A success story

Dear Claire,


Happy September! I hope you’ve had a nice break over the summer. We’ve been very busy so it’s almost a relief that it’s back-to-school time….

I saw a back-to-school post on Facebook today from Free Rice. Funnily enough it’s just about a year since we wrote our own post about about Free Rice, who host an online quiz and donate 10 grains of rice to the UN World Food Programme for every correct answer. Part of their mission is to enable education for children who would otherwise go hungry, and their news today is that over the past year the game scores have provided 275,000 children in South Sudan with free daily school meals. So I do hope everyone will keep playing and spread the word, and perhaps encourage their children to play too, if they want to get online once their homework is done!

This is another nice article to share with children about how the WFP’s Home Grown School Meals initiative links schools with local smallholder farmers. I know many of us might have been inclined to take our own school meals for granted, or joke about them being an endurance test (my school’s semolina-and-jam was my personal dread), so it’s a good reminder of how lucky we actually were.

If you recall, the UN World Food Programme is headquartered in Italy, and I know you are off to Italy again soon. Have a wonderful trip – I shall expect a postcard!


Looking back, moving forward

Dear Sam,


Well, what a tonic it was to spend time with good friends! Oxford was looking glorious, with the college gardens and parks at their most colourful, and I loved seeing the profusion of roses everywhere. As well as reminiscing about our student days, it was wonderful to look ahead and make some plans for our blog here at Staircase 9 17, too.  It was lucky that we came across the Turl Street Kitchen when we arrived, as it was the perfect place to start our discussions, with its combination of great food and coffee and its mission to support the local community.

The blog’s Home page has a new look

I’m glad we’ve made a few changes to the format of the blog and, as this year progresses, I’m looking forward to exploring our theme of wellbeing and ways of helping ourselves by helping others. Next month, we’ll start our new Friday Food for Thought series, where we’ll post an inspiring snippet to ponder. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with some wise words from Dr Johnson, once, of course, a student at Pembroke himself,

“Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than that of friendship.”

Well said!

Much love,




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,







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,

Language lessons

Dear Sam,


Welcome home! I hope you had a fantastic time in Italy?

I know you’d been learning some Italian before your holiday – did you get a chance to try it out? Following your good example, we’ve also just booked a short trip to Italy later this year, so I’ve been brushing up my Italian, too. I find that Duolingo  is a fun way to practise – have you come across it? It’s a game-based language learning system that offers a huge choice of different languages –  as well as Italian, French and German you can try out Welsh or Norwegian,  to name just a few.  Amazingly, since it was launched about 5 years ago, more than  1.2 billion people worldwide are now using it to improve their language skills. I’m also a fan because of the ethos behind Duolingo –  the belief that learning another language can open up opportunity and mutual understanding and the pledge that the lessons will always be free of charge, so that everyone has equal access to the opportunity to learn.

If, as in my case, a little pre-holiday exercise is needed, it’s good to know that according to a recent study, learning a language while you are at the gym can help you retain the new information more easily.  An incentive to  give more that just the grey matter a workout, perhaps!

Much love,



The companionship of books.

Dear Sam,

How is your decluttering coming along?  I think splitting what can be a daunting task into daily efforts is an ideal approach.  I’m sure your house will look spick and span by Easter Sunday and the charity shop will be grateful, too.

Books are one of the things I often buy from, and donate to, charity shops.  It’s not news to you that I love reading, of course, since we met studying English. These days, as I make my way through my to-be-read pile, I try to pass my old books along and make room for something new. Over here we have great specialist Oxfam bookshops which are always good for a browse. Do you have similar shops in the U.S?

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately as I’ve just done a fascinating course. It was called Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. It was one of the myriad subjects offered to study online at no cost through Futurelearn.com.  I’m really interested in the way that reading can help us at challenging times and I learned that the concept of bibliotherapy goes back centuries: the entrance to the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II bore the beautiful inscription, ‘Healing-place of the soul.’  I also recently heard about some research which found that reading for just six minutes can reduce stress by 68%, more than taking a break with a cup of tea, apparently. Reading with a cup in hand must be extra-relaxing!

So, when we give someone the gift of a book – perhaps this weekend instead of, or alongside, an Easter Egg – it seems that we’re doing more good than we realise.

Much love and Happy Easter,


A beginning

Dear Sam,


Do you remember that the seed of the idea for this blog was sown one lunchtime last year, during a visit to Bath?  You are one of my closest friends and you’ve been willing to listen to me thinking aloud since we met during our interviews at Oxford.  I’m at a stage in life with my family launched in the world and  I’m thinking about ‘what next?’  Over that lunch I made a throwaway remark about collaborating somehow. We talked about it again during a post-dinner stroll through the Cathedral Close in Wells and I couldn’t have been more pleased when you suggested we look at what we could do together.

Given that we now live on opposite sides of the Atlantic and we can’t just meet for coffee, however much we’d like to, an online venture seemed like the place to start.  When we chatted over Skype, we both realised we wanted to do something to spread some good news and kindness – the background to our conversation was the Election in the US and Brexit in the UK.  We both wanted to share news about ways in which people are helping each other, giving something back, enriching their own lives and those of the people they support, strengthening communities and the world around us.

So, here is our blog – Staircase 9 17 (from the staircases we lived on at Pembroke College, where we met).  Twice a month we’ll write about good ideas, options for volunteering, participating and for gaining yourself by giving to others.  For people like me who are contemplating their next move, it will offer suggestions for engaging, learning and moving forward.  It’s in letter form in recollection of all the times we wrote to each other while we were students. If any of this helps to make 2017 a better, more caring and kinder year then that can’t be a bad thing.

Much love,


p.s.  The song I’m listening to as I write  – ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’ by Nina Simone.