Monday, 31 December 2012

Moving On

New Year's Eve always ushers in fresh starts: the adverts are already rampant, ready to tap into our resolutions to lose weight, find love and generally live better lives than the last 12 months have allowed us to. Even if the passing year has treated us well, there is often still something attractive about the opportunity to transition into a whole 52 weeks of unknown. Attractive, and perhaps a little unsettling.

Going through photos on my phone, I found this snapshot I sent my sister in the middle of her emigration saga. At the time we were talking about all the things left on her long to-do list, the skies darkened and a spectacularly clear arc of colour emerged. We read the signs. The bible would have us remember a powerful, promise-keeping God whenever we see rainbows. The rainbow reassured both of us. 

Now, over two months on, I am on the edge of 2013 whilst - on the other side of the world - she has already celebrated the arrival of a happy new year. She has moved on. Now, in only a matter of days, the flat I took the photo in will no longer be my home. I am moving on, too. Some people seem almost scandalised by the supposed ease with which we are letting each other go. It isn't easy. It is necessary. 

We are people of faith: "[faith is] confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Hebrews 11v1)

We are people of the Spirit: "the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3v8).

We are people who move when we see God move and pause when He pauses - like the Israelites in the Old Testament following the pillar of cloud and fire across the desert. "The steps of the righteous are ordered by the LORD..." (Psalm 37v23). Sometimes those steps take us beyond the boundaries we would choose for ourselves. But never beyond God's care.

And in all the transitioning and change, love lets go. It's woven into the very fabric of our faith: "God so loved the world that He gave His Son..." I love the undeniable wisdom in the poem 'On Children' from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran - the way it speaks of releasing children/people to be who they are and where they need to be. It's fear and insecurity that try to keep hold of people, places, the past. Love gives us freedom: the grace to engage with the present, and the confidence to face the future.

"This is what the LORD says
- he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters -
'Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."
(Isaiah 43v16, 18-19)

Happy New Year! 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Under Construction

Image created by artandwords on
I love this time of year. I love the clocks going back, the cosiness of dark evenings and the gratitude it inspires in me - winter makes me appreciate my home, my clothes and having family to celebrate with more than at any other time of year. In the approach to Christmas I'm more attuned to the things other people are lacking that I so easily take for granted, more motivated to do something about it. And more reflective. 

As nature winds down and trees let their leaves go, and grey skies hang close and misty it's like some kind of cosmic call to my soul that it's time to just...listen. It's time to take stock. It started during the winter when, as a teenager on my way back from Christmas shopping, I discovered a "boiler room": a 24-7 prayer community in an old pub on the back streets of my hometown - all fairy lights and graffiti and a creative place to ponder. I love this time of year.

And this year it comes with changes: big, good changes in work, in family life. And with those changes comes an even stronger desire to really retreat into that place of holy hibernation where I get to pick through the intricacies with God and discuss it all with no external agenda, no thoughts of how to articulate it all for other people, no emphasis on explaining lessons learned or things to improve on. In the new year there will be new things. Maybe I will still share them here, starting again in January 2013 - I hope to. But from now until then, these days belong to the people I'm with and the person I am right now.

I love this time of year.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'Works For Me' - with Cox & Baloney

'Works for Me'
A series of interviews with people who are managing to make money out of the things they love doing.

It's been months since I had the privilege of chatting with Joney Lyons, one half of the dynamic duo behind 'Cox & Baloney' - a vintage boutique, tea room and all-round genuine jewel on the Cheltenham Road in Bristol, UK.

I contacted Cox & Baloney hoping to glean a behind-the-scenes look at owning a vintage boutique and make notes as part of my research for an on-going writing project. What I ended up with was pages and pages of pure passion. Our conversation gave me so much food for thought that I've been slow to put it down in words, wanting to pick through the wisdom and distill exactly what was so enjoyable about our time together. At the risk of over-simplifying, I've whittled it down to three things:

1. Innovation

Cox & Baloney is the brain child of two best friends, Joney Lyons and Amy Cox, with a shared background in the TV and film industry. When the long, stressful days of their original careers began to lose their luster, they took the initiative channeling their creativity into the clothing venture that began as a rail in artisan markets and evolved into the treasure-trove boutique open today.

New facets of their adventure are being added all the time: from collaborations with a dressmaker, a bookshop owner and most recently, a furniture restorer, they've paired up with people whose skills complement their vintage vision, creating a space that celebrates craftsmanship across multiple platforms. The addition of a tea room, both quaint and glamorous in equal parts, has been an ace in their hands, allowing them to host popular events such as hen parties and baby showers in a haven of wonderful aesthetics. 

Nothing is accidental. Everything from the decor and visual merchandising, to the shop's contents and its capacity to stylishly cater for special occasions, is the result of meticulous and on-going planning, market research, investment and evolution.

2. Education

The most humbling and uncomfortable aspects of our discussion held a mirror up to my own behaviour and made me reconsider some of my buying expectations. 

Joney talked about the difficulty faced by retailers wanting to offer something of value to consumers who are used to clothes coming cheap. We are often unwilling to recognise that higher prices reflect the fact that garments sourced in great condition from by-gone eras are inherently worth more because of their history, their quality and their uniqueness. Similarly, she described the pricing dilemmas facing British designers and artisans looking to make a living in competition with imported mass-produced products that imitate their labour-intensive handmade techniques. 

Against this backdrop, Cox & Baloney is constantly defining its own niche: like all businesses the boutique needs to make money, but its outspoken stance in support of the wider independent fashion industry is a credit to its owners' own integrity and strength of feeling.
Perhaps better still is the way each potential customer is invited to contribute to this alternative retail scene. During my customer experiences in Cox & Baloney, I've inwardly marvelled at the freedom to browse, to engage with the stock, to be advised on how to maximise the fun and flattering nature of vintage clothes - all without any overriding pressure to make a purchase. The experience is a world away from jostling on the high street to buy the same things as every second person. It's a rewarding way to shop and I recommend the re-think.      
3. Inspiration

Although I doubt she realised it, talking with Joney was inspiring. It's not everyday you meet someone who will tell you, adamantly and repeatedly, that you must "follow your dreams". Joney seemed sincerely happy to help forward my writing pipe-dream, and sitting with her in the tea room of a beautiful boutique willed into reality by two determined friends, the productive force of sheer belief suddenly seemed as tangible as the tea cups in our hands.

See for yourself:

   Opening Hours   
Tuesday-Friday 11am-6pm
Saturdays 10am-6pm
Sundays 12pm-4pm
Contact Cox & Baloney
182-184 Cheltenham road Cotham Bristol BS6 5RB
 0117 9443100
Twitter:  @coxandbaloney

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Integrity of Kathleen Kelly

I've had the strongest urge to watch "You've Got Mail" this week. I've been making my way through tissue after tissue to emerge on the other side of a cold, and I think its brought to mind the scene where Meg Ryan's character - Kathleen Kelly - is ill at home after losing her business.

I love this film. It's romantic, it's smart, it's becoming more and more old-school as technology moves forward (I get nostalgic at the little dial-up noises their computers make - so quaint!). But most of all I love the fabulous, fictional Kathleen Kelly. We watch her weave her way around so many levels of uncertainty as she experiences isolation in her relationship and opposition in her work. She goes through a break-up, enters the uncharted realm of unemployment, has the aforementioned bout of sickness and struggles with the haunting ache of being bereaved of her mother. And yet there's something I find so uplifting in her handling of it all. I think it's her honesty.

Here is a character who feels things keenly. She is passionate in her likes and her dislikes. She is open with her knowledge and expertise, comfortable with her strengths and realistic about her shortcomings. Which makes her one of the most whole and real people I've ever spent a couple of hours with, despite the fact that she doesn't exist. Throughout the film, she is entirely herself: mean, lovely, vulnerable, strong - her complexity provoking both loathing and love in Tom Hanks' character, Joe Fox.

In some aspects of my life I have authenticity down to a fine art. It took an illness of a slightly more seriousness nature than a cold a few years ago for me to get into the habit of ruthless honesty with myself about my physical limitations. As a result, I'm better at resting, better at saying 'no', better at recognising that I can't give anything of worth to the world if I don't prioritise taking care of myself and there's no shame or selfishness in that.

But I still have some way to go when it comes to having Kathleen Kelly's level of self-acceptance and integrity on an emotional level. Often, I feel like I hold back a measure of the passion I feel in my likes and my dislikes for fear of how they'll come across. I mostly operate in a kind of truce with my strengths (I know they exist and don't mind them being mentioned by others, but I don't like to dwell on them myself). And I have a capacity to be unrealistic about my shortcomings, to the extent that in times past their power to surprise and devastate me has seriously derailed me midway through my (useless) efforts to be so very nearly perfect.

Ultimately, this doesn't bother me too much. I know that through the listen-imitate-listen of my relationship with God I'm putting aside my past perfectionist obsessions and growing into the acceptance and integrity I want - just as I previously learned to be truthful with myself about how much my body could physically take on. But along the way, I like watching "You've Got Mail" and observing the multifaceted example of Kathleen Kelly. It's a fun reminder that being all of it - the good, the bad, the ugly, the success and the 'failure' - actually makes for a pretty admirable person.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Postcard from a Peaceful Place

Photo from a country walk - the way I chose to celebrate my 25th

I'm taking time this evening to banish an odd feeling that's been creeping up on me. It began with my birthday and has filtered on through other occasions when I've felt like maybe my reactions aren't quite 'right'; maybe I'm out of sync with expectations of how a 25 year old should think/feel/act. 

When I choose the quiet things, when I'm self-controlled, when I love in other-worldly, unfashionable ways and the anecdotes of my wild times are few and far between, the beginnings of a fear I haven't felt since I was a teenager resurfaces a little: am I interesting enough?

The difference between my teens and my twenties is now I know how to put the question to one side. I know how to rummage around inside of myself and find some truths to set me free

"Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life." - Galatians 6v4-5 TM (the Bible)

Regardless of how sedate the sum total of my existence may seem from the outside, I know its realities. I know the 'because' behind each experience of intense peace and soul-stillness. I know the inconsequential triggers, like learning something new, that make joy radiate through me with a kind of uncontainable delirium. I know the loves I live and die for every single day. 

When I feel passed over by other people or on the verge of being ashamed that I'm not more like someone else, I've learned to let them be them and I'll be me. 

My life is interesting enough for me. And that's enough.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Wardrobe Stories


It's coat weather again and I have a trusty faithful. Bought during the days of my H&M allegiance, this coat is entering it's fourth winter with me and still going strong. I love its huge neck - the wide collar can be buttoned right up to the chin, acting like a kind of sea-wall windbreaker, with ample space for a scarf underneath. It's a size up (and is consequently able to accommodate all the knitwear I invariably wear) but the tapered sleeves and waist tie stop it from being shapeless.

It's a good coat, but I especially like wearing it since I replaced a lost button with this little gem of a brooch - it's become a garment that's evolved with me. The coat came into my life when I was in a particularly independent phase. I was living alone in Berlin for a month before embarking on an academic year at university in Germany. Leaving all kinds of loves behind to explore a new city, language and lifestyle on my own was both lonely and exhilarating. There was something supremely satisfying about spontaneously purchasing the first coat I'd ever bought for myself in that context: choosing my own style, breaking away from the hand-me-downs I'd inherited throughout my teens. Much like that whole stage of life, it was mostly all about me.

Fast forward: two years and one lost button later I was married, unemployed and feeling in many ways like my world had shrunk without my say-so. I'd like to think if someone had told me in advance about all the tedium and tension our relocation had in store for me I would have embraced it anyway, but truthfully not knowing was a blessing. I saw the brooch in a social enterprise boutique called SHOP as the realities of joblessness were slowly beginning to dawn on me, and I found it strangely comforting. 

The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) was a World War II movement that allowed women to play an active part in the war effort, despite the more restrictive social conventions governing their lives at that time. Remembering the transformative influence these women had, from countless wartime support roles right through to shaping today's social care structures, was timely encouragement that being "just" a housewife could be a valuable occupation. Accurately or not, I imagine these women to be resilient, 'make do and mend' types. The brooch seemed to say: "yes, sometimes things aren't as you would want them to be but you can choose how you respond. Be brave. Be selfless. Be part of something bigger." Identifying with them by wearing their badge gave me added confidence that I could forge something worthwhile out of the seemingly costly choice I'd made in prioritising my new marriage over my job prospects. Housewifery was by no means the role I was looking for, but temporarily it was all that was available to me; and, so help me God, I would follow the example of the WVS and do a good job under the circumstances.

I'm somewhere on the other side of both those experiences now. I've had the privilege of being legitimately allowed to prioritise my own personal enrichment; I've been humbled in the struggle to let go of my "success" to fit in with someone else's. But it's not either/or. I realise now that real life needs a little of both. Seasons of personal progress and other-orientated sacrifice need to live side by side in a balanced life, and there's euphoria and boredom in both. That's life. 

When I forget, I only need to button up my coat.

'Wardrobe Stories' are a string of posts helping me to appreciate the clothes and accessories I own in an atmosphere where it's easy to end up taking things for granted.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Thank Goodness for... 'For Luna'

For Luna photography used with permission. Buy swimwear here.

Swimwear is a tricky beast. I can't remember when I first became self-conscious about what to wear in the pool or on the beach, but it has possibly been as long as five years since I've hit the water - a delay due in no small part to an inability to find something appropriate to wear.

In the past I've tried it all - over-sized T-shirts, tankinis, I've even contemplated boys board shorts. I've spent too much money on unworn versions of the same highstreet offerings without finding the second skin I've been looking for.

It's not that I'm uncomfortable with my body. I like its contours, I'm grateful for its functionality - it houses me well and I appreciate it. But because my body is validated by me on my own terms, I like the idea of keeping a little mystery. To my mind, modesty is one of the most attractive elements of real beauty in our hyper-sexualised society. That's why I was so excited to read the mission statement on the For Luna website when I was searching for something to wear to a special spa party:

"We take inspiration from a time 
when ladies carried themselves
 with a grace and poise which seems to have been largely lost
 in a culture where 
almost nothing is left to the imagination!"

Their designs represent liberal femininity in a new light: sophisticated, flattering silhouettes that do a great service for women looking for a little more discretion without wanting to be written off as either prudes or tomboys. 

It might not be peace-prize winning stuff, but since unwrapping the beautiful packaging my emerald green swimsuit arrived in I find I have become an absolute evangelist for this brand. Following on from feeling so secure in my skin during its first debut at the weekend, I am convinced that sixty pounds is a small price to pay for something that is well on its way to being a wardrobe cornerstone.

For Luna are doing something different. They are making women feel like it's more than okay to flatter rather than flaunt. They are making sensible sexy, and sexy subtle. They are re-writing the rules. Maybe, when set against the relentless churn of revelation-centric gossip magazines, their counter-cultural aims might seem like a drop in the ocean. But, as the saying goes, the ocean is made up of many drops. If we show our support, who knows? We might have a revolution on our hands. 

'Thank Goodness for...'
Posts that celebrate the positive impact people and organisations are having on overwhelming issues

Friday, 21 September 2012

A is for Appreciation

Peeling apples from my parents' tree, I remembered a song we used to sing in primary school. The lyrics celebrate a whole list of autumn features, and the chorus says "I mustn't forget / No I mustn't forget / To say a great big thank you / I mustn't forget". It's something I'm reminding myself as I count down to another transition - one that I'm hugely excited about. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, it will still be the small things that will make me truly happy: crumble and wine, hard work, curling up on the sofa alive and in love, box-sets, books...and knowing that no matter what it looks like, feels like or what other people think, ultimately, I'm living an amazing and privileged life.

"If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it;
blame yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its riches;
for to the creator 
there is no poor indifferent place."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, 16 September 2012

"Naked Fashion" - Safia Minney (and others)

A few months ago, I stumbled across some press coverage about this book (published around July 2011) and made a mental note to get my hands on a copy. Having thought about it on and off without doing much more, it was such a nice surprise to see it staring up at me out of a birthday box lovingly put together for me this month.

Since then, the days I've spent reading through this Fair Trade fashion bible have co-incided with unfolding news about the deaths of over 280 people working in a garment factory that caught fire in Karachi, Pakistan. Although problematic issues with the implementation of health and safety rights have been cited as part of the causal chain of events, there can also be little doubt that the embedded drive for cheaper production fuelled by consumer demand is also up there on the list of contributory factors.

This recent tragedy is yet another reminder of the often shocking realities that our collective choices give rise to. Against that backdrop it's really helpful to have a guiding hand point towards alternative ways of impacting others. Compiled by People Tree founder Safia Minney, 'Naked Fashion' is a book that brings together a string of industry-insider profiles and interviews, with the aim of educating and inspiring the reader to re-think their relationship with fashion.

The spotlight is placed on people who are working to re-invent the way fashion interacts on every level: buyers, models and their agencies, producers, stylists, designers... the whole shabang. I got the impression reading through that some people seemed to arguably be making more revolutionary waves than others, but on the whole this book isn't just about good intentions - this is proof that things can be done differently right across the board.

It's one to read with laptop at the ready - the interviews act as initial reference points for you to launch from and explore what's being said and done in more detail online. The ethical directory is especially helpful for the would-be reformed consumer trying to get to grips with what's on offer in the ethical marketplace. Unfortunately, the directory is also where I struggle a little bit because quite a number of the brands listed don't come anywhere close to accommodating my personal tastes.

From the looks of the directory, we are still mostly talking about a smattering of boutiques and small businesses - some of them operating without, I'm guessing, the legions of trend analysts and advertisers that make mainstream brands so successful at speaking into the fashion zeitgeist. It's beginning to become clear to me that taking ethical shopping seriously will mean doing plenty of homework to unearth those rare items or brands that speak to me stylistically, as well as to my conscience. And then saving up to pay the premium prices fair fashion demands.

By far, the biggest encouragement I derived from the book was reading the profiles of "intrapeneurs": people pioneering incremental change in big labels. I was relieved to see the passion behind what can sometimes come across as tokenistic gestures and am optimistic (naive?) enough to hope that consumer choice within the parameters of these existing brands can help tip the balance of their practices in favour of better conditions for both workers and the environment.

I have a long way to go in getting my head around all this, and it's comforting to fall back on my two fail-safes: buying infrequently and a love of second-hand clothes. But in trying to understand the issues that make up my advance into the brave new world of ethical/sustainable/fair trade fashion, 'Naked Fashion' is a good introduction.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Lyrical Lifelines - "Clay and Water" (Margaret Becker)

Margaret Becker - Album: Falling Forward

According to her iTunes page, this artist was active in the 1980s and 1990s, but I didn't discover her until the first decade of the new millennium, rooting around in the reduced box of a Christian bookstore. My music buying strategy was fairly unsophisticated - I looked at album art, I looked at lyrics and I looked at price. Margaret Becker scored favourably on all fronts - it was only when I got the album home that I realised she was writing songs about me.

Clearly that wasn't the case, but that's definitely how it felt in the self-conscious, self-absorbed state of adolescence. Seven or eight years later, when I bought her greatest hits acoustic compilation, I found yet more songs that addressed the very crux of what living looked like for me at that stage.

I love Margaret Becker for putting brave words in my mouth, for sharing my first love and for articulating the things on my heart. And I love her for doing it with a kind of stripped back beauty - acoustic pop meets folk meets her distinctive, soaring vocals. If I ever need a hand with a little soul-searching, if I ever want to hold a moment up to the light and see what it's made of or am just craving a really, really honest encounter with Jesus, this lady is a friend indeed.

In particular, I come back to "Clay and Water" time and time again because its lyrics are a magical mixture of strength and vulnerability. The lyrics let me tell myself truths that are hard to remember and the music washes me through, making everything alright.

"I am clay and I am water
Falling forward in disorder
While the world spins round so fast
Slowly I'm becoming 
Who I am." 

'Lyrical Lifelines' - songs that save my world 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Great Escape

A string of miracles and reminders have left me feeling completely rejuvenated. Each item is worth a blog post in itself, but sometimes the stories keep themselves to themselves. All I will say is, even though you can't afford to / don't deserve to / etc., make quality time: learn something, be with someone special, see something new - you know what to do. Do it.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Wedding Anniversary No.2

I made a collage last year on our first wedding anniversary, accompanied by the following reflection:
 "Sometimes western culture 
seems to celebrate being a bride 
at the expense of being a wife. 
When the white dress is packed away 
and all the guests have gone home, 
real beauty begins."

Another year on and having recently attended a 50th wedding celebration, I'm completely astounded and blown away - it just gets better.

I don't say that to be smug, or to make people who are already aching hurt even more. I don't say it to shed light on how much I love my husband or draw other people into the detail of our relationship - if you can't see devotion and commitment in observing our attitudes and actions from afar, then all the declarations of love in the world are empty and embarrassingly unworthy.

I say it because I know how tempting it can be to sell yourself short: to stop waiting for someone who complements and enhances you (and vice versa), someone you can completely respect and be overjoyed to share life with. Sometimes it seems easier to settle for someone who... just does the least harm. But some waits are truly worth it.

And I say it because, when you do find someone wonderful, I know how tempting it can be to not make extravagant promises you're afraid you won't live up to, to not give it your all or not make the sacrifices to follow through. If love is like fire, sometimes it's exceedingly uncomfortable to sit in its furnace and watch your independence go up in smoke so that the beauty of interdependence can be forged instead.

But people do it. Really ordinary people - like us, like the couple whose golden anniversary we celebrated. People make a life together: one life, together.

I just feel compelled to offer a reminder, to stand up and be counted as a witness to a truth that sometimes feels like its disappearing: it is possible.

And oh. my. God!! It's amazing.

Thank you.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Riots, Revolution and 'The Dark Knight Rises'

Image created by artandwords on

Like many cinema-goers this summer, I loved this film for what it is: another fantastically entertaining instalment in the Batman series. "The Dark Knight Rises" arguably combines the best of the first and second films, with both intricate back-story and adrenaline-pumping action.

But it has stayed with me on another level. A few poignant lines from the film (also featured in the trailer) have struck a chord with me on the anniversary of last August's riots:
"You think this can last?
There's a storm coming, Mr Wayne.
You and your friends better batten down the hatches
because when it hits you're going to wonder 
how you ever thought you could live so large
and leave so little for the rest of us." 

The rioting seemed to come out of nowhere. A protest march in Tottenham, London, following the death of local man Mark Duggan at the hands of the police erupted into violence when large numbers of officers were dispatched to break up the demonstration. The subsequent violence that ricocheted across multiple London boroughs and other English city centres was characterised by looting, arson and youth unrest.

I remember watching it all unfold in utter disbelief. I remember the helicopters overhead at night, the precautionary evacuation from work and the stories of friends barricaded in their homes while their cars burned. There were a few weeks where various politicians, community leaders and academics clamoured to dissect the cocktail of devastating factors that triggered the rioting, but it wasn't too long before the story drifted out of the headlines. 

It seemed to come out of nowhere but I've been wondering recently whether that's true. Perhaps it came out of the social values that we've unthinkingly accumulated: rampant consumerism, individualistic entitlement, instant gratification and institutionalised disdain for compassion.

I can't help but wonder whether, one year on, anything has changed. I don't shop in the Tesco store that was the central focus of local aggression in my current city's riot experience, but beyond that I certainly haven't adjusted my lifestyle very much. Although I don't intend to beat myself up for not personally bridging the yawning chasm of inequality that we can probably all agree was a factor in the riots, I also want to heed the warning: this cannot last. 

So what next? If there's an environmental and social storm coming as a consequence of relatively small numbers of people (myself included) living largely at the expense of others - what to do in response? I don't know. On a personal level, I guess I have a responsibility to choose and promote values that counteract more selfish or destructive priorities: I can buy wisely, I can bend my mindset into a more community-oriented frame, give more to other people's opportunities as well as my own. 

But that's no revolution. So I'm also reading, thinking, praying about some bigger ideas that are floating around out there: new building blocks for a different way of being a society. One of my starting points is Jeremy Williams' resources 'Beyond Growth' and 'Make Wealth History', exploring economic theories that don't demand bigger, better and more all the time, as well as the practical application of those ideas. Even though the sites are well written, they make for slow reading - there's a lot to think about. I recommend at least a look.

Is it enough - reading, thinking, praying? No. But it's a start.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Wardrobe Stories - Prom Dresses

For some reason, the last couple of weeks have seen an upsurge in debate about the prevalence of proms in the UK. 

The media's attention was completely captivated by the (true) story of two sixteen year olds - Emily Pounde and Hannah Jagger turning up to their school prom in barbie boxes. Since then, the topic has been tackled from multiple angles on radio, TV, print and online: economist reports on the amount spent on dresses; feminist fears over the messages being sent to girls (exam results eclipsed by the 'achievement' of being best-dressed); nationalists bemoaning the death of more British events like the humble school disco and the traditional ball.

Although it feels like another lifetime, it wasn't actually so long ago that I attended my own school 'prom' (only it wasn't called that back then). There were two, in fact: the leavers' party at sixteen marked the end of compulsory schooling, and the boat party at eighteen marked the end of secondary education for those of us who had stayed on for AS and A-Level exams. Listening to Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4 asking interviewees about their experience of prom made me think of my own - and in particular, my outfit.

The ensemble I wore is pictured above and it's another 'found fashion' story. I bought the halterneck top for (from memory) around 5 euros from a bargain basket in Germany - I was away with the school on language exchange at the time. And the skirt is a wrap-round that I flipped inside out to reveal more of the yellow 'silk' and less of the green lace; I picked that up for 10 pounds from Camden Market in London. I wore H&M Indian slippers, I have no idea where the belt is from and I'm pretty sure I wore the same outfit to both parties. 

Turning up and feeling beautiful on a shoestring budget was addictive - it started the personal trend that continues to this day, and has included many a ball dress and wedding outfit sourced from charity and vintage shops. Incredibly, at almost 25 years old and having attended a university with some pretty spectacular balls and black-tie events, the only dress I've ever bought that cost over £100 was my wedding dress. None of the others have even come close.

I'm not outright opposed to spending lots of money on clothes. Actually, one of the things I'm thinking about frequently at the moment is how I can get past cheap, fast fashion and learn to pay for the full value of clothes: the work that goes into their production, the ethical lines that source materials responsibly. Even so, like most people who are well-off compared to the majority of the world, I'm still on a budget. If I had the financial freedom to, I think I would probably enjoy investing in a few designer pieces - I would relish the artistry, the back-story and history. 

But at the end of the day, just like it can't buy happiness, money can't buy style. The deciding factor in the 'best-dressed' equation is not what you wear, it's how you wear it. That was what my 'prom' taught me. If I could give one gift to girls getting ready for their American-style proms, it would be the grace to learn that lesson too.

Wardrobe Stories' are a string of posts helping me to appreciate the clothes and accessories I own in an atmosphere where it's easy to end up taking things for granted.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Thank Goodness for... Wise Recycling

It's not everyday that you find out about a great 'social justice' initiative while queueing up at the bank (although I guess that depends on who you bank with - a thought for another day). 

A few months ago, the logo of a local charity caught my eye while I was waiting to pay in a cheque. It was on a stack of bags that were free for anyone to take. On closer inspection, the bags turned out to be freepost recycling envelopes courtesy of Wise Recycling Ltd.

The service is simple: empty printer cartridges sent to this company are recycled, with 20% of the cartridge value being given to the charity nominated on the bag. Bags can be ordered for free on their website, which also allows you to view and select the charity you want to support. A range of charities are available and you can suggest new ones. A similar donation system applies if you purchase the printer cartridge online, or when you recycle mobile phones and foreign coins.

There are so many bits and pieces that make up the machinery of my life: from computer parts and household objects, to grooming gadgets like electric toothbrushes. When they pass their functional best, figuring out how to get rid of them is often a complete mystery to me. 

I remember, clearly, the moment in my teens when I really thought about the fact that there's no such place as 'away': when I throw things 'away' they end up in some very real place, more often than not doing some very real environmental damage.

Much to my shame, it's a realisation I still haven't fully acted on. But at least in this one tiny area there's a little bit of help, assisting me by providing a great way to both recycle and give to charity all at once. Hoorah!
'Thank Goodness for...' 
Posts that celebrate the positive impact people and organisations are having on overwhelming issues
As a 'PS': I'm starting to scratch the surface of a really interesting conversation being had by people who are cleverer and more committed than me in all things environmental. Check out talk of 'the circular economy' on the Ellen Macarthur Foundation website.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

100 Postcards

The 100 postcards project continues with a few favourite quotes being sent out to largely unsuspecting recipients:

"The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it." - John Ruskin, Writer & Critic

"We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Even to your old age and grey hairs, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you. I will carry you. I will sustain you. I will rescue you." - Isaiah 46v4 (The Bible)

They've all meant something special to me at different times: reminding me not to be so results-orientated in the middle of stressful exams, finding me 'by co-incidence' and helping me be grateful for the unknown. They've done me so much good it's nice to pass them on. But if I had to choose a quote to send myself, today, right now it would be:
"Remember this:
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,
and whoever sows generously will also reap generously."
2 Cor 9v6   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Vogue Talent Contest 2012

Thoughts from my last ever entry to Vogue's writing competition (I'll be 'too old' to enter next year). Some might say I was unsuccessful because I wasn't shortlisted from thousands to move on to the next stage of the competition. But sometimes just having a reason write and a chance to explore new ideas with integrity is enough. Sometimes.

Africana: A continent takes centre stage

Image created by artandwords on

From animal prints to "ethnic" chic, European designers have long looked to the landscape and traditions of Africa as a catalyst for inspiration. With a new incarnation of the trend amongst us for s/s 2012, now is the time to get under the skin of one of fashion's favourite themes.
Forget Asia or the Americas, there’s something about Africa that seems to capture the imagination when it comes to articulating the boldness and sense of escapism we crave after months of winter hibernation. Sun, safari and savannah plains, rugged landscapes and untamed animals – the continent conjures up images of exploration and adventure, setting pulses racing as we invest in our slice of life on the wild-side: snake-print bangles, raffia wedges, tribal dresses in a cacophony of colours.
This season the catwalks have been more than complicit.  Stripes and spots abound in the animal-inspired collections from the likes of Michael Kors and Robert Cavalli, while Burberry Prorsum imitates and re-imagines distinctly “African” fabrics. The high street, too, is following suit: Next, Zara and Topshop offer safari luxe, heavy-duty pattern and radiant florals, as does the ASOS Africa collection and elements of the collaboration Marni for H&M.
The enthusiasm with which European fashion embraces a recurrent African theme could be down to our desire for experiences outside of our familiar frames of reference. Delving into the dress of another culture gives us unparalleled and liberating permission for personal reinvention. But with connotations of being abroad on holiday, this is a trend that is often treated like a summer fling: filling an aching gap with vibrancy, but simultaneously persuading us that its intensity is unsuitable for a permanent place in our everyday lives.
For more astute observers, however, s/s 2012 is the season to challenge this limited view of Africa-influenced fashion. Thanks to a burgeoning industry of its own developing apace through the equalising effects of social media, now more than ever the continent is adding its contribution: successive collections that are shaped by a plurality overlooked from the outside. For these designers, “Africa” is always in fashion and a wealth of commentators are on-hand to help unfamiliar fashionistas grapple with the diverse spectrum of home-grown talent.
One must-have on the road to enlightenment is Helen Jennings’ masterpiece “New African Fashion”: a book that charts contextual underpinnings and profiles current ground-breakers and change-makers. For everyday application of trends from the continent and diaspora, look to blogs like “My African Closet” ( from Croydon-based Ghanaian designer AJ Taylor and Nigeria’s popular Spiralling out from these starting points are numerous links and further reading helping us learn the lexicon of national and local influences: from the historical heritage of different regional crafts and textiles to their on-going reinterpretation in modern societies.
This is the real adventure: unravelling the continent’s complexity and embarking on expeditions into an enhanced understanding. Our enriched wardrobes will thank us when we realise that Africana is for life, not just for a season.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

80 Years Young

There are people who uniformly, consistently make things that little bit easier for others. Yesterday a few of us had the privilege of celebrating the 80th birthday of one such lady, and as we took it in turns to recall her kindness it was overwhelming evident that we were in special company. Here are a handful of lessons learned in the few hours spent celebrating Shirley:

1. Small is beautiful
Almost everything that people wanted to say thank you for were small attentions: a hand-wrapped treat of favourite sweets given as a spontaneous gift; unasked for financial help with a notelet of encouragement tucked into the envelope; names remembered and families asked after; conversation in place of loneliness; a smile and a hug instead of isolation. People have carried those moments of love like life buoys. Selflessness saves lives.

2. Loss is inevitable, but not insummountable
I don't know her well enough to speak definitively on her behalf, but looking at the life events that did and didn't take place over the last eighty years, I hazard a guess that at some stage a decision was made to be "better, not bitter".

3. Learning is life-long
From sports to spiritual growth, it was incredible to listen to a long list of the new things being discovered at an age when it might be tempting to think you know a thing or two already.

4. Image is irrelevant
One of the things I prize the most about returning to the church community that I grew up in and Shirley belongs to is a timely rebuke about getting caught up in how things look from the outside.

There things are done in idiosyncratic and arguably unfashionable ways: awkward silences are allowed to attend a party instead of being drowned out by background music; spontaneous off-key singing is okay and common interests are sometimes hard to find in the ethnically, economically and age diverse hodge-podge of people.

But there is laughter. There is love, so much love. And the peace of being acceptable and accepted by others - not on the basis of attractiveness or shared likes and dislikes, but just because. It's miraculous. It settles the soul.

To grow old having lived life on that basis in a society that shouts the opposite is surely one of the most amazing achievements of all.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Lyrical Lifelines - "Never Once" (Matt Redman)

Matt Redman - Album: 10,000 Reasons 
Buy it Here

Sometimes it's tricky for me to decide what to write about and why - this blog is still in its infancy, only just beginning but at the same time feeling like a transitory phase that might blow over and end at any minute. Then along comes a day like today and I remember why I'm choosing to scatter thoughts to the wind.

A day like today is one where - for whatever reason - I find myself extra hungry for inspiration and reassurance. The particular scenario this time around was work-related, but it can come at me from any angle and I'll find myself suddenly needing to be lifted out of self-preoccupation by a snapshot of someone else's experience. 

Blogs help me in that respect. Reading the beautiful thoughts of Brin Wisdom or being intrigued by insights of a famous yet familiar-feeling actress I admire sets my emotions at ease. Seeing significance in other people's ramblings helps me to stop taking myself so seriously, worry less about "getting [life] right" and be in it for the crazy ride, the completely unique and worthwhile wonder in all of the ordinary bits. Because my favourite blog posts are about the ordinary. My favourite blog posts aren't about gossip or breaking news, but about reflecting on the ordinary until its transformed into something extraordinary, something comment-worthy.

Take today. I read a blog post today that had the lyrics of "Never Once" written out in black and white. I know the song, I could hear the melody as I was reading the post. Even so, as I read it I knew that the ordinary and familiar was becoming special right before my eyes and those words were meant for me in that moment. They gave me an energy and fresh perspective on my situation that I had been incapable of mustering up in my own strength.

So I persevere in writing this blog because sometimes the internet lets me stumble across exactly what I needed to find. I write to pass that feeling on. Not because I have grand things to say, but because sometimes just by re-articulating an existing idea and putting it out there it has the potential to resonate in a fresh way with someone else.

'Lyrical Lifelines' - songs that save my world 
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