My 3 R’s of Ragdale 2017: Rest, Recuperate and Reflect

My first solo trip to Ragdale Hall, a place I enjoyed for years with my mother, was a bittersweet experience.

Every year since 2010, my mother and I have taken a 4-day spa break at the wonderful Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa, tucked away in the Leicestershire countryside. I blogged about my 2016 visit here.

When my mother fell ill in February 2017, our April trip to Ragdale had been in the diary for several months. I rang to cancel, promising myself that I would return in due course, even though it was clear by then that we had made our last visit.

The months that followed were intense and exhausting. For several weeks I spent hours almost every day at her bedside in hospital. Then, when she was considered sufficiently stable to return home, I stayed with her, spending every day and many nights helping to keep her comfortable, and making her feel safe, secure and loved. After she died, a different kind of work began; firstly the organisation of her funeral, the management of her correspondence, and advising friends all over the world; then, and for the last four months, my brother, sister-in-law and I have faced the almost overwhelming task of clearing her house of the stuff of a long and busy life, that of a woman who came from a generation who never threw anything away in case it might come in handy later; that of a woman who wanted to be known, and for whom recording history, activities and accomplishments, and accounting for life and all its significances and insignificances was  paramount.

There were cupboards so tightly packed you could hardly imagine the quantity of things which emerged from them. There was paperwork going back decades; important archive material, the history of a family caught up in every aspect of the Holocaust, requiring careful and responsible handling; a mass of writings – published and unpublished articles, accounts of trips and holidays, study output from numerous courses, personal and emotional, factual and fictional pieces – dating back to the 1970’s, letters dating back to the 1950’s, thousands of photographs, greetings cards and postcards. There were brochures, maps and guide books, cruise, exhibition, festival, event, theatre and concert programmes; all records of a life spent travelling, absorbing history, art, music and culture around the world.  And books, books, books… and more books. And there was more – our battered old toys, shelves of unwanted gifts, oddments and ephemera, souvenir trinkets and costume dolls from far-flung places. And on it went…

From the outset we took the approach that we would minimise what went to landfill, so we’ve been diligent in rehoming, recycling and donating the kinds of things which would otherwise end up in a skip. That has meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, calling and emailing, lifting, carrying and hauling about, to say nothing of the hours and hours spent shredding, whilst carefully checking each file to ensure we weren’t inadvertently disposing of anything of significance. It’s not over either. There’s the house to sell, and the auctionable ‘house clearance’ stuff to see to in due course. Oh, and because it’s been summer, we’ve been trying to keep the gardens looking tidy too (nowhere near the way mum used to do, but passable).

So… it’s been a hectic time, respectful and conscientious too. A doing time, rather more than a thinking time.  And I confess, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t done nearly enough thinking about my mum.

I had the idea that Ragdale Hall might be a good place to make the time and space to do a little thinking, as well as afford me the opportunity to release my weary body from some of the tension that had built up over recent months. So a month ago, I called and made my booking.  I knew exactly what to expect – care, comfort and service, experienced professional therapists, restful lounges and conservatories, yummylicious food, and the combined indulgences of sublime treatments and a multi-zoned spa and pool area. What I didn’t know, and feared just a little, was how it would feel to be there without my mother.

Ragdale had been our break. It was intended as a one-off, and it was an inspired suggestion – my mother’s, I should add – back in 2010 when she was about to turn 75, and I was heading for my 50th birthday. Our activities and interests were generally quite disparate, and it would be hard to envisage a holiday that could meet both her needs and mine.  The idea of a spa break, where we could spend personal time indulging ourselves with therapies, exercise classes, swimming, relaxing and reading, and yet come together for lunch and dinner, evenings and a lovely, companionable walk each day, was just about the perfect solution. And we enjoyed our 4-day break so much that we booked for the following year. And the next, and the next…

The lump rose in my throat as I pulled up outside the main entrance and the porter came out to pick up my luggage and park my car. The warm smile and friendly recognition I received at reception very nearly finished me off. I checked in, filled in my breakfast menu card, slurped my welcome coffee and high-tailed it to my room, to regroup.

Mum and I had stayed in every one of the spa’s small number of single rooms over the years. When I called this time around, none was available, so I booked a double room for single occupancy on the floor above. It was a very different experience, quite a bit more luxurious if I’m honest. I was, I confess, relieved that I wouldn’t be sleeping in a room previously occupied by either of us. Even the décor was different – and very pleasing.

At dinner on my first evening, I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision for myself.  It was very, very hard, sitting across the table from an empty chair. I’d chosen not to join what Ragdale calls its ‘social table’, as I didn’t want to chat with fellow guests. Nevertheless, that empty chair was very… empty.

I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but I’d developed a tight knot in my stomach on the drive up to Ragdale. The result was a nasty bout of acid reflux across the next couple of nights, something that hasn’t troubled me since I started eating more healthily. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably as my stomach twisted and ached. More than once I wondered if I should call it a day and return home.

But the intense soothment of the Ragdale experience eventually worked its way in.  I swam and steamed myself… I enjoyed what was intended to be a gentle massage, where the therapist, noticing the crunchy tension across my neck and shoulders, offered to apply her skills more vigorously to the task of un-knotting me, to my delight and appreciation. The next day I had a lovely reflexology session with a kind and compassionate therapist, who didn’t mind in the least that I burst into tears as I tried to explain what had brought me to the session. Later, Jon, Ragdale’s exceptional shiatsu therapist was subjected to the same tearfulness, and he too delivered a superbly effective treatment to, apparently, liberate my gallbladder meridian. The expert pressure-point massage and stretching did wonders for my taut, twisty frame. That evening, the restaurant manager, on duty for the first time since I had arrived, recognised me and noticed the absence of my usual companion, which resulted in a gentle conversation as he took my order. I was struck by his kindness and his thoughtful yet unsentimental words. It meant something me that he had noticed my mother’s absence and taken the time to stop and talk in a very hectic service.

The next day, I received an extraordinary deep-tissue massage, and made time for more swimming and steaming. By the end of that day, I was significantly unwound, relaxed both physically and emotionally, and firmly persuaded that in making this visit to Ragdale Hall at this point in time, I had done a very good thing for myself.  I’d also given myself some much-needed time to simply be still and remember my mother.  On my last day, I let more thoughts and tears come, in Ragdale’s dry flotation tank in a semi-darkened room. By then, I was ready to be home again – just as well, as all that remained was an indulgent buffet lunch, before I packed my bag and got on my way.

When it comes to death and bereavement, it’s easy to be busy – because there’s so much to do. It’s easy to fill the hours and days with must-do’s, dutiful activities and responsibilities. It’s all too easy to let them clutter the space where silence and stillness has an important healing role to play. By the time I went to Ragdale Hall, my mind and body were clamouring for the silence and stillness and my tears were very close to the surface. Now that I’m home, I feel a calm that wasn’t there before, and I know my mother would have been proud of me, that I took myself away to do this, for both of us.

The acceptable face of addiction? #sugar #sugarfree

berliner-17811_1920I attended an industry awards event this week with a client. For a large-scale ‘rubber chicken’ lunch (500+ seated) the food was unusually good. We began with a delicious sweetcorn soup accompanied by a delicate and tasty crouton dressed with sour cream mousse, chives and a sprinkle of popcorn flavoured with lime (very imaginative). That was followed by succulent suckling pig with all the trimmings, including a piece of very nearly crispy crackling (quite the achievement for a large-scale service).

Dessert was offered – another pretty plate of some kind of mousse and sorbet mix, with shortbread. I don’t know what it was precisely, because I didn’t eat it.  When coffee arrived, it came with a bowl of unctuous looking chocolate truffles, which I duly passed around the table.  There were puzzled glances as I not only refused dessert, but passed the truffles around without dipping into the bowl. When I explained, I don’t eat added sugar, which rather excludes me from mousses, shortbreads and anything coated in chocolate, jaws dropped in amazement and breaths exhaled in uncomprehending awe.

That’s the kind of response to which I’ve become accustomed over my added-sugar-free months.

It didn’t happen over this particular lunch (probably because my dining companions were clients and their business associates, several of whom I was meeting for the first time), but in addition to stunned silences and sharp intakes of breath, what usually follows is The Temptation Game.

It’s that moment when the sugar-eater needs you to join them. They need you to succumb; they need you to be powerless to resist temptation.  Because that’s the whole point of sugar – isn’t it?

Typical Temptation Game responses to my too-restrained (in their opinion) added-sugar-free status include:

Just this once won’t hurt.”

“Oh, go on, just the one – treat yourself!

“It’s only got a little bit of sugar in it”

“It’s not sugar, it’s honey/agave – that doesn’t count!” (Yes. It does.)

If anyone used those sorts of phrases to encourage a drug addict to score, or an alcoholic to hit the bottle, we’d be horrified. But sugar is the acceptable face of addiction – and that makes it okay to push it.

I know, not everyone regards sugar as physically addictive, but just try and give it up yourself before you take issue with me.

One day I might (but only might) let a very, very little of the sweet stuff back into my diet, slowly and very, very carefully. But for now, with at least 30 more excess pounds to deal with, and a compelling desire to do whatever I can to limit my risk of type two diabetes, I’m quite happy with my uncompromising approach to desserts, confectionary, cookies, cakes and other sweet-treats.

And whilst I don’t at all mind the looks of uncomprehending awe, I’d be happier if I didn’t have to keep on justifying myself and politely rebuffing the tempters and temptresses, when a platter of what other people think I should be incapable of resisting, lands in front of me.

There you go. Grumpy Old Added-Sugar-Free Woman signing out for the weekend.

New Year, New Vision #2017

My 2017 Vision Board
My 2017 Vision Board

With the quieter days between Christmas and New Year comes a great time for reflection and planning, and I’ve been using those days as best I could (through the brain-fog which descended on me along with a nasty winter virus). I thought I’d share something of how I’ve gone about this, in case it’s useful for anyone else.

My Vision Board

Have you ever done a Vision Board? I hadn’t until this year, but, inspired by a friend, I gave it a go. It’s basically a collage, a visual representation of the things you want to welcome into your life, or make the most of, or channel your energies into, in the coming months. I created it on a whiteboard which is around 60cm x 40cm. The pictures come from my personal collection, and from magazines and the web.  They may look random to you, but each one means something to me – be it a goal, a mood, a theme, or an intention.  Look closely and you will see my board includes references to family and friends, to health, to writing, to work plans and projects… and there are one or two other more obscure references (for me and my private headspace!). I was quite pleased with how it came out although since I completed it, I keep finding other pictures and words I want to include, so it may be an evolving thing.

The Big Question

Imagine it’s the last few days of 2017.  You’re sitting in your favourite armchair, looking back over the year. The question is this – what needs to have happened, what do you need to have achieved, or brought about, or changed, in order for you to feel satisfied, fulfilled and above all else, happy with the year? You can have any number of statements (write them down…), which will begin with “I will have..” or “I will be…”. They will not be things which you cannot influence. These will be your most important projects, missions, goals – and pleasures – on which you’ll focus your energies in the coming months.

My vision this year includes continuing my healthy lifestyle changes and losing another 30 pounds, achieving clarity on some personal issues, maintaining my client work at a specified level, learning to jog (and getting into 5k Parkruns), getting back into writing fiction, being more socially active than I was last year, embarking on my new coaching venture… and a few other oddments. When you take the time to visualise, it’s surprising how quickly the thoughts begin to flow.  My statements are all precise, not woolly, which is all about committing to them and more importantly, calibrating success and achievement.

Themes for the Year

Lastly, I choose a few themes for the year ahead, usually something between three and six words. Last year, my themes/words were: Health, Vitality, Self-respect and Connection. For 2017, in line with my ‘Big Question’ thinking, I’m going for: Health (again, for obvious reasons), Inspiration, Renewal, Social, Creativity and Love.

Maybe this has given you a few ideas for yourself, so it just remains for me to say, Happy New Year to all, and I wish you success in all your goals and ambitions, for health and beyond, in 2017.

One Year On… #weightloss #healthylifestyle #positivechange

At the Bloggers Bash June 2016 (photo credit: Suzie Speaks)
Getting there: At the Bloggers Bash June 2016 (photo credit: Suzie Speaks)

I began my new healthy lifestyle – falteringly – exactly a year ago, on Wednesday 26th August 2015. The day before, I’d had my first of eight lifestyle coaching sessions. I say falteringly because I note, with a degree of embarrassment, that my first few days of so-called healthy eating weren’t oh, you know, actually all that… healthy. They included:

  • 50g bowls of sugar-loaded Honey Nut Shreddies for breakfast
  • Leftover spaghetti carbonara (white pasta, shop-bought carbonara sauce, leftover chicken pieces and a dollop of double cream)
  • A meal of crackers loaded with butter and seafood cocktail

Clearly I had a lot to learn about healthy eating, and many, many adjustments to make.

On my first day, I managed two 15-minute slow walks on my treadmill. The second day, I noted a 20-minute round-trip walk to the post box – a circuit which would take me half that time today, if I ever went on a walk which was quite that short (it is, literally, just to the end of the road and back).

Screenshot 2016-03-28 11.22.46 copy
Same event, different body: One year earlier, Bloggers Bash summer 2015 (photo credit Geoff le Pard)

My lumbersome weight on that first day was 270 pounds, or 19 stone 4 lbs (that’s 122.4 kilos in new money). Yet despite the Honey Nut Shreddies and spaghetti carbonara, I must have done a few things right; I lost 6 pounds in my first week, and a further 8 pounds over the next 4 weeks, which was a big boost.

Think Positive

I see from the notes alongside my food diary (which I have kept in detail every day since then – it helps to keep me accountable to myself), that in those first few days, in addition to my coach, I drew support and positivity from a variety of sources:

  • The encouragement of several lovely friends
  • Positive feedback on my work from a couple of clients
  • Some time spent reflecting on the comfort and calm of my home and garden
  • My Pilates habit and the gains I’ve seen from embedding this in my life, and sticking with it even when I got very overweight
  • A personalised hypnotherapy/relaxation tape given to me a couple of years ago by a hypnotherapist, whose help I had sought with my menopausal/health anxieties
  • My twin nephews, so happy, positive – and very, very active
  • A few days on a writing retreat in France; restful, and abundant with good, healthy food.

Sweet enough: Kicking the Sugar Habit

I didn’t go sugar-free until the middle of October 2015. I gradually stripped away the more obvious treats (biscuits, confectionary etc), but until mid-October I was still making my breakfast Bircher muesli with Rachel’s Coconut Yoghurt, which is very, very highly sweetened.  Pranita had visited my home and we’d done a helpful store-cupboard and fridge audit, which had made me think about why I was holding on to this last sweet-treat.  My rationale – that it was an organic yoghurt, and therefore healthy – was all wrong. Yoghurt of the right kind is indeed healthy, but sweetened yoghurt, bio/organic or not, is… dessert.

That was a huge turning-point for me, finally acknowledging and then laying my sugar compulsion to rest. Once I replaced the sweetened variety with natural Greek yoghurt – bio, full-fat and proud, since you ask – I didn’t even miss the sweet taste.  And the die was cast. Today, at a guesstimate, I would say I am 99% added sugar free.  The odd microgram creeps in here and there, usually when I don’t read a label carefully enough. That’s about as much of a success as I can claim – but I’m more than happy with it.

Giving up added sugar was… massive. It freed me from hunger pangs, insulin spikes and a mass of barely controllable temptations, requiring extremes of willpower which I struggled to muster. In the weeks and months since then, I have read voraciously about the sugar-free and LCHF (low carb healthy fat) approaches. Whilst I haven’t gone 100% for LCHF, I totally bought the sugar-free message and I’ve succeeded in abandoning not only added sugar in all its many guises, but processed ready meals (where the sweet stuff hides in quite astounding volumes) and big stomach-stretching bricks of simple carbohydrate – bread, pasta, white rice and potatoes. I’ve lowered my general carbohydrate intake very considerably – and I feel so much better for it.

Not only that, but it’s extraordinary and thrilling to me that the sweet stuff is now… too sickly sweet.  My taste-buds rebel when in the vicinity of anything remotely sugary. And unless you’ve been released from sugar addiction yourself, you’ve no idea how truly magnificent that feels!

Exercise is… Hard Work

Ah… exercise. I have tried hard to exercise more often, but even after a year, I still struggle with this. Simple walking, the odd bit of swimming and of course, my Pilates, form the lion share of my exercise habit – but even now, I have to push myself out of the door.

I’m told there should be a joyous shift towards actual enthusiasm for exercise at some point, but all I’m experiencing so far is an ebb-and-flow. Some days or weeks are better than others. I hired a Personal Trainer to come to my home for a few weeks, and that has propelled me into episodes (whole minutes at a time!) of laboured jogging, and some more constructive cardio and strength exercises. I swim, usually once a week, with a friend. I enjoy walking more than I ever have before, but it’s still a big heave-ho to get myself out of bed for a walk at 6:00am, and I don’t always manage.  I make that effort more frequently, I seek out opportunities to leave the car behind and walk instead, and I’m definitely more active than I was; but exercise is something I fear may never come easily or naturally to me.

I do it though, I do it – and it’s helping me become fitter.  My resting heart rate has dropped more than 10 BPM, as my stamina, flexibility and general energy level has improved. All these are great rewards in themselves, and they contribute to a significantly diminished experience of health anxiety, which was quite the thing for me through my menopause years.

Half-Cooked

A year down the line, and the weight-loss component of my new healthier lifestyle is a little over half done. I’ve lost 65.5 pounds (that’s over four and a half stone, or 29.7 kilos). I wanted to be under 200 pounds by now, and currently at 204.5 pounds I’m not quite there (until the last few days, I’ve been frustratingly plateaued for nearly two months – like my body was trying to sabotage my ‘anniversary’); but I’m not far off. I last saw this weight in 2002, but only briefly, and before that, it would have been around the early 1990’s.

I’ve dropped 5 dress sizes, a shoe size, 3 ring sizes and 2 bra back sizes (but not even one cup size – hurrah!) and lost at least one chin. And there have been many other payoffs too.

Indulgence – Just Modified

Don’t run away with the idea that I’m living some sort of parched, fat-free existence, devoid of culinary interest. I enjoy all sorts of indulgences.  I still eat butter (although without bread/toast in my diet, a packet of the stuff lasts me weeks and weeks); I still eat cheese almost daily (limiting quantity – mostly – to a few slivers). I choose full-fat over low/fat-free options, which I’ve always done, but it’s interesting to note that opinion is swinging towards this as the healthier choice these days; I eat plenty of eggs (another healthy foodstuff, long demonised). I try new recipes regularly and have added several healthier, more nutritious meals to my repertoire in recent months.

I still snack on savouries every now and again, but having lost my taste for crisps (USA: potato chips) I’ve found one or two alternatives which don’t press my guilt-button.  The beauty of these is that they’re not addictive in the way that old style crisps are.  I make my own toasted and seasoned seeds, crispy seasoned kale and small bowls of lightly salted air-popped corn.

I still enjoy the odd dessert-like treat too. I’ve made added-sugar-free banana and almond cake; I even (very) occasionally make an unbelievably indulgent ‘ice cream’ from frozen banana, organic (no-added-sugar) peanut butter and Greek yoghurt.  There may be substantially more vegetables and a broader spectrum of nutrients in my diet than ever before, but my taste-buds have not been utterly deprived of naughties.

Onward and Downward

So to the year ahead. I have another 30-50 pounds to go. I’m deliberately vague about this, as I shall see how I feel about it as I progress. But the big change for me – re-educating my taste-buds and my insides to welcome healthy food and reject sugar and processed junk – is something I now dare to feel confident I have nailed. I’ve dieted before, but I’ve never felt this lifestyle victory until now.

I’ve been so very grateful for all the support and encouragement I’ve received through my blog.  It’s clear that my experiences have inspired others to keep going with their own healthy changes, and that thrills me. I cannot imagine anything more positive (apart from the fact that I’m improving the quality, and perhaps even length, of my own life) than to inspire others to do the same for themselves.

So the journey continues. Stay with me, if you will – and I hope you do.  It won’t be dramatic, but it will continue to be frank and honest – a true account of a very ordinary battle to re-establish good habits, achieve a healthy weight and – hopefully – set myself up for a longer, healthier and more active middle- and old-age.

 *  *  *

I love hearing from people who follow my blog, and respond to every comment.  If you have any questions on how I’ve gone about my first ‘healthier’ year, please post them through the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Coming next: My Top Ten experience-based tips for sustainable and healthy weight-loss. 

What, No Photo? #BloggersBash 2016

Bloggers Bash 16Call yourself a blogger, Jools?  

I’m a rubbish blogger.  A properly rubbish blogger.

I mean, what was I thinking of, going to the 2016 Bloggers Bash yesterday in London, and not even once, not one single time, getting out my phone and snapping a photo or two of the assembled gathering. Other bloggers – the proper bloggers, the real ones, the ones with their readership’s interests and thirst for information on this unique event in the blogging calendar at heart – other bloggers managed it, but not me. What in the world was I thinking of, showing up to a Bloggers Bash and not taking any photos?

Face it, Jools, you’re not a real blogger at all, are you? You’re a fraud.

In my defence, I’m a fraud with just two hands. And on a sticky day, moisture clinging to the warm air, those hands of mine were preoccupied in the critical task of keeping my core temperature under control.

Ha! I bet you thought you were over all that menopausal flushy business, didn’t you?  

I thought, with dropping almost 60 pounds in the last 9 months, that rushes of steaming hot blood to the head would be history. Not so much, so it seems.  So… one hand gripping my life-saving pound-shop battery-operated fan, and the other hand clutching a glass filled to the brim with crushed ice and a drop or two of neat… water… and that was it. No spare hand for that phone.  And being an oldie, I haven’t quite grasped the techniques required to both hold a phone and take a picture simultaneously with one hand only – I’d have needed both hands anyway. And abandoning both cool-aids at once, I simply could not do.

Until, that is, I was pointed in the direction of Geoff Le Pard’s spectacular sugar-free Banana and Almond cakes.

Yes, cake.  Sugar free.

Oh my goodness, they were tasty! Having gone added-sugar-free several months ago, my taste-buds have acclimatised to less ‘sweet’ in everything, but to taste a snack that has every characteristic of a real, actual… cake… but has absolutely no sugar, is, quite frankly, a moment of bliss.  I confess, I dropped the fan in my bag, abandoned my crushed ice, and fell upon said delicacies.  [With Geoff’s permission, I will shortly – as soon as he provides it – reproduce the recipe here for all interested parties.  Trust me, it’s a good one.]

Calm down, Jools, enough with the cake. What about the bloggy part of all this, Jools. What about the actual Bash itself?

You know what, it was great. It was an absolute joy to take a small corner of the blogosphere and make it ‘real life’.  A room full of people who normally communicate from behind their PC screens, but managed to get on trains, boats and even planes, to show up in London for the day, turned out to be a room full of friendships waiting to happen. Yes, bloggers do actually talk, and listen, and laugh, and share face-to-face like real people. We do!

There was the joy of putting new faces to names and URL’s, and the pleasure of reconnecting with bloggers who’d come to the inaugural event last year [ahem…]. There was recognition (Awards!) for some really great bloggers, and a provocative presentation from Luca Sartoni (Growthketeer at Automattic/Wordpress). There was access to alcohol, food, cake, chocolate and for some reason I didn’t fully appreciate, a mountain of Maltesers (one of my favourite impossible-to-stop-munching sweet-treats until I gave up on chocolate). There was above all a joyous sense, simultaneously, of diversity and commonality – all sorts of bloggers, from all sorts of backgrounds, blogging all sorts of stuff, united for the afternoon in their enthusiasm for the strange world of blogging about whatever pops into your head.

So… just in case you’re a blogger thinking you missed something good (you did), and just in case you’re thinking you might attend next year (10th June, get it in your diary), here are my top take-aways from the 2016 Bloggers Bash:

  • The simple, delightful pleasure of a sociable afternoon with blogging at its heart
  • Lovely, lovely people – new friendships, hopefully not just in the Facebook kind of way
  • Pointers to great blogs I haven’t come across before
  • A recipe (don’t let me down, Geoff) for a truly delicious sugar-free naughty
  • A valuable lesson on what’s really important about blogging (see below…)

Am I a little bit jealous of those bloggers with tens of thousands of followers? Every now and again, yes, I am. But am I blogging for any goal which is met through acquiring followers in vast volume.  Actually no, I’m not. At the moment (until I get back into writing my second novel at least) the purpose of my blog is to make myself accountable for my newly adopted healthy, weight-lossy lifestyle. If in the course of that, I can spread some inspiration, positivity and general feelgood, that makes me very happy indeed.  But none of that has a great deal to do with numbers.

So that last take-away from this year’s fabulous Bloggers Bash comes courtesy of Luca Sartoni – and it lets me off the hook, big time: If your goals for blogging do not depend on acquisition of a huge readership, stop chasing volume. It’s okay not to get hung up on the numbers.  It’s ok to just have fun blogging. 

And it’s definitely okay to have fun at the Bloggers Bash.  It’s even, possibly, I venture to suggest, just about okay… to not take pictures.

Recharge | Refocus | Renew

2016-04-13 08.41.17I’ve just returned from a blissful 4-day break at Ragdale Hall Health Spa in Leicestershire (that’s right in the middle of England for my non-UK friends – around 2.5 hours’ drive from my home, west of London).  I went with my Mother – it’s something we’ve been doing for a few years, to celebrate our birthdays and have a little mother-and-daughter time.  It’s her treat to me – and quite a treat it is!

Birthday flowers came to Ragdale too
Birthday flowers came to Ragdale too
When it comes to health spas, Ragdale Hall is in a league of its own. They have an elegant estate in a beautiful rural setting, a wonderful attitude to customer care, a stupendous array of treatments, a creative and imaginative way with food, and fabulous facilities.  Hard to beat, on every level.

From the moment you pull up at the door and a young man emerges to take your case whilst another valet parks your car, to the moment you leave, there is no detail left unattended. It’s one of those places that looks perfectly sublime on the surface, but you can only imagine what goes on backstage to deliver that calm, professional and infinitely relaxed ambience.

Behind Ragdale in the early morning mist, the fields stretch for miles
Behind Ragdale in the early morning mist, the fields stretch for miles
This year, visiting Ragdale Hall with over 50 fewer fatty pounds on my bones was a truly invigorating experience in a host of new ways. With more energy to spare, I enjoyed a brisk walk and a swim every morning, before blissing-out in the thermal spa. I found the gym! I walked around all day – like everyone else does – in a towelling robe (not previously possible, as the only robe which fitted me last year weighed a ton and left me sweating and uncomfortable). I enjoyed a wonderful dry flotation experience (again, not possible last year, as I exceeded their weight limit for this facility).  I made healthy choices at the generous lunchtime buffets and turned my back on all the yummy desserts – awarding myself many smug-points as I watched others heap their plates.  I was exfoliated, scrubbed, buffed, massaged and aromatherapised until my skin was velvet-smooth and my muscles stretched.  At the gift shop, I bought a bracelet with a magnetic clasp – something I could not have done last year as even my wrists were too big. I slept well.  Yes!  I slept wonderfully well.

Homework - but in a good way
Homework – but in a good way
I took some homework with me, as it seemed an appropriate place to re-focus and plan the next few months and years: The Life Plan by Australian Life Coach, Shannah Kennedy. I read cover-to-cover and begin some of the many exercises designed to help me figure out what I want from my future.  I know… some people think that’s all a bit cranky, but not me. I was a Life Coach for a while, so you shouldn’t be surprised – I do actually practice what I preached! I’ve done this kind of life audit in one form or another three or four times over the years, and it’s always proved worthwhile.  This time, healthy lifestyle is front-and-centre of my priorities.  I boosted my resolve still further by ploughing into Sugar Salt Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.

Do I sound a little evangelical about my Ragdale experience and the opportunity it gave me to celebrate my dietary and lifestyle success to date, whilst looking forward to a healthier and more energetic future?  Guilty as charged, m’lud.

I came home relaxed and refreshed (not even the long crawl down the M1 could have disrupted my blissful state), ready for the second half of my healthy weight-loss journey – the next 50 pounds (and more…).

My Singing Ringing Tree in its full glory
My Singing Ringing Tree in its full glory
Back home in the garden, my amelanchier – my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree – had burst into blossom.  It looks perfect in its shower of white flowers, for just a few days, and I’ve occasionally missed it – but not this year.

You can see why I love it and why it feeds my soul, can’t you?

50 Losses – and 50 Gains

2016-02-13 18.30.55This weekend was a memorable one for me, in weight-loss terms. I’ve shaken off 50 pounds since I begun a new healthier lifestyle last September. I still have a long way to go (I’m not quite half-way to my most ambitious goal, since you ask). But at 50 pounds – that’s over 3½ stone or over 22 kilos, depending on your measurement of choice – I’ve just exceeded the most I’ve ever lost on any healthy eating campaign (note the absence of the word ‘diet’) before.

Weirdly, and I don’t want to labour this as it could easily depress me and I don’t want to get depressed… I’m now back to the weight I was when I started the weight loss campaign when I managed to shift what was until yesterday the most I’d ever lost before. But back then (2002) I had crawled to the upper 40’s and couldn’t keep it going.  It all went (excuse the pun) belly-up.  On that occasion, I’d gone to Weightwatchers, and it was good while it lasted. But as soon as I took my eye off the ‘points’ ball, my weight soared back on. Yes, soared back on at a rate which terrified me and which I could not even begin to understand. In all, I put on an average of 1 pound per week over the next 18 months (and then still more thereafter); a catastrophe from which, after several false starts in the mid noughties, I am only now recovering.

But I don’t want to jump aboard the trauma train. The whole point of this post is to mark an achievement, and highlight some of the many, many wins, gains and benefits that I’ve seen from the loss of this first 50 pounds.

So, here they are, in no particular order – all the ones that spring to mind at least:

  1. I’ve dropped 3 dress sizes
  2. I’m wearing ‘old favourite’ outfits that haven’t fitted me for 8 or 10 years
  3. I’m back to the weight I last carried over 14 years ago
  4. My ankles are pretty again, no more heavy, fluid-filled balloons
  5. I’m wearing high heels again and loving the increased stature and well-being
  6. I can go for a walk without pouring with sweat
  7. I’ve discarded a giant pile of ‘fat clothes’ that I hated having to wear
  8. I’m breathing more deeply, not catching my breath
  9. My resting heart rate has dropped over 10 bpm
  10. My nails are unblemished and healthy
  11. I haven’t had a cold all winter
  12. I can bend and touch my toes
  13. I can see my toes!
  14. My waist and once proud hourglass figure is re-emerging
  15. I’m wearing pretty bras again
  16. Yes, I’ll say it, I feel sexy again
  17. I’m standing straighter and taller
  18. When I pull my tummy in, it actually goes in a bit
  19. I like myself because I feel in control of my eating habits
  20. I feel good when I take exercise
  21. I feel good that I take exercise regularly
  22. I feel great when I get home from taking exercise
  23. I’m relishing many compliments from friends, family and colleagues
  24. I’ve surprised one or two people who haven’t seen me in a while – that’s been fun
  25. My feet have shrunk
  26. My boobs have only shrunk a little
  27. Pilates has become more fun again
  28. I can lie on my stomach and still be able to breathe
  29. I’ve rediscovered vegetables, nuts and seeds
  30. I’m looking forward to warm summer days ahead, not fearing discomfort
  31. I’ve eliminated 99% of added sugar from my life – and totally lost my sweet tooth
  32. I’m able to make healthy, balanced choices in restaurants
  33. I can fit into bucket seats without cutting off the blood supply to my legs
  34. I can sit on folding chairs without worrying they will collapse
  35. I won’t need an extender belt next time I fly
  36. I’ve learned to live without… toast
  37. I’ve discovered I can lose weight and still enjoy butter and cheese
  38. I can wear trousers that do up with buttons and a zip
  39. My favourite dressing gown wraps right around me again
  40. Tight toilet cubicles are no longer an embarrassing challenge
  41. I can buy ordinary clothes at Marks & Spencer
  42. I can buy actual sportswear
  43. I have swimming costumes which hold everything that has to stay… held
  44. My neck is slimmer and necklaces sit so much more comfortably and attractively
  45. My fingers are slimmer and I can wear rings I haven’t worn for years
  46. My wrists are slimmer and I can wear watches and bracelets again
  47. My hips no longer ache when I walk
  48. I can run upstairs
  49. I don’t get acid reflux after evening meals
  50. I no longer worry that I’m slowly killing myself

And a bonus ball…

“Hold yourself to a higher standard, and enjoy the self-esteem that comes with each single, small, disciplined act.”   Tony Robbins

… I am indeed enjoying the self-esteem that comes from ‘holding myself to a higher standard’…

What about you.  Are you, or have you ever been on a weight-loss, healthy lifestyle journey? If so, what were the most significant gains for you?

Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

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The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

Seven Quick-Fire Ways to use Food to Enrich a Novel

Exc1A quickie post for today as I continue to count down towards my Big Day on 1st February (oh, you know what I mean by now, don’t you?).

I use food and mealtimes quite a bit in Singled Out. Here are just a few thoughts on what food related scenes can do for a story.

  1. A social/sociable meal involving two or more people: At home, in a hotel or restaurant, on a picnic, at a barbecue; useful in showing the nature of relationships and the dynamics between various characters. Caution though – this does need quite a bit of dialogue.
  2. Someone eating alone: Reveal character through how they prepare food, what they choose to eat, how they eat and what they do whilst they’re eating.
  3. During a sexual scene: Add a luscious dimension that takes your scene beyond the turgid ‘he touched this, she stroked that…’ zone. Adds sensuality, deploys all the senses without focusing on the obvious.
  4. How someone responds to food: Reveal character through how someone reacts to new or unusual food, or to eating with their fingers or unfamiliar implements. Are they adventurous or narrow-minded, sensual or constrained? Useful in demonstrating how someone’s attitude or demeanour changes over time too.
  5. For nostalgia: The flavours and and aromas of long-forgotten foods, sweets and treats from childhood, school dinners and nursery favourites are all wonderful tools to evoke a mood or nostalgia, or to segue to a flashback/past-times.
  6. In the kitchen: A great location to deploy all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, touches and taste; can be a place of danger (knives, open flames) or comfort (cosy family setting).
  7. A particular single item of food: There are so many different ways of eating, say, an ice-cream, a slice of cake, a plate of wings or ribs, spaghetti, or almost anything else you can think of; can highlight the differences between people, display greed, gluttony, shyness or sensuality.

If you have any favourites that aren’t on this off-the-top-of-my-head list, please do share them.