Friday, 23 January 2015

Stuck in the biscuit aisle

There are many reasons to get stuck in the biscuit aisle: looking for a special treat, plummeting for a favourite that happens to be on special offer, perhaps checking ingredients to make sure you are not going to present a veggie friend with animal fat. On the other hand, there are good reasons to avoid it altogether. Who needs those empty calories and that extra fat anyway?

I am a relatively thoughtful shopper - sometimes this means I have habits that I stick with so it doesn't take long, but more often I'm annoyingly slow. I pore over the labels, maintaining a mental dialogue. Where has this fruit come from? ("Peru! I can't justify the air miles, let's move over to the in-season Coxes", "Israel? Put it back, I don't want to support a country which bullies its neighbour with military might"). Was this now dead animal free range when it was alive? ("Yes? Organic? Even better"). Look at this ridiculous amount of packaging. Oh, and what's the expiry, we may not eat that until Tuesday...

At the weekend, though, I'm afraid there was yet another reason for getting stuck in the biscuit aisle: palm oil.

I had already picked up some bargain Rocky bars - a handy, cheap packed lunch box treat even cheaper at half price - and I was now looking for something else to share with some friends. I thought chocolate digestives might be the answer, or perhaps a packet of Fox's Golden Crunch.

Why, oh why did I take it upon myself to look at the ingredients? Palm oil. And also vegetable fat (palm). Can you believe it? When did palm oil become so widely used? Biscuits were perfectly delicious in my childhood without the need for this exotic ingredient.

I managed to find some shortbread biscuits that relied almost exclusively on butter for their fat content so they became the choice for the day. Sadly, it turned out that the much loved Rocky bars also contained palm oil so back onto the shelf they went. 

For the uninitiated, having palm oil in everything is bad news for the environment. Having started this blog post I decided to look for an article to link to about it and came across this article from the Independent a few years ago:

Basically, you are talking about the devastation of rainforests.

Although some retailers/brands are now claiming to use sustainable palm oil, I still question why it is even necessary to use it in the first place? We have other locally produced vegetable oils. Can these not be used?

You could say what difference does one individual shopper make when faced with ethical versus cheap. But it is not as simple as that. A company, Nestle for example, will not know that I have boycotted their products for about 20 years because of distrust about their marketing policies and tactics in the developing world unless I tell them; as one lone shopper in the millions they target they won't care much. However, it is not all about them. It is about me and my wish to live in a harmonious way. To knowingly support companies and practices I disagree with disrupts my own integrity. I don't want to contribute to the destruction of wildlife on the other side of the world (not to mention the impact on the indigenous population and their dependency on the forests being destroyed). It is better for my spiritual well being to carry on with my picky ways.

Now I know how many biscuits contain palm oil, I'll be more selective than ever (and if I buy fewer that's going to be good for the waistline too, right?). I'll try reminding myself to bake from scratch - at least I'll have control over what goes in - and enjoy a weekend treat from the local bakers even more.

I suspect this may sound sanctimonious. It isn't meant to be like that - I am just trying to navigate the best way for me to live my life well, in the best way I can for me.

By the way, the company making dorritos have come under fire too. They say that they are adopting sustainable policies which will protect against deforestation, but I'm afraid that I don't trust them to have the planet's best interests at heart. For now I'll be making different choices in the crisp aisle too!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The No Make Up Selfie

A phenomenon has gripped social media and comments have ranged from the touching and thoughtful to the downright rude. It's the no make-up selfie for breast cancer awareness.

For me, I wear a smattering of make up for work and rarely bother the rest of the time. It's mainly a going out, Sunday best (but actually hardly ever on Sunday) thing, not a day-to-day thing. A no make up selfie for me would be pretty much just any old selfie. It used to be that I would wear make up for work about one day in five. After cancer, and probably ageing a bit I started to wear make up more often. It has become part of being well and looking well, but probably not really necessary. 

I am moved by the people who have dropped their usual mascara mask to join in and donate to a breast cancer charity on the way. Even better if a few tips about checking your boobs are thrown in. But why on earth are we in this crazy position where it is such a big deal. It saddens me that so many women feel that they need to wear make up to feel as though they are looking even half respectable.

I offer a poem:

Young people you don't know how beautiful you are
Have the confidence to glow
Your youth and vitality are your strength,
There's no need for make up, you know

Old people you don't know how beautiful you are
Have the confidence to shine
Your age and wisdom may mark your skin
But your smiles will still be divine

Middle aged people you don't know how beautiful you are
You may miss the youth you had
But you still have life, you still have love,
These things should make you glad

All women you don't know how beautiful you are
Don't feel pressure to conform
Be yourself, be strong, be true,
Let all natural become your norm


And here is a picture I took after ballet today:

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Ballet Show

Wow! What a wonderful show it was: Swan Lake performed by students of the Rosemary Lane School of Ballet and Theatre Dance with guests from Elmhurst Ballet School.

I have both seen and performed in a number of ballet school shows (spanning decades and the land - from Edinburgh in the 70s/80s to Durham in the 90s/00s and most recently in Milton Keynes), but this was well and truly the stand out show. This time, I hasten to add, I was not performing, but instead busy behind the scenes supporting our two budding ballerinas and their peers.

The production was very professional, and the dancers beautifully turned out (in attire if not always from the hip - actually often from the hip; their technique is good). The classical story was cleverly adapted to allow for all the classes to take part from the very young ducklings, goslings and ducklings looking adorable in their feathery tutus, to the most accomplished dancers taking on several roles including the iconic white swans. The acts with the swan Corps de Ballet were stunning. Not that the other acts weren't stunning too - they were also a pleasure to watch, colourful and entertaining, but the swans just really were amazing.

I loved the contemporary and jazz pieces which sandwiched the ballet, and although I'm no West End critic, I think Nicola Daniels who put these pieces together is a very talented choreographer. She managed to get the best out of a mixed group of dancers in terms of age and ability. Pippa was proud to take part as the youngest member of the Jazz class and it was great to see her gain confidence with the older girls.

Actually, I was blown away by the whole thing. There are so many lovely dancers in the school. I have a great fondness for the girls I took classes with when I took my exam, and they were certainly a joy to watch, but every class seemed to have a number of great performers in it, and everyone seemed to do so well, dancing to their best ability. Of course I couldn't take my eyes off Pippa and Susannah when they were on stage! I am delighted that since the show they have been inspired to dance more and more, and it is quite a relief that Susannah has decided not to give up after all. They miss the show and want to do it all over again. And again.

With a blog named 'Diary of a Ballet Mum' it would have been rather remiss of me not to comment on the show, although a couple of weeks have now passed. So, a belated congratulations to all who were involved: each and every dancer, Owen Lane for his gravity defying leaps (and for turning Susannah's mouth into a giant 'O' when she watched those leaps, not to mention the pirouettes), Nicola for moving, inspirational original pieces of jazz and contemporary, the army of behind the scenes helpers, and last but by absolutely no means least, Rosemary who pulled it all together, believed in the strengths of her students and helped them shine with expert choreography and tuition. A success to be proud of for years to come.

This last photo I pinched from the facebook page, so thank you to whoever took it!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Some thoughts on New Year

I love New Year. A fresh start, new possibilities. I don't exactly make resolutions but I do think about what I'd like to to do more of, or do better, or indeed, do less of.

Do more exercise. Eat more healthily. Be in touch with friends more. Get more fresh air. Help people. Laugh more. Be more creative.

Waste food less. Don't waste hours on social media (fortunately I've already stopped the wasting of time on Candy Crush). Use the car less. Don't be grumpy.

Actually, the lists could get really long if I spend too much time thinking about it. And then I would need to add 'don't spend so long thinking about things' to the list and it would become a vicious cycle.

I know many people who say 2013 was a bad year so good riddance - welcome 2014. It is good if we can mark the passing of a year in such a way that it gives us that opportunity to leave its baggage behind.

For me, 2013 was a mixture of course. I still spend enough of the time generally being glad to be alive, so in that way it was definitely a good year. I achieved something I will always be chuffed about (a good distinction in my ballet exam). But, for various other reasons it has not been easy, and we've not known whether we would even be living in the same place this time next year which is an unsettling prospect.

When it comes to New Year, perhaps we only really need one thing on our list of resolutions: treat each new day as a new beginning. That way we can leave behind things we might beat ourselves up about without waiting for a major event in the calendar. Similarly, we don't need to wait for some future date to start being that better person we'd like to morph into.

A challenge does work for me though - as long as it is not too ambitious, and I'd like to do some more fundraising. Perhaps a cycle challenge for Bowel Cancer UK? Anyone want to join me? Other ideas?

Treating each new day as a new beginning appeals to the optimist in me, but I'm a realist too so I know it is more easily said than done. Sleep deprivation or illness make it particularly hard. However, I like the idea of trying to keep a fresh perspective.

Someone recently shared an image on facebook that really appealed to me, but when I looked for it again today I couldn't find it. So I searched google images and found the following version. If this belongs to someone and shouldn't be posted, please let me know and I'll happily swap it for another version. Otherwise, thank you to the anonymous illustrator.

Anyway, what appealed to me was that actually a glass isn't half full nor half empty. Technically, it is always full. What I like about this is that it is a fresh, and even more optimistic way of looking at things. We just need to learn to see and appreciate the air. 

So, here I am, raising my metaphorically full glass to wish you all the best for 2014. May it be full of new beginnings, fresh starts, and novel ways of looking at things.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

A dozen Mills and Boon and a book about Romans

Stony Stratford is a great community to live in. It's friendly place with many different events going on, most of which are family-friendly. I often tell people who don't know the area (and who know we are part of the car-is-king, sprawling Milton Keynes) how great it is that we have everything we need in walking distance: a mix of shops, restaurants, banks, pubs, riverside walks, the library.

Ah, the library. What a shock to the town when its closure was announced a couple of years ago. As regular visitors with the kids we really felt a special piece of Stony Stratford was to be taken away and feared a general decline of the High Street as a result.

Fortunately we were not the only ones to feel this, and there were some passionate people ready to co-ordinate protests against the plans. Posters appeared in shop windows, a petition circulated, but then a truly inspired idea took hold: everyone was to take out as many books as possible over a few days to create empty shelves - an imaginative way to show commitment to the library and the cause of keeping it open.

So a couple of days before the end of this protest I went along to find the library was already looking sparse. It was moving to see it in this state - what an endorsement for the library staff who must have feared for their jobs, to know the library was valued so greatly by the local population.

The kids wanted to join in this 'Wot no books' campaign too, but there were hardly any children's books suitable for them left by then (they were only five and two at the time). We took out a few books, including a relatively advanced text book about the Romans, and I ended up with a load of Mills and Boon (well at least they would be light to carry home). We didn't quite reach our quota - 15 books each for three of us would have been rather too much for me to carry, but we did our bit. The library was stripped of books and the story was covered by local and national press adding weight to the campaign.

What jubilation when the library was given a stay of execution and now the Town Council have stepped in to look after the building while Milton Keynes Council continues to provide the library service.

This week we had the pleasure of being invited to the screening of a documentary film about campaign which included interviews of people involved, including local children (Pippa among them). It made me feel very grateful to the Friends of Stony Stratford Library (FOSSL) who made it all happen. Without these people supporting the great asset that is the library, and the strength of the community spirit in our town, we may have lost our local library.

The film is on Youtube at:

I'm pleased to say it is not all Mills and Boon and Romans for our library borrowing these days. Pippa is devouring all the Jacqueline Wilson books in sight, and my most recent read was the thought-provoking 'Long Song' by Andrea Levy.

So thank you FOSSL and library campaigners of Stony Stratford, we are very appreciative of all you did to preserve our access to quality books and the wonderful place that is the library. May it continue to thrive for years to come.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Making the most of every day

I'm not the only person who's had cancer who feels that, having been shown how short life could be, they need to make the most of the life they have. But this is often more easily said than done. How do you make sure your life has purpose and meaning? And that it is blessed with fun and love along the way?

When I was ill I was fabulous! Even if I do say so myself - I was focused on being well. It was almost as if I was thriving on showing how well I was, and how I was dealing with it all. Of course I had my moments (and I thank the family and friends who took the tears on their shoulders), but I managed to more or less ignore the gloomy statistics for someone with Stage 4 bowel cancer and get on with whatever the medical profession advised was in my best interests, never really doubting that I would not get through it in the end.

I don't think those are the rose-coloured spectacles looking back. I do remember the pain and exhaustion in hospital sitting alongside a very powerful urge  and determination to do whatever was necessary to get out of there and to be back with the family. I am rarely so assertive. Generally, there was no time to think about long-term work and life plans because it was all about making sure that I got better and that the family were looked after through this phase.

After a year of treatment, followed a year of fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. It was great to be putting something back and doing my bit to support people going through some of what I went through. Now, though, it is hard to know where to put the effort. I've been inspired by various events and people recently, but I still don't know what it is I'm inspired to do!

At Yorkshire Friends Holiday School this summer I was inspired to think about my Quakerism and what that means to me. I came back and for the first time wrote to my MP to protest against the proposed military action in Syria. I wonder whether I will start to become more political or more of an active pacifist?

I'm inspired by people who follow their dreams. I have some half-baked ideas of things I might like to do one day, but I am not harbouring any burning ambitions that I know in my heart I need to pursue. I just keep churning over the ideas because although I lack that obvious goal, I just have that nagging sense that I'm not fulfilling my potential at the moment. This is where a desire to make the most of precious life can turn into unhelpful pressure. It is probably also not helped by balancing my needs with those of the family (not that our needs are always at odds, but we have an uncertain time ahead of us and we need to be flexible to cope with potential upheaval down the line. We need an income!).

At the same time as this niggly feeling that I now need to be doing something else, something more. something bigger, something better, I do realise that even thinking about how to live your life is a bit of a luxury. When you are facing extremes (illnesss, poverty, sudden bereavement, etc) you have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and get through the day ahead.

So, until I start the next big thing I will continue to do a little bit of this, and a bit of that - enjoying being around to pick up the kids from school, a Macmillan coffee morning or two, time with family and friends, keeping up with exercise. When it comes down to it, these things too are important and precious. While waiting for the next big thing I mustn't forget to enjoy all of the many little things. Not making the most of any given day, shouldn't overshadow the opportunity to make the most of the next day, and the one after that.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

A lot happens in three years

It is three years since I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. If this had not happened life could be very different today. We could be in New Zealand for example.

In the intervening three years I have gone through a myriad of treatments which I have good reason to assume have been successful (although it is not really possible to rid yourself of the tiny, back-of-the-mind doubt that one day it will return, even if that is not for several years). I have also discovered strength, optimism and occasional humour in the face of adversity. After a year of treatment followed a year of fund-raising for Macmillan Cancer Support. It was time to put that new found energy to good use and give something back.

The last year has been calmer (just a small fundraising event and a bit of support for Bowel Cancer UK so far) and this anniversary date not a big deal as ongoing check ups tie in with years since surgery not diagnosis. However, this year the date has a whole new significance and my thoughts are with others and a cancer charity I have had little direct involvement with.

As I was being told I had a malignant tumour, a much happier event was taking place near by as a boy was being born. A beautiful, happy, loving boy. What unimaginable grief for his parents and nearest and dearest as his life came to an end so suddenly towards the end of last year. Then his parents took a generous decision to support the World Child Cancer charity, whose projects include providing life saving medicines to children suffering from curable cancers in countries such as Malawi. Without the specialised medicines and support, these children would not see adulthood, the charity gives them a future.

Today would be Sasha's third birthday and his dad is launching a new phase of his fund-raising efforts: a series of personal challenges and covering 1000km in memory of his beloved son. The whole community is supporting him, he is an inspiration.

Therefore, if you have the means to do so, please support his fantastic effort. You can read more and donate at the justgiving site: