Friday, 30 October 2015

7 Quick Takes: Snippets and Snapshots

It's half term holiday here, so it's been me and the Sisters all week. This has been both positive and... not so much. I would have preferred advance warning for 4thSister to drop her nap at such a crucial time, for starters! As such my Quick Takes are random, homespun and simultaneously of profound importance. For even more important, Saintly blogging, however, you should instead head somewhere like here.


Every so often a family dynamic shifts, subtly or otherwise. It's been a drastic one this holidays. 3rd and 4thSister, ages 5 and 2 and a half, decided they were best friends. They have melded into a unit. Even when 2ndSister, the Babysitter and Fun Instigator has been absent, I have been able to do jobs while they play. Which has had me saying Hallelujah! because - did I mention that 4thSister has dropped her nap, just like that, no word, no warning?!?! And twelve hours of her incessantly is pretty, um, incessant. The sensitive, mature 5 year old has intuitively worked out how to manage her little sister, and, obviously, if that doesn't work, resorts to shouting loudly at her (she learned from the best, or, possibly, me). The relationship is not without conditions, however. Although fully potty trained, 4thSister likes hanging out with 3rdSister so much it's sometimes too much fun to make it to the toilet. Or wipe. Or pull up her pants (panties, for those across the pond) afterwards. 3rdSister is wise to this:

3rdSister: Come and sit on my knee! Wait a minute - you have got pants on haven't you? Phew, that's OK then.

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I have no idea what they are doing.


They are busy, frustrating, messy, loud and startlingly cute at times. On Wednesday they ventured out into the night to collect 2ndSister from dance class. What with the clocks going back, it's stupidly dark stupidly early. The street was patterned with orange and red lights from the streetlamps and house alarms. They are used to venturing outside only in daylight, I now realise; they were awestruck.

3rdSister: Wow!
4thSister: Oh! Pitty! [Pretty, for those who require translation.]


There has to be a food one with me. I tried the Pioneer Women's squash quesadillas this week. I didn't have Kale. Martha Stewart does hers with chicken so I tried that. I was not enamoured. Not my favourite way to eat squash. (Do even I have a favourite way to eat squash? Probably not. Just soup.)


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2ndSister's Graveyard Cake creation with Grandma was much more of a success. Looked and tasted good. Or evil, as we are talking about marshmallow tombstones dripping with blood.

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Cake: A Guide


1stSister (with money she has set aside) chose to get her hair dyed at the salon (by my hairdresser and church friend who was also cajoled into lopping 3rdSister's off because, you know, why should she be allowed a coffee break?) instead of letting me do my usual patchy job. (I've been with the kids all week, I am allowed stupidly long sentences with too many clauses.) What with her book of drawings and love of literature, it feels like she will be swanning off to university before too long when I look at her in snapshot. (She just turned eleven).

New hair. New era.


I took two of the sisters to Holy Communion with me on Tuesday, because we stayed at home on Sunday. It was a beautiful service in so many ways. 1stSister listened to the priest talking about poverty in our twin church in Mutanga Nord, Burundi, and on the recent Diocesan trip to India - and got home and started googling to find out more. "I know, I'm such a nerd!" she said. (Refer to point 5.)


It's been different and definitely less fun without FabDad around this holiday. Also 2ndSister went on her first two night sleepover to Grandma's. She's our full on extrovert so it was definitely quieter without her around. On her return I played 'Family Rules' Monopoly with her (= "her rules".) These rules included using only one dice meaning it was impossible for me to roll a double to get out of jail. Inexplicably, this induced five minutes of hysterical laughter in us both.

4thSister has this gift too. This morning as I wrestled slipped her into her pumpkin princess outfit she spoke about the yummy gingerbread pumpkin she decorated and ate yesterday, and then frowned. "I DON'T LIKE SPIDERS!" she insisted. I couldn't stop laughing. (Extra points if you can guess which of the pumpkins below was decorated by a 2 year old who couldn't wait to eat it before I had chance to photograph them.)

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Happy All Hallow's Eve and All Saints' Day, wherever you are and however you spend them!

More Quick Takes infinitely more amusing than these will be found over at Kelly's this and every subsequent Friday. Enjoy!


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Chocolate Teapot Tales Part Two: Meeting the Baby

Meeting the Baby: Advice which may be as welcome or useful as a Chocolate Teapot!

After 1stSister was born, I remember everyone turning up at the hospital at once. A best friend was flying back to the UAE and it was her only chance to visit; my grandmother had rocked up at the hospital unannounced, because that was how she rolled. There were two sets of parents meeting their first grandchild; baby's aunt and uncle lived nearby and could visit.

Mum & 1stSister in hospital 
Only thing, I was in no fit state to talk to anyone, let alone introduce my baby.

1stSister was almost two weeks overdue, not ready to meet the world at all. 48 hours later, 'failed' water birth, 'failed' first stage, 'failed' second stage, epidural, forceps attempt (which got her down but she went back up - did I mention that recalcitrance to meet the world?) and finally an emergency caesarean that got her delivered safely. If I didn't have PTSD, I had something akin to it (and would soon be experiencing extreme postnatal anxiety) and spent the next couple of nights barely sleeping, experiencing anxiety and flashbacks, and trying to learn breastfeed a hungry baby who was desperate for my milk to come in. (Thankfully at this time midwives would still take your baby off to the night nursery on the ward so you could get some sort of rest.)

I can look back on this time positively now - I spent a total of five nights in the hospital before she and I were discharged, and although I was absolutely exhausted, I was well looked after and although the delivery was not what I had planned, there are some beautiful memories I take from it, and 1stSister was here to stay!

But still. FabDad was similarly completely out of his depth in managing the situation; he simply couldn't comprehend the unfathomable exhaustion I was experiencing following a difficult delivery which involved surgery. Add a first baby into the mix and even the simplest things became a challenge. Like talking. Thinking. Being. Neither of us had the wisdom, the innocence or the audacity to say: there is no way on earth anyone else can come and meet the baby right now. Come in a couple of days when things have settled down. Better still, wait until mother and baby are home.

I feel your pain, 1stSister

I hadn't read the words of wisdom I saw on the internet this week (that I will reference if I find out what it was!) that reminded me to write this post, which suggested that later on, no one will hold it against you that they didn't meet the baby until she was two, three, four days old. And, let's face it, some people will hold it against you, because people are people. But I think it's important to try and distinguish between other people's expectations, and your own.

Because I was overjoyed to meet my baby, and could have benefited from some time getting to know her, with her father sitting with us, becoming a family unit. But I had it in my head that others would be equally overjoyed to meet my baby, and that the sooner they met her, the better. I knew there was a priority order that should be followed - grandparents, grandparents, great grandparent, aunt & uncle, and that bad things would happen if this wasn't played out. Like most things to do with parenting at this stage, I was completely inflexible, and at the total mercy of what I assumed others' expectations were. In retrospect, those first few days at the hospital didn't need to have been full of people

Having just recently had a minor keyhole operation eleven years on, where I struggled to get out of bed for two weeks, I realised just how challenging a caesarean section is when you are having to attend to a newborn. To get recovered, you need sleep. You need feeding. You don't need to entertain visitors and you certainly don't need to put pressure on yourself for everyone to meet your baby. Whether in the hospital, or at home. I did feel completely different after my one vaginal delivery, and went home the same day, but I suspect it's the same principle. Introduce baby when you are ready. While it's not possible to have rational judgement post-partum, it's up to you and your partner to decide how imperative it is for other people to meet baby. If you have more than one child, it changes the picture even more - it's of primary importance for siblings not only to bond with the new baby, but to feel secure in the family unit rather than pushed out by a constant stream of visitors.


(Funnily enough, when 2ndSister was born and I was in hospital on my birthday, things worked out differently. My parents were away, FabDad had 1stSister at home to look after, and I felt unbelievably lonely! When my grandmother did her whole turning up unannounced thing this time, I was so happy to see her and the bunch of grapes she brought with her. 3rdSister, I was home in a hop, skip and a jump before anyone had chance to say "when are visiting hours?" By my third C-Section, with 4Sister, nobody was bothered came to see us at the hospital at all - my husband brought the girls in, and that was enough, and nobody questioned it.)

How you deal with things post-baby is certainly up to you, and you may be pressed upon to conform with familial and cultural expectations - but I plead with you not to do as I did first time round and assume I knew what other people's expectations were. I certainly see the lack of rest and recovery as a factor in post-partum difficulties I encountered. The first few days, the first week, need to well-managed if possible, especially if you have had a difficult delivery and/or do not have people to look after you and your home. If people are coming, get them to bring food and take your washing and ironing! Similarly, if there are expectations to be somewhere - work, church, someone else's event - and you simply can't be there, try and manage your, and others', expectations of this, if at all possible.

1stSister; hospital blanket & bruised nose from forceps

Once at home, I kept up with the steady stream of visitors because of a sense of duty to family and friends, as well as filling in birth announcements (all the while struggling to feed and get on top of washing nappies.) Once my husband was back at work, I obeyed the health professional guidelines of getting out and about and seeing people even though it was ruinous for me physically and mentally. (Perhaps this may have helped for someone more extrovert, but I could have done with quiet time at home just sitting with my baby). Again, it's important to work out what you can manage.
Parenting requires you to be superhuman in many ways - any added pressures need to be carefully considered. If, like I did, you rush back to work to show off baby because your employers thoughtfully put a "can't wait to meet her!" note in with the flowers they sent, prepare to be worn out if you do it too early. (Such a phrase isn't usually meant to be interpreted so literally.)


Like all of the advice in this series, though - just work out what works for you. Family, friends, health professionals and the entire internet will be chipping in telling you what is best for you and baby. As a first-time parent can take some working out, but as a parent, you are the one who should be able to make these decisions.

Links that came up when I Googled this subject which may also help: - I like this one because it reminds you not to forget about Dad!

Friday, 23 October 2015

7 Quick Takes: just random bits and bobs!


I often write my Quick Takes to a theme but it says a lot about what this week has been like that I haven't had much space or clarity to put a theme together. I've been on countdown to a school holiday (which starts today...yay!) And ironically finally getting on top of things at seven weeks post-op (back to work, back to baking, back to visiting grandparents every week, back to playing Legos on the floor)....and now it's time for a lull. A MUCH NEEDED lull. You hear me, 4thSister?


I can't ignore the fact that Halloween is approaching, especially now that 1stSister will be going to two parties and trick a treating with friends. As usual we will be doing a Saint themed supper the next day - which is usually gorier than the supposedly evil stuff, when you think about some of their deaths - but leave a bit of room for the kids to do and get into the dressing up and the scary. I don't advocate all the aspects of "celebrating" Halloween but agree to a large extent with the sentiments of Dan Lord and this priest, Christians of all denominations can be misplaced in their attitudes against it, I think. For those  wanting to move away from the spookier aspects however, I noticed that the Christian charity World Vision, rather than moaning about Halloween or seeking to abolish it, have launched a fundraising campaign via supermarket sold pumpkins, asking people to carve hearts in their pumpkins and donate. This to me seems to strike just the right balance.


I made a shockingly awful soup with the above pumpkin (which I bought to eat after all not to carve) but am hoping to redeem myself with a beetroot and coconut milk soup. I also made pear and hazelnut cake yesterday, ostensibly to use up pears, but it didn't really taste of either major ingredient even though it was nice. (that was the obligatory food bit of this post.)


I have been telling people that 4thSister has come through her clingy, obsessive phase but now we have discovered tantrumsville! Bear in mind I had stomach surgery seven weeks ago...wrestling her into a supermarket trolley against her will was not fun. But we needed food staples, so I had to be the boss. And she did complain loudly for the first two minutes of the shop but then found something she liked to look at and forgot to be angry. Meanwhile around forty to fifty people probably looked at us making a huge hullabaloo. (I am so glad I have four kids and can be chilled out about meltdowns with this one as his too shall pass....)


Mind you her obsession with Wheels on the Bus hasn't moved on. Fair play she does like watching Peppa Pig on YouTube rather than endless #WOTB on repeat, but today all 6 chairs were pulled into bus formation as we drove some very special passengers around the kitchen to the seaside!


Theologically, I had a Quiet Day at a retreat house and learned about St Clare on Saturday, which was just amazing. And then I went on a church hop on Sunday, as potential priests often do, but had arrived not in time for a service, but instead coffee and cake! I did learn about their mission work but my main Sabbath thought was, thank you God for a straightforward gallbladder removal to enable me to participate in his event as fully as possible....mmmm cake! (See how I can make a theology post transform into something tasty? Hermione Granger you have nothing on me!)


This probably covers all the aspects of my week apart from music! As I am still not up to evening commitments I am not rehearsing with choir until 2016, which is disappointing but necessary...however wouldn't you just know that 1stSister wants me to accompany her clarinet practice on the piano so I have two tunes to learn to help me feel musically valuable! When at home I listen to BBC Radio 6 as much as possible as it plays lots of my old and new favourites and heard a song I hadn't listened to for ages by Buffalo Tom who I never appreciated in the 80s or 90s but first heard in my twenties. Not cheery but I love it. 

Head over to This Ain't the Lyceum for more Quick Takes and to read Kelly's essential post on essential oils!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Autumn Leaves. And God, obviously.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

It's not New England, but our pleasant corner of Nottinghamshire has been amazing recently for Autumn colours recently.

I was so struck by this that although the minutiae of such things usually eludes me (unless the kids have it for homework) that I wanted to find out more. And I got my question answered. (But ultimately, as most things do, it led to more questions!)

Just look at the detail...

So apologies to the experts out there, but in simple terms, in transpires that trees use their leaves to breathe - that is, to absorb the carbon dioxide they take from the atmosphere. They are designed and positioned for the optimum absorption of the light that they need to enable the process of photosynthesis. (Even on Wikipedia they blind me with words like stomata and phyllodes - not necessary for my understanding, although it did remind me that phyllo or filo pastry is named for leaves, as are the delectable milles feuilles we ate in Paris recently.) (Unable to think about anything unless it has a food connection, me.)

And then the leaves fall. On an annual basis, parallel to our liturgical year. Unless I'm very much mistaken, however, we don't celebrate the trees becoming bare during Autumn; instead we give thanks for Harvest. And it's only because I live in temperate Europe that I see this, where many of our trees are decidious and so undergo the process of abscission. Which basically means they die because the bad weather is coming. In fact it seems that the cold and the reduction in sunlight is what causes the leaves to lose their green pigment, and become discoloured.

So here is where the more metaphysical questions come in. I personally look on in awe and wonder as the leaves transform in colour, even to a mucky brown. The various shades of yellow, orange and red present a cornucopia of visual delight, striking just the right chord to elicit an emotional response when I look at them. This is first and foremost a visual response - wow, colour!! - but also a response to the wonder of God's creation. It draws my attention to the beauty of God's works, and to the intricacy of a system that is part of a wider system, sustaining and perpetuating all of nature. But primarily, it elicits in me a response that says - this is awesome. In the very end and death of something, in the leftover bits, the pouring out of colour, humans are programmed to visually appreciate this process in an extraordinary way. (There is also pondering in this process that can be given to regrowth, resurrection and perpetuity, if you want more theological food for thought.)

The fact that we react to leaf change in a deeply sensory way however is the question I simultaneously do and don't want answering. Just as we have an innate capacity for spiritual connection with the universe around us, we are finely tuned to aesthetically engage with the processes of nature. This bonds us to what is going on around us; reminds us that the world is turning, changing and growing, and we with it. As the leaves colour and fall, ending one aspect of each tree's development, we can read into this not only on a lifecycle basis, but also one of pure beauty. Can this be an accident? Like the joy of viewing a rainbow or hearing the splendour of a symphony, we have within us the ability to appreciate what is in the world at a higher level. We are uniquely able to comprehend aspects of nature at a physiological and emotional level. I won't discuss here how far we see this as purposeful design by the creator of a universe - but personally, I see it as just one strand of God's amazingness. I am still left questioning - like with much of my religion, there is an element of mystery and supernaturalness that surpasses my understanding. But sometimes it is just enough to remain awestruck and amazed, in a state of wonder. Setting one's mind adrift, idly pondering the universe, gazing at the beauty of the colours of leaves.

How wonderful, O Lord, are the works of your hands! The heavens declare your glory, the arch of the sky displays your handiwork. In your love you have given us the power to behold the beauty of your world in all its splendour.
(Jewish prayer, in David Adam 'The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayer.)
Further links: - Brilliant on colour. (And admits scientists can't explain the how and why either) - Thinking through this in light of the Jewish liturgical year (Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, takes place in Autumn) - says that it's no accident why leaves fall!

Friday, 16 October 2015

7 Quick Takes: the favourite bloggers edition

Before we start - Kelly has challenged us to mention a blogger they have discovered through 7 Quick Takes. I think many of the bloggers I have read and read now were found through this method, so I had better narrow it down to some favourites! I honestly can't remember how and in what order I found people. But I do know that for a good long while now I have had a system. Because I don't count reading all the quick takes as high priority (sorry folks!) instead I ensure that I always at least read the quick takes posted prior to and after mine. I have found a few favourites this way!


First up is my favourite blogger ever - she isn't at the top of my list because while I think I found her through someone's Takes, to my knowledge she doesn't post Quick Takes. Instead at My Child I Love You we have heartfelt and inspiring tales from the home of Lindsey Boever. Her love for her faith, children and spouse are wonderfully put down on the page. (Please pray especially for Lindsey and her mom at this time.)


Lisa Melnick at the Little House That Grew is a blogger I was sure I discovered through Quick Takes but now I am not so sure! But it is always a joy to hear how things are with her family. Moving around for her husband's work, running, knitting, raising children and talking about faith are some of the topics you will find here. One of the reasons I especially love this blog is because Lisa never pretends to have it all sorted. She knows her life, and her blog, are part of a journey to develop and grow in faith, as a person, a knitter and a mother. She often talks about her joy for socialising and hosting but it is clear that having to establish new connections (and lose other ones) due to moving around is hard for her. I think that being part of an online community is important for many women - just leaving a short comment might uplift someone or help them feel connected. 7 Quick Takes is a great way of doing this.


Brianna Heldt isn't concerned about being bang on trend (although she may well be, and she is often so right about what she says!) and like all the best bloggers, has ruffled a few feathers with some of her posts. But as well as her gigantic heart and beautiful family jumping off the page, Brianna's writings about the Catholic Church show it at its best, in my mind, and really makes readers think about what we believe in, and why. Oh and did you know she recently cut her hair? And is on pilgrimage in Rome?


Mary Lenaburg's Passionate Perseverance blog recently won most inspiring in the Sheenazing awards at This Knotted Life (so glad I got Bonnie's blog in here as well, as it's another favourite!) - but most inspiring doesn't begin to describe it. (I think its tagline reads something like "family, special needs, faith and food".) If you haven't read it, do so; read some older entries and see God in the service, sacrifice, joy and love in these words! I feel humbled and privileged to have entered into the Lenaburg family's world through 7 Quick Takes. This is another of the wonderful reasons the QT are so special!


Kate Wicker probably wouldn't call herself a regular blogger at the moment but whenever a new post by her drops into my blog reader I enjoy sitting with a cup of tea and losing myself in it. Like many of us mothers, how much to blog and how much to write elsewhere, or how much time we can devote to raising our kids in combination with our other vocations, is something Kate has written about at length. She has also published Weightless, ("making peace with your body"), done a lot of running and had to cope with not doing a lot of running, blogged about schooling, bedsharing, breastfeeding and more. I found her early on via 7 Quick Takes (or possibly vice versa) and still read and reference her writing on prayer!


Jennifer Fulwiler needs no introduction but definitely deserves a worthy mention here! Having undergone an eerily similar conversion to hers (no scorpions at our house though, praise the Lord), I have found it both informative and comforting to read Conversion Diary, then her memoir and her e-book. And by developing Quick Takes, she introduced me to an entire community of faith-based bloggers who have inspired and challenged me. Thank you. Oh and did I mention how much her writing has made me laugh??? (The funny bits, I mean. The tragic bits only occasionally. The black comedy of what happened when they took Shaun the Sheep off of Netflix, for example.)


My winner, however, has to be The Amazing Sarah Reinhard (my moniker not hers!) who originally blogged as SnoringScholar. I was first drawn in by Sarah's love of books and devotion to Our Lady, as well as her open and honest stories about children, Catholicism and living out on the farm! I don't think she regularly posts Quick Takes anymore, and I don't see her in my feed as much as I used to, but I always love to see how she is doing (and view cute photos of her baby on Instagram.) The main reason Sarah is the most important blogger I found via 7 Quick Takes however is that she helped me out - a random, itinerant member of the Christian mommy blogger community - when I was at a very low ebb, with wonderful kindnesses that she would probably brush off as the least she could do. In short, she wrote the Book That Saved My Life and is a must for every pregnant woman (The Catholic Mother's Companion to Pregnancy), and will henceforth always be known as The Amazing Sarah Reinhard to me! Again, this is one of the reasons why 7QT have always been great - you may not know a person well, you may know them hardly at all, but members of this special tribe will send you a book, drop you an email, or even, in Hallie Lord's case, crowdfund you a much-needed couch!

Once again, I think the importance of 'just jotting down the 7 short things on your mind this week' is extremely underrated. 7QT joins up people, challenges, inspires and helps on a regular basis. So find some new bloggers, or someone you didn't know about, this week at This Ain't the Lyceum! 

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Changing Face of Harvest (yes it's another post about food!)

I attended our Holy Communion service celebrating Harvest yesterday, and, coupled with our Harvest Supper the previous evening, was struck by the changing face of Harvest Festival in our country and community, at least.

I don't think it was that long ago that UK residents ate seasonally as a matter of course. Before the rise and domination of supermarket shopping, the fruit and vegetables available were, originally, what was available from the farms; and later, what was available for import. Supply and demand had not reached the point where you could decide what you wanted to eat, and source it. Instead, you chose from what was available, and chose recipes accordingly.

Some households still practice this, but it's increasingly rare in 21st century living. In increasingly busy lives with a reliance on processed, pre-prepared and easy to cook food, seasonal living isn't the easy route. Spending time focusing on what will constitute the daily meal is rare. Even my French friends revealed to me this year that the concept of shopping for what one needs that day and preparing it, is dying a death even there.

So when we celebrate Harvest, we aren't thanking God after Michaelmas for everything safely gathered in at a certain seasonal point. Yes, the farmers have gathered certain grains, vegetables and fruits in the UK, and in other areas of the world. But we grow and source things all year round. So Harvest has taken on a different form - thanking God generically for what He makes available to feed us (physically and perhaps spiritually, too.) I'm not saying that giving thanks is a bad thing, but in the developed world we have moved on from those early days of Christianity where the turnips and the barley were safely gathered and stored and it was especially wonderful if the weather had provided an abundant harvest. (The story of Joseph predicting the harvests and famine found in Genesis always springs to my mind, here!)
Harvest Supper apple crumble in progress

I do, wonder, however, that if we are mindful, and truly thankful for what He provides, that we might give more thought to the seasonal, as well as liturgical, calendar. And now I'm going to get preachy. Our family has the blessing and privilege of having enough. Enough to purchase not only the food we need to sustain us, but extras, too, if we so choose. And, being human, we do sometimes choose. But as the stewards of God's earth, with enough, we spend extra money not only on 'treats', but try and act responsibly in our purchasing decisions. Spending more on free-range and organic produce isn't only something we do to help our bodies. Ethically produced, environmentally friendly and sustainably fished items benefit creation; we are taking care of the lives of the animals that feed us, and food producers. Reducing the grocery shop to a certain amount by getting a good deal at discount shops may be good family stewardship, but it isn't reflecting the true cost of food, or helping others as much as we can.

(Disclaimer: as a former vegetarian and vegan, I do appreciate there is a certain amount of irony and perhaps hypocrisy is killing animals to eat them, then proclaiming that at least they have a good life.)

We still spend our money on utter rubbish for our bodies and the world. I don't set myself up as a holy example. And we don't have to make a great sacrifice in other areas to shop seasonally and ethically. Trying to balance the family budget for a large family can be difficult in itself, let alone when trying to make further sacrifices. Some are reliant on food donations. But I remember we started out just by making a small change or two. Financially, things are not always possible. But sometimes, they don't seem possible, and God makes them so. If we can, I think we should try and return to the old ways, the old Harvest, and:

  • Shop for local produce which supports local producers and cuts down on airmiles
  • Grow our own fruit, vegetables and herbs (I don't practice what I preach here!)
  • Use a veg box scheme which helps the environment and farmers
  • Find out how and where to buy sustainable and ethically fished seafood
  • Buy organic fruit and veg which is better for the environment (and for your body I would say!)
  • Buy organic meat and eggs or the cheaper free-range version which is still better for the animals' welfare
  • Think more about what you are cooking and eating by eating seasonal foods
  • Prioritise food shopping and food preparation more in life (this is hard!)
  • Eat more vegetarian and vegan meals if you can
  • If this is too hard, eat less meat - a good organic chicken feeds six of us for 2-3 meals
  • Buy milk from the farmers and help sustain the hard-done-by dairy industry 
  • Donate good quality food - and treats - to the local food bank. Or volunteer to help there!
  • Donate to charities which help provide clean water and help people grown and source more food in the developing world.
These last two items on the list really represent to me the changing face of Harvest in another way. When I was at school, we took in fresh and tinned items to give to the elderly in the community. They were seen as the poor and needy. This week, my kids' school and our church collected items for our town charity which provides food for the needy. Particularly local families who are signed up for food parcels at the food bank. People who can't manage, locally. In our community. Despite welfare schemes and the introduction of a living wage.

4thSister kept joining our curate and priest on the stage at Harvest Supper

And our Harvest Supper supported Water Aid. Financial donations were collected to provide clean water for those who don't have it. As well as our usual charity contributions we can now say as a family that we have provided two taps! 

I truly believe that giving thanks is not just about being thankful. It is about being grateful for what we have and looking around at what others don't have, and helping out. Sometimes we may be the ones that need helping out, financially or otherwise. But if we are in the position where we can contribute to the welfare of creation - the seas, the fields, the animals, the farmers - then I really believe that we should; that we are tasked by Jesus to do it. Even if we can just pick one small thing to change, it can help have an impact. This should be the new song of harvest home.

[Edited to add - I would also like to publicly thank my husband for working extremely hard using the gifts he was born with to enable us to support ourselves and others.]

Friday, 9 October 2015

Seven Quick Takes on San Juan Diego


As it's the anniversary of 7 Quick Takes, I wanted to do something a little different today (can you believe this is my 33rd Quick Take, out of 257 total blog posts?) Anyway, earlier in 2015 (erm, at the beginning in fact) I vowed to find more about the saint chosen for me for the year ahead, St Juan Diego. Well, it's been a heck of year, turning 40, exploring ordination, looking after the 4Sisters, approaching 15 years of marriage, singing a solo in concert and having my gallbladder removed. So I think at least one of 'my' saints has been petitioning for God to hold me in His hands, and therefore St Juan deserves a little exploration and respect! (Or at least me reading Wikipedia and regurgitating stuff.) 


Copied from the St Juan Diego Parish website

Firstly - we have tons in common! His Feast Day is December 9th, which is good, because I really like Advent already. And he's Mexican. Which is supercool, because I loves me some Mexican food! (How did this post get to be about food already?!) (Specifically, guacamole and quesadillas, if anyone is interested. Or cooking for me.)


He is the first indigenous Roman Catholic saint from the Americas. In light of the recent Papal visits to Cuba and the USA, this feels pretty special.


He saw Mother Mary four times. He saw Mother Mary! FOUR TIMES! Her image was impressed upon his cloak in what is known as "the Guadalupe event" - and those of you who know about Our Lady of Guadalupe know what followed. (Church/basilica built, thousands of local people converting to Christianity, St Juan seen as God's way of bringing the New World on board.) Wikipedia tells me that the Basilica of Guadalupe is the go-to pilgrimage spot for Catholics - in 2010 it received 22 million visitors.


St Juan de Marco is a relatively young saint. Although born in 1474 and died in 1548, it wasn't until 1990 that he was beatified , and canonised in Pope John Paul II. Unlike some of our saints, he wasn't poor, but neither rich. He worked as a mat weaver, farmer, and labourer, and had a wife, but no children. He was extremely religious, and was particularly devoted to Our Lady. He pleaded with her to cure his sick uncle, who he looked after, and she did.


Painting by the acclaimed Miguel Cabrera

He loved the Eucharist EVEN MORE THAN I DO! Even though it was extremely rare for it to happen, he was granted permission by his Bishop to receive communion three times per week. HE WALKED 15 MILES TO MASS. BAREFOOT.


I have gone all year thinking of St Juan as 'St Juan de Marco', having mixed him up with Don Juan de Marco, a Johnny Depp character in a film I have never even seen. Oops. Apparently they are very, very different.

Join Kelly and all the others for 7 Quick Takes at This Ain't the Lyceum!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

пустынь - The Poustinia

When I had the absolute amazing privilege of going on retreat (which happened to be my first retreat) in the wilds of Northumbria, these were the best things:

1) Being made a special apple pudding because I couldn't eat the one everyone else was having.

2) Being MADE A CUP OF TEA by a complete stranger, just because, when we were living in community; and

3) The Poustinia.

Photo: A poustinia in the winter
One of the Madonna House poustinias

(I may have missed out lots of spiritual stuff, but honestly, these are the things at the forefront of my mind as I type!)

Obviously it wasn't a proper Poustinia, but I had an amazing couple of reflective, contemplative spiritual experiences nevertheless, sat in blankets in a cold garden overlooking the beauty of fields.

It was an extra wonderful space to spend time with God, within a new monastic community that was already a wonderful space to spend time with God. And it led me to research on the desert fathers and the authentic Poustinia tradition, to place the whole experience in context.

The Poustinia is a tradition drawn from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and for those of you who don't know about them, a quick recap. Unsurprisingly, we are talking about a tradition of wandering off by ourselves, meeting with God in contemplation in solitude, and all of those other things as a mother I have got a hope in hell of experiencing (or so I thought before I discovered retreat houses!)

The original Desert Fathers can be found in the Egyptian desert during the 3rd Century AD, perhaps the most famous of whom is now known as St Anthony the Great. As an introvert I can completely empathise with them withdrawing from life and the material world to be by themselves and pray! Over time monastic communities emerged and whenever I think of these I think of what we do in our church, local and mission communities. Men and women lived in these communities; pilgrims visited.

Without the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we wouldn't have monasticism as we know it.

Their ascetic, prayerful, pastoral tradition travelled to the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as influencing the Benedictines and other western monastic settings.

And so to the Poustinia, which is a Russian word meaning - wait for it - desert! (Although it encompasses a dual meaning, of course, because you can find or make a lonely, empty place anywhere.) Modelled after the retreat houses of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Russian Orthodox Church established the practice of small huts where clergy or other spiritually minded persons could withdraw, preferably for twenty-four hours to medidate, contemplate and join with God. (Not that I managed twenty-four hours, was cold, so very slightly after the Russian model!) Without an actual physical desert, one can still practice these elements, as Doherty's 1975 book 'Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man' suggests:
"an entry into the desert, a lonely place, a silent place, where one can lift the two arms of prayer and penance to God in antonement, intercession, reparation for one's sins and those of one's brothers.... To go into the poustinia means to listen to God. It means entering into kenosis — the emptying of oneself."
There are poustinias all over the world. Madonna House community in the USA, founded by Catherine Doherty, has a whole lot of them; I had never experienced one before I went on retreat.

Photo: The interior of a poustinia
Inside a Madonna House poustinia

And so we come back to a little wooden hut, in a new monastic community in the very north of England. Surrounded by plants, fruit and vegetables grown by people who lived and visited there. Not far away from an outdoor chapel. The hut contained a couple of chairs, blankets, a Bible, a cross, candles and matches in a tin to keep them dry from the damp air. I visited in winter so it was chilly outside and cold within, but I snuggled in a blanket and had some much-needed time in conversation with God, often silent, often listening. How fitting that the Northumbria Community, providing sanctuary, silence, retreat and respite for its visitors, continues a tradition from those Desert Fathers of centuries ago.

(NB - I spent the first draft of this talking about a Pushkinya! And while Pushkin is definitely also Russian, it is not the same thing at all. Just, ahem, keeping it real!)

Friday, 2 October 2015

7 Quick Takes: The Michaelmas (or I love Autumn) Edition!

1: Michaelmas

I'm very excited because it's been Michaelmas this week. It is only recently after all that I discovered its full meaning and that it gives me an excuse to put blackberries and orchard fruits into a cake or pie. And squash and pumpkin are in season! And spiced pumpkin lattes! (not that I have had one yet.) Coupled with the fact that I missed the first few weeks of 'back to school' due to surgery is the exciting feeling I get with Autumn mists in the air, seasonal foods to cook with and Harvest Supper approaching! I was lucky enough to attend a Holy Communion service on the feast of St Michael & the Archangels itself, and share coffee and a Belgian bun at home with a new friend afterwards. I was wiped out, mentally and physically, afterwards, but it was worth the effort. Our priest has been on a missional trip in India, I didn't want to trouble the curate to minister the Eucharist to me at home again, so even though I sat down for everything but the Gospel reading & the Creed, receiving the Lord's Supper on that special day was amazing!!! (And so was the Belgian bun. Ahem.) (Edited to add - later in the week, another friend came round with Belgian buns. How blessed am I?!)

2: Link-tober

I am also extra excited because when I visited the hosting site for 7 Quick Takes today, I found out it is anniversary time! (I will stop the exclamations at some point. Promise.) Can you believe it, 7 Quick Takes has been going for 7 years. How special is that? Kelly is running a special Link-tober fest with a competition and everything, and encouraging those of you who haven't posted for a while to post. Before I was at Strength and Song, I blogged at Musings on Motherhood and Ministry and posted my first Quick Take approximately five years ago. Coupled with the Autumn-ness of everything I've gone all reflective and spent half an hour looking back to this time in 2010. (You can tell no children are home.) It will have to be a whole other post though. Definitely not a Quick Take (although I don't think mine have ever been very quick!) 

3: All about that squash (and pumpkin!)

Squash soup (in shadow)
I am purposefully making my blog posts more about food, but believe me it's also just ON MY MIND. Partly it's because it took me a while post-surgery to get back into eating, preparing and enjoying food again. But it's also due to me trying to cut out the processed stuff and eat foods that make me feel well, and make me well. Last week I baked rye bread, made squash soup from bone broth and had berries from the freezer with plain yogurt. Although I missed out on brambling in our amazing English countryside, blackberries are going to be delivered today, so I will finally be making my Michaelmas cake - which this year is likely going to take the form of a pear and blackberry crumble, possibly made with maple syrup and oats instead of a traditional wheat flour and sugar topping. Nom nom! The connection between food and spirituality becomes so wonderfully and increasingly evident on so many levels the more I delve into it. Thankfully (and even the name of blog is to do with Michaelmas!) Haley, amongst others, has a fabulous blog which provides a wealth of ideas of what to put on the table. It's a great way to connect with the liturgical calendar, as was Bonnie's recent post on Living Liturgically in October. Oh, and, by the way, instead of faffing around trying to make a proper USA pumpkin pie from scratch, I found out that the new supermarket  I use imports Libby's pumpkin puree, so we even get a proper shot at Thanksgiving. (NB - I aware that Thanksgiving is Not a Liturgical Festival. As such. As far as I know.)

It's not Libby's. It's MINE.

4: Harvest

I am (unsurprisingly given my current food obsession) looking forward to our imminent fish and chip supper at Harvest Festival, not least because I have been out of the church loop for almost a month now and I miss the fellowship. This week I lovingly prepared apples, cinnamon and sugar and topped them with crumble.

I feel like The Pioneer Woman now.
Some of them had fallen from my mother in law's apple tree. They are not the only windfalls I have been blessed with. As well as being held in prayer recently I may have kept visitors to a minimum but cards were very much appreciated and a few people gave me flowers. I'm so very thankful. (The ones below just shout "autumn" at me!)

5: Christmas (ahem)

Having said that I am loving Autumn, let's fast forward to Christmas temporarily. (Yes, really!) (Sorry!) There is a photo doing the rounds on Facebook that a few people have liked, featuring a Christmas gift box of pyjamas and other bits and bobs. Very cute. But, bang on-trend as I so frequently am (not), for once I am thankful to have been doing Christmas pyjamas as a tradition for a few years now - and that I have purchased this year's onesies! Because I've been putting money aside throughout the year we have also stretched to buying robes for them. And all have been washed in the special anti-allergy washing liquid we use for the kids and been line dried and boxed away for Christmas Eve. WIN.

4 onesies & 4 robes for 4 Sisters

6: More Christmas (kill me now)

Oh, and did I mention this?! I won't be participating in our choir Christmas concert this year, as I've missed (and will continue to miss) too many rehearsals to do the pieces justice. But I will be singing Christmas carols with choir in the local community as often as I can. And my friend dropped round my new book after she had been to choir rehearsal on Wednesday. (And also - it's time for me to make my Christmas cake....sssssh.....)

7: Autumn

OK, OK, I know it's not time for Christmas. Because it has been Michaelmas, did I mention? It is Autumn. FirstSister turned eleven yesterday. It is Nottingham Goose Fair weekend. And for dinner last night we had (organic gluten-free but I wouldn't recommend them) pork sausages with mashed potato and red cabbage braised with red wine vinegar, orange juice, orange zest, ground allspice, sliced apple and finely chopped ginger. AUTUMN. BRING IT ON. (Did I mention pumpkin spiced lattes....?)

Red cabbage. PRETTY.
Write and post your own 7 Quick Takes and reminisce over the past 7 years of posts over at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Chaplaincy

As some of you know, I volunteer in a Chaplaincy at a local hospital. Technically, it's actually called the Department of Spiritual and Pastoral Care and as there are other things about it that aren't always known, I thought I would write a little about one of the settings I work in and what I do.

In short, of course, I work for God. He called me to this ministry, and it's a form of service where I help others but am also energised as a person and fed spiritually, not least because the team share ecumenical prayer at 9.30am every week before going to volunteer on the wards. At least one writer (possibly in the pastoral care or chaplaincy field, I can't believe I can't remember1) may have mentioned this, but as we move out to visit patients after this time of prayer, we are continuing our worship of God in another form; it has a beautiful continuity that I also try to practice at home, following (particularly Benedictine and Carmelite) monastic traditions. Our life in service to Him, as a prayer to God.

Practically, as well, volunteering in a ward visitor team offers fellowship and opportunities for personal, social and intellectual growth. Two wonderful women volunteers have encouraged us all, staff and volunteers, to meet for a monthly breakfast in the hospital restaurant which has helped us develop as a team. Our employers run regular reflective practice sessions as well as induction and follow up training sessions. And did I mention we pray together???!

So what does the Chaplaincy do? Ultimately, it provides an aspect of healthcare for patients at the hospital. We are believers in HOLISTIC care - this focuses on healing the whole person, not just physical symptoms - mentally, emotionally, spiritually, people need support to get well, too. There is always a Chaplain on twenty-four hour call to deal with whatever needs dealing with - a person close to death, a problem in neonatal, a member of hospital staff who needs to talk. Traditionally, nurses would fulfil at least part of this role, but in our National Health Service (NHS) in the UK today, it is recognised that paid ward staff have enough to do without having extra capacity to talk to patients - which is depressing, but, in my experience, true.And they aren't just for people of faith - Chaplains are there to listen to anybody who feel they would benefit.

However, the faith aspect is very important to the people who work there and many of the people we listen and talk to. By its very nature, being ill and/or experiencing suffering can cause people to reach out to God, reject Him, or just need some comfort through prayer. As well as the Chaplains employed at my place of work, there are, thankfully, lots of volunteers. Every time I walk into the hospital to work I am reminded of the extreme need there is for this type of work. The NHS regularly assesses whether it should sustain this type of ministry in its hospitals and it literally breaks my heart that closing the Department could one day happen.

As well as providing prayer and a listening ear, the Chaplaincy enables worship too. Regular Holy Communion services are held and the EUcharist can also be ministered at the bedside. Our Department of Spiritual and Pastoral Care is not wholly a Church concern. Various Christian denominations are represented including Free Church, Roman Catholic and Church of England. As well as the Christian ecumenical focus, we serve the hospital as a Multi-Faith Chaplaincy. In addition to a Chapel on site, there is a Mosque, Gurdwara and Mandir.  There is a higher percentage of Christian volunteers, but also of different faiths. Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Chaplains are also available to minister to patients as well as the Christian core (trying to reflect the population admitted to the hospital).

Personally I work on children's wards, offering a service tailored to children and young people, their parents and carers. People have said to me this must be very difficult - and so it is. It is not easy to see such suffering and know that there is a lack of hope for the families involved. However, it reminds me time after time that hospital is not where you go to die, it is a place of healing, and in the majority of cases, people get well and get discharged. Additionally, the amount of sheer joy, energy and enthusiasm generated by children suffering from the most terrible of illnesses is evident on a daily basis. God is good.

So that's it, in a nutshell! It sums up what the Chaplaincy does, and I am so thankful that I can play my minor role within it, visiting patients for an hour or two every week. I regularly rejoice that God reminded me that the hospital was a place in need of me when he called me, and transformed my attitude towards the sick and the dying. What else might he be calling you to volunteer to do, that you had never considered as an earthly possibility?