What to do with clutter after you’ve cleared it?

Paintbrushes in a jar

Dear Sam,

I’m glad to hear the gingerbread went down well. I’ll look for some more recipes for us to try before long. Perhaps something savoury next time.

How are you getting along with cutting down on using your phone? I’ve just had an unplanned Digital Detox as we’ve been to see G’s Mum who doesn’t have Wi-Fi. I must admit, I enjoyed being away from the internet and using the time to read more, though I do seem to have slipped back into old habits now we’re home again. Perhaps the trick for me is to pretend I’m in north Wales.

Finding a new home for old furniture

Like you, I’ve been thinking lately about clearing some clutter. We’ve recently redecorated our bedroom and have had to part with some wardrobes and other furniture that was surplus to requirement. Although our local council will collect large items, I didn’t want them to go to landfill. They were serviceable but I didn’t feel confident in trying to sell them ourselves, so what to do with them? Fortunately, after searching online, I realised that the British Heart Foundation have a furniture shop nearby. They were really helpful; after sending them an email, they called me back to arrange for their staff to collect the furniture. They arrived right on time and were very professional. A couple of weeks later, we received a letter to let us know how much money the furniture had raised. Certainly better than sending it to the skip!

Your unwanted item might be perfect for someone

When something hasn’t been suitable for donation to a charity shop, the other option I’ve used in the past is Freecycle. I’m not sure if you have this in the US, but it’s a website where people can list things they no longer want or post requests for items they need, so you can also match your item to someone who is looking for that very thing. It can be really rewarding to pass possessions on to new owners; when my parents moved house we used Freecycle to rehome some large garden planters full of spring bulbs. They went to a gardening-mad couple who were thrilled with them, as the stone had aged beautifully in the time my parents had enjoyed owning them.

Window panes with snow
Snow is much more enjoyable when it stays outside the house.

I’ll be using Freecycle again soon, as during the recent wintry weather, two inches of snow ended up in our attic. Fortunately, we managed to clear it out before it melted, but it reminded us that we have far too much stored up there and now’s the time to sort it out!

Much love,

Claire

P.S I should also tell you about two acts of kindness during our renovations. We used a local carpenter and decorator and, accidentally, the decorator damaged one of our new wardrobes. Not only did the carpenter sort it out for us at no cost, but the decorator bought wine and flowers to thank us for our patience, and beer to thank the carpenter. Top customer service and all-round kind behaviour – big firms take note!

 

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

“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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Ideas to change the world

Dear Claire.

I’m glad you had a happy trip to Italy, and thanks so much for the link to Librivox. What a nice volunteer opportunity. I think it’s a fantastic goal to make all public domain literature free and accessible to everyone.

It’s interesting that you should ask what’s on my Fall reading or listening list, because I’ve made a promise to myself to listen to more TED talks. And TED is also committed to universal accessibility.

I love TED’s mission: To spread ideas. That is, ideas worth spreading. TED’s core belief is that ‘ideas have the power to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world’ 😊

There are now over 2500 talks on ted.com, from experts in creativity, education, science, technology and design. And they are all available for free.

I thought you might like this little sampling, covering everything from using paper towels more efficiently, to how money can buy happiness (depending on how you spend it), to completely rethinking the nature of stress and the importance of connecting with others:

TED’s How-To Guide to Everyday Life

Here’s to us sharing more ideas with each other!

Much love,
Sam