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.

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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

Happy Thanksgiving

Dear Claire,

 

We had our first snowfall here a couple of days ago – the perfect moment for your warming, spicy apple cider. Thank you for the recipe!

I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving. With everything that’s been going on in the world of late, I think it’s more important than ever for each of us to take a breath, give our time to each other, and remind ourselves of those simple things we’re grateful for.

I love this little children’s poem by Aileen Fisher:

All in a Word

T for time to be together, turkey, talk and tangy weather.
H for harvest stored away, home, hearth and holiday.
A for autumn’s frosty art, and abundance in the heart.
N for neighbors and November, nice things, new things to remember.
K for kitchen, kettle’s croon, kith and kin expected soon.
S for sizzles, sights and sounds, and something special that abounds.

That spells THANKS – for joy in living
And a jolly good Thanksgiving!

♥♥♥

I’m so thankful for our friendship, Claire!

Much love,
Sam

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.

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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!

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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

A postcard from Oxford

Oxford City Radcliffe Camera

Dear Claire,

 

Just a quick post today because I am on my way to see you in person! I cannot wait to be back in Oxford – looking forward to pubs and meadows and window boxes and reunions – and most of all, sharing some wonderful time with you!

Let’s hope both our trains are on time and I will see you shortly at the station….

train-3010877_1920.jpgMuch 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.

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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

Treat the Earth Well

Dear Claire,

 

Gosh. It’s quite sobering to think that even the humble tea bag can contribute to the plastic in our oceans. Blue Planet is also popular in the US and the prevalence of plastic in our world has become quite a topic of conversation here, too. It’s all very timely, because this weekend marks Earth Day, and the focus of their campaign this year is ending plastic pollution.

I was  heartened to read recently that since all stores in the UK introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags back in 2015, there has been an 85% drop in the number of single-use plastic bags given out by major retailers – and a 30% drop in the number of plastic bags on the seabed. So such initiatives really can make a difference.

It’s not just Earth Day this weekend, but also the first World Creativity and Innovation Day. So with that in mind I’ve been on the lookout for creative ideas for ways we can limit our purchase of plastics or re-use the plastics we do end up with in our homes. Here are three of my favorites:

  • Turn K-cups into seedling starters – perfect because they already have a hole in the bottom.
  • Switch from plastic straws to paper ones, or better still, go straw-free. Did you know that 500 million straws are used every day in the US? Enough to circle the earth twice!
  • And my favorite: Instead of buying that plastic container for your freezer, go out and treat yourself to an ice cream cone!

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I particularly like this one because in the middle of April, it’s still snowing in Buffalo!

Love,
Sam

“Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.”
Kenyan proverb

 

Digital Detox

Give up cell phone

Dear Claire,

Thanks so much for the gingerbread recipe! Not only were the biscuits a hit at home, I made a batch for a church bake sale a couple of weekends ago, in support of a group of students going on a service trip to Philadelphia next month. There were rather a lot of chocolate brownies at that bake sale, too. A good thing it happened before the beginning of Lent!

A different kind of fasting

You might remember that last year I decided to give up clutter for Lent, and I’m doing the same again. I’ve also taken a deep breath and given up something else – having my mobile phone by my bedside at night. I’ve been using my phone as an alarm clock, but have got into the habit as well of checking news and texts and emails immediately before switching the light out, and then again as soon as I wake up. I know it means I’m not transitioning restfully in and out of the day, but there’s something about that mobile phone that is a terrible draw. I’m hearing more and more people say the same, and seeing more and more studies coming out about the potentially addictive nature of all our digital devices. We are the last generation not actually to have grown up with them, and we are only just beginning to understand the impact on our children’s development.

Good tech, bad tech

I don’t want to suggest that I think cell phones are a bad thing – on the contrary, they are a wonderful way to keep in touch with each other, and a platform for some of the brilliant ideas we’ve written about this past year, like Free Rice and Charity Miles. But I’m a believer in all things in moderation, so I decided that this Lent, in the spirit of being more intentional and mindful, I would switch my cell phone back to an old-fashioned alarm clock. It’s not a full-blown ‘digital detox’ (at least one enterprising company here has actually launched a summer camp for adults where technology is completely forbidden) but I do actually feel a difference.

Now, if only I could get my alarm clock to play the lovely wake-up harp sound I have on my phone.

Much love,
Sam

Happy new beginnings

Dear Claire,

I hope you had a lovely festive season and that 2018 is off to a good start. We had a very pretty white Christmas here, but it was so cold that some days it literally took your breath away. We still have snow on the ground, with probably more to come. So I am dreaming of spring!

That’s why I’ve posted a picture of daffodils today. They symbolize both happy memories and new beginnings – just as we look back and look ahead at the time of new year. Of course, being the national flower of Wales, they remind me of you, and I’ve been reading a bit about their meaning in other cultures as well.  In China, they represent good fortune; in Japan, mirth and joy; and in France, hope. Apparently in some Arabian countries, the daffodil flower is believed to be a cure for baldness! And is it true that in Wales, there is a legend that whoever finds the first daffodil of the year will be blessed with gold rather than silver in the months to come?

Over here, the daffodil is the symbol of the American Cancer Society – a symbol of hope that a cure might be found. At this time of year people are beginning to work on fundraisers called Daffodil Days, through which you can buy bunches or potted flowers and even chocolate daffodils in support of the Society’s work. People are taking orders from now until early February, and the daffodils are delivered in the middle of March.

I also read about the Great Daffodil Appeal in support of Marie Curie in the UK. This seems like a great volunteer opportunity if anyone has a couple of hours to spare.

I’m looking forward to continuing our letters to each other this coming year, sharing ideas and learning a little along the way.

Happy new beginnings…
and much love
Sam

World Kindness Day

Dear Claire.

Happy World Kindness Day! For Monday, that is. I’m not quite sure why 13th November was chosen as the day, but it’s a good one for us to celebrate exactly what we’re trying to write about: little acts of kindness that can make a difference to others and to ourselves.

World Kindness Day is a day to engage intentionally in small acts of kindness – anything from saying a kind word to a friend to carrying the groceries in for your neighbor; thanking a veteran (since it’s also Veteran’s Day here) or buying a stranger a cup of coffee. Or maybe signing up for Helpful Peeps! The bigger purpose of World Kindness Day really resonates with me: to help us “look beyond our differences and realize we are citizens of the world”: www.worldkindness.org.

What’s interesting to learn as well is that we gain ourselves from being kind to others. And there’s real science behind that. I don’t know if you had a chance to see any of the TED talks I linked to last time, but one of them is a fascinating talk about making stress your friend. In 14 minutes you’ll find out about some of the research that shows how one of the stress hormones, oxytocin, is also a hormone that encourages you to reach out to others to get support – and that when you do, or when you connect and offer support to others, the very same hormone strengthens your heart. Physically as well as metaphorically!

Our ability  to connect with each other more as we write this blog together is something for which I am very grateful! And that’s a topic for another day – gratitude. Because before the next couple of weeks are done, we’ll also be celebrating Thanksgiving!

With love,
Sam