Saturday, 31 December 2016

Reflecting on 2016 Goals and Lessons Learned

It's New Year's Eve and as is often the case at this time of year, I've been reflecting on what I achieved in 2016 and what fell by the wayside.

I think it's safe to say 2016 didn't really turn out how I'd hoped. There were some amazing high points (our trip to Skye in the camper van) and some pretty big low points. The first half of the year was pretty much a write off in terms of achievements. Some health issues and work stress meant that I did virtually no exercise for about five months, had little energy or motivation for writing and watched way too much TV.

But I did turn a corner in the second half of the year once I'd dragged myself up out of the doldrums. Perhaps the biggest thing was deciding to take control of my career. Rather than waiting around for an interesting-but-hardly-inspiring job to come up, I decided I was going to build the job - and career - I wanted.

Having finally taken this decision, I then committed to it. I signed up for a course on building a freelance writing business and connected with other freelance writers. It sounds dumb, but this of all things made me realise that people actually do this stuff. For real. And making a decent living from it,

If anyone's interested the course in question was Untamed Writing's Start Content writing course, now re-branded to How to Build a Badass Freelance Writing Business. (I mean, who doesn't want to take a course with 'badass' in the title?) And I would definitely recommend it. Karen will kick your butt into shape, but in a nice way.

Anyway, once I'd paid up and invested my time and money in this, I had no excuses for backing out. Yes, it's been pretty tough juggling a busy day-job and trying to set up a business for the past five months, but the reward was being able to finally hand my notice in and plan for a phased transition to full-time writing. 2017 is going to be a pretty exciting year :-)

2016 Goals

Back to the goals I set at the beginning of the year. Or rather, we, as the goals below are a combination of both Sam's goals and mine. This is what we wrote down at the start of 2016:

Sadly one thing that has fallen by the wayside this year is climbing. Rather than training hard to push my climbing to the next level, I've actually fallen back a lot. This has been partly down to lack of time and largely down to exhaustion. Burn out isn't really conducive to hard training.

We also rather underestimated the Cuillin Ridge when we added it to the list at the beginning of the year. Given the right weather and set of circumstances, I think it's definitely doable, but this year that combination didn't happen for us when we were up in Skye. We did however have a great day out on the Dubh's Ridge with amazing views and it was great to tackle part of the Ridge.

Number three on the list also didn't happen, though this is partly because all my free time for the second part of the year was taken up with my work for Windswept Writing. And that work has meant that I will have dedicated time every weekday in 2017 to work on my fiction writing. So the book WILL get written, just slightly later than planned.

I did start making progress with learning Italian, mainly on my walks to work. I used an audio book, which I found really helpful (though I suspect the local school-kids now refer to me as the 'crazy foreign-talking lady') and put it into practice on our trip to Rome in August. Unfortunately the second part of the course was missing from our local library, but I'm hoping to pick this up again in 2017.

Number five, I think it's safe to say, hasn't happened...

Now we get onto more positive news! We settled into the routine of our new vegan/vegetarian/omnivorous diet quiet easily and with the exception of a couple of odd weeks we've kept it up all year and it's now become normal. We have two vegan days, two vegetarian days and three eat-anything days a week, which I think is a reasonable compromise. I'm not quite willing to give cheese up totally yet (the less said about vegan 'cheese' the better) and Sam is definitely a meat-eater at heart!

We had loads of weekends away and a couple of longer breaks in our camper van Sadie. These have been some of the real highlights of my year and I'm looking forward to more adventures in 2017. We also made pretty good progress with the wedding planning for next year and I *mostly* managed to stay calm and chilled about it.

I made it through most of my 2016 Reading Challenge, though didn't get time to read a quarter of the books I wanted to. More detail on what I did read, and what I've got planned for 2017 in this post.

As for number ten, well if you've read through to here then you'll know I failed at that pretty spectacularly. But hey, failure is all part of learning, right? And 2017 will be a new and different year.

What I Read in 2016 (and My 2017 List)

This year I decided my reading needed a bit more structure. In a bid to expand my horizons beyond my comfort blanket of dystopian fantasy and young adult fiction I came across the 2016 Reading Challenge from Modern Mrs Darcy.

12 books in 12 different categories in 12 months. Doesn't sound too hard, does it? Here's what I picked, and how I did:

Looking down the list, it appears I've had rather a pathetic year in terms of reading. Which to some extent has been true. Various work and life things got in the way (as they do). This isn't the first year that I haven't read as much as I wanted to, but the first year in a while that I've really missed reading.

To be fair, I have actually read more books that what's on the list above. At the beginning of the year, I got a bit blase about how long it would take me to complete the challenge (and how long I'd have available) so I merrily downloaded books to my kindle. In addition to the above, I read a couple of excellent YA books by Louise O'Neill (Asking For It and Only Ever Yours), one of James Patterson's YA thrillers and a non-fiction book - The Push.

I also attended a dystopian fiction workshop with Francesca Haig and read the first book in her series, The Fire Sermon, in advance of the session. I really, really had to resist going straight onto the second book - The Map of Bones (which you may notice is on my 2017 list!).

So what didn't I get through? Well despite MANY hours of reading, I still haven't finished War and Peace. But I'm getting towards the end of the epic tale and will finish this off in January. I also ran out of time to pick up Catch-22. I'll move this onto my 2017 list and finally try and get this book finished.

Of the books I did get through, my top two picks would have to be Hugh Howey's Wool and Emily St. John Mantel's Station Eleven. While both dystopian stories, the first is a gripping page-turner whilst the second is written in much more of a literary style. I'd recommend both without hesitation.

So what's on the cards for 2017? Well, I've taken a slightly different approach this year. Firstly I want to read more. A lot more. And should be in a better position to do so than in 2016. I've also realised that, even though I love dystopian fiction, I'm not particularly well read in it. And as those are the stories I want to write, that's something I need to fix. Finally, there are a load of non-fiction books that I've been meaning to read for ages and need to dedicate some time to.

My 2017 list is currently looking something like this:

30 books, in addition to finishing off the everlasting War and Peace. This doesn't mean I won't be reading anything else, but I do want to try and prioritise what's on this list, so I don't make the same mistake as last year.

What do you think? Any books you'd recommend me adding (or storing up for 2018!)?

Friday, 9 September 2016

Life Without Plastic: A Zero Waste Experiment

This week is Zero Waste Week in the UK and in a totally winging it planned pledge I decided I was going to try and not eat any food that comes in plastic packaging. For five days. Doesn't sound that hard, right? Well I tried... And failed.

Why give up plastic? 

Last year I moved from an area where you could chuck pretty much anything recyclable in your household recycling bin, to a council where they would only accept plastic bottles. Which meant all the plastic packaging and wrappers that come with our food goes straight into the general waste.

There is also rather a lot of information out there about the bad things plastic is doing to our bodies and the environment. I'm not going to go into detail here, but a quick google search throws up a selection of scientific (and not so scientific) studies on the topic.

I haven't done a detailed analysis, but I reckon about 95 percent of what we throw into our general waste each week is plastic. Which feels, well, wrong. With the helpful push of Zero Waste Week, it was time to take action.

The rules

I tried to make it easy for myself, mainly because I hadn't planned this at all, and had not prepped or even really thought about how I was going to manage this for the week. I'd also made social plans that I didn't want to cancel. So the rules were as follows:

  • I couldn't buy or eat any food which came in plastic packaging.
  • Eating out was ok, as long as the food didn't come in a plastic container. So restaurant / cafe meals were in, but pre-packaged sandwiches were out.
  • Plastic bottles were excluded (as we can recycle them).

When I posted my pledge on Twitter, Rae Strauss, the lady behind Zero Waste Week commented that I'd picked a challenging one. I felt smug. Until I went to the supermarket for lunch.

A sea of plastic

When I look back, I realise I hadn't thought through exactly how much of the food we buy comes in plastic. I figured I'd follow my usual principles of trying to buy loose fruit and veg, and get the rest of my meals from tins and jars.

I walked into the supermarket and was faced with this:

More plastic...

 And it was only then that I realised how much of the food I love I wouldn't be eating this week.

How I tried to quit plastic (and failed)

I left that supermarket with two thoughts: I was going to be eating a lot of bananas, and would need to do a lot of cooking from scratch. Neither of which I have a problem with in principle, but I had a busy week ahead.

Fortunately we have a decent cafe at work, who have got used to the weird Sustainability Manager who insists on taking her lunch out on a proper plate instead of a plastic takeaway container. Normally I eat at the cafe once a week, tops. This week it was three days out of five, and on one of the other days I was at a work event. Yup, there was a lot of cheating going on.

Having informed my other half of our new culinary arrangements by text, I got home from work to be proudly presented with a black bean, vegetable and quinoa tagine (we were also on vegan day - I know, he puts up with a lot). Black beans - tin. Vegetables - loose or tinned. Quinoa - jar (kind of).

New rule:

  • Food which has been transferred from plastic bags to jars is ok.
Even stretching the rules, I know in my heart this is cheating. Over the course of the week I fail to keep my pledge in many small, yet significant ways.  I bake home-made biscuits, so I have a snack to eat at work (other than bananas) and despite using flour, sugar, oil and vanilla essence from paper bags and glass bottles, I fail when it comes to baking powder. Can you even buy baking powder that's not in a plastic container?

Our vegetable bag arrives half way through the week; a great big brown paper bag of fresh veggies, with not a scrap of plastic in sight. And it includes potatoes, the one carbohydrate that doesn't seem to come in plastic packaging. Winner.

By Friday I just really want some halloumi cheese to go with my salad. But ALL cheese comes in plastic. All of it. Maybe this is why zero waste gurus are often vegan? But there is salvation: wine (glass bottle) and chocolate (foil and cardboard wrapper). The. End.

Why we can't give up plastic

So I failed in my zero waste target. But the experiment really opening my eyes to the reality of zero waste living. And the reality is, that for the vast majority of us it is not achievable.

Yes, there are people who live this life, and I admire them for it. But most of the blogs I have come across are from US bloggers who live in cities or states where they have bulk-buy stores. I don't even know if there still are any similar stores in the UK (though I imagine there may be in London). And whether they stay open late enough to cater for people who have full-time, office based jobs.

For those of us who don't live in close proximity to Whole Foods or a cosy high street with a string of independent butchers, fishmongers and grocers, the reality is that we're reliant on supermarkets. And whilst supermakets continue to insist on packaging everything up in plastic, we will continue to fill our waste bins with these unsustainable waste products.

To end on a positive note, I have attuned my plastic-free eye to scout out the products you can buy at your local supermarket which do not have a scrap of plastic packaging. And there are small changes you can make to your shopping habits that will make a difference. But that is another blog, for another day.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The end of the line

So, my week of living below the line has finally come to an end. It's been a tough week, but I'm really pleased I did it. It's made me appreciate once again, how much we take for granted, and the physical and mental side-effects of living off an extremely low budget diet.

So what did I have for my first meal after LBTL? Well it was at a motorway service station so there wasn't a huge amount of choice. M&S had also run out of lemon.cheesecake which I was quite sad about. But here it is....


It tastes good - but cost more than the last five days worth of food put together. Which really makes you stop and think. 

Thank you to everyone who's sponsored me and the Hullion through the challenge - it's really made a huge difference and kept us going through the tough times! And I'll probably be back next year, with a different shop and different meals - by all for the same £1 a day budget.

Live Below the Line - snack attack!

I feel like I have spent pretty much all my non-working, waking hours this week cooking! That's the thing when you only have a £1 a day - it doesn't just have to cover 3 meals a day, but all your snacks in between. I'm used to cooking my breakfasts, lunches and dinners, but tend to rely on fruit, dried fruit/nuts and cereal bars for snacks. Not this week...

In addition, despite eating monster portions at meals, they just haven't been keeping me full for long enough, so snacks have been vital to try and keep me going.

So, here are some of the snacks I've been having this week:

First up, lemon biscuits. Well, kind of biscuits...really noticed the lack of butter and sugar in these. They were quite nice fresh out of the oven, but not so great a few days later.

I made some split pea dip out of leftover dahl on Tuesday (extra ginger and some olive oil) which was delicious. The salt crackers were ok, but not quite crunchy enough (poor bake!). The second batch I baked on Wednesday were much better and helped get my salt intake up a bit.

These may be the winner! After I had my windfall of bananas on Wednesday night, I then needed to work out how to use all the battered bananas....the answer - banana cakes! With a heavily adapted recipe as had no baking powder, sugar or much fat. But I bunged some lemon curd in and they didn't turn out too bad - a nice treat to end the week.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Mmmm rice pudding...

One of the hardest things about budgeting for my Live Below the Line challenge was giving up my morning porridge. So one of of key reasons for including milk in my budget (although its had many other uses this week!) was so I could make rice pudding for breakfast. 

What I didn't realise was quite how much milk rice pudding uses - I mean, there's hardly any rice in it! And of course most recipes use full-fat milk and involve a host of other tasty ingredients such as cream, nutmeg and (most importantly) sugar - all of which I don't have.

But I gave it a go anyway - here's my rice pudding, made with half skimmed milk, half water and with a few generous spoons of lemon curd stirred through instead of sugar:

I appreciate that looks rather like a fried egg, but you get the idea.

Anyway, the best part about it that it was delicious! Pretty creamy even with the low fat content. And super-easy to make on the hob (despite a boiling-over disaster). So if you fancy a lower fat version of this classic pudding try experimenting! Though I think if I had the choice I'd replace the lemon curd with honey...mmmmmm.

Don't forget - still time to sponsor us here! 

Live Below the Line - dinner 4

There's no getting away from it - trying to make the most of what few ingredients you have takes time - I didn't get round to eating this lot til 10pm! But it was pretty good and actually felt like a proper meal rather than rice and veg...

Lasagne LBTL style ( homemade attempted pasta, nettles and tomato/mixed veg layers, white sauce and breadcrumb topping), roast (tinned) potatoes and foraged dandelion leaf salad.

Two more days to go - this week is dragging...