Blog coming tomorrow!

As I was sorting through my photos to pull material for this post about all the signs that teach us, direct us, amuse, send a message, keep us safe, and all the myriad uses for this informational medium, I realized that the task was so much larger than I’d anticipated. Please join me tomorrow, April 30 2021, for a fascinating look at all the ways in which signs connect with us in our lives!

A spring flower refurb

Outside our house the world around is drab and brown still, although the snows have melted and we’re seeing some scraggly grass again. At least the sun has been shining, but this winter has felt extra-long being cooped up at home.

Don’t me wrong, our Covid cases have dropped dramatically since we went into lock-down and I feel it’s been well worth the effort. The number of people who’ve suffered with the illness because so many others couldn’t be bothered to take preventive measures is truly heart-breaking.

Hopefully we’ll continue to make progress, even though all our stores have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity.

in the meantime, bringing some fresh flowers into your home can add some much needed cheer. If you’ve never created your own arrangement from some inexpensive cut flowers that you can buy at any grocery store, here’s how to do it.

I started with a fading Valentine’s arrangement my hubby gave me. Usually he buys me a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses, which are my favourite flower, but this year I asked for a garden-style arrangement to make our house feel a little like Spring. This is what it looked like when it originally arrived:

It lasted for quite a while, but eventually the floral parts began to wither, leaving a scattering of deep pink carnations and some greenery that still looked good. My first refurb was with three bundles from the grocery store: daffodils, a bunch of pretty pale green carnations ruffled with purple, and a thick bundle of thin-leaved eucalyptus that you can see frothing all over the arrangement-in-progress below.

The original arrangement was one-sided, perfect for our foyer table, so I kept it that way. I moved some daffodils around after this to balance the colours evenly throughout, creating a loose informal look.

The daffodils were a mistake, though: in the stiff wet-foam that the florist had used, I had a lot of trouble inserting the delicate stems of these flowers well enough for them to draw water, and they didn’t last very long. The florist had used a piece of foam that rose over the top edge of the ceramic container, with a very tight fit, so I could only pour in bits of water from the top to avoid dribbling all over the table. (When I make my own arrangements, I like to recess the foam below the top of the water receptacle, so that I can pour in more water to easily soak the foam without overflowing.)

Important tip: If you’re making an arrangement from scratch, you’ll need to buy ‘wet foam’, called Oasis, to stick your stems into and to hold them in place. There’s another type of foam, called Sahara, that will not absorb water no matter how much you try — it’s only used for dried/silk arrangements. You can find Oasis at craft stores like Michaels.

The pink carnations also finally reached their limit, so it was time for another change of dress anyway. Back at the grocery store I spotted this pretty pre-made bundle, and I particularly loved the large lavender-tinged chrysanthemum.

Here’s how I incorporated the new flowers:

1) I removed all the spent flowers and greenery. I love big bundles like the one above because they include a nice amount of greenery to fill in the empty spaces and background of your arrangement. We’ll get to those in a minute. Here’s the stripped down arrangement, with a smattering of greenery and all of the green and purple carnations. I began working with the carnations in place, and then tweaked them as I started filling in the new materials.

2) In the same photo, I’m measuring the height of what will be the focal point — the single large lavender-tipped chrysanthemum — against the existing arrangement. You can always shorten a stem further, but if you cut it too short to begin with there’s no going back to lengthen it. I do the same with each stem of flowers or greenery as I work my way through them.

You want to give the focal point pride-of-place in the arrangement, of course. I tend to like my focal points on the right lower side of an arrangement, whether it’s a one-sided arrangement or rounded. I’m not an expert arranger by any means — this is just a style I’ve picked up from watching how the florists do it.

You’ll need to trim all of your stems — they need to be re-cut before they’re added to your arrangement. Scissors will work, but they can pinch the new cut end a little; I use a little guillotine-style cutter that I bought so long ago I can’t recall where I bought it. It has a razor-style blade inside a slot where you insert the stem and make a perfectly clean, slanted cut.

3) You’ll also need to trim most of the leaves below any flowers, as they’ll only clutter up your arrangement. Remove any that are damaged already or are too close to where you’ll be inserting the stem into the foam. In the next stem I positioned, the purple alstromeria, you can see in the photo below where several lower leaves were already crumpled and wouldn’t have helped the arrangement.

4) In the next photo you can see where I placed the alstromeria, close to the chrysanthemum so that the purple colours and the different petal shapes could compliment each other. This placement wasn’t fixed in stone; as I added more stems I ended up repositioning the alstromeria a small amount. Don’t worry about making your arrangement perfect as you go; before the end you’ll look at it from different angles and likely tweak it a bit for the final version.

5) I like arrangements to be three-dimensional — I don’t want my arrangements to look like the floral equivalent of a bowl-shaped haircut. So even for multiple stems of the same flower, or the same greenery, I like to cut them in different lengths so they have some depth within the arrangement.

My bundle of flowers included several stems of a common florist greenery called salal. It has medium to large-sized deep green leaves that set off the flowers beautifully. There are clusters of branches on one main stem, which you can separate and cut to a variety of lengths, as I did below. In a one-sided arrangement, typically taller stems go in the back and the height shortens as you get to the front, so you’ll want at least three lengths to fill in your arrangements.

As you position the different elements, consider how different textures, shapes and colours offset each other. For example, a frothy sort of flower like the smaller white chrysanthemums in clusters below will contrast well with the distinctive leaves of the salal, while the many-leaved thin eucalyptus in a medium green serves as a great filler for empty spots and to dangle over the edges of the arrangement for a more informal look. I also like to let the greenery, and sometimes even the flowers, dangle over the edge of the container to break the container’s visual boundary. A more formal arrangement would keep the flowers and greenery more tucked neatly in.

6) Once you’ve placed almost everything, you may find that you have something large like a palm leaf left — its size and distinctive shape is meant to become the dramatic backdrop of the arrangement. There was also only one fern stem, so I placed that at the back as well, although for a more triangular arrangement I could have tucked it in on the bottom right.

7) Finally it’s time to walk around your arrangement and look for any spots that are too bare, or where the several stems of some flowers (like the green carnations) haven’t been evenly distributed, or where you might want to adjust the colour palette. Don’t fuss too much — the net effect is to make you smile, not to win a floral award. The more of these you do, the better eye you’ll develop for placing things. You can also learn a lot by looking at online photos of arrangements on a florist’s website: how they cluster and contrast deep and light colours, how they create the overall shape of the arrangement (round, triangular, rectangular, etc.) and whether they incorporate a single dramatic focal point as opposed to a less formal look.

Here’s the almost-finished version of my arrangement. I ended up moving the tall green carnation on the far side over to the left to balance the overall shape.

I hope you embark on a little floral adventure of your own. No one can beat Mother Nature for sheer beauty, and to bring some of her artwork into your home can lift your spirits during these times. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you can make yourself a pretty flower arrangement any time you feel like it, at far lest cost than buying one from a florist if you need to be frugal. For special occasions though, it’s a wonderful surprise to have your doorbell ring and open the door to find a beautiful arrangement waiting for you, fresh from the florist and already put together so you only have to decide where to show it off the best 🙂

Things to do when you’re snowed in (or have time on your hands)

The snow was thick on our street on our Tuesday snow day

Snow days are so much fun, even if you’re working from home or retired and don’t need to worry whether you have to try and drive through treacherous conditions to work the next morning. There’s an implicit permission to throw responsibility to the wind and play hooky for the day.

My hubby and I went to bed on Monday night with snow falling thickly and confirming the two days of storm warnings from Environment Canada. I watched from our kitchen window as fierce gusts of wind scooped the snow from rooftops and flung it across the landscape. The small garden we planted along our back fence last summer was quickly disappearing from sight.

By the time hubby’s alarm went off before daybreak, there was already at least a foot of snow blanketing our neighbourhood, clogging our front porch, driveway, the entire circle we live on, and any access to the outside world. He closed the front door, called work to say he wouldn’t be there (a great relief for me that he wasn’t going to try going and run the risk of getting stuck) and we headed back to bed to snuggle under the covers until we felt like getting up for the day.

It was a lazy morning as we watched the snow continue to pile up. A couple of our neighbours have snow blowers and were thoughtfully cleaning all of our driveways. Eventually we bundled up to clean our vehicles off, and my hubby decided to check on the progress of pieces of barn-wood he routed, glued and clamped for a side table for our rec room. Inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives we watched a few days previously, I fished out a package of ground beef from the freezer and assorted vegetables from the fridge to make a pot of minestrone for lunch. This isn’t a soup I normally make, so it was fun to stretch my repertoire – with a big bowl of steaming soup to eat at the end of it.

Then, with a cozy fire crackling in our rec room fireplace, I spent an entertaining afternoon doing research for my novel.

I’m at the point in the story where some of the main characters will intersect with actual history from the wilds of my imagination. To make that work, I need to pull up enough details from historical references to produce believable scenes that resonate with the readers.

And it’s just fun to speculate on what part my own fictional characters could have played in a real event. Finding enough genuine facts – especially if the facts are a little mysterious or unusual – to flesh out the story is like a treasure hunt. There’s definitely a serotonin rush when you come across a curious little piece of information and think, Oh yeah, that could totally work for what I have in mind!

Staying at home this winter is a little like an extended snow day, except that it’s going on far too long. The great thing about an actual snow day was the excitement of watching a storm raise havoc outside while we were safely tucked inside our home.

Pet projects make the enforced down-time more enjoyable as well, whether it’s as simple a thing as making a dish you’ve never tried before, or a virtual scavenger hunt for whatever information gives you a lift. Rather than dwelling on how much time you have to fill, just let your mind wander outside the box and toss ideas at you. They may not all be good ones, but you can’t find the garden under the snow unless you start digging 😀

Small but not insignificant

I sat in on a really interesting webinar today, hosted by Action for Happiness, whose resources I’ve posted on this blog before. The topic was “Mindfulness made easy”, and although I try to regularly practice mindfulness anyway, there’s always something to learn.

Before I elaborate on the content, I just wanted to comment on the irony of many of the attendees constantly posting messages in the Chat box. If you’re not all that familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it basically means to be fully ‘in the moment’, i.e. to pay attention to where you are, what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Seems to me that the point of a webinar on Mindfulness would be to pay attention to the webinar.

Anyway, there were three great ideas discussed during the session that I thought I’d share with you as we’re all coping with a long, restricted winter:

  1. If you have trouble focusing on being in the moment, break it down into a tiny chunk that you can practice daily. As an example, the speaker, mindfulness expert and best-selling author Shamash Alidina, told us how he’d had trouble meditating, so he changed tactics to doing just one mindful breath each morning. Nothing too tough – just taking a deep breath until your entire lungs are filled, then slowly letting the breath out (it should take longer to let out than to have breathed in). He also recommended doing what he called a “1% smile” along with it, that is, a tiny partial smile which most of us can manage even on days where we really don’t feel like smiling at all. You may even find, as many of us did during the webinar, that trying to generate a teeny smile has the opposite effect – we wound up laughing.

He found that he could easily do that one special breath every morning, and even on bad days he felt good about accomplishing that one thing, which made him feel like doing more of it, and soon he did more than one breath, and so on.

This technique is recommended for incorporating any new beneficial habit into your life. For people with fibromyalgia, for example, it’s really challenging to begin an exercise program because even an amount so small that most people wouldn’t classify it as exercise makes you feel bad. Today, I did 5 minutes at a slow walk on our treadmill, followed by 8 stretches with an ab roller – and this evening, inevitably, I’m feeling beat up. But it’s not so bad that I won’t continue doing it.

I can tell you, though, that for someone who used to play a vigorous match of squash almost every single day when I was in my thirties and healthy, only 5 minutes pf walking feels ridiculous. But that’s my reality and I’ve learned to be okay with it. And acceptance is part of being kind to yourself.

  • When something is stressing you out, apply the “Pearl Habit”: reframe how you react to a stressor by, each time that it happens, using it as a prompt to give yourself some self-kindness. Alidina talked about a woman he knew who was being treated badly (psychologically) by her ex-husband during divorce proceedings, so each time that took place she began treating herself in some way. After a while she found that she wasn’t as sensitive to his attempts to push her buttons because she was dissipating the hurt and anger effectively, and eventually he began to stop doing it so often because she wasn’t reacting.

I really like this idea, since we all have stressors we can’t avoid – noisy neighbours, aggravating co-workers, rude shoppers, etc. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I like to turn an occasional bad encounter around by doing something nice for someone else, but this technique of doing something nice for yourself would be a wonderful resolution to ongoing aggravation, wouldn’t it? The next time something happens to push your buttons, try it out and see what happens.

  • An author called BJ Fogg did some research into the emotional lift we get when we accomplish something positive, even if it’s a small thing like doing that one piece of mindful breathing, and he gave that emotion a name: Shine. And we can cultivate it. We can make a point of celebrating the small things in our lives, the little successes that we accomplish.

This is the perfect time to do it. We can practice gratitude (consciously expressing gratitude for three to five things each day, or when we’re having a bad day), but we can also consciously Shine.

Here’s a personal example I can give you. London (England) has always had a thriving theatre scene, and the first time we visited we wanted to see at least one musical. But it was before the days of the internet and easy online booking. Our travel agent had a list of what was playing at that time, so one day I worked up the gumption to place a call to a well-known ticket agent in New York called Edwards & Edwards. I’d never done this sort of thing before and was also very shy in those days, so I was nervous – but determined. When the call rang through, they were pleasant and helpful, and I snagged two really good seats for one of the big hits, a musical called Chess. (You may remember its hit song, One Night in Bangkok.) When I got off the phone, I was so excited I spent a couple of minutes jumping up and down in exultation and yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” It wasn’t a big thing, but it felt really good to me.

Even if we’re not jumping up and down, let’s take pleasure in the small things we can accomplish during our troubled times.

Here’s something you can do that will not only give you a great feeling of success, but also something delicious to eat: make a pot of home-made chicken noodle soup. Have you ever done it? It’s so easy and so much better than anything you can buy in a store. Here are two ways to make it.

  1. The Quick and Dirty Method

I discovered this when I was laid up with a bad stomach bug a number of years ago. It was highly contagious and spread through a good portion of both staff and students at the college where I was working. The illness manifested really quickly: one evening in January I was feeling perfectly fine, but at about 2:30am I woke up feeling edgy and then had to make a desperate run to the bathroom to vomit. I didn’t make it all the way, so my poor hubby had to clean up a mess on the hall floor, and then hold my head while I vomited several more times violently into the toilet. I was exhausted and couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour at a time, and I couldn’t stomach any food. The only thing I was able to eat for a day and a half was fresh watermelon – my intrepid hubby searched several stores to find me some in the dead of winter.

On the third day, after the hydration and sugar from the watermelon had helped, I thought I might be able to manage some chicken noodle soup, but I was too tired to be on my feet for long. I sent my hubby on another shopping trip, and just threw all of the following items together in a big pot: chicken breasts, organic chicken broth, a package of pre-diced onions + celery + carrots, salt, and a small bag of gluten-free noodles. Then I flaked out on the couch again while the soup cooked for 30 minutes.

It was delicious, and studies have shown that home-made chicken soup has healing properties. I’ve made that version many times since then, whenever one of us has been under the weather, and the only change I’ve made is to use chicken thighs instead of breasts – they hold up better with the boiling/simmering and have more flavour. Here’s the ratio I use to make at least two dinners’ worth: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, 3 litres (quarts) of good-quality broth, 1 good-sized piece each of carrot + celery + cooking onion (chopped), and only about 100 to 150g of pasta (I prefer lots of broth, and adding too much pasta will make it too much like stew); add salt and pepper to taste at the end. I’ve found that a certain amount of saltiness helps settle a queasy stomach, so I like my soup a little on the salty side. That’s it.

  • The Old-fashioned From-Scratch Method

I don’t recall my mom making chicken noodle soup from scratch – she kept a lot of either Lipton’s or Campbell’s around the house because I had an ongoing case of tonsillitis and I was sick on a regular basis. My parents tried to take me for surgery when I was three, but I’d had a bad experience with a doctor as a baby and I shrieked as soon as I saw the hospital. By the time I turned five, though, I’d gotten past that, and I even asked the surgeon if I could see my tonsils after the operation. He was amused and kept them for me in a jar of formaldehyde. They were in such bad shape that to this day I remember what they looked like: a pair of lumpy white spheres with black specks. (There was much speculation at the time that I’d grow up to be a doctor, but I became a biologist instead.)

After my hubby and I began dating, I discovered that his old Polish grandmother, who loved to feed people, made a great chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I promptly abandoned store-bought.

This version too is quite easy, just a bit more time-consuming, but a lot of us have time on our hands these days.

Make the stock first:

  1. Roast some inexpensive chicken that has bones and skin (a pound of wings that you might have sitting around in the freezer will do) in the oven until the pieces brown a bit. Both the bones and the bits of fat under the skin add a lot of flavour to your stock, as does the browning.
  2. In a big Dutch oven or stock pot, put the browned chicken and any juices from the roasting pan, along with two litres of good broth and a litre of water (the broth gives a little extra boost to the stock), one cooking onion with skin on and cut into quarters, the centre 3 or 4 stalks of a bundle of celery including the leafy heart, and a hefty unpeeled carrot cut into chunks (give the vegetables a bit of a scrub first). Add 2 or 3 dried bay leaves, about 12 peppercorns, and a teaspoon of coarse sea salt. You can also add a few cloves of garlic if you want. If you want to add a little zip to your stock, toss in a couple of dried chiles broken in half.
  3. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the stock simmer, covered, for an hour or so.
  4. Strain the stock by either pouring the contents of the pot through a colander into a big bowl, or by scooping out the solids with a slotted spoon. The poached vegetables are quite good to snack on, by the way.

Make the soup:

  1. Put the strained stock back into the pot and add: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, another onion peeled and chopped, a carrot chopped (wash but leave the peel on – it’s full of nutrients), and a stalk of celery sliced up crosswise into about 1/8” thick slices (at the wider end, cut the stalk in half lengthwise to keep the slices fairly consistent in size). Add chopped fresh herbs if you have them (parsley or dill are nice), or a teaspoon of dried. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour.
  2. Cook your pasta separately, however much you want to use (remembering that pasta swells as it cooks).
  3. Once the soup has cooked, drain the pasta and add it to the soup at the end, along with salt and pepper to taste. (In the Quick method, the pasta is cooked right in the soup, which tastes fine but adds some cloudiness to the end product.)
  4. To serve, put a piece of chicken in a bowl and cut up into small pieces, then add the broth, vegetables and pasta. Enjoy!

The idea of mindfulness is to set aside all the detritus we carry around most of the time – worrying about the bills or the appliance that sounds like it’s going to fail soon, avoiding the coronavirus, our kids are fighting, and on and on – for a little while to take a breather, to just appreciate something nice we’re doing at the moment. A lot of the time we forget to do that.

Making a wonderful pot of soup on a cold winter day is the perfect antidote to both the weather and your mind running around in circles. It’s nourishing, comforting, and feels really good to produce. Life doesn’t get much better than sharing that soothing deliciousness with your family or someone you’re keeping in contact with who needs a pick-me-up. Let me know how you make out 😊

If you’re having trouble coping with the heightened state of worry we’re all in these days, check out the many free resources and webinars offered by the Action for Happiness organization. I think you’ll find some really good ideas to help you.

Next week: getting ready for another fun holiday to celebrate: the Lunar (Chinese) New Year coming up on February 12th.

Repacking your holiday boxes

The holidays are going to be really different this year, aren’t they? We’ve all had many years planning to spend them with family and/or friends in some format, whether we necessarily wanted to or not 😉 But this year that grumbly, sometimes overwhelming option isn’t even on the table, and it’s easy to fall into a state of sadness about choices that have been taken away from us.

I’d like to suggest something more uplifting. Gatherings at any time are at their best if they’re about spending quality time with people we care about. They don’t have to be elaborate, or expensive, or perfect. So this is the year to think outside your usual holiday box.

Maybe the best gift you can give someone is to keep them safe. That may mean rethinking what you expect out of the holidays. In Ontario there are quite a few outdoor light displays, so this year instead of meals inside someone’s home, my hubby and I will be getting together with small bubbles of family members to enjoy time together in the fresh air where we can keep a safe distance and appreciate the beautiful lights. The meals will be simplified for tailgating – one of them will include a hearty beef stew kept warm in a hot-air turkey fryer, of all things, with some crusty bread, and chocolate squares for dessert.

Next week the college I worked at is hosting a president’s get-together for everyone who retired this year, via the Zoom platform. It’s not the easiest way to assemble, but it works, and when you consider that ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been possible, this year it’s great to have that technology so that you can chat and see people’s faces.

I’ve been busy planning lots of meals to add some sparkle to the quiet season that my hubby and I are having in between our two family outings. They’re not elaborate, just yummy.

We have a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery puzzle to exercise our brains on over the holidays when he’s home from work, and I want to write more chapters of my novel. We still have to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Disney’s gorgeous animated version of A Christmas Carol, as we do every year. He’s seen The Sound of Music so many times, though, that that one is a flat no 😊

On days when I’m not feeling so great, the best remedy I’ve ever found is to do something nice for someone else. Check on a friend – they might be having a bad day too and a chat, or a coffee out of doors (bundled up with layers and a lap blanket), could be great for both of you. Donate groceries to a food bank, or chat with someone in a grocery store. Be kind to others – we’re all having a stressful holiday, no matter where we are

Help someone else to feel better, and you’ll feel better yourself. That may be one of the best forms of self-care.

The days will pass, the world will move on, we’ll all quietly celebrate the end of a crazy year and look forward to a new one that has the words “vaccine” and “heading back toward normal” in it.

The final push

It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.

NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.

While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.