

Sad about Blue Planet?

So this weekend has been a good one for raising awareness of plastic pollution, with Blue Planet II showing just how harmful our use of plastic is, and the news that the government are considering a tax on 'takeaway' plastic.

I've got 5 tips on how you can reduce your plastic immediately, but they're at the end of this post! Feel free to scroll right down and get to the action points!

It's also my 3rd weekend of the plastic free month, and it's been a week and a half since I last blogged- mostly because I haven't had a tremendous amount to say!
I know that sounds bizarre- when I was prepping for the month  I felt like the choice to avoid plastic was going to become quite all encompassing. Don't get me wrong- it's been quite a journey with a lot of changes to make but 90% of them were in that first week! Since then it's been pretty business as usual- it's just that 'usual' looks a bit different to how it used to!

Day to day I've found my groove- my water bottle, reuseable cup, knife fork and spoon are with me almost all the time, as are a couple of reuseable bags that fold up tiny (I have 2 IKEA ones I got in my stocking a few years ago) and a tupperware in the car. I've learned the fun way that one of my reuseable cups doesn't hold enough for a 'regular' costa/starbucks machine in a petrol station (cue a coffee flood) so that cup's become the back-up choice!

Food-wise, my habits have also 'stabilised' into a reasonable routine- the veg box comes fortnightly on Thursdays, the fruit and veg shop or the Mediterranean store fill in any produce gaps. Meat (on the one occasion I ate it) came in my own tupperware  from the butcher, and Tom made my day by arriving a week ago with a whole black bomber cheese in wax. I'm finding food shopping for day-to-day 'sustenance' (veggies, pulses etc) much easier than when I decide there's a specific recipe I want to make. It took 3 shops for me to get everything I needed to cook a girlie brunch last weekend, and when we made dumplings earlier in the week, some of the ingredients were nigh on impossible to find (dumpling wrappers?!). This is one of the elements that I'd be glad to see the back of in November as I do really love to cook a couple of recipes a week! Eggs butter flour and sugar are all fine so there's been plenty of baking!

brunch ingredients courtesy of the milkman, the butcher, the greengrocer and Tesco!

homemade coleslaw is becoming a lunch staple

First request for the butcher to use a tupperware. He couldn't have cared less!

I have a new found appreciation for my local greengrocer. (I use my own bags)
However, it's also been a good fortnight of planning and cooking from scratch, I've made biscuits, bread and yoghurt, and it was real pleasure to be cooking for day-to-day use rather than as a 'one off treat'. It's definitely made me more mindful of consumption- knowing that if I eat all the biscuits means I'll be making another batch definitely helps keeps the brakes on!

this mix made 60 biscuits so I've frozen them in batches

homemade yoghurt step 1

homemade yoghurt step 2

straining the yoghurt to make it thicker and more 'greek yoghurt' style.

It's also been nice seeing how much I can get in 'normal' shops- tins of pulses and veg (haven't opened a plastic-lined one yet), paper-wrapped chocolate as a treat (I love the Divine chocolate caramel bar) and the occasional bottle of IPA/ gin and fevertree tonic.

Pyjamas and chocolate: plastic free bliss!

From a beauty-routine point of view, I finally ditched my super blunt, last plastic disposable razor and switched to a safety razor. It was scary and I may have googled for about half an hour before finally attempting to shave my legs in the bath! 8 cuts on my ankles later and I think I've cracked my technique- changing the blades regularly is definitely a key element of that! Now to work out how to safely recycle the used, blunt blades! I'm going to get to the end of the weird, 1950s-esque stinky man-smell shaving stick that came with my blades and then swap to this from Southsea Bathing Hut. They were at the Stansted House Christmas fair today and have a whole lot of plastic free goodies that I'm excited to try out as time goes on.

The fly in the ointment this week was definitely a work trip to Nottingham. It was my first trip away from home without my car, and I was gone for 3 days. I had to really think about packing carefully- having necessities but not loading myself like a pack horse! I ended up taking my lunchbox, plastic (I know... but I did already own it!) reuseable coffee cup, and my water bottle. Nonetheless, it was tough going. Firstly- there's nowhere to fill waterbottles. I don't know if WH Smiths etc are paying train stations to keep hot-taps only in toilets but I had to ration my 1l bottle from Nottingham to Southsea. In the end I gave  up and drank G&T in a tin (not complaining!) but obviously that's not a solution to the wider problem. Similarly, I'd brought hummus and veg sticks for the trip up, and we were fed well at the hotel, but for the journey back, other than McDonalds (without straw, lids, or sauces) fruit or chocolate wrapped in foil, there was very little to eat at the station. Hats off to Pumpkin cafe for selling their cakes etc in paper bags, they kept me going! However- there's little to no segregated recycling in stations so it's either send the paper bag to landfill or bring it back home and recycle it! Combine that with all biscuits at the conference being individually plastic wrapped and by Thursday we were dealing with a very tired and over-thought Sarah! I was glad to be back home and back into my own routine.

The biggest thing I'm realising from this month is how much convenience feeds into our reliance on plastic. Whilst I can easily bring my coffee cup/water bottle (it's just a matter of new habits)- reducing my reliance on prepacked sandwiches, salads or snacks has  been much harder whilst working a full-time job. I've ended up 'eating in' in super market cafes on a few occasions just to avoid the plastic packaging for lunch options in the chiller- but the best option is definitely making a pack up- I just need to stay organised now the 'grab a sandwich' opt-out is no longer an option.
Similarly I was gutted at the Stansted Christmas Fayre today at how many of the food carts used plastic or polystyrene packaging/cutlery rather than cardboard or something biodegradable. I still haven't found the courage  to give them my own tupperware and ask them to fill it so Lucy and I bailed and went to the cafe instead! It was delicious and no packaging in sight.

Plastic that has snuck in this week has been:

  • 2 straws- I keep forgetting that in pubs I have to say 'no straw' or they'll give  me one automatically! It's really frustrating as straws are a)mostly useless unless you're infirm, elderly or incapable of reapplying your lipstick, and b)a HUGE contributor to ocean plastic fields.
  • Meds: I had already left my prescription medication out due to medical need but I went down with a horrid cold in Nottingham and had to buy cold and flu rememdy and a box of tissues that had a plastic seal. Again not having the car or many options meant I had to take the tissues available to me!

I'm realising that the chances are  a lot of the changes I've made for November are likely to be sticking around once this month is up. Additionally, I'd been having tummy problems for a few months (since July/August time) and because I've had to cut out pretty much all processed food, my stomach has been great all month! I've had wheat, sugar, chocolate, alcohol but everything has been cooked from scratch and it seems to be agreeing with me! Happy days.

Coming up in the next week:

  • I need  to buy more cheese- time to brave the supermarket and try and get them to fill my tupperware. Cheese and Cheers on Osborne Road have been lovely but they are not cheap.
  • Bokashi bin #1 is full and ready to go ferment for a fortnight. I need to work out where I'll put it and get started on #2.
  • I'm running out of washing up liquid and my attempt at soap nuts as laundry detergent has been a funky-smelling, stinky, abject disaster. I'm going to try splosh this week and see how their products go!
My journey to trying plastic free took time, thought and prayer but I'm aware that a lot of my friends have contacted me since watching Blue Planet this evening to say it's really made them think about their plastic consumption. If you want to cut down on plastic but 'plastic free' sounds far too far, firstly- I hear you- I thought the same thing initially, and secondly- start small!

Here are my 5 ways to start reducing plastic consumption today! Feel free to share this graphic:

As ever- thanks for lovely messages, articles shared with me and support across social media! You guys rock and are keeping me focussed as we pass the half way mark of this mad challenge!

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Week 1

We're a week in, and I'm infinitely happier today having sourced chocolate and milk for my tea. Funny how it's the little things that make life feel 'normal'!

Turns out: this plastic-free malarky requires organisation- not one of the adjectives you often find connected to my name unless it's preceded by 'Sarah would benefit greatly from an increased level of...'

Nevertheless, I'd thought I was quite prepared, I'd spent most of the previous week getting ready! I'd bought a bokashi bin, sewn enough produce bags that I could take most of Lidl home in them, and improved my indoor recycling bins to hold more and be easier to empty when full.

On halloween, I braved my fear of masks and headed into Southampton to Rice Up to get some staples in bulk. The fact I was popping into Southampton on the way home from Bournemouth just to get some basic storecupboard essentials suddenly seemed insane and I began to freak out about just what exactly I'd signed up to do!

Rice Up were great- weighing my homemade bags before I filled them and again once full. I stocked up on rice, risotto rice, orzo (the only pasta they had) and bombay mix (I'm quite a snacker!). Learning point #1- work out how your reusable bags relate to your containers at home! I eyeballed it and ended up with an extortionate amount of risotto rice- and far more Orzo than the bag would have suggested it held!

Anyway- cupboards duly stocked, I was off on my way to Northumberland for a couple of days with my parents. I wouldn't have chosen to road trip on my very first day of plastic free but hey- needs must and I don't get to see Mum and Dad very often, so off we went!

I packed a  'survival kit' to get me through a few days away from home: reuseable cup, reuseable water bottle, pyrex dish, produce bags, bees wrap, homemade granola bars, bombay mix and a load of veg left from the last veg box that I didn't want to waste. Never did I dream I'd become the person packing 2 beetroot and a cabbage for an 8 hour drive but, when needs must!

The trip itself was absolutely fine- most service stations have somewhere where you can eat in rather than take away, and we even managed snacks for the journey!
All Krispy Kreme bags have a little plastic window as do the boxes, so we just took them in the greaseproof paper.
I'm realising very quickly that I prefer filling my cup in the Costa self-service machines to having to give it in at the counter  if it's already had one coffee in it that day (so looks 'dirty'.) Social awkwardness is definitely something I'm gonna have to work on over the course of this month (as our delightful trip to the fishmarket later this week showed us!)

Coffee and snacks procured, it was up to Amble for a few days. This little town was plastic free HEAVEN (until 5pm when all the independent shops closed!) They had a selection of little pods round the harbour, and there was a cheese one who happily sold my mum and dad a selection of cheeses wrapped in paper. The Northumberland fish hatchery is there and has a fishmonger, and the local newsagent had glass bottles of milk (something I tried to no avail to find upon my return to Portsmouth on Sunday night when I realised the milkman wasn't coming til Tuesday and I had no milk! Sad, sad, uncaffinated times ensued). Also good options for veg, but as I'd seen fit to haul half the veg output of Wayside Organics to Northumberland with me, we didn't need any more!
Amble Harbour Pods (photo credit)

Dad cooked on the first night- due to no garlic being available except in a net we ended up using garlic granules from a jar! We cooked on the second night, having headed to the fish market that morning to get something nice to cook. I optimistically took my glass pyrex dish with me, (it's about 25cm square) and a selection of bees wrap to put the fish in.

I catagorically under estimated how big fish are!! I don't own anything (other than maybe a wok) big enough to fit a gutted-but-unfilleted sea bass/bream/large mackrel in. So the squid went in the pyrex and the fish man offered to find paper to wrap the fish. Except then the mid morning rush arrived and he couldn't find any paper. Cue an excruciatingly awkward 3 minutes (felt like 3 days) where I was biting down the desire to say 'never mind' and get it vac wrapped in plastic like everyone else. I even contemplated just carrying the bare fish back to the holiday cottage just to make the awkwardness stop! Needless to say, they found the paper eventually and we were off with a nice package of fish for tea.

I stupidly presumed we'd be able to get  some sort of oil in a glass bottle, even if I had to cough for local cold pressed rapeseed or something else equally gourmet and exciting. Unfortunately, the Co-op was pretty much useless (a pattern I'm seeing in co-ops down here too.) We decided to cook the calamari in lard- a first! This was just one of the many times where my food ethics (less meat) clashed with my eco ethics (less plastic) but as lard is a byproduct of the meat industry I decided for November it was the lesser of 2 evils.
yummy! (not)
Almost every fruit and vegetable in the shop was wrapped in plastic of some description. It's so frustrating- especially when you compare it (for example) to the Mediterranean store I use a lot in Portsmouth where absolutely all the fresh produce is loose:

Mediterranean Food Store
We headed home and cooked. The lard went according to plan, and we had a really great dinner of fish and potatoes. I'm not sure I'd cook with lard again, but it served its purpose on this occasion.

Cosmetics-wise, my lush tins of soap, solid shampoo and conditioner were great for travel.The only quibbles I have is that the eczema on my back seems to be waking back up (although that may be from it being November and cold, rather than the change in products), and that the bars need to dry open in their tins or go all gloopy and sticky which makes showering then packing them straight away a no-no. All-in all though, I don't look like I've been pulled through a hedge backwards  or smell too bad, so all seems OK on that front.
purple one is my night-time soap (lavender) the blue one is for when I've done a hard  workout (I like to reward myself with a 'treat' shower- weird I know. Tin back right is shampoo, and the bar at the front is conditioner.

We then spent a night in a hotel where EVERYTHING was plastic wrapped- even down to the disposable plastic water glasses! I just don't get it. Are we so scared of other human beings and contact with them that everything we use has to be single-use disposable? I drank from a mug (non plastic wrapped) ate the snacks we'd packed and soon we were headed back to Pompey (via a Starbucks drive-thru who made my coffee in a disposable cup, emptied it into my reusable cup and chucked the disposable one away: I kid you not!!)

We arrived home and almost immediately I realised I had no milk. Argh! Suddenly the inconvenient aspects of the challenge were back front and centre. I dealt with this by going to the  pub and drinking G&T (both from glass bottles!) It was time to try plastic free in real life!

My uncaffinated Monday got off to a terrible start when I turned up for training 24 hours early! I then couldn't find cheese for the dinner I wanted  to cook and ended up in a proper; "why am I even doing this?!" gloom. However, a lovely evening and a delicious beetroot risotto later and I was counting down the minutes til the milkman arrived with my milk (and therefore- my access to tea and coffee!)

I'm working from home today so have made a couple of loaves of bread and a big batch of coleslaw to keep me going. The veg box (and next round of milk) is due Thursday, the bokashi bin is gradually filling up and I am loving not having to empty the 'normal' bin! I think I'm slowly finding my way- one meal/dilemma at  a time.


This project is awkward. It's socially awkward (especially fish/cheese/meat/coffee buying), it's tricky having to plan so far in advance and really monitor what I've got in and what I'm going to need,. However- even in the one week I've been going so far, I've found it's also been a very mindful, intentional way to live. I was SO excited  for my orange juice this morning, and am drinking it very slowly, a glass a day until the next bottle can be delivered. It feels like  real treat and something to be savoured, and I think that's because I can't go running out to the shop for more if I decide to neck it all in one go. Similarly- I'm wasting less food because it's such a hassle to come by (and dispose of)- I'm eating my bread to the very last, stale slice (toasted) and am 'mindlessly' snacking much less as I know I have  to find or make any snack myself from scratch.

Also- a few people are loving pointing out inconsistencies and errors in my plastic-free-ness (blatently not a real word) be that linings of tins, the fact I'm still using up fresh food that's left from October but was bought in plastic and so forth. I'm loving the discussion this month is causing on all my social media channels- feel free to challenge me, ask stuff and send links (thanks to everyone who sent me this one for example). I am never going to be perfect at this stuff- I barely even recycled until September of this year and am on a huge learning curve. If this is causing you to think about how I could reduce my plastic even further (and believe me-  I'm thinking about this a lot too)- can I challenge you to turn the focus onto yourself, and see if there's anywhere in your life you could cut down on single use plastics? Even if it's just in your beauty routine or how you buy bread- the difference in waste getting sent to landfill over time would be huge!

Thanks for reading and being so supportive! Onto week 2 we go...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A new project...

Sorry for yet another large lapse in posting!

As you probably figured from earlier blogs, 2016 was a year of huge change for me and I've continued to grow, stretch and change as a result well into 2017. I still see my amazing therapist, and have been working hard to make sense of a whole lot of stuff- some of which may make it's way here and a lot of which won't!

The headlines are that I am divorced, still living in Southsea, still running, cooking, going to church and living a brilliant, full life- it's just very different to how my 2015 life was!

Anyway- as part of my making sense of things, I've been spending quite a lot of time putting my faith under the microscope, exploring my values, my understanding of my faith and how it shapes my day to day life.

One of the key things that I've always believed to be very important about how I personally live my faith has been action: that is to say, not just talking about it but getting off my bottom and doing something about it! Love Buckland, homeless outreach, the fact I work for a charity combatting educational deprivation are all part and parcel of how I have/do express how much I believe God cares for each and every person on this planet.

However, I've been becoming more and more aware over the past few months that I can't continue to separate my love for people from care for the world they inhabit.
The beautiful world we live in has been my solace, my place to get head space and clarity as I walk,run, swim and pray over the past year, and I've realised I need to step up in the care I take of it- or more particularly the little bit of it that comes into my very small sphere of influence.

Just some of the beautiful spaces I've explored this year

The effects of climate change and rampant consumption in our world are so heavily weighted toward the poorest, with much of the damage being done by the wealthier economies. This injustice both saddens and angers me- further driving my desire to do whatever I can to help.

I moved  to eating very little meat (I describe myself as flexitarian- sounds pretentious but is actually a pretty good description) in January of this year. I do eat some meat but it's a)very rarely and b)free range or wild. I have no issue with the concept of eating meat- it's the industrialisation of meat production that saddens me. I started getting a veg box in September, and really increased  the amount of foraged/local foods in my diet (making a LOT of jam and chutney).

Whilst pressing apples for a first attempt at homebrewed cider, I got chatting to the lady who runs Abundance Portsmouth whilst we chopped and prepped 70kg of apples. (Turns out- takes a while! Next year I'm definitely pre-chopping!) We got onto the  topic of food and packaging, and she mentioned she lives as plastic-free as possible. My mind was BOGGLED! Plastic free?! I genuinely couldn't fathom it. The poor woman was then subjected to a random tirade of questions over the next 10 minutes... "What about milk?!" (She uses a milkman) "How do you get dried goods like pasta?" (local food-buying coop). Despite initially thinking she was mad, the thought stuck in my head  over the next few days. I suddenly became hyper aware of just how much single use plastic I was using in my day to day life- take away coffee cups, pre-packaged fruit, pasta, rice and lentil bags- I was like a one woman waste production unit!

The Cathedral (where I worship) have an annual theme and this year we've been looking at 'all things bright and beautiful' (not the cheesy hymn!) exploring our stewardship of the earth. Canon Peter preached a few weeks ago and in his sermon mentioned  that fish caught at sea now more often than not have ingested plastic, there are giant plastic fields in oceans all over  the world (the one off California is bigger than the UK!) and plastic fibres are being found at every point of the maritime food chain. More info on plastic pollution can be found here.

My conscience was stirred, so I decided to act. The idea of 'plastic free November' was born! A month seemed like a manageable amount of time to try and aim for- and October was going to be far too soon to get sorted- so November it was! The reason I've decided to go 'cold turkey' as such is not to maintain that lifestyle indefinitely (although- let's see how it goes! Who knows?!) but for a month to cut all plastic purchases out in order to see where I can really cut down my environmental impact, where there's a simple or easy work-around and where I may struggle more. (The lady I was talking to at Abundance mentioned how difficult for example it can be to get Tofu/vegan products without plastic- so we'll see how that goes).

This is a lifestyle experiment, rather than a unbreakable set of rules, so I'm going to do my utmost to live without buying any new plastic, and creating as little waste (and plastic waste in particular) as possible.

So how's the month going to work?

1:Buy no plastic. This includes: food packaging, clothing, home products- anything made of plastic basically!

2: Use what you already have. If I already own it (tupper ware, mixing bowls, phone charger) I'll use  it- unless  it breaks/runs out during November  in which case I will have to replace it with a plastic-free option. Exceptions to this are clingfilm and freezer bags which are banned  from Nov 1st. (Binary I know but hey- I'm making the rules!) I have purposefully not stocked up in advance of Nov 1st- so my grocery/lifestyle shopping needs will remain the same.

3. Reduce Waste: Whilst I'm not being zero waste (although there's obviously a lot of overlap), I'm going to be following the 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) as much as possible- so for example although McDonalds packaging is all cardboard, it seems somewhat against the spirit of this month to eat it for every meal. I've invested in an indoor compost Bokashi bin for the house, and plan to reuse and recyle as much as I realistically can.

I am aware of how odd and inconvenient this decision must seem: however  it is convenience that seems to have brought us to a society so wholly dependent on plastic (plastic wrapped, pre-peeled oranges, anyone?!) so it seems valid to purposefully inconvenience myself for a month to challenge  that dominant narrative, get more in touch with where my purchases are coming from and what  will happen to them after I've finished  them, and get altogether more intentional about whether  my money is being used  to help or harm this beautiful world I'm lucky enough to live in!

So.... watch this space!  We're 2 days off and I've got to go finish sewing some produce bags from an old duvet cover! #livingthedream

Sunday, 5 March 2017


It was Ash Wednesday this week.

Now to my (many and wonderful) free church friends, Ash Wednesday may not even be on the radar as a date to remember, let alone observe with liturgies or services.

However, my faith has taken a beautifully scenic route from Methodism, through Catholic school, high and low Anglican churches at uni to the fab Family Church in Portsmouth where I'm now well and truly planted.

I have fond memories of Ash Wednesday mass at school, lining up with the rest of my form for a big smudge of last year's palm crosses on my forehead- an hour out of lessons and a good marker for the start of the Lenten season of fasting.

I have done some successful (and some less successful) lent fasts in my time. Some motivated by earthly factors (fasting chocolate, crisps and biscuits definitely was more about my waistline than about Jesus!), some with great results in my walk with God (the social media fast has always been a winner) and some that just made me ridiculously angry and difficult to be around (cheese in my final year of Uni- I'm looking at you! Sorry Jo, Anna, Dave and Alice- I now know that cheese and I are lifelong partners and should never, ever be parted).

In all seriousness though- that was about as deep as Lent got for me. I'd crack into a lent devotional- sometimes fast, sometimes not, and enjoy the changing seasons and the approach of Easter- my favourite festival in the Christian calendar.

This year, it's been different. (Understatement of the century!)

The verse I've been standing on since everything fell apart in September last year is Isaiah 61:3 
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor." (Isaiah 61:2-3, emphasis mine)

Ash has been something I've thought about and prayed over a lot more in these last few months- if I'm believing for something beautiful to come out of ashes- then I need to understand and comprehend what this 'ash' is.

I read this beautiful blessing for Ash Wednesday this week, and it puts it into words better than I can:

Blessing the Dust

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

All those days

you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know

what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

The stanza that really resonated with me this week was:
"This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning."

It is so easy to feel that there is nothing left of my old life- that everything was destroyed and went down in flames (the helplessness to act or do anything to stop a fire is part of why I feel so drawn to this concept of ash), but that is not the case. I have been left with ashes, and I know the One who spoke the universe into existence from nothing. He can and will make something beautiful from these ashes: I just need to wait and see what that something is.

With these thoughts churning in my belly, I felt really drawn to mark Ash Wednesday this year- something I haven't done since Uni. I saw that the Cathedral had a liturgy for Ash Wednesday 5.30-6.30 which fitted perfectly before a friend's birthday party just across the road at Gunwharf. So, in the name of spiritual development and taking risks, I took myself off to what turned out to be a lovely communion service including 'imposition of ashes' (sounds like they hold you down and force ashes onto your head but I promise the reality is much more genteel and british than the verb suggests!)

The vicar preached a really great message on fasting, but one part stood out to me in particular. She spoke about the purpose of a fast being to create an absence in your life which draws and recentres your attention back to God and His goodness- new, novel spaces in which He can move. She ran through the usual list of things you may want to fast, then said that anyone ill, suffering or grieving is already in an unchosen lenten season- which may have been going on for far longer than 40 days. I had never thought of my current life season as an 'unchosen lent' but the thought really resonated with me. There is a lot missing from my life at the moment- I may not have chosen to give things up but their absence is felt nonetheless.

I really feel a comfort and peace about choosing, in this Lenten time, to hold those absences, those spaces, up to God and letting them point me back to Him and His goodness. It's so tempting to fill them- to take the lack and the grief away and to stay busy busy busy- but this Lent, my plan is to rest in my lack and in my 'gaps' and to let God move in them- even when it hurts.

In other, less holy news, I highly recommend a fringe for all 'stealth ashing' you may wish to conduct! I merrily chilled with friends for the rest of the evening with a big ashy smudge on my face and noone was any the wiser!

No Ash    -       Ash

Saturday, 25 February 2017

F words

Sorry for the punny title (#sorrynotsorry) but I've just returned from a 5 hour drive to Kent and back, and I've been chewing a few things over in my mind!

Fear is something I've been well acquainted with for most of my life. I'd hazard a guess that my parents would have described me as an 'anxious child' on many an occasion. Panic attacks and 'phobias' were a fairly regular occurrence of bedtime and my thought processes from around age 9 or 10 until I was 20 or so. It didn't help that I am a perpetual and exceptionally prolific over-thinker: something I've learned about myself over time is that anxiety seems to be the consequence of not keeping my brain suitably occupied- it will turn on itself as it were and find anything at all to worry about: money, relationships, nuclear armageddon, Trump etc. Even as a committed Christian and fairly well 'adulting' young professional, anxiety has always been my Achille's heel- before presentations, performance management or even just robust conversations with colleagues I've often had to fight hard and long to avoid falling into the 'panic pit'.

The thing underpinning any of the fears relating to myself was usually either a fear of death or a fear of failure. Death took care of itself as my faith grew and I gained an understanding of where I believe I'm going... but the fear of failure in the here and now wasn't going anywhere, and was really affecting my life.
My fear of failure had actually served me quite well in my life so far: As and A*s at GCSE and A level, merits and distinctions in music exams, first class honours degree- unfortunately the material gains it gave me was always balanced  with the emotional pressure I was putting myself under.
I was perfectly functional and successful in my day to day life- getting promoted at work, leading ministries at church and blessed with a great friendship group- but ticking away under it all like a time bomb was my fear of failing at it- at my job, at being a friend, at leading.
My fear of failure was so extreme that at times it almost kept me in situations that were counterproductive, and nigh on dangerous (in terms of emotions and stress levels) as I refused to stop doing things and be labelled a 'failure'.
Then, last September, my entire life collapsed in on itself, or so it felt at the time. As the dust has settled, and the air has cleared, I realised my whole life didn't collapse- but one, key, central, load bearing pillar of it is no longer in place and as a result some serious restructuring has had to take place.
I had to face my fear. For one of the first times in my life- the worst had actually happened. It was over my head and outside my control but I had failed at something (in terms that something that had once worked now no longer did)- and the consequences were showing all over my life for the world and his dog to see.
But: (starting a paragraph with a conjunction. Uh oh  teacher fail!) My life didn't end. My friends didn't run. God was still God and He still loved me. My heart was still beating, my participants at work still needed me and slowly I realised that I was surviving this failure, and, as time moved on, not just surviving but thriving.

This in turn lead me into my 3rd F word! Freedom. Now I've conquered this fear of failure, I've never  felt so free. Now I don't feel the need to be great at things, there's so much more that I can enjoy trying and exploring without fear. Ceramics has been FULL of failures, (last week's best one was slicing straight through a plate that had been air-drying nicely for a week and was about to be fired). I'm relearning skills I haven't used since I was in school, playing more music, singing more songs, learning drums and signing up for crazy long walks (120km with a bestie in April) and mad running challenges (there's a half marathon in my future at some point this spring- still working out when!). I'm able to write honestly about how I feel (like I am doing here) because I'm not worried if the people reading this think I've failed or not. I feel like I'm finally beginning to understand what Jesus was talking about in John 10:10  "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." I have not been killed or destroyed- I am living my life and living it abundantly.
There are a few more 'F' words that are helping me;

The primary thing that has kept me walking through this season of rubble and dust is faith that this is not my destination: it's just a particularly messy and odd part of the journey. As a Christian, I believe that God's plans for me are good- and that what I'm currently walking is not what He planned or chose for me. However- He makes beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3) and I'm excited to see how  He can make something this messy beautiful!

I am not kidding when I say I have the BEST family and friends. They laugh with me, cry with me, run with me and eat with me on a weekly if not daily basis. They have hosted me, dragged my butt to therapy, prayed with me, encouraged me, read me the riot act when I'm down in the dumps and cheered my every step along this new path. Even if I never had another penny- I'd still be rich indeed from the amazing people I get to do life with! (Soppy burst over!)

When the anxiety rears it's head, a decent run or swim is always a great way to shut it back up. I'm a ridiculously slow runner (and swimmer)- so theoretically a 'failure' in that regard- but running and swimming is such a win for me I couldn't care less about how far or fast I go. Combined with my other 'fs', fitness is a key way for me to look after myself both physically and mentally.

So- I'm guessing none of these were the F words expected from the title! Living life free, vulnerable and honest about where I'm at is still a new thing for me- but here's to the journey! Onwards and upwards.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Self Care (Unforced Rhythms of Grace)

Sorry for another huge hiatus!
A lot has happened and changed in my world since I last blogged.
Man V Horse went well- and that's all I'm really willing to say about the past 6 months on a forum as  public as this: those of you who know me in real life may know more, those who don't, don't need to worry about it!

Anyway, in honour of Talk for Change day today, I thought it was time to come out of my self-imposed blogging pause and talk about something I've been learning a LOT about in the past 6 months: self care.

Now, ironically, this has formed a big part of my work in the past 18 months, I work with my trainees a lot around managing their own well being for resilience, handling stress effectively and achieving a strong work life balance.

However,  I've never been good at practicing what I preach, and lived most of the past 10 years or so at approx 110 miles an hour, flooring it from when I woke up in the morning (often around 5.45) until I fell back into bed around 11,often working at 2 jobs in the course of a day.

Circumstances last autumn caused me to stop, reassess my life, and make some radical changes in how I viewed and looked after  myself.

Matthew 11:28-30 MSG
I realised that I needed to take the 'real rest' described  in Matthew 11. I was great at showing grace  to others, but absolutely terrible at showing it to myself. I was my own task master, critic and worst enemy- and I needed to learn to live 'freely and lightly' as Jesus describes here. I ended up in therapy with a great therapist, and her refrain for the first few months was 'Sarah, you need to be your own best friend!'

Well,  I was clueless about how to do that- so in the hope that it helps someone else- here's how I've gone about re-organising and restructuring my life to ensure  that I am living these 'unforced rhythms of grace' and loving myself as well as I aim to love others!
In my head, I've split what I do into caring for myself Mind, Body and Spirit. Obviously some of my activities help with more than one but hey, we've got to start somewhere and a badly organised blog is better than no blog at all!

1) Therapy. Everyone should go to therapy! I have the most wonderful, Christian Gestalt therapist. She is a hard taskmaster but a great woman and she has been of tremendous help of late.

2) Morning Pages. I can't do mindfulness- I think too much! Seriously- it's not for lack of trying. Enter morning pages. 3 pages of A4, longhand, every morning by hand. Sounds crazy right! Well, in 4 months of practicing morning pages I've discovered that there is no bad day or gloom you wake up in that can't be at least processed, understood or somehow helped by 3 sides of writing. It clears my mind, centres my thinking, clears the way for my creativity and gets me ready for the day. I never would have dreamed I'd be able to find 30 mins (ish) per morning to do this- but now wouldn't be without it! Don't knock it til you've tried it.

3) Making. Ceramics, crochet, sewing, reupholstery, writing- you name it, I'm happier if I'm making it. Taking time to keep a scrapbook, record ideas and projects as they come to me, and leaving enough space in my schedule to go to ceramics once a week and get some making done at the weekend definitely keeps me balanced.
some of this course's ceramics

4)  Treacle. Yep-officially a mad cat lady! Just a little 'chat' and cuddle with this naughty one is enough to put a smile on my face.

1) Exercise. On a bad day, even just a walk will do! Ideally, running/swimming/lifting weights is something I really enjoy. A decent long run outside with my girlies can put the world to rights! Call it endorphins, but the world really is a better place once you've been for a good run!

2) Face care. I've used simple facewipes for years, but decided it was time to show my skin some love. I now have a lovely, organic, pampering face care routine from Liz Earle- it's like a little treat to myself each time I do my face morning and evening. I especially love their night time oil- smells divine!

3) Night time tea. This one in particular. A cupful whilst I do my devotionals is always a good start to a decent nights sleep

4) Socks. Silly I know, but a soft, cuddly pair of bedsocks is an utter winner for making me feel all cosy and relaxed! I've got quite the collection!

5) Vegetables. When I plan what  I eat, and make sure that most of each meal is veg, I feel way better in myself. Also, I'm one of those odd people who genuinely just loves vegetables! Any veg, any way- delicious.

Last but most definitely the most important! How can I go about resting and caring for my spirit?

1) Prioritising my devotional time. In previous attacks of depression and/or anxiety, this has been one of the very first things to go. This time round, that wasn't an option! I've moved my devo time to the evening (never been a great morning person!). I read the HTB bible in a year on the bible app, you can get it here. I like that the devotionals are a really good length and can point things out to me that I'd not notice for myself, especially on a down or stressed day.

2) Journalling. My evening journalling is also super-important 'Sarah and God' time to process everything that's happened that day. I always write down 3 things I'm thankful for, to try and keep some perspective on life! Reading back through my journal is a great way to see how far I've come and how much good is in my life, even if it doesn't always feel that way!

3) Words- particularly scripture but also poetry and great quotes. Words have always been my love language, so I've put key thoughts and verses in different places around the house to keep me positive and plugged in! I found a lot of these on pinterest.
Postcards and Words around the house

4) Worship: Playing piano,singing, listening to music are all a great way to calm my soul and focus on God and His goodness- whatever my day is like.

5) Community. My friends rock my world. Whether it's meeting weekly at 7am for a bible study and prayer time, or hanging out watching amazon prime or the Christmas 24 channel- my friends have lifted me up, cried with me and loved on me incredibly over the past few months. It's been a journey to get vulnerable enough with them to hang out even when I'm just napping in the corner, or feeling poop. I find my strength in my community and I wouldn't be without them. (Same goes for my wonderful family but they're further away for napping purposes)

6) Church- sounds simple, but it isn't! On a bad day I know well how tempting it is to hide in the house and not go anywhere. A massive part of caring for myself is forcing myself to get out and mingle with other people who love me, care for me and are praying for me. My church have been truly like family to me in the last few months- I LOVE them!

So there you have it- a little glimpse into how I look after myself and keep my mental health and well being a priority! None of the above are non-negotiable- of course I have days where I do few/none of them, but as principles for how I can better steward myself- as part of God's amazing creation- they are pretty good for the time being!