15 April 2020

Easter –­ what’s in it for vegans?

It’s Easter and everyone is busy wishing friends and family ‘Happy Easter’ and gushing about pictures of lambs gambolling in lush green fields. If you’re not religious, and we’re certainly not here at VV HQ, then I’m not sure what there is to be happy about if you’re a vegan. In fact, I was prompted to thrash out my thoughts about the Spring festival by a remark on a Facebook group. Commenting about a TV farming programme featuring lambing, the writer said that they found the sight of Easter lambing uplifting. I’m fighting the urge to comment because I’m not really in the mood for a row at the moment, but it begs the question: what exactly is uplifting about the birth of an innocent creature destined for the dinner table?

Closer to home, and in real life, MiL has been lamenting the fact that the lockdown means other members of the family can’t visit for Easter Sunday family lunch. A massive bonus of the lockdown for me, being chief cook and bottle washer. I’m not sure what they would have thought of a repeat performance of the Christmas totally vegan dinner, but that’s what they would have got. It’s bad enough reheating their meat-centric ready meals, and it’s been pretty tricky lately procuring them with the panic buying and restrictions in force. I don’t like hanging around long in what Mr VV describes as the aisle of death, and when it comes to fresh carcasses a fish fillet is about as far as I’ve been able to go. No doubt some will think that even with that I’m a hypocrite but, as I’ve mentioned before, I view feeding the oldies in the same way as feeding the dogs. They’re all too old and set in their ways to change.

I wondered if other vegans had similar feelings about Eastertide. Type ‘vegan plus Easter’ into Google and you’ll get 429,000,000 hits about eggs; even on page 39 the search results were still about the best Easter eggs, the best vegan chocolate eggs, the list goes on. OK, I’ll admit that we did buy a vegan chocolate Easter egg in Lidl a few weeks before the lockdown, but we ate it pretty quickly soon afterwards. Going back to my mixed feelings about the pagan festival of Eostre, I did a quick bit of research (aka: posed a question on a couple of vegan groups) to gauge the feelings of fellow vegans. Seems I am not alone, many reported that they follow no religion, something I have noted before in vegan groups, and others that, like Christmas, Easter was another time of “cruelty, religion and hypocrisy”. The best reply I read was, “honestly, I’m just in it for the chocolate”.

Eventually, I decided that I did not want to leave the lambing issue unchallenged. It was time to make a point, although the likely result would be inevitable in a group where the mere mention of the V-word sets the carnies’ blood boiling. Light the blue touch paper. As Mr VV says, being thrown out of a group for vegan comments is an honour. I just posted a vegan lamb meme, sat back and waited for the flack.

5 April 2020

Reflections on risk

Whilst trying to navigate a path through the present lockdown I couldn’t help but wonder what my parents, long since departed, would have made of it. My old dad had many sayings, ‘expect nothing and you will never be disappointed’ was one of my favourites. Another, which I am sure he’d have brought out if he had still been alive today was, ‘Life is a terminal condition’. Depressing, fatalistic or pessimistic? Maybe, but he was right. In the words of another quote, often wrongly attributed but in fact from Nanea Hoffman of the blog Sweatpants & Coffee, ‘None of us are getting out of here alive …’. And so, with the panic buying, virus stockpiling, masks or no masks, fear and panic, it got me thinking about attitudes to risk.

Thirty-five years in the insurance industry and I often witnessed folk being on the wrong end of risk. Amongst friends and family I have a reputation for being risk averse – I always check a property location for risk of flooding, unplug all electronic devices at bedtime and refuse to operate the washing machine or dryer overnight. You see a tumble drier or a phone charger, I see the blackened charred floor joists, the soot-stained cracked glass of the photograph frames or the family mourning the loss of a beloved pet overcome by smoke whilst sleeping in the utility room. OK, I’ll accept that some of my aversions may not be logical; I won’t fly, despite knowing that statistically it is one of the safest forms of transport. When I used to drive fifty thousand miles a year on business I carried a one-in-eighteen-thousand chance of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident. That risk did not diminish with distance covered; it was reset every time the key turned in the ignition, but I never stopped driving; I thought I was in control.

I suppose that one of the most frustrating things about the current CV crisis is the lack of information upon which to base a decision. What exactly is the % risk of contracting the virus? How likely are you to pick it up in the supermarket? What about from the shopping? Are parcel deliveries safe? The vast majority of experts seem to be saying that the latter three activities present a low level of risk – they’re the only ones I’m prepared to take at the moment, although I still feel edgy on our weekly trips to Sainsburys. If I can’t evaluate the risk, what am I left with? Fear and uncertainty, a feeling I am sure is shared by many.

At the time of writing this post, the UK authorities don’t seem to have a handle on the extent of infection throughout the population. I’m not sure they’re even in control of the situation. There’s a lot of modelling going on, but real assessment of risk requires data, and data needs to be built up over a long period of time. Going back to insurance, the underwriter knows what the probability of your house catching fire is (it might be greater than you think – 1/3000: 0.125%), and that enables the insurance company to decide whether or not they will sell you a policy and how much they will charge for the privilege. In the future, no doubt, statistics will enable us to put the current crisis into greater perspective but at the moment it feels like the house is burning down.

Lately I’ve been struggling with this lack of perspective. As I wrote last week, I wanted to write about my reflections on risk to try to clarify and crystallise my thoughts but it was too difficult. Writing usually helps, but this time it did not and left a blank blog week. I know that I am not alone in feeling the stress of this crisis. Although the isolation aspect does not bother me, rather I relish it, the uncertainty about how long it will last, whether it will ever go away, and what will the new normal look like are very real concerns.

The best advice I have seen for rationalising the situation is to keep clam, do all that is practicable to stay safe and not over-analyse it (something I am often guilty of). So, I was really grateful to discover Esther Ekhart’s YouTube live yoga and meditation practices, ‘Finding Resilience Together’. Yoga has been keeping me grounded these past few weeks and I’ve combined these daily live sessions joined by people from all around the world with my usually Yoga with Adriene challenges. Tune in if you can (4pm BST, weekdays) – you don’t need to know anything about yoga. Going back to Esther, I hold the words of her first meditation in mind. We all fear a loss of control, but what we forget is that we were never really in control anyway. It was just a perception of control. Life can change in an instant. The key is to be in the present moment, it is the only time that ever really exists.

29 March 2020

Surviving lockdown with the lagom garden project

When I decided to pursue my create space project at the start of the month little did I think that the corona virus lockdown would contribute by increasing space in my daily timetable, or that my aim of achieving calm and simplicity would become a crucial factor in trying to maintain sanity in everyday life. For over a year I’ve been posting a weekly personal blog every Sunday. Usually the subject matter occurs to me during the preceding week and, as I ruminate over the hours and days that follow, the sentences and paragraphs form in my mind and when I sit down to write (or type) the words flow. Last Sunday I couldn’t string two words together. I was blocked. I’ve experienced this feeling before, and can usually overcome it by ‘getting something down on paper’. But this time there was nothing. I wanted to write about my reflections on risk (I had a title), or how I was reacting to the current virus crisis, but there was no way I could put my thoughts into words, or even marshal them into some semblance of order. This was stress at its very best. You might think that the prospect of twelve weeks of quiet downtime, isolation and lockdown is an ideal opportunity to get that novel or memoir finished (or even started), but anxiety has a way of disrupting the flow of creative juices. Nevertheless, creativity is exactly what’s needed right now, to calm the monkey mind, and so I went out and started gardening. 

The new potager 

Pulling weeds, pruning trees and digging soil in the warm Spring sunshine and for a few hours I almost forget the madness going on in the world right now. Gardening is very lagom, especially growing your own vegetables. So, thanks to the hard work of Mr VV, we now have the beginnings of a potager, we just need some seeds and a few more weeks of good weather. There is so much work to do here that we won’t have the time to become bored. It’s great exercise too. I find I don’t need to worry too much about packing in the steps on the Fitbit when I’m trundling wheelbarrows around. Any after gardening stiffness is soon resolved by a good yoga practice, another activity I’ve ramped up, as have many others. Physical exercise is so good for the sleep pattern, too. Monkey mind rarely manages to triumph over tired and aching limbs, and there is something meditative about weeding.

With five acres that haven’t seen much more than a cursory trip round with the tractor mower for the last whoever knows how many years there is no shortage of work to do. We decided to start nearest to the house and first tackled a lovely sunny area that was once a brick paved terrace. At eleven o’clock in the morning it will be the perfect place to sit on a bench and enjoy a cup of freshly brewed coffee whilst admiring the fruit of our labours (or spotting more work to do). Once the array of pots, buckets and hosereels (five in total??) were removed I set to work on the tangle of shrubs and trees, bringing in Mr VV when necessary with the saw. Most of the shrubs were beyond simple pruning, so we implemented our favourite ‘slash and burn’ tactic; they’ll all grow back eventually. After a couple of days scrubbing the paving, the beautiful old Suffolk red bricks started to resurface and the sunlight poured into what will in future become a cosy little hygge corner.

Before and after on the terrace 

With the lockdown it is so quiet out in the village. Occasionally a car will drive up the road, but it seems that we have gone back in time, to the days when the house was built. A few people take a walk around in the mid-afternoon, and although we have to maintain our safe distance, there is often a cheery wave or a shout of encouragement. The local wildlife aren’t in lockdown though. It’s lovely to pause, lean on the fork, and listen to birds chirping in the shrubs or watch the naughty jackdaws ferrying twigs back and forth to the chimneys. We see the squirrels daily, and we know there are foxes and badgers about, but they tend to keep a low profile. However, one afternoon we were rewarded with the sight of a tiny muntjac deer, peeking out from his hidey hole in the corner of the overgrown orchard. He reminded us that whilst we will do our best to tidy up, some spots must be left for the creatures that have made the untamed grounds their home.

Cyril the squirrel, just after breaking the bird feeder

It’s taken me almost a week to get back in front of the computer screen. In fact, it took two days to write this post. However, I have learned that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I don’t write a post every week, if I don’t make it to 10,000 steps every day, if I don’t get every task on the to-do list ticked off, if I don’t do a full hour of yoga. That’s all part of creating space; space to enjoy the simple pleasures around; that’s lagom. Hopefully, next Sunday I’ll be back again, writing about the lagom lockdown larder. The words are already spilling into my mind …

15 March 2020

Aiming for a Lagom lifestyle

There’s a whole pile of books on the Vivez Vegan TBR (to be read) pile. Posting about your TBR list is quite popular amongst some of the editing folk I follow, but I could never hope to emulate the speed with which they plough through the tomes. Some even watch TV, too. One of the goals in my create space project is to create time for things that I enjoy, and one of these is reading. These days I tend more towards non-fiction. Recently, it’s been heavy stuff like The China Study, How Not To Diet and Becoming Vegan, the dietitian’s textbook. However, Mr VV recently bought three lovely little books, all centred around the Scandinavian lifestyle theme: Hygge, Lagom and Lykke. Although they’re very stylishly produced, the actual contents are quite serious and backed-up by scientific research and lots of stats and data.

This week I started to dip into Lagom, all about the Swedish art of balanced living. The basic concept is living simply; neither too much, nor too little, just enough. This theory is applied to all aspects of life, from the car you drive, to the food you eat, to how you spend your leisure time. The benefits of Lagom are listed as being (more) physical space, mental space, improved finances and a sense of belonging. As I read, I decided to examine various aspects of our lifestyle to see how they matched up with the principles of Lagom.

The Scandinavian countries are well-known for their excellent work–life balance. Like their German neighbours, when they are at work, they work, and when work ends, it ends and they go off home or to enjoy leisure. Something we have always noticed when travelling in these countries is that weekends are for getting outside, getting exercise and that, generally, shopping is not a recreational activity, as it is in the UK. A few weeks ago, I realised that I was becoming stressed with the accumulation of events (and that was before any talk of the corona virus!), so I set about trying to create space in our busy schedule. It has taken a few weeks to unwind, but I’m certainly feeling the benefit of trying to cram less into the day, and getting outside more.

The important principles of Lagom in relation to food include cooking from scratch, growing your own food, the slow food (local, sustainable) movement and, of course, fika. The latter is an all-encompassing term for coffee and cakes, with friends, to relax and take a break, often accompanied by cinnamon buns (very easy to make a vegan version). Since we‘ve been back in the UK, we have been enjoying some great coffee shop treats, from chains like Costa to local independents, a couple of which are full-on vegan. Another Swedish habit that we’ve done for a long time is known as Fredagsmys: comfort eating on a Friday evening. I call it Junk Food Friday, although with our healthy vegan diet airfryer wedges and meatless ‘fish’ fillets are the nearest we get to junk. However, when I mentioned the Lagom-style meal Pyttipanna to Mr VV he didn’t seem too keen – the idea is that you take all the leftovers out of the fridge, chop them up small and fry them, topped with a fried egg (or scoop of nut butter in the vegan version) and some beetroot.

Another aspect of Lagom is the ‘no waste’ and sustainability philosophy, and equality. This encompasses many of our own habits, such as ardent recycling, supporting charity shops and charities generally and rational shopping. Clothes wearing and purchasing place an emphasis on comfort, and capsule wardrobes like that proposed by Project 333 are popular. Lagom places great importance on creativity – no wonder there are so many successful Swedish designers. In fact, one of IKEA’s founding principles extolled by Ingvar Kamprad was that less well-off people should be able to afford well-designed furniture. Creativity in Swedish life extends to leisure activities, so things like gardening and crochet (more of that in a future post) all contribute to the Lagom lifestyle.

Unpretentious exercise is another key aspect. Walking, getting outdoors, being in nature are all Lagom. There’s a virtually untranslatable Swedish word motion, which means a cross between gentleness, movement and exercise. It is a Lagom type of exercise, and a term that could be applied to our now almost daily circuits of the village sans dogs. We started doing it simply to ‘make up’ our daily steps quota to 10,000, but now it has become a regular “blast around the block”.

The general Lagom outlook is one of little drama. Difficult in the current climate of panic and fear, but certainly a state to aim for. Lagom aims to achieve peace and equilibrium, with no need to overdramatise events and tackling problems utilising a solutions-based approach. The Swedes are very keen on a bit of mindfulness to help achieve this, with meditation and yoga on the menu, too. In fact, one of my favourite YouTube yoga channels, Eckhart Yoga, is Swedish. The notion of Lagom is built on trust. Trust breeds happiness, so it is no wonder that Scandinavians are near to the top of the worldwide happiness indexes. My overall conclusion was that we’re pretty Lagom in virtually every aspect of our lives. From our unpretentious hygge Hut and our downmarket Dacia car, to our countryside walks, simple vegan food and camping holidays. Snow aside, we’d probably enjoy life in Sweden. As Mr VV said of the Lagom book, “It’s everything I believe but I found out I was doing it anyway.”

8 March 2020

Creating space: hygge or hoard?

The conversation went something like this:

MiL: I can’t find any white hand towels
Me: They’re on the bed in the spare room, there wasn’t any room in the drawers for them. Shall I go and get them for you?
MiL: No, I’ll buy some more when we go to Dunelm Mill
Me: I’m not sure you need any more, there’s lots of brand new towels still with labels on in the linen cupboard. Shall I go and find them for you?
MiL: No, I’m due some new towels anyway; I haven’t bought any for ages …

As someone who embraces minimalism, the suggestion that anyone could be ‘due’ to buy something new, even when there is clearly no need to do so, does not sit comfortably. The story of the towels is not unique. Since arriving here we have dealt with the hoarding of out-of-date food, and worse than that, out-of-date and unused prescription medicines. In fact, just prior to the towels conversation Mr VV and I had finally completed the medicine cupboard project and surrendered the final five shopping bags’ worth to the pharmacy. This was in addition to the earlier three bags. It is somewhat depressing that with NHS shortages and the sheer cost of medicines these will have to be destroyed. What a waste of money. However, a quick internet search revealed that we were not alone in experiencing this phenomena of hoarding in the elderly, especially prescription medicines. At least in the current virus panic they'll never run out of toilet rolls! 

The experience has made me realise that I actually find excessive consumption and hoarding very difficult to deal with. Lots of clutter makes me feel quite stressed; I like the simplicity of our hygge hut. Just coming in through the doors, with its muted, but coordinated colour scheme throughout, a few carefully placed plants, candles and pictures invokes a  sense of calm. But, I’m well aware that my lack of tolerance towards MiL’s obsessive purchases says more about me than her, and I must learn to be more patient. She is never going to feel ‘safe’ unless there are nine pots of moisturiser in the drawer and I don’t think we will ever overcome the hoarding habit. But we can try to introduce some order amongst the chaos.

So, she duly bought the new towels and a bedspread. And then asked me to help sort out the linen cupboard. Hmm … shouldn’t that be the other way round? Anyway, I hauled everything out onto the spare room bed and set about sorting the contents into bed sizes, matching up pillow cases with duvet covers and piling up the towels, blankets and bedspreads. The objective was to get everything back inside the huge linen cupboard, rather than it spilling out into plastic boxes and untidy piles. However, this was going to need some radical decisions, like actually getting rid of surplus. Initially, I encountered some resistance. I turned down offers of the stuff for ourselves, carefully explaining that we had a system of one set of bedclothes or towels in use and one set spare. When we deemed they had worn out, we bought new, donated the old (to animal rescue if too far gone) and then bought one new set.

Back in 2014 I blogged about the ‘keeping it for best’ syndrome, something my mother was well known for. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Project 333 certainly cured me of it. But I’m not sure MiL is open to Project 333’s philosophy, or a touch of Marie Kondo (though I have ordered the book for her, from the library 😊). Sadly, there’s no historic altruism here, so the idea of donating to any of the numerous local charities desperate for stuff did not sit easily. I needed to find a trigger that would enable her to let go. As we sat debating the merits of a thirty year-old sheet I commented, “Mr VV will need some old sheets to cover up when he paints your kitchen”. Permission had been granted and suddenly the charity donation pile began to grow, as did Mr VV’s rag bag.

At the end of our afternoon, all the bedding was sorted, the towels were back in drawers, all the surplus bagged up and everything was put away neatly in the cupboard (Marie Kondo style, of course). There’s still enough spares to start a haberdashery stall, but the seed has been planted. Now I just need to deal with the five electric salt and pepper mills in the pantry 😊

1 March 2020

The Create Space Project

Yoga to Create Space is one of my favourite Yoga With Adrienne practices. And space is something that has been missing in our lives recently. Space to think, space to work, space to write, space to learn, space to get out, space for life. As I wrote at the beginning of the year, our arrival back in the UK was somewhat marred MiL’s accident four days in. Since then we’ve been on a bit of a roller-coaster, trying to juggle settling into the Hut, sorting out their long-neglected house and garden, acting as chief carer, cook and housekeeper and running my proofreading and editing business. Something had to give.

A carpet of daffodils in the (somewhat neglected) orchard 

Last week I reviewed my newly acquired FitBit, and extolled its virtues as a motivational tool. This was highlighted once again this week, as a heavy workload coupled with some poor weather at times when we would have gone out, revealed disappointing weekly statistics. One day I only managed to do 6,764 steps. Better than the average I was able to achieve in France, but nowhere near the regular totals inching towards 15k of the previous two weeks. On a positive note, however, my #yogaeveryday challenge is still on track and hit day 60, and it was yoga that inspired the thinking behind today’s post.

On the Yoga With Adrienne channel there’s a number of 30-day programmes, plus a monthly themed calendar putting together a new YWS vid for each day. A new 30-day programme comes out every year, on January 1. This year it was called Home, and I started the year with that and then went on to Yoga Camp, a series from 2016, which I hadn’t done before. I was looking around for some inspiration for March, and was vaguely thinking about doing some ‘power yoga’ to tackle ‘core strength (in other words, the midriff spare tyre!). Then up popped the YWA March calendar in my newsfeed, aptly entitled ‘Create’. Exactly what I was seeking; in the words of YWA “time to quiet the thinking mind and feel it out”.

With the new month heralding the arrival of Spring, it’s time for a new project. I’ve decided to call it our Create Space Project. This doesn’t mean creating more physical space for ‘stuff’, although I have promised to help MiL with a major wardrobe overhaul (I don’t think she’s quite ready for Project 333, yet though!). I’m thinking more about creating mental space and space in time for the things which are generally called ‘self care’. When I was unexpectedly thrust into the role of carer a very good friend reminded me of the importance of looking after yourself: “you can’t pour from an empty vessel”. This is so true and so important. I know that, despite my moans, it has not been too bad and I have had great support from Mr VV. I have the utmost admiration for the many others providing care, day in, day out, without support.

Fortunately, MiL is now on the mend and so carer duties have been reduced to preparing lunch (and they now have planted-based at least once a week), shopping and major laundry stuff, like changing the towels and beds, plus the general running about to doctors and hospital appointments. We’re at last getting a bit more time in the day. So, this month, we (Mr VV is on board with this project) are going to try to create space in our busy schedule to get outside more, get back to our thrice weekly long walks, actually take the time to read our library books, play the occasional game of Scrabble, work on the volunteer and hobby websites (Vivez Vegan and Twilight) and write stuff. This might mean scaling back in other areas, in particular the difficult and demanding clients, the impossible deadlines and the stuff that just isn’t well, frankly, enjoyable. It might mean less income, but it will mean more time. My hope is that somewhere in the quiet time new ideas will have the chance to develop and grow, and we can start to ‘find our tribe’.

23 February 2020

My friend Fitbit

Like many of us, getting fit and losing weight are two of my aspirations. It’s been a familiar theme over the last couple of decades. Over the years, I’ve tried all manner of exercise – I even tried to learn to play squash once. That was obviously in the eighties, when aerobics in brightly coloured lycra was equally popular; I tried that, too. In fact, at one time I even had a gym membership, though that ended when I fell off a Step and sprained my ankle. Hand–eye coordination and balance have never been my strong points, unless I was on horseback. Once I gave up riding, it became harder to keep up any level of fitness. Back in the late nineties I did once get fit enough to run a 5k Race for Life. Since then, I tried to get back to running a few years ago using the Japanese slow jogging method, but my plans were scuppered within a few weeks by Dylan tripping me up. Always an excuse: too wet, too dark, too …

One activity that has stuck is yoga, and this year I’m trying a #yogaeveryday challenge. But, unless you’re into power yoga, and lots of swift, sweaty vinyasas, then yoga isn’t really enough for a cardio workout, as the nurse was kind enough to point out at a recent health check. (According to the NHS website, we need to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise like walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running, every week. Fortunately, the yoga is approved for muscle-strength training.) So, as this affects both of us, we decided to start with some extra walking. The two perambulations a day around the Green with the ageing VV furbies doesn’t really cut it. We started with a couple of extra walks a week and within a few days we began to feel better. But, ever one for targets and goals, I decided to dig out an ancient Fitbit to see how far we were walking. It was pretty worn out though, as the strap fell off on its first outing. Cue a quick bit of online research and soon a new Fitbit Inspire was winging its way.

My digital skills must have improved over the last few years as this time, not only did I manage to set it up, but I got it syncing to my phone for daily reports. In those first few days, the news was not good. A day sitting in front of the computer working would see me rack up less than half the recommended basic target of 10,000 steps. However, the Fitbit proved to be a great motivational tool. Every day we tried to achieve 10k, slotting in an extra blast around the village just before dusk if necessary. Within a week we were meeting the goals for exercise every day.

One particular function that I like is the Fitbit’s reminder to move for 250 steps every hour. It gives a little beep and vibration and I leap up from the computer and pace up and down the Hut, or round the garden if it’s not raining. Looking back over the graph, it is easy to see those times when I have been so engrossed in work I haven’t moved for an hour. The ‘worst’ day for this, however, was a day when we went out to lunch with the VV inlaws. So, not only loads of calories, but not enough action to offset them. I still haven’t managed a full week where I scored 10 out of 10 for moving every hour, but that is my next target.

There are loads of other functions on the Fitbit that I’ve yet to explore like tracking food and drink, and sleep. Other than distance covered and heart rate on exercise, I find the weight monitor is quite helpful, as it works out a weekly average if you have a quick weigh-in every day. The jury seems to be out about the benefits of either weighing yourself at all, or doing so too regularly, but one take away from reading Dr Michael Greger’s new ‘How Not To Diet’ was that daily weighing does help weight reduction, so I’m giving it a go. (Not publishing the details, though 😊). Wearing a Fitbit is never going to make me fit, but I’m finding it a great motivational tool for getting me out, doing some more exercise. Maybe I’ll even start the slow jogging again soon 🏃