Thursday, 30 January 2014

Helen's most treasured possessions

Having fewer things makes it easier to see what it is that we do value. I've been having a think and have come up with my top ten most treasured possessions (excluding photographs).

1) Our wedding rings - I saw a picture of a wedding ring with flowers engraved around the band and wondered if it would be possible to have my favourite animal - the dragonfly on ours. Smooch rings were very obliging and the result was better than we could have hoped for.

2) The 'moose tin' - this isn't really a tin, so I'm not sure why that name has stuck, but it has. Ian and I were close friends for several years before we started dating. In 2005 he travelled one third of the way across the world, most of it on the Trans-Siberian railway. Before he left he asked if there was anything he could bring back for me. Jokingly I replied 'two moose and a bear'. Whilst in Russia he saw many little lacquered boxes in the shops and dutifully searched for one with a moose and bear on. Amazingly he found one on a side-street in Moscow and brought it back for me.

3) Wooden birds - These were carved by my grandfather Morris Edwards. I have many fond memories of looking at these on the fireplace while visiting my grandparents.

4) Mandolin - This belonged to my great grandmother (my father's mother's mother). It's a beautiful instrument in itself and especially so as I adore stringed instruments. In addition to the mandolin we also have 4 guitars, a harp and a violin in the house. I'm looking forward to having more time to learn to play them all (I even tuned the mandolin for the first time a few weeks ago).

5) The Animals of Farthing Wood - This was my favourite book when I was young. I could just as easily have chosen one of William Horwood's Duncton books, but there are six of those and I have more than one copy of several of them (so much for becoming a minimalist). If I could only keep one book this would have to be it.

As an aside, does anyone else have more than one copy of a book? I used to have several (e.g., one paperback of the wind in the willows and another big hardback with lots of illustrations), but have been quite ruthless of late and got rid of most of my duplicates. The problem with the Duncton books is that I first read and owned them as paperbacks. In general I prefer hardbacks, but the hardbacks that I have of the Duncton books are second-hand and don't have as pretty covers as the paperbacks.

6) Pastel drawing - This one was a very difficult decision. I wanted to include some art by my father, but was torn between this pastel drawing and a little ceramic pot which he painted with butterflies and flowers.

7) Similarly I wanted to include something that I had created on the list. I briefly considered my PhD thesis, but to be honest if the house was burning down it wouldn't be something that I'd go for! Instead I chose a drawing that I copied from a print on a T-shirt whilst at University. Although I'm pleased with it I'd like to replace this entry on my list in the near future. I haven't drawn or painted anything in years, but for the last couple of years have fallen for (but not bought) many different paintings of hares. I would really like to do one myself, but suspect that it will take a lot of practice and many attempts before I come up with something I'm happy with.

8) Wooden turtle - Although carved in Indonesia, this was bought from the island of Baros in the Maldives whilst we were on our honeymoon. We gazed at in the gift shop for several days before buying it on my birthday. We saw many beautiful creatures whilst snorkeling on the coral reefs off Baros and on our last day were rewarded with the sight of two turtles.

9) Glass snail - We saw this in the window of a shop right next to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Unfortunately the shop wasn't open and we were only in Venice for one more night, but on our final morning Ian ran across Venice to buy it for me before we were due to catch our bus to the airport.

10) Pottery - Made by native American Indian artists. We bought these at Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley, California during what was probably my favourite holiday of all time - a road trip through California, Arizona and Nevada with Ian in 2007. From a purely aesthetic point of view they're my favourite ornaments.

I'd be very interested to know what your most treasured possessions are and why?


We were a little worried that if I wrote this blog post you would think that we feel the need to justify our choices or worse that we are trying to proselytise. This is not the case. My aim here is simply to explain our choices so that you will hopefully understand better and support the decisions that we have made.

Four years ago we gave up eating meat. Last year we gave up eating fish and replaced cow's milk with non-dairy milk. From New Years Day 2014 we tried going on a vegan diet. That is to say I tried and Ian succeeded, so Ian is now following a vegan diet and I am in a transitional phase of 'not-quite vegan', but hoping to get there sometime soon. For three weeks I managed to give up all dairy and eggs, but then fell into a deep moroseness due to a lack of cheese. I feel guilty that I succumbed to buying cheese, but pleased that I have not brought it back into my cooking / our meals. This should make it a lot easier to phase it out again.

The main difficulty I had was with lunch and supper. I'm more of a savoury than a sweet person and there's nothing I like more than some bread and cheese or maybe a baked potato with cheese or a cracker or two with cheese sliced on top. None of these foods are the things that I want to be eating - I should really be having vegetables instead of bread, sweet potatoes instead of ordinary baking potatoes (if baked sweet potatoes could only have crispy skin, sigh) and crackers are probably just a load of white flour and salt. So my sincere hope is that I will be able to phase out these foods (and therefore cheese too) over the next few weeks by incorporating more healthy things into my suppers and lunches.

So why become vegan in the first place you ask? There is no one reason, but there is abundant scientific evidence that it is both good for us and good for our planet. Since this is a blog I shall spare you the academic references, but one day I hope to write a fully-researched and referenced summary of our reasons. For now you'll have to make do with the following:

1) Becoming vegan is a natural progression in the changes to our diets that we've been making over the last few years. We've both become very interested in nutrition as a preventative measure for disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, MS etc) and are moving towards a diet of predominately vegetables, pulses, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds. We both agree that eating none of something is (at least for us) easier than eating a small amount of something, so cutting out dairy and eggs entirely seems to be the best way forward. I guess we have what GB calls 'addictive personalities'.
2) It's been an incredible way of cutting out most processed foods. I was never a fan of microwave meals, but until this month it has been all too easy to go to the supermarket and buy a pizza or a vegetable lasagne or a pack of quorn and jar of chilli sauce. Okay the last three probably don't sound that bad, but if you actually read the list of ingredients you'll find that even vegetarian (but non-vegan) processed foods contains a huge amount of junk. Of course not all processed foods contain dairy, eggs, honey etc but wr have found that they sneak into a surprising number of the things we used to buy.
3) You may think that our diets would be less varied than they used to be, when in fact the opposite has occurred. I used to keep a spreadsheet of new foods that I've tried each year, but there have been so many in the last year that I've given up.
4) The less junk we eat, the more we can actually taste other foods - I read that somewhere (can't for the life of me remember where, but I will endeavor to find the reference) and it does indeed seem to be the case. Everything literally has more flavour. Only a few months ago I was still struggling to 'eat my greens', but now I'd class kale as one of my top five favourite foods.
5) People often use food as a means of comfort and I'm not just talking about chocolate cake and ice cream. Have you ever been in a boring or difficult job or family-situation and felt like meal-times were the best part of the day? I know we both have. By cutting out the junk that we were addicted to and eating more natural foods we're regulating our bodies and becoming less emotionally-reliant on food. I've just read that cheese actually has an opiate effect on the brain - so I literally need to get over my addiction.

6) Okay when you eat an egg you're not actually killing the chicken, but have you ever heard of a male chicken laying an egg? Egg laying varieties of chicken (as opposed to the ones that you eat) are sexed shortly after birth and then the males are killed. This is known as 'chick culling'and whilst none of the methods of killing are particularly pleasant I find 'maceration' the most inhumane - basically the chicks are thrown (alive) into a high-speed grinder. Is this any better than killing people in a gas chamber? Personally I don't think so (and if you're thinking that these are only chickens and not people, please remember that they are sentient beings and try to have a little empathy). Similarly, male dairy calves are usually killed when only a few months old.
7) The food that all these animals eat has to come from somewhere. When I was doing my Masters degree I did a research project on North Sea sandeels. These poor fish are being harvested on a massive scale for the animal-feed industry. Not only is this destroying the sandeel population, it is also destroying the food-chain with impacts on fish, seabirds and mammals to name only a few. As if that isn't enough, dredging for sandeels is also damaging the seafloor itself, with devastating consequences for plant and animal life.
In Argentina, huge swathes of forest are being taken from the locals, cut down and replaced with soya bean plantations. The pesticides and herbicides used to make sure that soya beans are the only thing that can grow on the land are not only decimating local wildlife, but they are leaching into the water supplies of the locals, causing unprecedented rates of deformities and cancers. This is all so that the world can have cheap soya for animal feed. Ugh.
8) It takes ten times as much water to produce 1kg of animal protein than it does to produce the equivalent amount of vegetable protein. Then there's the massive amount of land, animal feed and energy required, the impacts on the environment of cattle slurry lagoons etc etc . With the current global population, none of these are things that our planet can afford.

People often ask vegetarians and vegans if they have cravings for things that they're not allowed to eat. My answer would be that after only a few weeks it's quite the opposite. It's been so long since I ate meat or fish that the idea of putting dead animal on my plate or in my mouth absolutely revolts me. I still can't really believe that I did it for so long. It's only been a month since I gave up eggs and already I feel like there's no place for them in my life. I've already baked two vegan cakes - a blueberry and chocolate cake and a lemon cake with lemon drizzle. Both were delicious and if I hadn't baked them myself I'd never have been able to tell that they had olive oil and not egg/butter in. My problems with cheese come from a lack of interesting alternatives to eat as snacks / suppers. If I can conquer that then it should take a lot less effort to get to the 'I don't want to eat cheese' stage.

I know that the concerned among you may think that as vegans we will not get the right quantity and proportions of nutrients that our bodies require. I can assure you that we are both a lot healthier than we used to be and that the vegan diet requires so much more planning, attention and cooking from scratch than the average western diet that we are learning a great deal about nutrition.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Decluttering Our Home

We've been becoming more and more minimalist over the last few years. Not that we're not consumers - that's something that we'd still like to cut back on, but rather than adopting a simple 'one in, one out' policy for things like books, clothes and even furniture we've been going more for a 'one in, ten out' approach. We've also become a lot more choosy about the things that we buy. We're now amazed when we see someone go into a shop and buy something straight away (these days we only do this with food). I spend hours shopping around, not just for the best deal financially, but also to get the exact thing that we want, rather than just the things that are available to us in our local shops. Of course there's the disadvantage that each item we buy is likely to have travelled further than those we've bought in the past, but if we're buying fewer things and choosing things that will last a lot longer then I feel that it's worth it.

One thing we've realised is that the process of sorting through and getting rid of possessions is an ongoing one. Of course everything takes time, but what we've also found is that if you sort through something one month then you can do it again a few months later and find that you're less attached to things that you wouldn't have dreamed of getting rid of only a few months before. I can't quite explain it, but it's some kind of reduction in emotional attachment that seems to occur, not only with time, but as we realise that we've been doing perfectly well without the things that we got rid of in the past.

I've also made some decisions aimed at reducing clutter and complications regarding possessions in the future. For example, I've always loved patterned crockery and tableware and only a couple of years ago was dreaming of getting a full set in some form of wildflower pattern, but the few patterned pieces that we have don't match and I think that would always be the case. There's also the issue of seasonality. Whilst these beautiful buttercup plates from Corelle would look perfect on our table in summer they would hardly be appropriate for Christmas dinner.

This little sandpiper jug is adorable, but would look lost on a table without matching pieces.

So we've decided to collect only plain white crockery and tableware and to use napkins, flowers and food presentation to dress up our table. Of course if anyone wants to buy that little jug so that I can visit it at someone else's table that would be just fine!

We're finding that having fewer possessions makes us happier people for a number of reasons. Firstly we can realistically achieve our aspiration of  'a place for everything and everything in its place'. I rarely lose anything anymore because there are simply fewer places to put things and fewer things in drawers and cupboards when I do have to search for something.

Secondly, the fewer things we own the less worried I am. I'm not sure if worry is exactly the right word, but I did use to 'worry' about all the books on my shelves that I hadn't read, for example. Now I genuinely only have books that I've read (and will read again) or intend to read soon. I know exactly what is on my shelves and can look forward to reading those books that I have decided to keep. Similarly I've got rid of the journal articles that I'd kept to use as references and which every day seemed to almost accuse me from their place on the shelves of not having written up various thesis chapters etc for publication. I have now accepted that I will never write those articles and am happy with the decision.

Thirdly I find that having fewer things makes it easier to plan our time. There are far fewer half-finished projects about the house. Also, when we decide to do something like have a carpet fitted or wallpaper a room it's much easier knowing that there's less to move about in order to make it happen.

A new blog

With all the many methods of communication available to us these days it's hardly surprising that my family each prefer different ways. Some family members are 'phone people', others prefer email, others facebook or twitter and some prefer simply to catch up in person whenever the opportunity presents itself. What I've found in the last couple of years is that the preferred type of communication has determined which aspects of our lives our family are familiar with.

The aim of this blog is not to provide another photo diary, as all my other blogs that have fizzled out have done, but to highlight aspects of our lives that we would like to share with people, whether they are things that are happening or simply our thoughts on different subjects.

I assume that it's normal for a person to undergo a period of significant change whilst in their teens or possibly when leaving home for the first time. I'm not sure if it's as normal for it to happen when you're in your early thirties, but Ian and I are both evaluating our opinions on a great deal of things at the moment. The changes in our beliefs and interests have been quite rapid and sometimes I feel that family members do not really know us. That is something that I would like to change with this blog.