Chestnuts and paper chains

Dear Claire

 

I’m roasting chestnuts as I write – no better tradition at this time of year, when December is almost  upon us, the lights are twinkling in the windows and the snow is flurrying. I do miss the chestnut sellers on English street corners and their little blackened paper bags of steaming hot chestnuts. But since I can’t hop across the Atlantic anytime soon, this is my simple go-to recipe at home:

Preheat oven to 200C/400F

Carefully cut an x on the flat side of each nut, using a sharp paring knife

Lay the chestnuts, x-side up, in a single layer on a baking sheet

Roast for about 30 minutes

Cool, peel and enjoy

While I’m reminiscing, I’ve also been browsing through a book called Simply Tradition. It’s written by a friend of mine, Kierste Wade, whose children play violin with J. She writes a wonderful, inspirational blog, too, called Simply Kierste. In both places she has a lovely holiday idea for families – a Christmas Kindness Countdown Chain. I remember making paper chains with my grandmother when I was a child, and Kierste’s idea is all about turning this into a family advent tradition where you write down ideas for helping others on the strips of paper, and then add a strip to the chain each day as you put your ideas into action.

christmas-kindness-chain-3_edited-1-740x1117.jpg

Simple and meaningful. Just what the season should be all about.

Chestnuts are ready! I hope you can enjoy some too this holiday season.

Much love,
Sam

What a difference a day makes

Dear Sam,

 

Thank you for telling me about World Smile Day and for sharing your tip about thinking of things you are grateful for while brushing your teeth. I’m off to the dentist this week, so it’s not only made me feel happier but will keep me in their good books, too!

I don’t know if it’s because the weather starts to get wintery in October, but it seems to be a month that’s full of special days to help us motivate ourselves. The next one for your diary fits right in with our aim here of suggesting small steps to making a differenceMake a Difference Day.

Different ways to brighten someone’s day

It started in the US about 20 years ago and the idea is to encourage everyone to do something good for someone because small actions add up to big ones. It falls on the last Saturday of October (this year it’s the 27th). You can volunteer or help with a community project;  near me,  a litter collection is taking place and a Neighbours’ Lunch has been organised to help bring people together and tackle loneliness.  If you’re looking for something simpler to do, you could  improve someone’s day by giving them flowers or baking a cake.

We-can-all-make-a-difference-mug
My Alzheimer’s Society mug says it all!*

Of course, I can’t write a post called What a difference a day makes without thinking about the song of the same name, so here it is sung by Tony Bennett – with a glimpse of Kermit the frog to make it even better – enjoy!

Much love,

Claire

* The mug is available from the Alzheimer’s UK shop

 

 

 

A smile and three ‘thank you’s

Dear Claire

 

It’s the first Friday of October, so Happy World Smile Day! It sounds as though you’ll have had lots to smile about in Italy!

This is World Smile Day in a nutshell:

  • The image of World Smile Day is the smiley face 😊
  • The smiley face was created by Harvey Ball back in 1963, in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  • He designed it as part of a goodwill campaign during the merger of two insurance companies.
  • But 1999 he was concerned that the use of the smiley face had become too commercialized, so he had the idea to use it as the symbol of a day to celebrate happiness.
  • The goal of World Smile Day is for everyone to do one act of kindness that makes one person smile. And thus the world will become a happier place.

From kindness to gratitude

I was reading about something else recently that is proven to make the world a happier place – over a delicious cappuccino, as it happened – and that is the act of gratitude.

coffee-1242153_1920
Happy Cappuccino

This white paper on the Science of Gratitude, published last May by UC Berkeley, cites many research studies, one of them showing that people who wrote down three things that went well over the course of one week, and identified the causes of those good things, reported increased happiness a whole six months after the intervention!

So on this World Smile Day, perhaps it’s worth us not only engaging in an act of kindness but also beginning the practice of deliberate gratitude. And to help make it a habit, how about thinking of three things for which we are grateful each morning, during the very activity that enhances a smile – brushing our teeth!

smurf-139993_1920
Smiley Smurf

Of course the Smurfs may or may not be one of them….

Lots of love,
Sam

Helping a honey bee

Dear Claire,

 

It was so lovely to see you in Oxford, and I do hope it won’t be too long before we meet again. We were certainly blessed with nice weather that weekend. Since our return here it’s been very hot indeed – and much the same for you, I believe!

We’re not the only ones flagging in the heat. The other day a friend of mine shared a post by Sir David Attenborough:

“This time of year bees can often look like they are dying or dead, however, they’re far from it. Bees can become tired and they simply don’t have enough energy to return to the hive, which can often result in being swept away. If you find a tired bee in your home, a simple solution of sugar and water will help revive an exhausted bee. Simply mix two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water, and place on a spoon for the bee to reach.”

The rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species in the US for the first time last year and according to the UN it’s a global trend, with about 40% of the world’s pollinators under threat of extinction. Yet they are all so critical to us for pollinating the crops that keep us alive! So it strikes me that if each of us helps even one small bee recover, we’ll be making a difference to us all.

jars-2614897_1280.jpgOf course, without bees we wouldn’t have honey. And if for no other reason, that’s worth helping a bee on its way. As Piglet understood well, all good friends need a little honey sometimes.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.
“There, there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”

Much love,
Sam

Spring planting!

Dear Claire,

 

I hope you had a wonderful trip to Florence – full of good food and wine and sunshine!

I’m happy to say the sun is out here now, and spring has finally sprung. It’s lovely to be able to get outside, walk in the park and breathe in the fresh air – the perfect thing to add a little happiness to the day.

It’s the season for planting, too. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I know that people who love to garden often say that their garden is their happy place. Little did I realize, until I came across this article recently, that there’s evidence for the garden really being a place that increases happiness, because certain microbes in the soil have an anti-depressant effect!

Since my last post, I had a great experience working with a group of families from J’s school on a service project for a local urban farm run by Journey’s End Refugee Services. The farm provides a place for refugees to learn about agriculture and the business of farming, and grow produce to sell or to bring home for their families. I think there were thirty of us, adults and children. Between us we cleaned up debris, built three large raised beds for vegetables, put together a wheelbarrow, and sanded and painted picnic tables. All in three hours one crisp Saturday morning. We got fresh air and exercise, got creative and had fun, and met parents and children we hadn’t necessarily met before. There’s no doubt we all left as happier people that day – and hopefully we’d done a little to help some of our refugee neighbors as well.

img_3654_39813762620_o.jpegimg_3515_39813765740_oimg_3599_41621082851_o.jpegimg_3802_41581093192_o.jpeg

Nothing like planting to work up an appetite – so I’m happy to report that tomorrow marks the opening of our local farmer’s market. Fresh flowers and produce, home baked bread, locally brewed coffee – or beer! – and music and friends on a Saturday morning. Happy spring!

Much love,
Sam xx

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Dalai Lama

Dear Sam,

I’m certainly looking forward to Spring, too. Although it hasn’t been anywhere near as cold here in Wales as it has your part of the US, we’ve had plenty of dark, miserable days. It was fascinating to read about all the different things that daffodils can symbolise; I hadn’t heard of the Welsh legend that being the quickest to spot one in flower brings a year of gold, but it certainly cheers me up when I see the first ones blooming. As you can imagine, we go all out for planting them in Wales and I agree with Wordsworth  that en-masse they are quite a sight, although he put it rather better than that!

I wanted to talk to you today about something else that can bring light into a gloomy day – someone being kind.  I think it’s great timing that Random Acts of Kindness Week is in February, starting on Sunday 11th, to be exact.  The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lots of great ideas for things to do, including some ways to be kind to oneself, which is also important in the depths of winter.

One of the nicest things I think someone can do for another is to cook something, so I thought I’d share a really quick and easy recipe for some gingerbread biscuits (cookies).  These are also foolproof and popular if you have to contribute to a bake sale or cake stall.

Gingerbread Biscuits

Ingredients

UK

125g unsalted butter

100g caster sugar

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

300g plain flour

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

US

4oz or 1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar 

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

2 1/4 cups plain flour 

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/Gas mark 4.

Grease a baking tray or line with baking paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until they are fluffy and light in colour.  Beat in the egg and the syrup. Mix together thoroughly.

Sift the ground ginger, bicarbonate/baking soda and flour into the bowl. Mix into a smooth dough, adding  little more flour if very sticky.  Wrap in cling film/plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1cm/ 1/2inch and cut out with a pastry cutter. (It’s fun to theme the cutter to the person or occasion. I have one in the shape of Jane Austen’s silhouette, which is great for book clubs or well-read friends!)

Transfer the biscuits to the baking tray, with some space in between as they will spread in the oven.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until they are golden brown in colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly on the tray before transferring to a cooling rack. 

If required, you can decorate the biscuits with fondant or writing icing. Present them in an airtight box or bag to keep them fresh.

gingerbread for bake sale

 Inspired by your sunny daffodils, I looked into the meanings of flowers and discovered that, in Japan, cherry blossom symbolises kindness. No other excuse needed to top this post with a picture that I hope will help brighten your day.

Much love,

Claire

The season of giving

Dear Claire,

Happy Advent! I can hardly believe we are into December. Thanks so much for all those gift ideas. What wonderful ways to do some good – and extremely handy for me, as I haven’t even begun my Christmas shopping yet!

One thing I did buy, though, was a children’s Advent calendar. It’s from a grocery store here called Trader Joe’s, and I love the concept – each door suggests doing a simple good deed, and rewards you with a piece of chocolate.

Trader Joes Advent Calendar

Action for Happiness has a similar Kindness Calendar, which is printable or shareable over social media. This one could be for anyone, adults or children, and goes all the way through December. I particularly like the 26th – switching off digital devices and really listening to others. To me it’s a reminder to be present, when it’s otherwise so easy to get caught up in all the busy-ness of the season and let what’s most important pass you by.

I liked this article on the BBC website, too, about a Reverse Advent Calendar, where you create 24 numbered compartments in a cardboard box, or perhaps re-use old wine bottle carriers, and each day add an item that you can donate to a food bank or other good cause.

These are all such nice ways for parents and children and indeed, anyone, to remember others and spread a little extra happiness in this holiday season. I would love this to become a family tradition. And I wonder if the idea could be adopted too for other traditions at this time of year, such as the eight days of Hanukkah or seven days of Kwanzaa.

I’m sure we’ll be in touch again before Christmas. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy all your upcoming festivities!

Love,
Sam

Top ten ideas for gifts that do good

Dear Sam,

Happy Thanksgiving for yesterday!

I was thinking of you and how grateful I am that we can connect through our blog, too. I was delighted to hear that being kind is so good for us – that’s definitely a win-win situation.

Talking about being kind, the season of goodwill is approaching and I’ve been pondering the gifts I need to buy. This year, in the spirit of Staircase 9 17, I’ve looked for presents  which help people as well as (hopefully) making the recipient happy. I thought I’d share my Top Ten ideas with you today:

1. Buying seasonal supplies is a great way to support charities and this year I’ve ordered some cards from Book Aid and my wrapping paper from Alzheimer’s Society.

2. As well as buying online, it’s fun to keep a look out for presents at the craft fairs and fetes that are held before Christmas in support of causes close to home.

coffee Christmas

3. Gifts of food always go down well with my friends and family, so I’m planning to get some Manumit coffee, which supports victims of modern slavery. Lots of our local shops sell Fairtrade goods, too, and I might add in some biscuits, a couple of mugs and a pretty tea towel to complete the present.

4. As well as buying from charities I try to support local ventures, which help to make the area we live in more vibrant and interesting.  We have a couple of art colleges nearby and some of the students sell their work directly, so you can find a unique gift and help someone out at the start of their career.

5. I often give books as gifts and I noticed that there is a range of paperbacks for sale which support Cancer Research UK.  I also have my eye on Stressed, Unstressed, the poetry anthology produced by the ReLit Bibliotherapy Foundation.

6. Beautiful accessories are a favourite option for my friends and I like the purses, jewellery rolls and bags made by Lua, who work with craftspeople in Vietnam.

sebon

7. I love to give and receive lotions and potions and I found some lovely soaps produced by Arthouse Meath, which is a collective of artists living with disabilities.

8. We all have people on our present list who already have everything and the ‘virtual’ charity gifts like ‘give a goat to Granny’ have been popular for some time.  I like the idea of matching the gift to the person’s interests. One year I paid for stethoscopes for use in the developing world on behalf of my doctor parents and this year an option caught my eye for booklovers: to support the work of Chawton House Library (which is at the ‘Great House’ near Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire, UK) you can adopt a book  on someone’s behalf.

9. Another idea for those who seemingly have it all is tickets for an evening out. An ideal choice is a charity concert or film screening; you can find out what’s on by searching online or contacting a charity close to your heart to ask about forthcoming events.

 

coupon

10. And finally, why not offer a ‘voucher’ for some help? It can be anything you know the recipient would appreciate, from time to help sort through a collection of photos to babysitting for new parents. It’s easy to print a bespoke voucher and you can pair it with a suitable small gift like a lovely album for the pictures or a  bottle of wine for a pre-dinner drink.

Have you made a start on your seasonal shopping? I’d love to hear how your preparations are going.

Much love,

Claire

 

 

 

 

A helping hand

Dear Sam,

How are you?  I’ve been a bit under the weather with a cold this week and I wanted to thank you for telling me about the TED talks. Being poorly has given me the perfect opportunity to put my feet up and make myself feel better by listening to the inspirational speakers.

In TED’s spirit of sharing, G and I have just joined Helpful Peeps, an online community where you can offer time, skills and knowledge to help other people out. I think their motto strikes a chord for us here at Staircase 917, Life is better when we help each other.  Where we live, people are looking for all sorts of help, from learning a language to advice about handicrafts, so there’s scope to offer support whatever your strengths may be! Apparently, there are members in more than 80 countries – do you know if they’ve reached the US?

And, thinking of the power of words to move and inspire, I’m sure you’ll want to join me today in wishing a happy 103rd birthday to Dylan Thomas. Here he is reading his Poem in October, written in 1944.

Much love,

Claire