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Morning Pancake Meditation

February 9, 2016

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This year I am devoting myself to keeping record of a few of my favourite, revisited, tried and tested healthy recipes on my blog so I can make them easy to share with more lovely people.

No doubt, many recipes I share will be inspired by my good friend and healthy cooking inspiration Christopher James Clark, author of Nutritional Grail.  I met Chris (who would find it very funny that I initially spelled that Christ) way back when he lived in Crete and was the chef on a yoga retreat I was attending.  His healthy, macrobiotic meals were revolutionary for me.  They proved that healthy, whole-food cooking is delicious, satisfying and very accessible!  I returned home with a collection of his recipes and spent the next few months tackling each and every one one of them from his lemony-dill chickpea dish to his chocolate chip banana cookies (yes – I will soon post about those).  In recent years, Chris has focused more on paleo-inspired meals (adding high quality meat dishes to the mix) and you can follow his blog and Instagram account for daily, mouth-watering inspiration.

Today I am sharing his recipe for Basic Buckwheat Pancakes from Nutritional Grail.  This recipe is killer and I revisit it time and again especially when I’m taking a break from gluten and craving something ‘bread-like’ to bite into!  It’s also slightly fermented making this very easy to digest.  My preferred way to eat these is with tahini and a bit of honey OR a bit of avocado and tomato if I’m going for savoury.  My boyfriend slathers his with cream cheese and jam (not approved by me) – but the point is you can take some artistic liberty here.  I like to add a little lemon zest and some of my favourite spices (such as cinnamon and cardamom to the batter) to give them some extra zing!  I heat organic, cold-pressed coconut oil in the pan and enjoy the slow process of creating my stack.

I find pancake-making quite meditative and often practice Tadasana and steady breathing whilst waiting to flip each cake.  Chris estimates 2 minutes to let each side cook although for me it’s more like 2-3 minutes one side and 30 seconds the second side to ensure the pancake doesn’t fall apart upon flipping!  You can’t rush the process so turn it into a practice of being present – enjoy the sizzling sound of the batter hitting the pan, marvel at the little bubbles that form as the pancake cooks, enjoy the fragrance and satisfaction of creating a pretty stack.  Of course if that sounds a little too peaceful for your mornings, you could also do a sun salutation while waiting for one side to cook.

You can eat them nice and warm on the spot or save them for later to accompany a nice soup or ‘saucy’ meal – they’re great for soaking up juices or rolling up with nut butter for later consumption!

Please note that you’ll need to plan ahead roughly two nights ahead so you can soak the buckwheat one night and then allow for some fermenting the second night.

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups buckwheat, soaked overnight

2 tablespoons full-fat yogurt (I use Rachel’s organic greek-style yoghurt)

1 tablespoon molasses or barley syrup (optional)

1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

2 eggs

Salt (I use pink himalayan or sea salt)

Butter

Cooking Instructions

Strain buckwheat and discard the soaking water.  Put buckwheat into the blender.  Add just enough water to make it thick, yet homogenous puree. Pour this puree into a nonreactive bowl and stir in yogurt and sweetener.  Cover and ferment 8 to 24 hours. Stir in all remaining ingredients.  Bring a nonstick pan to medium-low heat with a little butter.  Ladle 1/2 cup batter onto the pan and cook 2 mins per side.

Big Magic

November 27, 2015

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This week I was lucky enough to go see Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite authors, speak live in London at an event through the How To Academy. Elizabeth was here to promote her latest book, Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear, which has received a lot of media attention.  I’ve had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth speak live in London before several years ago after she had written the ‘sequel’ to Eat, Pray, Love called Committed.  I remembered fishing feverishly around in my purse for a piece of scrap paper to record the exuberantly and graciously delivered pearls of wisdom that flowed effortlessly from her lips.   It was the same experience for me reading Eat, Pray, Love – endless underlining and highlighting, savouring quotable passage after passage written by someone who seemed to speak the language of my soul.  When another opportunity arose to listen to her live, there was no doubt in my mind it would be time and money well spent.  I was right.

As part of my ticket purchase, I received a free copy of Big Magic, which I have had to try very hard not to buy another copy of before the event so I could sneak a peek.  The book in all its colourful glory is waiting for me to delve in (perhaps this evening),  but before I even get started on it, I thought I would share some of the insight Elizabeth gave at this talk that already has me beaming with excitement for the year up head and ready to fully embrace my word for the year – Creativity.  This means that I will be giving more energy to the part of my life that gets my creative juices flowing, the part of my life that is about fulfilling my unique purpose and birthing projects that come from the heart.  Currently my creative calling is coming from yoga teaching, photography, writing, music and cooking but I want to hone in one special project and take things to the next level.  I have a feeling that ‘creativity’ will be high on the agenda for many of us in 2016.  There seems to be a real buzz of inspiration in the air, so here are a few nuggets of wisdom I took home from Elizabeth’s talk, which have reminded me why it’s important to focus on this area of our lives:

Ideas find us, we don’t find them – ‘have one foot in the real world and one foot with the faeries’ to find your calling

While I haven’t read the book yet, the title (and cover) lends one to think that it’s going to be fun.  It’s likely going to be an imaginative read rather than a how-to on writing your first book or starting a creative project.  This is precisely why it interests me.  Elizabeth had me at the get-go when she spoke of how several book critics have tried to downplay the lightness of her approach (for example, the way she personifies ideas, suggesting they have souls of their own and choose us) and referring to her illustrations as ‘metaphors.’  There’s no doubt that Elizabeth is a serious writer, but she is also a believer with a deep connection to the mystical.  She knows how to put her finger on those moments in life that defy logical explanation and press the pause button so we can delve deeper.  Believing that ideas have lives of their own and choose through whom they will be manifested makes the process of creation (not to mention life!) so much more inspiring, exciting, and yes – magical.  It reminds us to abandon projects that ‘lose their pulse’ quickly and respond to the ones that beg for our attention.  Don’t let anyone suck the magic out of your passion or your interpretation of how creativity works – let the faeries in.

Screw perfection and embrace the fact that ‘I’m just doing what I can with what I have’

After posting a question on Facebook asking her fans what stands in the way of the pursuit of creative projects, Elizabeth found that two major things came up: Fear and Lack of Time.  We fear criticism and judgement or we think we’re not ‘good enough’ to do the creative things we’re drawn to (probably because someone told us that once) so we abandon them.  I know that I felt this way for a long time about writing and sometimes even feel this way about teaching.  I was a good student at school, but often it only takes one teacher to criticize your work and deflate your passion balloon.  I had a real interest in minerals and gems and collected them as a kid but my 5th grade geology teacher managed to squash that curiosity by testing me in front of the class on rock formations in a mathematical fashion I didn’t understand.   My 30th birthday, however, was a real turning point in my life and is precisely when I decided that I could be ‘good enough’ at something to make a difference.  Could I use an editor for my writing?  Absolutely – and that’s what authors do.  But what if I just started writing again, from my heart, and see what happens? Could I be more advanced at yoga postures?  Absolutely – but I’ve got a handle on the essentials and ten years of personal experience and training that make me a great teacher so why not start spreading the joy of the practice?  And who better than a best-selling author who still gets harshly criticized to drive this point in even further? Thank you Liz for the reminder to not abandon ideas because we’re afraid we can’t be ‘the best’ or when we think we could offer more – you probably already have a lot to share and bring into the world hiding behind your fear.  Just get started.

Sometimes making time for creativity means saying no to the things you want to do, not just the things you don’t want to do

So that other issue to do with time?  It’s about setting boundaries and carving out space to prioritize your creative projects.  But setting boundaries comes with a cost.  A lot of us have trouble saying ‘no’ full stop but I have found that saying no to some (but not all!) fun social engagements and putting down a few of my beloved hobbies like piano to focus on others (maybe just temporarily), has been the only way to stay focused.  And when you feed a part of your life that has been asking for water, fully and with passion, you are so rewarded that you often forget about all the other stuff you’re not doing.

You know you’ve found your calling when you’re prepared to eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it

This wasn’t the first time I heard Liz speak about the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with the decision to pursue your creative passion as a kind of test of your dedication.  If you want to write but can’t handle the ‘shit sandwich’ of criticism or endless editing or long days spent at the computer screen, etc. that comes with it, then you might not get very far.  If you really want something, you’ll eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it and sometimes that’s saying no to things that will eat into the time you need spend on that creative idea begging for your attention (which will probably feed your soul more than anything else).  So ask yourself, ‘how are you going to navigate the part that is not satisfying?’

It’s OK to indulge yourself – your creative pursuits are not FOR anyone

You don’t need to make money from your creative project or justify it.  You don’t need to refer to it as a guilty pleasure.  It’s OK to take time to do the creative things that bring you joy simply because they bring you joy.  Indulge yourself.  It’s really OK.  And it will probably make you a better person to all those around you.

Your creativity might come from a dark place – it’s not all roses

When asked about her experience of depression (described beautifully in Eat, Pray, Love) and how that has shaped her life, Elizabeth reminded us of the blessings in life that often come in disguise and the need to be thankful for the good and the bad.  She said that her ‘journey’ out of depression was ‘creative, spiritual and psychological’ and required her to become a ‘scientist of her own experience’ because ‘anxiety and depression BEG you to think creatively.’  She reminded us of the importance of ‘looking for cells of light within the darkness’ and ‘turning your own life into a work of art.’

Your parents can give you something, but they can’t give you everything 

Just a few weeks prior to this event, I completed a teacher training for pregnancy yoga, a form of yoga that celebrates the female body, embraces a softer approach to movement and honours the absolutely magical qualities of the womb not only to create life but also to symbolize and bring awareness to the energetic home of our creative centers.  I kept thinking – it must be the most magical experience to bring life into the world and to then nurture that life, but then what?  Liz talked about how her parents gave her a beautiful childhood.  Not every child in the world gets that.  But if we managed to survive and grow into adults, that’s already something pretty special.  Because, as Liz said, our parents can’t give us the whole picture.  They can give us a lot, but then we have to fill in the missing parts, which is what makes us unique individuals.  This is exactly what she did (and what I did) by traveling and seeking out teachers.  Don’t give up on life – even if you’ve had a rough start.  Things can change and we change.  I too had loving parents whose passion for their careers no doubt encouraged me to pursue a job I love, but who I am today is not only because of them, it’s because of all the experiences I subjected myself to and all those teachers I attracted to feed my curiosity about the world beyond my hometown and beyond this planet.

Oprah really is amazing

Elizabeth gets to work with Oprah a lot so the interviewer asked her – what’s she like? I have been a big fan of Oprah ever since I was little so I was bemused.  When Oprah was on TV, she had our undivided attention and often our hearts.  She provided real topics to discuss at the dinner table.  She allowed us to get emotional. Turns out she’s as cool as she appears on her show, with a unique ability to shine the light on the creative souls that others may not see and to give them hope and encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Thanks for sharing your stories and your beautiful wisdom Liz.  I can’t wait to read your book.

Oh – and how do you know when you’ve found your creative outlet?  Elizabeth explained ‘big magic’ as ‘the happiness that comes when your genius is working well for you,’ when you are ‘in the zone.’  For me, that’s teaching yoga, that’s writing, that’s photography, that’s engaging with music – I can’t wait to keep playing and creating.  If you haven’t found yours yet, don’t give up.  Look for the things that bring you alive and maybe get a copy of this book…I have a feeling it’s going to be great.

 

Letting Go

November 13, 2015

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Here we are again it seems at the beginning of another cold season, nearing the beginning of another new year. I’m getting ready to start over and I’m writing this blog about that.

At the beginning of 2015 I decided that my word for the year would be CLEARING. It dawned upon me that it’s because ‘clearing’ is a natural precursor to next year’s word…CREATING. And then it occurred to me that I always will be (and want to be) in a cycle of clearing and creating because the two concepts are symbiotic. I have slowly adopted a clutter-free maintenance system of one item in/one item out when acquiring new things, and the same should go for projects. I can only spin so many plates at once, and some projects might be best shelved really. We simply cannot carry an entire past of unfinished or outdated projects with us through life – it gets too heavy – and I am sure that weight is not good for creating something new.

I got thinking about this on one of those days teaching abroad in Mallorca that was supposed to be a writing day but insisted on being a beach day. I was sitting by the water watching the waves roll in and out. At the same time, there was a small boy working hard to build a sandcastle. He was 100% focused; nothing was going to distract him from his methodical construction. Until a big, angry wave did just that and wiped away his entire creation.

Was he upset? Oh you better believe it. Inconsolable, hysterical and furious would describe what he was. He lashed out at his parents; he kicked the remnants of his fortress down; he could not believe how unfair the ocean was, especially when he was so close to finishing. Well, clearly this boy needs a good lesson in non-attachment I smugly thought, as if being a yoga teacher (and master de-clutterer in the making) makes me an expert in this field. Not true. Not yet at least. I felt his pain – it was such a nice castle he had built.

I had a similar experience the next day, however this time it wasn’t a sandcastle getting washed to sea, it was nearly myself, in a non-yogic panic, failing to swim stronger than the mounting waves which had seductively carried me a bit too far away from the shore. I’m pretty sure I was a mermaid in a past life, but still, my breast stroke has never inspired confidence. I managed to get back to the beach, but it was enough of a taste of the power of nature and the vulnerability of being alive to remind me that I’ve got some control over how my life pans out, but I have clearly not got control over everything.

So where am I going with this? Well, we’re approaching American Thanksgiving at the end of the month and it’s always a great occasion to be thankful for the things we normally take for granted, and this year after my incident in the ocean and a rocky flight following that, I am especially happy to have more time to write and play on this planet. But before that I want to note that we are also at a good time of year for letting go as Autumn helps us transition from summer to winter by turning the leaves miraculous colours and then helping them to let go to decompose and make room for new leaves for next year (and pretty pictures for my Instagram).

During what has now effectively been about three years of de-cluttering and simplifying my surroundings, it’s the letting go bit that gets in the way of clearing out thoroughly. Not letting go is also something that can make us quite miserable. Holding on to resentment, harbouring ill feelings, regretting past mistakes – these are obviously toxic ways of holding on. But I also hold on to things I spent money on and feel bad I haven’t used/worn enough and projects I started that I want to complete but just haven’t found the time for – and these things can also disrupt our flow. And so I have to constantly remind myself that when I get rid of something old (and that can be an obsolete possession or a negative thought), I am actually making space for something new, something unknown, a surprise. And I am embracing the present moment.

To add to this, I promise myself that there will always be new things to acquire, to inspire, to fill my days (and I avoid watching any films or TV series with post-Apocalyptic themes to convince me otherwise). Because the day after I nearly got washed away by a wave, I went back out into the ocean and kept swimming. And on that same day the little boy got his shovel and pail (‘bucket and spade’) back out and started digging up new sand. And my friend who lost all her digital photos on her phone from the past three years? Well, she started taking new ones (and now her storage is maxed out again). So I am asking you to ask yourself these questions this month – what are my most meaningful projects, possessions, and passions? How can I make more room for them and get rid of the things that simply aren’t serving me anymore/in this moment/now? Who might actually really use/benefit from/enjoy these things? What might I be blocking from entering into my life by clinging to the past?

Chances are that when you put less on your plate, less on your schedule, and less in your closet, you will make the most of those things you have and will be more focused, so you will also waste less over time and feel more grateful for what you’ve got. This is what is really driving me to let go. This weekend I tackled under the bed where I was storing a perfectly good duvet, pillows, towels and sheets (for what? my future mansion in London?!) when I know there are people collecting such items for people without homes this winter. Those are getting donated. I put a battery in an old watch I haven’t worn for two years and brought it to a second-hand shop who sold it to a person delighted to find an affordable birthday gift for someone (I imagine). I have shredded old diaries (the kind that are just calendars), passed on books I haven’t read that I know are more relevant to someone else’s current situation than my own and I cut half my hair off to remind myself that change is good (it’s grown back better and faster than ever before). I am accepting that I don’t have to drag my past through my life with me to validate my existence and things are starting to flow.

I appreciate that I am not the first person to discover the joy and peace that can come from letting go (or the catchiness of that phrase). It’s been written about a lot (before Frozen), and perhaps no where more beautifully than in texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali so here’s a quote to keep you thinking:

All life is a passing show. If we want to hold it, even for a minute, we feel tension. Nature will try to run away; we will try to pull it back and keep it. When we want to keep it, we put up barriers which ultimately cause us pain. Even with our own bodies, if we don’t want them to change, trouble will come. We will buy all kinds of make-up, creams and wigs to retain our “youth.” If only we learn to enjoy each change, we can recognize the beauty even in aging. A ripe fruit has its own beautiful taste. When we just allow things to pass, we are free. Things will just come and go while we retain our peace. – p.106, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

Expect the Unexpected

December 14, 2014

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I am so grateful for my life in London. I feel like I won the lottery of best cities in the world to live in and I have felt this way everyday for the past few years. I am thankful for that feeling of being in the right place for me at this time in my life especially since I migrated so far from my family and spent so many years jumping through hoops, doing work I didn’t enjoy, learning the ways of a new culture, to earn my right to live and work in a city that has fed me culturally, emotionally and spiritually, forever and ever if I so wish.

But certainty is not a feeling I have experienced that frequently. I used to get stuck in indecision, fearful of the repercussions of my choices. There were two angels on either shoulder – one saying – no matter what you do everything will be okay and the other ‘WHAT IF’ angel urging me to think of every possible worst case scenario that could lead to failure on some level (that would be my fault of course because I chose it).

Over time I have learned that both of these voices (trust vs. fear/doubt) are important and the secret is not to get caught up in what my teacher Alex Filmer-Lorch would call the ‘pendulum swing’ between two opposing ideas. It’s dizzying, tiring, unproductive and falls under the category of unnecessary and unhealthy worry. At the end of the day, decision-making stress is a byproduct of the freedom that I have to build my own life and I have to remember to see it that way.

A colleague of mine said the other day, you can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose where you live, and this is an incredible thing. But that wasn’t always true and still isn’t for many nor is it always an easy or affordable journey to relocate yourself on a map. I don’t follow politics too closely, but I’m well aware of recent debates over overcrowding in England due to immigration and resulting prejudices. It’s a shame because when I attended my citizenship ceremony last year I felt so proud to stand amongst a group of people from all over the world who were finally granted the right to call England home. I was also very aware that many of these people were leaving behind countries with grim situations and had likely been through far more harrowing times to get to where they were than me. Undoubtedly this would lead them to make the most of their new home and pursue opportunities otherwise not available to them with more passion and determination – isn’t that what planting new seeds is all about? So I am thankful for the opportunity to make choices, however stressful it may be, and I am thankful for the possibility to start over and offer something up to a new city, a new country, a new place to call home.

Sometimes things in life feel just right. Sometimes they feel not quite right. Sometimes very wrong. But that doesn’t mean you’ve messed up. The friction is what keeps us on our toes and challenges us to find our strengths and hidden mechanisms for survival. For every one year that I feel certain about things, there were probably five of uncertainty in between, and this is where the work began. During my first few years in London I wasn’t sure what the driving force was keeping me abroad, although I did feel certain that I belonged on this side of the pond. I had no idea what was awaiting me, where my studies would take me, how much I would earn, who I would meet, but something told me this was the place where things would happen. It didn’t always feel like the most logical decision but once I had made the choice, I was sticking to it. And right now, nine years later, I am so thankful I did even though it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

London will always be hugely significant to me because it’s the place where I cultivated my passion for yoga and teaching, and consequently how I developed many coping mechanisms to get me through times of doubt. It’s where I got stronger. They say to only expect the unexpected and this is sage advice. I had no idea when I moved here that I would be teaching yoga part-time in a studio that didn’t even exist yet just two blocks away from my original student housing. I had no idea that this studio would be a stone’s throw away from the theatre where the musical adaptation of my favourite childhood book “Matilda” plays every night and that I would go there with my wonderful boyfriend on his 34th (we’re always kids) birthday. I had no idea, until a fellow student in my meditation training sung it for us, that this musical holds a song that sums up what it means to find peace and strength when all around us feels like chaos and doesn’t seem to make much sense. And suddenly there is a tiny thread stringing everything together in hindsight.

The voice of doubt still likes to creep up when I am making decisions, such as planning travel. What if there’s a snowstorm and I get stuck and miss the connection? What if a cheaper ticket becomes available tomorrow for a better route? I know that voice is there to test me and so I listen for a second and then say – hey you – CHILL OUT. Because even if we make all the ‘right’ decisions, there are outside factors that we cannot control and in one way or another, we’re going to have to be creative. Unexpected stuff is going to happen and change things no matter how carefully we pave our path. Deep down I believe that we can turn every situation on its head and make the most of it – otherwise we submit to suffering. We submit to being the victim when we should strive to be the victor. So my motto for the new year? Plow through the What Ifs and don’t look back. What’s my other way to stop over-thinking my choices and their possible consequences? Take the focus off me and think of how I can help someone else instead.

In November I celebrated Thanksgiving both in London and the U.S. I woke up on Thanksgiving day and taught a gratitude-themed yoga class to 21 people in a cozy, heated studio tucked into a very peaceful Covent Garden. The next day I flew to Boston and was greeted by my nieces for a belated Thanksgiving meal hosted by my parents. At school in the States, we learn that when the first Pilgrims arrived in America, they were in quite a pickle. It took several winters, several deaths and finally help from the Native Americans to get them back on their feet and thriving in a new territory that would soon become home to hundreds of millions, including me. When I arrive at Logan airport, my family is there with the Subaru and a warm meal is usually waiting for me within an hour. Despite those comforts, I inherited the Pilgrim gene and while I don’t enjoy frequent air travel nor promote it for the toll it takes on our health and the planet’s, it has provided me with my present life, living perhaps not so far from my roots in England. It has deepened my understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world, a small part of a vast humanity.

On a less happy note, once the Pilgrims thanked the Native Americans with a bountiful feast, they later got greedy and murderous and took rather than shared what wasn’t theirs to begin with. On Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate the nice bit of the story and continue the traditions of giving thanks for our lives and those who help us. We remember, as is repeated at Christmas time, that life is beautiful and there are many things to celebrate that we normally take for granted. Hopefully we all decide that it’s better not to be so greedy and to give back a little but I’m not so sure this is true for the majority.

I love the tradition of giving thanks and every morning that I walk over Waterloo bridge and look upon the Thames, the Southbank, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, I am so thankful for all the ups and downs that London has given me, for the person it has shaped me into today. I’m even thankful for the feeling of being a ‘familiar stranger’, to quote my friend Jen, when I return to Boston – it means I’ve discovered a new part of myself and there’s no going back. Expressing gratitude and drawing your attention to what is positive about the present is a great way to see through the muck. I have been going Instagram crazy this past month taking photos of Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning before I teach, capturing pink skies, gorgeous Christmas decorations, dreamy London scapes. But I won’t lie. For every beautiful thing that catches my eye, there’s also a pile of sick I need to mind not step in (Londoners love to drink…especially this time of year). It’s not all roses.

So what are you thankful for? When times are tough, what gets you through it? Where do you find beauty and hope? Who do you turn to? What do you read? Watch? Listen to? Have you created your toolkit for unexpected times? Something that makes sense and feels right when nothing else does? Who might you write a note to this holiday season to let them know they made a difference to you?

I hope you’ve made it this far, because the most important thing I want to mention is the charity yoga class promoted in the opening image on December 20th, which is what’s got me on this giving gratitude high.  10 years ago many Brits left London to holiday around the Indian ocean in places like Thailand and Sri Lanka. Their plan was to have a blissful time in the sun with friends and loved ones.  Instead they witnessed an unimaginable tragedy and many did not survive.  One of the survivors was student and friend Niki Medlik who also designed the beautiful graphic images you can see on this newsletter.  Together we decided to organize a charity yoga class in honour of the 10th anniversary of the Tsunami to remind people of the tragic event that affected so many people, taking the lives of nearly 300,000.  Niki chose a wonderful charity that is the Sri Lankan Women’s Swimming Project helping to teach women how to breathe and float given that they were the majority who lost their lives from drowning.  We love this charity because it is providing ongoing support to the communities that were effected the most and empowering people with new skills for survival.  The idea is that we will get together to celebrate life in the safe haven that is the yoga studio where I teach and where I have been blessed to meet so many incredible people who come to yoga to feel better.

Take a break

July 5, 2014

Take A Break

This summer I hope you’ve given yourself permission to have a treat, take a break, do something totally indulgent and unproductive.  That’s right, I’m encouraging you to idle away some time.

Maybe it’s a holiday you’ve planned by the beach.  Maybe it’s wrapping up work before 6PM so you can take advantage of happy hour al fresco or catch a World Cup match.  Maybe it’s taking a longer lunch or a longer walk or a bit of a nap in the grass when you have a spare moment because it really would be a crime not to with such nice weather.

Now I’m a hard worker by nature and far from what anyone would call lazy, but if there is one time of year that I don’t need a reminder to play, it’s most certainly July and August.

Behaving any differently would just feel wrong, disrespectful even, to mother nature and the generous gifts she is handing us: an opportunity to connect more with nature by getting your feet in the grass, submerging them in sand and salt water and letting your hair dance in the breeze.  July and August are open invitations to surrender your senses to the sweetness of summer and let go.  So will you accept?

If the idea of letting go already has you nervous and twitchy, then maybe you need to book yourself a trip to Italy.  Seriously.

Italy – land that I love.  I studied Italian and French at University in hopes that learning the languages would one day take me to these foreign countries so often depicted in glorious films about summer.  There were the adaptations of Marcel Pagnol novels – Chateau de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) and La Gloire do mon père (My Father’s Glory) to make me dream of Southern France, and then Stealing Beauty (and more recently I am love) that left me wanting to run through wild grass and flowers in the Italian countryside.

I’ve spent many summer weeks in Italy since then when my dreams were realised.  One summer I spent studying art history in Florence and another I spent two months living in the Abruzzo region of Italy volunteering on different organic farms.  One taste of Italy in the summer and I knew it would become an ongoing love affair.  Returning to Italy whenever possible would become a priority to remind myself of the importance of la dolce vita the Italians live so well.  To remind me (a juggling to-do lister) to slow down and enjoy life.

Motorbikes are fast in Italy.  But life is slow.  Italians speak at high velocity, but linger over a meal for hours.  A day in Italy is full of unknowns and ‘possiblies’, but never void of some kind of pleasure.  You must be patient, playful and passive and that’s when you see the beauty (same rules often apply to yoga…).

I remember there was a gelateria in Florence called Perche non? (Why not?) and it’s an expression I think of a lot when I’m muddled with indecision – most often confronted with an opportunity to treat myself, indulge in something ‘naughty’, let go a little but I feel too guilty.  Then I hear it in my head – why not?  And my excuses are usually pretty lame.  This is a great way of eliminating the fears, the worries, the what-ifs that accompany my impatience to complete a project and embracing the ‘live a little’ attitude Italians demonstrate so well.

Over time I have learned that taking a break and spending time ‘idle’ can actually yield huge benefits.  It makes me more productive when I return to work, more focused and able to prioritise, and more present to all those and all things around me.  It makes me more human, less self-centered and simply healthier.  This is also why I meditate.

I’m not the only one who has caught on to this marvel.  Just this week an article in the Evening Standard magazine highlighted changes happening in the workplace to allow people more freedom with their work schedules in an effort to prevent ‘workaholics’ and increase motivation.  New legislation around this could mean more flexible work hours, nap rooms in office buildings and company pets in the future.

Some people have no issues with ‘not doing’.  And they may take it too far to the opposite extreme.  As with anything, it’s all about balance.  There is time to rest and time to work and both feed off each other.  But definitely take time to rest.  Ideally away from a screen.  And look around.  Notice the man who plays accordion by the train station every day on your commute and thank him; hold doors open and give your seat up because you notice people around you.  Be part of the world, not just your world.

So in case you ignored the first invitation, summer and I (and Italy too) would like to invite you again to let your hair down a little.  Run around a bit.  Eat some gelato (there’s a fantastic place in Richmond if you want to stay local Londoners – even with dairy free varieties 🙂 Do ‘nothing’ for at least 30 minutes every day and stop checking your iphone so darn much.

If you can’t get to Italy or are minding your carbon footprint, then do rent a film on Italy (or some other glorious and warm location).  It might be just what you need to finally convince yourself you need a break, that a break will yield good things and that life is simply too short to keep fixating on work that could get done, problems that could get solved, money that could be made.

Meditation plays a big role in my life and when summer weather comes, I take my meditation outdoors by taking meditation walks, pottering in a garden, staring at a body of water, shelling broad beans in the kitchen, etc.  There are so many ways to meditate that don’t require sitting still (see more inspiration below).  Can you think of your way?

Ways I slowed down, treated myself and enjoyed summer in June:

  • Row row row your boat – Moving flat a lot in one city can be a big nuisance, but it also means discovering more, exploring more and getting to know all of London’s little nooks and crannies more intimately.  Since moving out towards Richmond nearly a year ago, I have been determined to get myself out on a row boat for a paddle down the Thames.  And in June I finally did. What did it feel like?  Being hugged my nature and sunshine – idling time away in the most pleasant way possible.  A synonym for ‘idle’ is to ‘rest on one’s oars’ so if you need an activity to help you slow down and take in summer, get yourself to Richmond ‘beach’ for a bit of paddling (beware potential blisters and summer breezes offering your hat to the swans).
  • Got snapping – photography has always been a hobby of mine.  I was inspired my my father who always had a camera in hand, always lagged behind us on walks in Maine to capture scenery through a lens.  My first camera was a yellow Kodak kids camera and then I eventually graduated to a high-tech Canon SLR and assorted appariti; I started using a Polaroid and then even a twin-lens reflex camera before transitioning to digital. Nowadays my photography is mostly limited to the trillion shots I take and store on my iphone, but nonetheless, it still delivers the kind of satisfaction I crave from ‘taking pictures’: capturing beauty I see to revisit again later, looking for beauty, colour and light all around me and then curating my creations.  It’s my favourite ‘do nothing’ activity that results in something. This June I wanted to fully return to my photography hobby so enrolled in yet another beautiful e-course by Susannah Conway called Photo Meditations– you’ll see some photos in this post (from my short trip to Italy).
  • Made some kitchen creations  – I’m always rolling up my sleeves and making a mess in the kitchen in one way or another.  This month, inspired by London-based raw chocolatiere Amy Levin and her many free and friendly resources, I got back into making raw chocolate at home for two reasons: 1) to cut down on the cost of buying raw chocolate and 2) to make the EXACT texture, shape and size of chocolate I want.  Raw chocolate is highly nutritious, has the perfect bitter/sweet balance and because of its potency, should be moderated.  Raw chocolate has helped me cut down on store bought chocolate (sugar) consumption and save it for a special post-meal treat. There are 3 simple ingredients for a base: raw cacao butter, raw cacao powder and a non-refined sweetener like coconut palm sugar.  For more info on raw chocolate, how to make it, and it’s benefits, visit her website Oosha.
  • Had a cuppa  – a World Cuppa that is.  Now I am NOT a spectator sport fan (see note above re: upbringing by photographer/musician father who was not into sport).  BUT, since moving to Europe 10 years ago, I have made it a point to try new things, to get involved in the local culture and see what happens when you embrace the things you want to resist the most.  I have fond memories of the first World Cup I experienced in London – I was studying with an internationally diverse group of students at the LSE and countries playing against each other took on real significance and meaning. There was so much lively, communal energy in the streets.  So now with a boyfriend who is a major football fanatic, I have surrendered again to the charm of a good old cuppa football.  Best brew yet was the U.S. vs. Belgium game – not only did it keep me on the edge of my sofa, it also had me tearing up at the display of good sportmanship, camaraderie and pure passion often unseen in England matches.  As I type this I am also half-watching the Wimbledon Men’s Final – when in Rome…:)

Take A Break 2

I am an Autumn

November 11, 2013

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Two years ago a close friend of mine told me about a friend of hers Annie whose profession is to help women define their style so they know the best clothes to wear to suit their personality, shape and lifestyle.  If there was one area of my life where I was feeling I could use some help, it was in the fashion department.  So I was very excited I could hire a professional for some guidance in order to de-clutter my wardrobe.  What I never could have anticipated was how taking this step would dramatically shift my perspective on buying and wearing clothes in the most spectacular way.

I had no problem finding clothes that I adored (and a good eye for high quality and tasteful design I liked to think), but my issue with fashion was that I was spending significant amounts of money on random articles of beautiful clothing from favourite British chains like Jigsaw, TOAST, and Whistles, and then watching them sit in my wardrobe collecting dust and making nice homes for a substantial moth population.  In other words, I was amassing a nice clothing art collection that hardly ever got to be exhibited.

I was also getting stressed about getting dressed! For most women I know preparing what to wear and primping are the key activities of a typical morning routine, but I was continuously saving it to the very last minute.  I would do the things I felt confident about first (let’s call this my inner beauty routine): a gentle yoga and meditation practice, sipping hot water and lemon, preparing a warm meal to take to work, exfoliating in the shower and moisturizing and then whoops! – 10 minutes to go for make-up and outfit choice – eek!  I would rush upstairs only to stand frozen in front of hangers adorned with pretty fabrics and textiles fretting about which direction to take my outfit in only to end up pulling out the same pair of jeans I wore yesterday and a baggy jumper that left my entire silhouette to the imagination.

No matter how much time I had spent making sure I felt good from the inside out, the lack of icing on the cake was putting it all to waste.  Luckily, I have pretty low-maintenance wash-and-go hair and a very simple make-up routine, but a poorly thought-out outfit for the day and lack of coordination do not make a confident woman, no matter what else you’ve got going on.

As a yoga teacher and health coach, I am pretty creative when it comes to finding solutions for all sorts of psychological, physiological, and nutritional health dilemmas, but for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t wearing most of my clothes.  At first, I put it down to being a body image issue (not as trim as I was when I bought the item or something to that effect), but I hadn’t outgrown these clothes nor, after years of studying health and the human body (and finally entering into my don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think thirties), was I hung up on having the perfect figure and a flat stomach anymore.  HOWEVER, deep down I knew that I still wanted to look good.  If not for others, for myself.  And I knew that the right clothing (in terms of fit and style) can make a huge difference to how you feel.

To me, a woman who puts effort into her appearance is showing the world a clear sign of self-respect and saying: I am friendly, approachable and part of this world.  As someone who loves her job teaching yoga and health coaching, loves life and loves getting to know people, I wanted to make sure I was coming across that way – lively and loving – even when on a boring, lifeless commute to work on public transport.  But choosing an outfit was taking up a lot of time and energy and making me feel unhappy and regretful about my purchases.  Did getting dressed have to be so stressful?  Wasn’t it supposed to be fun?  

Stress, Unhappiness, and Regret are three things I have worked very hard to get out of my life, which meant cleaning out my closet once and for all!  So I picked up the phone to call Annie and the conversation went like this :

AnnieHello?

Me: Oh hi, is that Annie?

Annie: Yes it is.  

Me: Hi! My friend referred me to you as someone who can help me sort out my wardrobe (and then I started babbling…)...every morning  I wake up dreading the moment I have to choose what to wear and am pretty sure that more than 50% of my wardrobe never gets touched.  I want to love my clothes and love getting dressed, but at the moment it’s my least favourite time of the day (and a rushed one at that).  Could I sign up for a consultation with you to sort that out?  I just want someone to come to my place and tell me what to keep and what to get rid of and help me feel more confident about my choices.  This is one area of my life where I am really helpless! Can you help?

Annie replied with a friendly tone of complete confidence and competence:  Yes I can help you.  BUT, she insisted, first we need to ‘do your colours.’  

MeMy what?

AnnieYour colours.  Everyone has certain colours they should and shouldn’t wear that pertain to a colour wheel broken down by season.  You’d be surprised that the majority of what you own is probably the wrong colour for you.

I politely declined the offer:  Oh no that’s okay – I know which colours look good on me and which ones are my favourites and I really just need help with style more than anything – things that will suit my figure, sorting out how to get the most out of clothes for my different jobs, activities and making it all work…(babble babble)

But Annie wouldn’t go any further: Kate, we need to know what colours suit you first before we can do anything else.  It’s the most important thing.

This is not what I had bargained for.  Growing up, I remember that a friend of mine’s mother had her make-up done and was defined as ‘a Spring.’  She told me I was ‘a Spring’ too and would suit her lipstick shade.  I liked the idea of being a Spring (I was born in April after all) and started buying lots of pastels  and floral prints but soon forgot about the colour concept and simply went along with any colour or style trend to blend in with everyone else, keeping it simple and preppy (and often baggy and comfortable).  As far as colours were concerned, I chose muted tones or hues that appealed to my mood, but most of my wardobe was navy, blue or black.  And ‘being’ a season was just an eighties trend that no longer had relevance.

Were navy, blue and black accurate reflections of how I was feeling?  What happened to the little girl in me proud of her pastel birthday colours?  I hadn’t really thought about it until Annie mentioned colours and then recalled that wearing certain shades of green always got me the most attention and that everyone always stopped to complement me when I was wearing my red coat.  So I was beginning to think that Annie had a point…had I become colour-blind?

Despite my initial resistance, it didn’t take long for Annie to convince me of the necessity of a colour session.  I may not have become colour blind but my colour consciousness had certainly faded.  She had me intrigued when she mentioned that wearing the wrong colours can actually make you look older, tired and generally clash with your complexion and your spirit.  So, embracing ‘beginner’s mind,’  I set out to learn my colours from scratch and could never have imagined how life-altering (not just wardrobe-altering) the experience would be.

First of all, upon meeting Annie, you discover she is a canvas of colour herself.  She has a rainbow-like aura and now I know it’s because she’s got her colours right.  You see, as city dwellers whose main objective is to blend in with our drab scenery, Londoners tend to wear a whole lot of grey and black.   The next time you stand on a train platform in London, take a look around and you will find yourself in a sea of depressing colours – none that lift your spirit, none that stand out, hardly any that suit those wearing them.  I recall it being the same in New York City.

But Annie is not shy about wearing an array of uplifting colours and because of this, she looks damn good.  The confidence and radiance she exuded when I first met her already had me convinced I would be getting my money’s worth.  Now, you’ve probably got a picture in your head that resembles Rainbow Brite or a shiny, baubly Christmas tree.  But this is exactly where our concept of wearing colours goes wrong.  We forget colours that lie between the bold primary colours, the many shades of blue, green, orange, the predominantly yellow versus blue-based colours and the endless choices we have when looking beyond grey and black.  We don’t realise that when you put the right colours together, there is nothing gaudy or flashy or intimidating about them.  When you find the colours that suit you and each other best, everything blends beautifully and people will notice your inner radiance and spirit more, not necessarily what you are wearing.

A colour session with Annie lasts up to three hours and involves being draped in different coloured scarves with enough daylight for Annie to be able to discern the colours that make your eyes pop, make your complexion glow and most surprising of all, make you FEEL better!

I won’t lie – it wasn’t instantly obvious to me.  I found myself squinting to see shadows that Annie immediately proclaimed blue-based colours brought out on my face.  I initially shunned colours like caramel that I would never choose for myself.  But as the session progressed, so did my understanding of how colours can work for or against us.  As Annie explained, all colours are mixed with blue and yellow – the amount of blue or yellow will make them warmer (more yellow) and thus softer or colder (more blue).  The same is true of our skin so we must find colours with the right tones for our skin otherwise there is disharmony.  It’s an intellectual process at first but over times it becomes instinctive and delightfully artistic.

Certain scarves immediately felt like home around my neck, made something deep inside me glow outwards.  And this was all without make-up.  The amazing thing is that when you wear colours that are suited to your complexion, you need less colour on your face!  Not only did I feel enlightened but I felt lighter and happier because the process, while long, is tremendously fun and uplifting.  The delight of playing with a box of crayons as a child suddenly brought to the present moment with my wardrobe as my construction paper!  I felt like a kid again!

My consultation with Annie proved that Peacock Blue (my new favourite colour), Golden Orange, Pistachio Green and Chocolate Brown are my wonder colours.  They all belong to the Autumn palette, and thus I am ‘an Autumn.’

What does that mean?  Well, it means I must avoid wearing black or white (but I can wear cream white and certain very dark greens) and that Autumn is my best time of year to shop (because that’s when most Autumn colours appear in stores).  At first, I found this potentially very limiting and a little upsetting.  Most of my wardrobe was not the right colour and I was worried shopping would become even more challenging.  NOT TRUE – I was pleasantly surprised to discover just the opposite.  The more I wore the clothes in my wardrobe that belonged to the Autumn palette, the better I started to feel.  And the Autumn palette has colours that don’t scream AUTUMN so there are shades to wear year-round.

Annie gave me a little leather booklet with colour fabric swatches to carry with me when I shop.  She explained that as long as the colours are of the Autumn variety, they can be mixed together – so rusty orange with brown is great (but not rusty orange with black!) and peacock blue with pistachio green is wondrous but join those up with sterile white pants and you’ve taken warm and mixed it with cold – no good.  My shopping became more targeted and intelligent.  It became more personal.  I had newfound confidence to select items I knew would make me shine and shun items that might look amazing on ‘a Spring’ but better off as a piece of art in my wardrobe.

Like Annie said, it took me years to get my wardrobe wrong, so it will take a few more to get it right.   Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Nevertheless, I did a massive and dramatic clean-out of my wardrobe – ruthlessly getting rid of anything that wasn’t an Autumn colour or didn’t fit my style archetype (determined in a later session).  I saved one small box of clothes that didn’t apply to the new rules as a security blanket (I didn’t have the funds to start completely from scratch) but have since found more suitable replacements in sales over time.  Now I open my wardrobe doors and just look at the beauty of a collection of clothes whose colours are so harmonious they nearly leap off the hangers ready to be mixed and matched and worn together!

Since my consultation, I have introduced others to the process, including my mother.  Not everyone has embraced Annie’s advice as quickly as I did because sometimes old habits die hard.  My mom still insists on needing black items, but she’s just bought an orange winter coat that is perfect for her (she’s an Autumn too!) and is loving how she feels in it.  Likewise, a friend of mine who works in finance did a colours session to discover she’s a Spring and suits a lovely shade of pink.  She still struggles to stand out in an office of grey suits but has certainly brought more colours into her wardrobe following the session and has become more aware of her tendency to want to blend in.  Sometimes it takes baby steps, but I went for it 100% and all I can say is I don’t miss my old clothes (or the way I felt) a bit!

Habits and societal pressures put aside, it’s my feeling that the earlier we are educated about our colours (like the earlier we are educated about nutrition), the less we’ll have to suffer in life from doing things that don’t suit our unique body types or natural constitutions.  Because like with yoga and food, when it comes to fashion, there is NO ONE WAY.

The best thing of ALL?  Discovering my colours shifted the focus off of changing something about my body or my look and on to keeping things as they are but complementing them better.  Annie says that’s how it should work with make-up too.  It’s not about covering up or transforming, but rather emphasizing the beauty that is already there.  And honouring your unique features and personality.  Beyond colours, you can learn about your style archetypes with Annie (mine is Princess/Adventurer), which empowers you even more to wear outfits that are uniquely you and blend with your lifestyle so you feel completely at home in your clothes.  Selecting shapes and styles that are harmonious with your look is the next step after colours, empowering you even more to be a discerning shopper.   I never knew how much I loved a ‘princess shaped’ skirt and ballet flats until I put them on and started skipping!  But likewise, throw a pair of rugged boots on me with skinny jeans and I feel my sexiest.

Here is a list of some of the BEST things about finding your colours:

  • You will SAVE money on your clothes (although you might end up spending more during ‘your’ season when those colours abound)
  • You won’t be seduced by sale items (you’ll be more targeted about your spending when you find jewels that fit your palette)
  • You will GLOW when you wear your right colours (and people will comment)
  • You will discover colours you never knew existed (and bond with colours in a new way)
  • Your wardrobe becomes a work of art rather than a collection of art  (if you have all the colours of one season together, it looks amazing!)
  • You will know more than the shop assistants!  (I can’t tell you how many have now seen my colour booklet and had to know what it was!)
  • You will feel more beautiful and confident (even without make-up on – Annie says you only need a good lipstick and the right colours)
  • You will de-clutter your wardrobe and own less clothing to organize (by far the best outcome for me – especially when I moved house)
  • You won’t miss black if you have to get rid of it (it actually makes me feel depressed to wear black and grey now)
  • You can swap clothes with a friend more easily once you realise things don’t suit you (especially if you are different seasons – jackpot!)

The one down-side for me?  I struggle to find yoga clothing that isn’t black and neon colours but there are some brands out there rocking the natural tones.

Learning one’s colours is really a science and it takes practice and guidance from someone skilled and motivational like Annie.  I highly recommend a colour and style consultation with her to bring not only more colour but more happiness and joy into your life.  Red Leopard is located in Battersea.

As it’s November, I’m off now to go roll in a pile of Autumn leaves so I can bathe in my colours – ha – colour therapy!  I once passed a shop window with Annie that had a peacock blue couch. You should drape yourself over that thing! she laughed.  But she was right – I would feel right at home!  Just like I do in all my clothes now.  Phew!  Problem solved.

Kate-1.. 4

Finding Space

July 28, 2013

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If there is one thing that packing up my belongings to either travel or move highlights, it’s the simple fact that I have too much stuff.  Full stop.  No excuses.  Big, red arrow pointing at an issue that continues to make moving an ordeal, distract me from my greater goals, dare say gives me heart palpitations when I think of too many things compiled into one small space.  I acquire faster than I can consume.  I accumulate quicker than I can assimilate.  I don’t need all of the possessions around me so in return I feel claustrophobic.

There is only one way out of it and towards a simple and spacious life… and that’s to de-clutter.

My close friends would say that ‘de-clutter’ is my favourite verb.  I would say it’s pretty high up there with ‘organise.’ Hey Kate, what did you get up to this weekend?  Well, I did a bit of organising.  Why? Didn’t you just do that last weekend? I try to do it every weekend actually; I have to de-clutter.  But what could you possibly be de-cluttering?  You just gave me half your wardrobe last week! I know; it makes me sick; there’s more…

And it boils down to this.  Once you accumulate stuff (whether by purchasing, printing, borrowing, finding, receiving, etc.), you have to put it somewhere.  If you’re the kind of person who likes to put things in boxes, then you’ll want to organise these belongings, rather than pile them in a heap.  Once you attempt to organise them, you’ll soon discover that you don’t actually have enough space to organise effectively (when you re-shuffle clutter in your kitchen drawers in a fashion that looks tidy but isn’t logically ordered, that is not effective organisation).  You’ll then want to get rid of some stuff.  So you’ll de-clutter (this can be a drastic purging or gentle tidying), clearing up space and creating a sense of an opening for something new.  And if you don’t pay attention, you’ll end up at the shops looking for that something new and start the vicious cycle all over again.

And so it goes for the person who has established a want for more space in her life and her mind, who has realised that repetitive de-cluttering is a waste of energy and possessions a burden, but still hasn’t developed a full proof way to live a simple life in an ever-changing urban landscape of consumption.

BUT – Hallellujah!  I am finally seeing the light!   I’ve discovered that, in simplifying your life by simplifying your surroundings  (and keeping it that way), these two things are imperative :

  1. Set yourself a possessions limit (and then apply the rule of one thing in, one thing out) – accept that most of us in the Western world have more stuff than anyone should own
  2. Adopt a De-clutter Mantra (a statement or slogan repeated – perhaps silently –  frequently) that you stick to like glue at times when either packing or moving or shopping to meet your goal

Moving out of my cottage in London (without knowing where my next home would be), I had many challenges in deciding: 1) What to give to away to charity or friends, 2) What to box up for storage and 3) What to take with me in a few suitcases to survive at least two months living in limbo.  While selling online or ‘free-cycling’ were also possibilities, I eliminated them in light of a time constraint.

The yogini in me said, no problem!  You’re happiest on your mat in a clean yoga studio – maybe you’ll want a candle or a little incense though, to set the mood.  The teacher and good student in me said, whoa, wait, you’re gonna need your resources – yup, all those books just in case you have to reference.  The driven, Pitta-type, Arian, in me said, you need a system to organise your entire life in the way that will most help you reach your goals – be ruthless about what you keep and what you dismiss.  The nostalgic in me said, but if you get rid of that photo/ticket stub/dried flower, you might forget that time you had the best day of your life in London!  What was the problem?  There were too many cooks in the kitchen of my mind so I kept re-visting my De-clutter Mantra:

If you close one door, another one opens

There has always been a certain amount of fear when it comes to getting rid of things from the past that I felt helped shape my identity, such as old school papers.

I first moved to London to complete a Master’s degree.  Ironically, the research for my dissertation topic looked at the ways itinerant people document their lives via traditional versus new media.  At the time, most of my subjects were just getting used to their new digital cameras and not yet on Facebook – a good portion of their lives was not saved digitally, but rather tangibly.  The only thing I had converted to digital files at that point was my music collection on my ipod the size of a brick.

As much as researching for and writing that dissertation nearly killed me, the experience was a meaningful one.  Through a lot of stress and tears, I managed to write a book-length paper.  It was no small feat for a girl who thinks big and complicated.  It was my first real lesson in keeping things simple to move ahead and I struggled.  I must have drafted the document over 20 times. I saved every edited draft, every scribbled upon resource, every tangible trace of the hard work I did to get there.  But why?

They say it’s about the journey, not the destination and that we should learn to live in the present moment.   This is true and I have learned that once we reach a certain stage of completion or satisfaction, we should look back for a moment, acknowledge the steps it took to get us where we are, breathe in a moment of gratitude for the present, and then look straight ahead.  That way we say goodbye to the past as a necessary means to create new possibilities.

The next few years in London after handing in my dissertation, I got a job and started training to become a yoga teacher; more books and notes were acquired, more binders purchased.  In retrospect, it would have made sense to replace the binder contents of my old Master’s notes with the new ones.    Why?  Because who we are today encompasses all that came before – that’s something so profound, no external object could hold that responsibility.  Thus, letting go of the physical objects does not mean you are letting go of part of you – the change within has rendered that object obsolete.

Now, for others, packing could be stressful for different reasons – a lot of people are naturally far less nostalgic than others.  I discovered this when talking to my best friend who’s also in the process of moving into a new apartment in New York City. For her, the greatest packing annoyance is the physicality of it all – it’s exhausting and takes time.  But her problem points at the same solution – try not to have too much stuff.

The more stuff you have, the more stuff that wil be neglected and unused.  Think about your bathroom cabinet – go have a look – what has expired because you forgot you had it?  What books have gone unread because you’ve bought too many?  What clothes are unworn because they are blocked by other clothes in the back of your wardrobe?

Now that I’m living out of a few suitcases, I am finding ways to make the most of what I have  – only acquiring if absolutely necessary and celebrating multi-purpose items (coconut oil has become a moisturizer, hair mask, deoderant, butter for toast).  I am also using this time to pave the way to a de-cluttered future.  I don’t want the cycle to start over, so I am recording all of my observations to use (and share) as a guide later.

The first step was to identify the need to de-clutter in a more permanent fashion and answering – how was clutter negatively affecting me?  Then I established the craving for space (if I meditate to clear my mind and it works wonders, what could the same do for my living space?). The process continues one step at a time (we can’t change patterns overnight) and you’ll be surprised by what you learn about yourself.

If you also crave more space, what’s your biggest de-cluttering gripe/fear? What could become your mantra?  How can you start to arrange your life to promote spaciousness, peace of mind and simplicity?  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Happy 25th Anniversary River Café

September 11, 2012

Last week, when the sun shone consistently in London and temperatures were warm, was the perfect River Café week.  I know this not so much from being a frequent daytime diner at this famous London restaurant, but because for the past three years I have had the pleasure (and sometimes the jealous pain) to work in an office just above this riverside establishment, which serves the best of simple and traditional Italian cuisine.  My window overlooks the idyllic setting on the north bank of the Thames with a view onto the signature blue chairs and white awnings that protect ladies who lunch and their gelato from the rare but surprisingly strong sun.

Around 11AM during the summer months, the aromas of freshly baked bread from their wood-burning oven, grilled fish, and cooked vegetables and herbs from the garden waft through my window inducing a lunchtime appetite often far too close to breakfast and far too mighty for the minimal caloric requirements of my stationary desk job.  From my vantage point, I can intermittently look upon diners without them knowing, living vicariously through their primi and secondi dishes, their sometimes numerous bottles of wine, and divine dolce.  I can absorb the sounds of forks and knives tapping ceramic dishes and clinking wine glasses that conjure up memories of my summers living in Italy so palpable I can almost taste the olive oil.

Because part of my desk job is entertaining clients, I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of experiencing many delicious 2 or 3-course lunches there myself, none of which have ever failed to satisfy my hunger, delight my tastebuds or provide a feast of colour to my eyes.  Yes, I’m that girl covertly taking photos of her food with her i-phone just like I took photos of my Easter basket when I was little to preserve the beauty of what would soon be devoured graciously in front of me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such consistent satisfaction from one place, such incredible hospitality and flawless service, such authenticity and humbleness where, because of the celebrity clientele and attention of the press, there could instead be a massive ego.  I have no doubt that this is because the River Café, originally the canteen for the neighbouring architectural firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), was dreamed up by two women with a sincere love of functionality, food and Italy: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.  While Rose sadly passed away recently due to cancer, Ruth still owns the restaurant and can be seen throughout the day dressed in her white chef’s outfit, checking on her staff and guests, maintaining a presence not dissimilar to an Italian mamma who never wanders far from her kitchen.

On the wall next to the bar, there is a framed black and white photo of Ruth and Rose sat at what one can only assume is a table outside some sunny Italian trattoria or ristorante, perfectly content in their sundresses and at home in one another’s company.  There is something really special about that photo to me.  It manages to tell me a lot about two women I hardly know, their friendship, and the heart and soul behind the menu.  It also reminds me very much of photographs taken of my dear friend Tamara and me on several holidays to visit what we affectionately refer to Italy as: The Mothership.

I met Tamara roughly 8 years ago before moving to London from New York City.  She, like me, was partaking in a summer programme in Urbino (the Marche region of Italy) in an effort to soak up all things sunny and Italian before the summer ended.  When it came time to introduce ourselves to the rest of our advanced level Italian class, we chuckled when our bios seemed to mirror one anothers’ perfectly – two Franco/Italio-files with undergraduate degrees in romance languages, penchants for foreign films and literature and futures in London.  I had just come from a few weeks volunteering on organic farms in Abruzzo to perfect my Italian and Tamara was on a generous summer holiday from her role at the French Institute (Cine Lumiere).  It didn’t take long before we became two peas in a pod, accompanying each other on shopping trips for fresh peaches and ricotta cheese, spending afternoons sipping campari sodas in the sun and taking small hikes up the hillside to drink prosecco and munch on crisps while watching the sunset.  High on the bliss of Italian life (and pizza), we knew we would maintain the friendship (and try to maintain the essence of Italian living) when we were back in London in September.

Tamara in Verona

Me sat opposite Tamara

Two Springs later Tamara had now become one of my closest friends and, upon my 27th birthday in April, she gifted me two small cookbooks:  The River Cafe Pocket Books: Salad & Vegetables and The River Cafe Pocket Books: Pasta & Ravioli – explaining that they were the byproducts of one of the best Italian restaurants in London and sure to provide ongoing motivation to cook the way I had learned on the farms in Abruzzo, despite the lack of fresh ingredients.  She said, ‘one day when we’ve saved up, we’ll go to the restaurant ourselves,’ but for my first five years in London I could only know River Café through its brilliantly concise recipes that Tamara and I would replicate on the occasion of the ‘Italian film nights’ we hosted at our respective Battersea residences.  I continue to reference these books today – they are the perfect kitchen companion and capture the simplicity of Italian cuisine taught to me by the Italian mammas who ran the restaurants at the agriturismi where I worked.  I recall asking nonna Mirella after every delectable dish I tasted – yum – what have you put in this?  The answer was always the same: un po’ d’olio d’olive, un po’ di sale, un po’ d’aglio e basta!  A little olive oil, a little salt and a little garlic – and there you go!  My favourite recipe in the books?  Zucchini Trifolati – courgettes with a little basil, a little mint, a little garlic, a little olive oil (okay, a lot of olive oil) and there you go!  Heaven.

In 2009 when I was looking for a new job, I received a phone call for a role at a media company situated above the River Café – have you heard of it? At the time I couldn’t register that the River Café actually existed beyond the pages of my cookbooks and I mistakenly confused it with Riverside Studios, a cinema/arthouse just down the river.  I couldn’t visualize a restaurant sharing the location of an office and assumed the recruiter accidentally modified the name.  It wasn’t until my interview in the board room that I looked out the window and realized where I was.  My interviewer saw pure delight wash over my face as I admired the view and he mentioned that it was a great restaurant where they often took guests.  Let’s just say when I had to make a decision about the job, this was on my list of pros.

Three years later and I feel I have accumulated enough dining experiences – both actual and vicarious – to truly understand what the River Café is all about.  However, I am well aware that my 3 years pales in comparison to the 25 witnessed by the creators who on Sunday celebrated the longevity of a restaurant that continues to attract a crowd of devoted clientele.  I have no doubt there were many ups and downs along the way and that the result of many years of hard work has produced something potentially very far from the original intention. The history can be felt; the fine tuning of every last detail has not gone unnoticed – it’s something that can only be achieved with time and dedication.  Whatever the plan was, it has worked for me.

I feel blessed for the many times I’ve been able to choose a starter consisting of fresh greens from the garden, unbelievable raw mozarella or grilled calamari, a main of Scottish scallops or sea bass accompanied by vegetables or beans cooked in authentic Italian fashion.  I feel honoured to have dipped many a slice of bread in olive oil as pure as gold and spoiled to have experienced the wickedly decadent chocolate nemesis on more than one occasion.  But beyond even the experience of the restaurant, I feel lucky to have worked within a little pocket of London so carefully carved by the architects who modified the space, that it has become an oasis far from the chaos of the city.  I feel lucky to have taken my lunch breaks by the garden, at a picnic table or on a piece of lawn nestled within an area of London that feels like it’s bordering Italy.  It’s a space that inspires taking deep breaths, feeling fresh air, and appreciating life.  I love everything about it, including the nifty bike park where I can nestle my bike safely throughout the day in a what looks like a happy bicycle daycare facility.  Yes, in the summer months more than any other time, the River Café and its surroundings is a space that nurtures you and inspires healthy living, just like Italy.

So it’s on the occasion of The River Café’s 25th anniversary that I want to thank Ruth and Rose and the architects (Lord Rogers) who created this Londoner’s Italian piazza just outside my window.  We share a six-year history together, but your relationship with London started far ahead of mine.  When I came into work on the Monday morning after your big day, there was a silence outside, reminiscent of the winter months when the outdoor seating hibernates until the next year (and when I am less aware of the beauty beneath me).   The celebration that took place the day before left a visible and energetic mark.  You’ve set an amazing example that will inspire me (and surely countless others) in my future endeavours.  I hope one day there will be more restaurants like this one and more spaces in London that instill a higher appreciation of local food, urban nature and community, but for now you are one of a kind.

Au Revoir Summer

September 9, 2012

Having grown up in New England, I am no stranger to the feelings that accompany the change of seasons.  Every seasonal transition from Autumn to Winter, Winter to Spring, Spring to Summer, comes with its own set of scents, textures, temperatures and tastes, all of which invoke familiar emotions and memories that will recur at these pivotal points in the year.  Springtime usually brings me a sense of a new beginning and with that a twinge of anxiety about change on the horizon.  It conjures up memories of my often Easter-themed birthday parties and wedging my tiny body through the ‘magical door’ gap in the yellow Forsythia bush in the front yard of our first home on Sunset Drive.  Winter brings both the dread of cold weather and the delight of Christmas on its way – memories of chapped skin and sledding, and racing my sister to be the one who got to unwrap ceramic Mary first for the special privilege of placing her on the mantle above our fireplace as part of the nativity scene (in no way symbolic of any religious devotion – our little creche was a happy harbinger of the holiday season and its breadth of family traditions and, besides one sad little broken angel, Mary was queen of the scene).

But it’s the transition from Summer to Autumn that I still find most abrupt and unpleasant despite my love for Fall foliage and food.  It’s particularly unwelcome in England where one is only afforded small tastes of summer at unpredictable times throughout July and August that don’t even come close to what those on the East Coast of Boston or Italy experience during the hottest months: scorching, sloth-inducing heat providing ample excuses to cool off with ice cream or gelato (or air conditioning).  No, in England, there are enough sunny patches and warm days to get you packing away your jumpers and boots in summer spirit, but before you know it, the weather forecast has shifted full-fledge into another seasonal mode – that of grayness and rain – and you’re looking for your Wellies.  Your tastebuds and tummy never fully transition to craving raw salads and cool drinks; the kettle stays active brewing potentially more herbal varieties of teas, but warm beverages abound nonetheless.  It’s like someone has served you the starter portion of a menu and then left you hanging on the main course with your mouth watering for some kind of seasonal satiation.   Nope, every year during the summer months in England, I’m left to live summer through my memory.

The sense of summer from growing up by the beach, running through the sprinkler, frequently visiting the Dairy Queen, is etched so deeply in me that no matter how long I live abroad, my body will always seek the scent of sand, the sound of wind-chimes and the touch of an evening breeze off the ocean into the humid air and onto my skin.  My heart and soul will yearn for it and this will undoubtedly set my memory into action, desperately searching through the archives of summer experiences and associations in an effort to re-live them in a distant time and place, to make them present and near.  But despite the mild changes in temperature from one season to the next and the limited opportunities to sport sun dresses and sandals in London, saying goodbye to summer is just as hard in England as it was in the U.S.

Last week I prepared myself to mourn the loss of summer.  There was a particularly gray day where the air felt far too Autumnal for my exposed toes and I was sure that summer had reached its end.  At first I tried to ignore it, even deny it.  I refused to take a scarf or jacket with me and suffered a few goosebumps as a result.  I even contemplated a spur of the moment trip back to the States to visit Crane beach for a last dose of guaranteed summer air and summer freedom – there’s no work to be done in August – take a break!  Maybe if I did that I would get my summer fix and be able to embrace the dying leaves rather than lament the end of their greener days.  But something whispered to me to stay.  Something reminded me that with every loss comes a gain.  When one thing goes, it doesn’t necessarily leave an empty place, it leaves space for something new to begin.  And something reminded me that you can’t chase the sun.  I tried that once when I was 22 and my boyfriend and I caught a glimpse of the sunset from the car and decided that if we drove fast enough we could make it to the beach to see it in full view.  When we got to the beach, it was too late and instead of staying put and enjoying the view we had had, we experienced a stressful journey and got home too late to eat the meal my mother had prepared for us (I can remember how unamused she was).  So maybe my memories were enough to get me through until next year and maybe I could focus less on letting go of summer and more on what September would have to offer.

However, for a very special person in my life, it looked like September was only going to bring a lot of pain and, because of that, August would be her last month.  This past week, my beloved Aunt Marlene (older sister to my mother) decided she had battled cancer quite enough for one lifetime and her body let go.  Ironically enough, my Aunt Marlene is one person I always associate with summer.  Perhaps it’s because we used to visit her, my Uncle Johnny, and cousins Heidi and Laurie in North Carolina, the Southern State she had chosen to migrate to in order to raise her family in the sun.  They had a pool, in which she taught me to swim without getting my hair wet and besides which she one day placed her fingertip on the tip of my nose and declared that I had undeniably inherited a ‘bum’ nose like hers (has to be felt to be understood).   When I think of my Aunt Marlene, I think of her tiny sun-tanned figure; I think of her on the golf course ready to achieve her 3rd hole-in-one; I think of her sunny smile that reached from the corners of her mouth to the arches of her eyebrows.  I think of her healthy and buoyant, sassy and silly, loving and strong.  I think of and I feel the sun.

When one lives far from family members and loved ones in situations where communication is limited, memories and meditation become essential.  I can’t remember the last time I saw my Aunt.  I don’t know how old she was or I was; I don’t recall what was said.  But the memory of who my Aunt was and how she was is etched just as strongly into me as that feeling of summer I’ll never lose.  And because of that, I can access her now as always just by closing my eyes or smelling citrus (her favourite scent) or recalling a memory of her that makes me laugh. Within a heartbeat, she is here.  On the day she passed away, I decided to take a long walk home.  As I passed over Chelsea bridge, I caught a view of the sun setting.  It turned the sky a beautiful shade of orange and pink – colours that reminded me of my Aunt – and I knew it was her saying goodbye.  I didn’t have to go chasing after this sunset.  It came to me because I slowed down and opened my heart and mind to think of her.  The day after that I looked at the weather forecast for the week.  Sun.  Everyday.  And high 70’s over the weekend.  And I thought, well shit Aunt Marlene!  That’s too much!  She was always spoiling us, especially at Christmas time when, with even more anticipation than unwrapping the nativity scene, we would eagerly await the arrival of an abundance of Aunt Marlene gifts in the post.

So in the end I don’t have to say goodbye to summer just yet nor do I have to mourn the loss of my Aunt.  Summer is still here and I can feel my Aunt around me everywhere I go.  And when the sun finally decides to pack it in, I can shift my thoughts towards Christmas-time and know that my Aunt will continue to visit me in all the memories associated with that season too.  Past, present and future are all here in one.  When one season ends another begins, and when one life ends, a new journey for the soul begins.  And I truly believe that if we can welcome these cycles and allow things to come and go, we can be at peace – nothing to grasp onto, nothing to fear losing because it’s all within us anyway.  Close your eyes.  Meditate.  Be present.  And you’ll find everything, every season and everyone you were missing.  I’ll miss you Aunt Marlene.

My Kitchen Family

August 28, 2012

The new and improved kitchen

The other day I was online chatting with my chef friend Chris about my kitchen family when it occurred to me that I have a favourite kitchen child.  I like to think about each appliance and new addition to my kitchen as part of a growing progeny of careful research and experimentation with different methods of eating and preparing food that serve me and my health needs best.  Perhaps it’s because my juicer was the first born that it holds a very special place in my heart.  Perhaps it’s because investing in a juicer (the good ones are not cheap) came at a pivotal time in my life, when I realized even more profoundly that I could take my health into my own hands.  Whatever it is, I love my juicer and no matter what trouble it may or may not give me in the future, it’s my baby.

It was roughly two Springs ago when I decided I wanted to try a juice cleanse.  A what?  A juice fast.  So you don’t drink juice?  No – you only drink juice.  Forever?  No, for a fixed period of time in order to detox.  Oh God that sounds awful – like apple juice from Sainsbury’s?  No, you make your own juice at home with lots of different vegetables and fruits and they’re really yummy, not from concentrate.  But what are you trying to detox, you’re the healthiest person I know?  And so the conversation tends to go every time I bring up this topic.  I had done some reading into the benefits of giving your digestive system a time-out by eliminating solid foods for 1-7 days and wanted to try at least 3 days of juicing to see if it would bring all those things people continuously report: improved digestion, better eyesight, reduced inflammation (bloating and puffiness), more energy, clearer mind, fresher appetite, etc.  My body was calling for it and a 3-day weekend around the Spring Equinox presented the perfect opportunity.  But how was I going to make juice without a proper juicer?

First let’s briefly look at WHY you would want to make your own juice versus drinking store-bought juice.  Firstly, you control the ingredients.  And as someone who strives to consume 90% organic produce sourced from local markets and prefers vegetables to fruit, this is a hugely attractive benefit.  Secondly, to truly reap the benefits of juicing, the juice needs to be freshly made and consumed immediately after juicing.  The juice you make at home is unpasteurized so bacteria will grow faster and the longer you leave it, the more its nutritional value will decrease (store-bought juice can contain loads of preservatives or sugar and most juices you find in the shops or on juice bar menus, consist predominantly of sweet fruits – in other words – a natural, but potentially detrimental sugar rush).  Thirdly, you’ll save money in the long run and in a city where pubs rather than juice bars grace every corner, you won’t have to venture far for a nutritional boost.

So without digressing too much onto the topic of juicing and detoxing (this will appear in a future post), let’s get back to how I chose my juicer.  In this instance, I consulted my yoga teacher and friend Linda who has accumulated a wealth of information over the years on health and well-being and who I knew had the same juicer for more than a decade.  I also consulted raw food Goddess Kate Magic  and the website of Jason Vale (a.k.a The Juice Master) and settled on a ‘masticating’ rather than ‘centrifugal’ juicer.  I was determined that my juices would be mostly green in variety and would serve first and foremost to promote a cleanse and then subsequently to create daily ‘medicines’ full of powerful, immune-boosting enzymes.  So a masticating version (literally chews up the vegetables to extract more than any zippy, centrifugal juicer can) was the way to go.  It was love at first sight when my ivory, Matstone 6-in-1 juicer arrived in my flat.  One flat move later, it still holds a special place on my counter (bench) as my very handy medicine maker whenever I need it.  Even though she often hibernates in the winter months when my body calls for warming, cooked foods, she’s unveiled again in the Spring for a very active few months.

My Matstone 6-in-1 making her first green juice!

About one Spring ago, I moved into a new flat in London.  I was heartbroken to leave my humble abode on the 3rd floor of a cozy block of flats in Battersea – a flat that not only witnessed my first juices, but also the first Thanksgiving I ever hosted (lovingly and comically re-branded Kates-giving by guests).  To soften the blow, I decided it was time to cough up a bit more on rent and moved into a 2-story cottage within the vicinity that had a kitchen about 5 times the size of my previous one and a garden about 10 times the size of my previous balcony where I grew a few humble herbs.  Now I could really go to town.

A new, bright, big kitchen meant I would inevitably use the space to host cooking workshops with guest chefs like Chris and eventually on my own – there were no excuses now.  It also meant I could really guilt my flatmate into learning how to cook.  I slowly built up a collection of standard kitchen necessities such as stainless steel pots and pans, various sizes of strainers and colanders, pyrex storage containers, proper cutting boards and knives, casserole dishes, glass jugs, mortar and pestle, scale, etc.  Finally a kitchen that didn’t come with a microwave – hallelujah!  But there was something missing.  While I had a reputable blender that was working perfectly fine, I had not yet invested in a food processor and I knew there was a machine out there that could fulfill both duties faster and better than anything else on the market…the Vitamix.  What’s that – does it make vitamins?  Well, kind of, but no, it’s like the Mercedes of blenders – I think it can blend gold if you want it to.  Wow – what do you use it for?  All sorts of things: salad dressings, juices, smoothies, soups, nut milks…It’s an all-in-one.  Nut milk?  Yeah – you can make milk out of soaked nuts.  Weird.  Was it expensive?  Yes. And so the conversation usually goes.  I knew Chris relied on a Vitamix to whip up his truly tasty dressings, nut milk-based smoothies and creamy soups and so we agreed I would purchase one upon his arrival in London.  As luck would have it, Whole Foods was having a sale.  I present you with a photo of its christening (we made chilled organic coffee smoothies with nut milk).  It’s now my second favourite kitchen baby.

‘CHRIStening’ the Vitamix

What I like about both of these kitchen appliances is that they were born organically from a need or growing interest at just the moment when I was ready to welcome them into my life.  Oftentimes we buy things because they sound good or promise results that we are drawn to, without actually thinking about how much time we have to devote to using them, practicing different recipes and establishing the role they will play in our overall kitchen family.  Remember that treadmill that sat in your basement for years that you used maybe 5 times?  It’s like that.  I feel lucky with these two.  They complement one another and each fulfill a unique, primary role – the juicer makes the medicine shots and the Vitamix is the overall time and money saver on items I consume in bulk (home-made nut milks cost a fraction of what they would in the shops and smoothies and soups are whipped up in no time before heading off to work in the morning).  They haven’t replaced my stockpot, slow-cooker, or steamers; nor have they replaced conventional and less effective forms of juicing and mixing – I still enjoy my hand-held lemon juicer and pouring blended milks and juices through a cloth bag to eliminate pulp.  There’s always a more primitive and meditative route if you have the time.  I reckon the next item down the line is a dehydrator, but I’m not ready yet.  I want to give each kid the attention it deserves before I divide my time further and I still haven’t made my own nut butters yet with the juicer – yup, it does that too.

Iced nut-milk coffee frappes

In later posts, I’ll blog about my favourite uses for each item and other healthy kitchen essentials in further detail, but for now I encourage you to think about how your kitchen and your kitchen family serves you and your health.  Do you have clear counter space as your canvas?  Do you have a wonderfully working oven that gets neglected?  A stove-top giving you sad eyes from neglect?  What about a coffee grinder that wants to have a go at some seeds but you’ve forgotten about it?  Is the lack of a blender preventing you from making healthy smoothies or making you spend too much on smoothies from Joe and the Juice?  Is a microwave promoting the continual, lazy purchase of salt-laden ready-meals and making your cookbooks collect dust (let’s not mention the fact it kills food)?

Don’t forget – a kitchen can be a playground.  It can also be a laboratory for your health.  And your kitchen tools and appliances can be like family if they work for you.  They’ll be burdens if they don’t.  As times goes by, my medicine cabinet becomes more and more bare while my kitchen gets fuller and fuller.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Invest in your kitchen family and you invest in your health and happiness.  If you’re unsure what you need next, think about attending a cooking workshop or find a style of cooking that resonates with you and see if they have a list of suggestions for appliances.  What does your kitchen family look like? How might it grow?

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