Thursday, 29 March 2012

A letter to a VIP

I have felt absolutely helpless to do anything about my painful and unfair £500 benefit overpayment. So I have written the following letter. Now I just need to work out who might be the best person/people to send it to. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

 Dear ………………

I’d like to tell you my story.

I was always at the top of my class at school. I left secondary school with 9 GCSEs, (which was the maximum number I was able to do) 8 of which were A*s and As. I had wanted to do an extra GCSE during my lunch breaks and after school, but hadn’t been allowed because the teachers didn’t have enough time to help me. I did 5 A levels: maths, physics, English language, art and general studies, and received 3 As, a C and a D. I got a distinction in my foundation year in art and design, and a 2:1 in my Graphic Design degree at U.W.E. Bristol. I was then awarded the Graduate Placement Scheme as a high achiever, and received more training and a work placement.

As it turned out, Graphic Design was not for me. My passion and skill has always been for more hands-on activities and so, a couple of years after leaving university, I started my own business designing, making and selling clothing, hats, bags and other wearable items. It grew slowly, mostly selling to friends to begin with, then at a few festivals and craft stalls; eventually I was making enough sales to take the plunge and leave my job to concentrate on the business. A daunting choice but as you can probably understand by now I am by no means lazy or stupid, and when I want to do something very little will put me off.

I quickly discovered that a self employed life is very different to one in employment. Work, and therefore money, tends to come in bursts, which is difficult to contend with when you've relied so far on a steady income.

I looked for advice starting my business but found very little. Business Link were recommended to me, but after a meeting with one of their advisers, I was basically shown how to make a cash-flow chart but given no more help than this. I was told, flat out, that there was no financial assistance to be had, short of a business loan. My accountant warned me off trying to get a loan, saying it was near to impossible in the current financial climate.

I had always avoided benefits. I wanted to be proud of supporting myself and didn't want to be a leech on people who worked hard for their cash. But after searching for financial help that wasn’t there, benefits seemed to be the only way forwards.

I chose to apply for working tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit. I found the actual application process relatively easy, though long winded. What was less easy, however, was understanding exactly what I was being given and by what method they had decided upon the amount I was entitled to. A successful applicant is sent a number of baffling letters from different offices quoting figures that appear to have been pulled from nowhere. It seemed I was receiving a new letter with a new set of figures every couple of days initially, and deciphering exactly what benefit I was being given; when; and how, was not easy. In the end I worked this out for myself just by checking my bank account.

The problem with this kind of bureaucracy is that it’s written by people who understand all the facts and figures, for people who haven’t got the first clue what it all means. There is no translation between the two languages. The result is intimidating!

Which is why I believe I have ended up in the situation I find myself in now: apparently owing the government over £500 in ‘overpayment’ even though I have proof that I earned little more than £8000 in total over the last two years.

The situation unfurled as follows: I applied for benefits in early summer last year. My accountant filed my first tax return in January of this year. I was then contacted by the tax credits office saying I was entitled to more money than they had been giving me as I had earned less than the estimate on their books. This was entirely automatic and I had no idea it was going to happen. A sum of money was put into my bank account, back-dating the underpayment of my tax credits over the previous year.

A month or so later I was then contacted separately by the council tax and housing benefits office, telling me that because I was earning more tax credits now, I was no longer entitled to council tax or housing benefit. Not only that, but I now owed them almost £500 in overpayment. I phoned to say this must be wrong and asked what I could do to prove I hadn’t earned as much as they were estimating. I was asked to provide accounts for the last year, which I did. But when the new entitlement form came through, it still said I owed them £500. I phoned to check again, and was eventually put through to someone in the head office who actually knew what was going on. I was told that yes, this was right and there was absolutely nothing I could do. It was just the way the system worked.

Even though I can prove I earned next to nothing during the last two years, I have been told that because I didn't tell them I was earning less than the figure they had on their system, I cannot get out of paying them back this money. The fact that I didn't know exactly when my situation changed because I am in the first two years of running my own business and the numbers change from month to month makes no difference. The fact that I have physical proof of my actual earning makes no difference. The fact that I didn’t know I was going to receive the back payment from the tax credits office makes no difference. And the fact that they chose to use the figure for my increased tax credits, while ignoring the reason I was being given the extra benefits (because I had earned under £4000) makes absolutely no difference.

Now I ask: why exactly do we have the benefits system? Is it not to support low income people as they try to find their feet financially?

I believe that with the current economical situation, the government is so busy trying to make cutbacks they have bypassed the very reason for the system being there in the first place. This type of system cannot function like a business, but it seems to me this is what is taking place. The unemployment and benefits figures are an embarrassment and an inconvenience to our government, and they want us off the system so it doesn’t cost as much to run. Just a few days ago I saw on TV a headline claiming ‘Tax payers are forking out billions of pounds to fund the unemployed.’ Apparently it is important for the good tax paying citizens to be aware of the great burden they are being put under by people like me. We are (every one of us on benefits or living without a ‘proper’ job) being painted as criminals and scroungers, and treated with the same level of respect. We are given a little financial help, providing we go through a strict application process and stick rigidly to a complicated set of rules that are never actually explained in a way we can understand. If we put one foot outside of the line, we loose everything, whether we realised we were doing it or not.

I would very much like to see some change here. At the least I would like my overpayment to be re-evaluated. Further than that, I would like to see a change in the benefits system so that people are given a simple explanation of what they are getting into at the very start, and a fair chance to play by the rules. People should be given the opportunity to prove themselves and their situation, they should not be dismissed and pushed from systems which are supposed to be in place for their support. Am I expecting too much?

How to make dieting fun!

I'm a massive fan of healthy food. It's great to know that every meal you're eating is providing your body with the stuff it needs. I quite often find myself with strange cravings for particular foods like avocados or steak... it's usually because my body's low on certain nutrients that those foods contain.

Dark leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, watercress and kale are particularly nutritious. They're full of vitamins- everything from antioxident vitamin C, to vitamin K which helps bones and brain activity; as well as iron (which is vital for women and helps keep energy levels up); copper (which your body needs in order to absorb iron); calcium (for your bones); potassium (which is needed for healthy blood, and also helps balance sodium levels); magnesium; phosphorus and manganese. Watercress is an especially low-calorie and low fat source of these vitamins and minerals.

The trouble with many of these kinds of super-healty foods, though, is that they taste like earth and don't fill you up! I honestly believe that if you're on a diet, the most important thing is to really enjoy the food you're eating. You're not going to get as much of it as usual, so when you do eat, make the most of it! Take time to find recipes you really want to try, spend money on your food (well, since you're not buying as much, you can get away with spending more on what you do buy!) Diet food shouldn't be punishment. If you're giving up the foods you love, you HAVE to replace them with other ones that are as exciting and tasty as possible, or you'll end up having a bad relationship with what you're eating and then you'll be more likely to slip.

I've been eating a lot of soups for my lunches, because I like to try a new recipe out every few days and there are endless possibilities. I wanted to make a watercress soup, but I was pretty disappointed with the result. Hmmm, healthy and tastless! Where's the fun in that?

So here is my attempt at making a more exciting watercress soup. I think it's still a work in progress, but at least it looks pretty, and the rocket adds a peppery twang to what's otherwise quite a bland and earthy flavour. Plus I'll throw in my spelt bread recipe for free!

Watercress and Rocket Soup with Homemade Spelt Bread Rolls

Makes 12 rolls
400g wholemeal bread flour
300g strong white bread flour
300g spelt flour
1 1/2 packets quick yeast
1 tblsp honey
1 tsp salt
approx 1/2 pint tepid water
1 egg, beaten
4tblsp toasted sesame seeds

1. On a clean surface, pile up the flours, salt and yeast. Make a well in the centre.
2. Mix the honey into the water and pour into the well in the flour gradually, mixing in with your fingers until all the flour is combined.
3. Keep on mixing with your fingers until you've got a dough. You want this dough to be really quite sticky, so if you need to add more water, do. Then knead the dough for approx 10mins. You'll know when it's ready because the consistency will change and it will become elastic and smooth.
4. Rub some oil around the bottom and sides of a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover with a damp tea towel and put in a warm place for about 1hour, until it's doubled in size.
5. Knock back the dough (slowly punch your hand into the middle of the dough to let the air out, and then gently knead it back into a ball again) then cut it into 12 pieces
6. Shape these into rounds (or whatever shape you want your rolls to be) and place them on lined baking trays, leaving a good 2 inches between each one. Brush with a little egg and sprinkle on a generous amount of sesame seeds.
7. Place back into the warm for a further 30mins-1 hour, until doubled in size again.
8. Put into a preheated oven at 200 C for approx 15mins. You can tell they're cooked by turning them upside down and knocking them with a finger. If they make a hollow sound, they're done.

Serves 4
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1kg potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 litre hot vegetable stock
150g watercress
50g rocket
salt and lots of black pepper
To serve:
a little low fat yoghurt
toasted pumpkin seeds/sesame seeds/saffron strands

1. Heat a little oil in a large pan and fry the onions and potatoes for approx 5 mins until softened but not coloured.
2. Add the stock and the garlic and cook for a further 20mins, until the potatoes are starting to break up.
3. Add the watercress and remove from the heat.
4. Pour the soup mixture into a blender and blend until smooth.
5. Chop the rocket up really small, like you would with herbs, and stir into the blended soup, adding some salt and a fair amount of black pepper
6. Serve with a hot toasted bread roll. Swirl a little yoghurt into the centre of the bowl and sprinkle on some seeds or maybe even some saffron strands if you're feeling flash!

Hot chocolate + raspberry liqueur = liquid strawberry cream Quality Street!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Spring comes to our garden

The weather today has been stunning. It's as warm as a summers day. I'm suffering from the after effects of 3 pints of cider and half a bottle of rose and my cure has been a day pottering in the garden.

Getting stuff to grow is hard work! Every spring for the past 5 years or so, I have planted trays of seeds, opting for the Get-Them-In-The-Ground-And-Hope-For-The-Best tecnique, and results have varied! My biggest problem is with the hundreds of hungry slugs and snails who seem to have a taste for baby plants in particular. Most of my little seedlings never get bigger than a centimetre. Then there's the soil in our garden, which is pretty heavy and does that annoying thing of sitting in clay-like clumps when it's damp, and baking solid like ceramic when it's dry.

So this year I have taken matters into my own hands and have decided to try and learn to garden! The book How To Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong has been really handy, as it's written for people like me who haven't got the first idea how to get things to stay alive, let alone grow from scratch.
It's so good to see honey bees again

It turns out, there's far more to gardening than just getting the plants in the ground. You've really got to take into account where you're planting things, because some plants will only grow in direct sunlight, some like dry soil, some like damp dark conditions, some get huge, some spread across the garden and take over everything else, some need support, some climb, some shoot straight up on their own, some last just one year, some die back and then grow again the next year... I could carry on but I won't.

I figured I'll take this one step at a time, so this year I am mainly concentrating on flowers. I love flowers. They make me feel good, and at this point, I want as much of that as possible. So I've been to the garden centre and stocked up on orange pansies, daffodils, aubritia, anemones, foxgloves and sweet peas. I also bought some marigold (calendula) seeds, which I planted today.

But actually the gardening started well over a year ago. We put a load of topsoil, grass cuttings and other bits of vegetation in a heap down the bottom of the garden where it's shady and damp. This was really just to get it all out of the way, but a nice side-effect has been that we now have a compost heap, which is very handy for growing stuff as it's basically plant food.

Following James Wong's suggestions, I dug up the veg patch a couple of months ago, broke the soil up and then spread on a layer of 'mulch' from our compost heap. Then today, before I planted my first veg of the year, I dug through it all again and mixed the mulch in. This adds nutrients to the soil, and helps stop it from doing the clay/ceramic thing. To finish I watered it with plenty of plant food.

And the first veg to go in? Maris Piper potatoes. I'm going to try and grow my own roast dinner! I've never grown potatoes before, so this will be interesting! I had to dig trenches, scatter in fertilizer (which is a delicious-sounding mixture of blood, fish and bone, and looks like grey dust), fill them to 3/4 full and then place in the seed potatoes. I'm interested to know if there's something special about seed potatoes, because to me they just looked like small potatoes that had been left in the cupboard too long and had started to grow those sprouty bits they get.

The flowers are in pots on our patio, since they all need lots of sunlight, and the patio is the only bit of our garden that's in the sun most of the day. And plus, it make the patio look pretty.

I have done everything I can think of go get my marigold seeds to grow bigger than 1cm! The pots have small pieces of polysterene in the bottom, which is another tip from James Wong. Keep hold of any polystyrene packaging you may have. Broken up into chunks, it can be put in the bottom of plant pots before you fill them with soil. It helps keep the pots light, the soil well drained, and is economical as you only need to fill the pot with as much soil as the roots of your plant require. I've also added fertilizer and sprinkled over some slug killer. I'm not a massive fan of the stuff but I'm at a bit of a loss to know what else to do.

And once all this was done, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down in the sun. Hangover? Not gone but certainly all the better for a bit of physical activity and a hearty dose of sunshine.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Comfort eating without the guilt: My Favourite Chicken Soup

After a day like today, a person's gonna reach for something... a bottle of gin maybe, or a tub of ice cream... However, I may be down but I am certainly not out, and my determination to stick to my get-less-flabby-by-bikini-season diet still overules.

And here lies the magic of comfort eating in that it really doesn't have to be bad for you. Chicken soup is the perfect thing to warm a bruised soul, especially when it's spicy and filling like this one.

This recipe is the one I've ended up at after many attempts to make the Perfect Chicken Comfort Soup, and has its roots in both oriental and good old English cuisine.

No picture, sorry (I ate it too quickly).

1/2 onion, chopped small
2 cloves garlic, still in their shells
1 medium chicken breast
1/2 lime, cut into 4 chunks
2 small handfulls dried soup mix (lentils, split peas, barley, etc)
2cm root ginger
2 lemongrass sticks, tough outer shell removed
1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced thinly (or, as I used this evening, approx 6 slices of pickled jalapeno chillies from a jar- these work really well as they're piquante and add a sharpness to the soup)
2 bayleaves
4 thin strips of lemon rind (careful to just get the yellow skin, none of the white rind which is bitter)
1/4 pack creamed coconut, chopped up small
dash soy sauce
plenty of pepper
preheat the oven at 180 C

1. First put the whole chicken breast into a small casserole dish, with the pieces of lime. Cut 4 or 5 slices into 1 of the garlic cloves and put it, whole, into the dish. Cover and place in the oven for approx 10-15mins.
2. Meanwhile fry the onion in a little oil until soft.
3. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the dish and cut into strips approx 5cm by 1cm thick. Place these in the pan with the onion and cook for 2mins, before pouring over about 2 pints boiling water.
4. Now take the garlic from the dish, remove it's skin and squash it to a pulp, then add it to the pan. Squeeze the flesh from the lime pieces and add this too. Then peel and finely chop the remaining garlic clove and add this, along with the bay leaves, lemongrass, chilli, ginger, soup mix and strips of lemon skin.
5. Bring the soup to the boil and let it simmer for approx 25mins, until the lentils are cooked but still have a bit of bite to them.
6. Pick out the bay leaves, lemongrass, ginger and lemon skin and discard before adding the coconut. Add soy sauce and pepper to taste. Cook for another 5mins to ensure all the coconut has melted, then get it down you and feel the love!
Serves 2 (or one particularly sad and hungry soul)

A WARNING to those on low income

Careful when dealing with government benefits!

I always avoided them. I wanted to be proud of supporting myself and didn't want to be a leech on people who worked hard for their cash. But when I decided to leave work and attempt to run my own business, benefits seemed to be the only way forwards.

Being self employed requires a lot of hard work and financial control. Work, and therefore money, tends to come in bursts, which is difficult to contend with when you've relied so far on a steady income. You need to be able to stay on top of what you spend and when you spend it, never going on a spending spree just because you've come into a few hundred pounds: you have to be aware that next month you might need that extra couple of hundred!

At the start, you might not make any money at all. But you've still got to eat and pay the bills, so you'll look absolutely anywhere for a few extra pennies. And there, staring you in the face, are benefits. Free money. Money that you've already paid tax towards. All you have to to is prove that you're not earning much and they put it right into your bank account. And it's organised by the government, so you must be able to trust it, right? It's purpose is to help people in this kind of situation, right?

Well, it does help a little. It's nowhere near enough to live off and it's a royal pain in the arse to get started: you need to fill out forms and provide accounts and spend hours on the phone, mostly listening to that rusty classical music they pump through with the odd interuption to remind you you're in a queue because their staff are busy helping someone else. But once it's going, at least until the end of that financial year, it's just the odd twenty pounds or so that goes straight into your bank account.

But here's the catch. We're in the financial shit right now. Right in it, up to our chins. Every decision our government makes is based on finding money from somewhere. There's a lot of pressure on services like benefits to keep costs down. Benefits and unemployment are, in particular, a very grey area. Nobody wants unemployed people on benefits who earn no money. It means that people in work have to pay to keep them alive. It means the economy is bad. It's embarrassing for the government and it's very difficult to fix. The benefits system wants to get people off the system.

So if you're going to get yourself into it, you need to be aware of exactly what you're getting yourself into. I wasn't and I've been bitten in the arse and let me tell you it's not a small bite and it bloody hurts.

When I applied for benefits they based my claim on what I had earnt the year before, when I was still employed. I told them that I was now self employed, but they're not interested in the details, only the figures. A year went by and I didn't tell them that I was now earning less. Basically, I didn't think it mattered because I was earning so much less, I assumed all that would happen was that they'd owe me more money.

In January I filled in my first tax return and was automatically contacted by the tax credits people saying I was entitled to more money than they had been giving me. Without having to do anything, a sum of money was put into my bank account. A month or so later I was then contacted separately by the council tax and housing benefits office, telling me that because I was earning more tax credits now, I was no longer entitled to council tax or housing benefit and not only that, but I now owed them almost £500. I phoned to say this must be wrong and was asked to provide accounts for the last year, which I did. But when the new entitlement form came through, it still said I owed them £500. I phoned to check again, and was told yes this was right and there was absolutely nothing I could do, it was just the way the system worked.

Even though I can prove that I earned next to nothing during the last two years, because I didn't tell them that AT THE TIME, I owe them that money. And the fact that I didn't know I was going to be getting the money from the tax credits people makes absolutely no difference.

So, from personal experience, here is my advice:

1. IF YOU'RE SELF EMPLOYED, KEEP ACCOUNTS. Do them carefully and bear in mind the less you earn the less tax you will pay and the more benefit you can claim. But at the same time if you're looking to make it as a business, and if you want to be able to apply for loans, grants or investments, you will need to show that you can make money. It's a fine balance!

2. FILL IN YOUR TAX RETURN or they will chase you like dogs.

3. KEEP TRACK OF HOW MUCH YOU ARE MAKING. They will want to know exactly how much you make every year, so make sure you know it yourself. The amount you are given is based on what you earned the previous year. So if you're applying for benefits now, in 2012, they will want to know how much you earned in 2011. They'll want proof too so make sure you keep all your bank statements, payslips and P60 forms.

4. TELL THEM IF ANYTHING CHANGES. Tell them as soon as you know. Keep telling them if things keep changing. Yes it's a pain in the backside sitting on hold for 30 minutes, but your backside will be far more damaged if you don't do it and you get hit with a 'repayment'.

5. REMEMBER THEY'RE FICKLE. It's only natural to get excited when a large sum of money appears in your account, but bear in mind they might ask for it back. If it doesn't seem to make sense, contact them and ask rather than hoping for the best and spending it all at once, however tempting that is. They seem to change their minds at the drop of a hat.

6. TRY AND UNDERSTAND YOUR BENEFITS, because they're complicated. It's not just a case of having money put into your account. You'll have tax credits that are supplied by the tax credits people. Then you'll apply to one place for housing benefits and council tax, but they'll be paid separately: housing benefit into your account, and council tax benefit taken off your council tax bill in what seems like an almost arbitrary way. And some parts of the systems seem to talk to each other but not others: for instance, the housing benefits and council tax people heard that I was earning more tax credits, but not that it was because I was earning less money overall- it was still judged on the intial figure I presented when I applied. So the best thing to do is sit quietly from time to time with a strong cup of coffee and plenty of biscuits to keep you sane, and to go through all the paperwork and attempt to make sense of how much you are being paid, when, and why. If it doesn't make sense then phone them and get them to explain it to you.

7. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. It may seem like an easy route to money, but this is your own income you're dealing with here and if you don't pay attention to it, you might end up in difficult circumstances like me. It seems totally obvious to do all these things, but you'd be surprised how easy it is not to. I only learned in hindsight because they don't tell you any of this when you apply.

And best of luck to you!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Taoist Apocolypse

As I said in a recent blog, I'm in the middle of reading The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff. I'm slightly further on from where I was last time, about half way through The Te of Piglet. Whereas The Tao of Pooh was an introspective look at how a person can strive to live by Taoist principals, The Te of Piglet seems to be more like a list of who's Getting It All Wrong. Personally, I'm finding it a tad on the self righteous side. But then who am I to talk. Me, with all my 'I-think-people-should's...
Anyway, we're now looking at the arrival of the Puritans on Native American territory, and how the spread of Westernised society changed the world that was there before. Benjamin Hoff indicates that the drive that people such as the Puritans had (and still have) for exploration, technology and growth is having a devastating effect on the natural world and on our own peace of mind. Since Taoism centres on balance, the Native American way of life is much more in line with it's principals than Western society. A quote from chief Luther Standing Bear sums it up nicely:
"We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rollings hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as 'wild.' Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy men from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustived upon us and the families we loved was it 'wild' for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his appreach then it was that for us 'Wild West' began."
Poiniant words.
But, ever the sceptic, I never trust a bias unless I have explored at least two sides; and The Te of Piglet is coming from a bias (as everything does): on this occasion the bias of Taoist thinking. I think it's important not to just jump in and say 'yes I totally agree that the Native American and Taoist principals are better than the Western ones' based on one book, without thinking it through. I mean, without the Western hunger for understanding and knowledge, without its industrial and technological revolutions, I wouldn't be sitting here in a centrally heated room, typing on a laptop!
But look at evolution. For millions of years species have grown from one thing to another. They have learned how to keep on living through a process of elimination: it gets colder, the ones that can cope with the cold live, the ones that can't die. They have fought with other species: grow defences or get eaten. They have learned how to keep their own blood-line going on a personal level: alpha males fight each other over alpha female and only the winner gets to have the babies. The other backs off or dies trying.
I don't believe humans are really that far off from any other social mammal on the planet. We live in large packs. We have our alphas, our pack leaders: the ones with power and money and the ability to make decisions that affect everyone else in their pack. Every pack has it's territory. If two packs get too close they fight for their territory and their blood line. One wins and their way lives on. The other backs off or dies trying.
So couldn't this whole thing just be another example of evolution? Couldn't it just be that the Western world just discovered technology and developed weaponry quicker and this allowed them to be the alpha males and alpha females; the dominant species? Couldn't this be what was hapenning in America? Maybe. It's ugly and violent enough to be evolution.
But take a step back from that, even, and look at the results of evolution. Look at the fast-growth species compared to the ones that have barely changed in thousands of years. From what I have learned so far, it seems that sometimes a species will quickly become prevalent and dominant. But these will inevitably mostly, or completely, die out soon enough. Because the earth is a complicated self-balancing system. If there's too much of one thing this will lead to a lessening of other things.
For example if there are too many trees then they will use up all the carbon dioxide in the air and fill it with too much oxygen, and since trees need carbon dioxide to live, they won't have enough and they will die back. In fact this is exactly what hapenned. The process is described beautifully in the BBC program How To Grow A Planet (
It's not just plants. It happens to everything. It's hapenned many times with many different species, and looking back on humanity it really appears that the same thing keeps happening: societies that advance quickly also fall quickly.
It just seems to make too much sense to me not to agree with it: you either grow and change quickly, become out of balance with the system, and die back; or you make small moves, don't strive for change, and get to understand the natural world around you so you can find a balance with it. I've got to say, I think personally I do tend to agree with the Taoists on this one.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Anger as a Mask

This is an entirely new theory for me and I'd like to know what people think...

Do we tend to wear anger like a mask?

Take a scenario where someone says something really shitty to you and you react by getting angry at them. Then shortly afterwards, when the situation has dissipated: you've argued and they've left, or you've had a good moan about it to a friend, and then you change subject; suddenly you don't feel angry any more, you just feel hurt and upset.

It seems that whether we realise we're doing it or not, the anger we initially feel is almost like a screen for a deeper feeling that we haven't allowed to surface yet. Then when we relax, the feeling suddenly bubbles up. Maybe we push it back down by allowing the anger to take over again. Or maybe we can't escape it now and we're forced to deal with it.

And I think sometimes we also wear anger as a conscious mask. We know that we're feeling upset, embarrassed or afraid but we don't want other people to know it, so we replace a vulnerable, victimised emotion with a tough, agressive one.

Does anyone else recognise the things I'm talking about here? Answers on a postcard...

Friday, 9 March 2012

Eeyore and the Tao of Pooh

If I've learned anything in my years of contemplating what it is to be ALIVE, it's that things never, ever stay in one state for long. It's all waves and cycles. Nights, days, seasons, weather, luck, hormones, emotions... I think accepting that is one of the best ways to keep your head above water because generally speaking, if you're low and you can bear in mind that you're not going to feel that way forever, it might just take that little bit of edge off it. And similarly, if you're having a great time and you can also (somewhere just in the back of your mind) accept that it will, at some point, end, you may not be so likely to get upset when it does.

Since writing The Truth, my mood has improved and settled for a week or so... which is nice...

And since finishing American God's, I have now started on The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff. It's very good. Inspiring in fact.

It's got me looking at myself again (of course... if it doesn't make you look at yourself then there's really no point in reading it in the first place...) and it's made me see elements of all the characters from Winnie the Pooh in myself! There's the know-it-all Owl in me who thrives on being right about everything. There's the super-busy Rabbit who doesn't stop to think but just has to be doing 'productive' stuff and working everything out in over-complicated ways. There's the chilled out Pooh who just accepts things as they are and gets on with finding the simplest way to immediate happiness. There's the timid Piglet who is learning to be brave without realising he's doing it. And there's Eeyore... who I want to talk a bit about now.

I'll start with a quote from Winnie The Pooh. Eeyore has been moaning about the snow:
"And I said to myself: The others will be sorry if I'm getting myself all cold. They haven't got Brains, any of them, only grey fluff that's blown into their heads by mistake, and they don't Think, but if it goes on snowing for another six weeks or so, one of them will begin to say to himself: 'Eeyore can't be so very much too Hot about three o'clock in the morning.' And then it will Get About. And they'll be Sorry."

I read this and had a flash of my blog The Truth in my mind:
"I might at this point, send an encrypted text message to a friend, hoping they will read between the lines and ask me if I'm OK, and then I can say 'no actually I need a hug' and they will say 'Oh poor you! Hope you feel better soon' and then I will feel better. But I will never actually ask for sympathy and I will very rarely get it because of that."

And I can't help noticing similarities between the two.

Poor Eeyore. There he is, standing out in the snow, waiting for someone to feel sorry for him. But, of course, nobody will know he's stood out in the snow unless he goes and tells them, and then of course he won't be out in the snow anymore, he'll be in the warm with them and so they won't need to feel sorry for him any more! But being Eeyore, he doesn't go to find them. He stays stood there in the snow, waiting for the unlikely to happen.

Poor Unhappy Sarah. There she is, sitting in her house, waiting for someone to feel sorry for her. But, of course, nobody will know she's sat there alone and sad unless she contacts them, and them of course she won't be alone and sad anymore, she'll be talking to a friend and so they won't need to feel sorry for her any more! But, being Sarah,  she doesn't call them. She stays at home. alone and sad, waiting for the unlikely to happen.

But I'm not angry at myself for it. Ironically, I was angry at myself for it at the time, but now I'm not. Because I think we all have an Eeyore in us. And we all have a Pooh and a Piglet and a Rabbit and an Owl. It's OK to be an Eeyore sometimes. Benjamin Hoff says:

"There is something in each of us that wants to be Unhappy. It creates in our imaginations problems that don't yet exist- quite often causing them to come true. It exaggerates problems that are already there. It reinforces low self-esteem and lack of respect for others. It destroys pride in workmanship, order and cleanliness. It turns meetings into Confrontations, expectations into Dread, opportunities into Danger, stepping stones into Stumbling Blocks."

So what if the Eeyore in me sometimes wants to stand in that snowy field and feel sorry for myself. The Pooh in me will always come back eventually, and, being Pooh, there's bound to be some honey somewhere nearby.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Tasty Tasty Thai

This is my cheeky little version of a Wagamama recipe. Can't get enough of this dish at the moment!

Vegetable Stir Fry with Coconut Ginger Sauce

For the Coconut Ginger Sauce:
2 inches ginger root, peeled and grated
4 stalks lemongrass, outer layers removed, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tblsp oil
100g creamed coconut, chopped small and mixed with 300ml hot water
500ml boiling water
3 tsp sugar 
a handful of chopped corriander
For the stir fry:
1 tblsp oil
6 spring onions, chopped
1 red chilli, de-seeded and chopped small (for a medium-mildish heat... add more/less depending on whether you like it hot or not!)
8-10 mushrooms, sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
5-6 broccolli sprigs, cut into small pieces
generous handful beansprouts
few splashes dark soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
To serve:
150g brown rice noodles
1 lime, in wedges
generous handful of peanuts, chopped small

1. Start by making the sauce: heat the oil in a large pan. Add the ginger, lemongrass and garlic and cook over a low heat for 6 mins until it's softened but not coloured.
2. Add the water and sugar. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 20mins or until reduced by half.
3. Now stir in the creamed coconut mix and heat for a further 2 minutes
4. Pour the mixture through a collander to remove the larger chunks of ginger and lemongrass, then stir in the corriander.
5. Cook the noodles according to the packet, then drain out and pour over the sauce. Cover with a teatowel and put to one side.
6. To make the stir fry, heat the oil in a wok or a large pan, until it's almost smoking hot. Add the spring onions, chilli, broccolli, pepper and mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 3 mins.
7. Pour over a tablespoon of the sauce along with the soy sauce and sugar, place a lid on the wok and cook for approx 5 mins, stirring occasionally.
8. Uncover, add the beansprouts, and then cook for a further 2 minutes.
9. Now divide the noodles and sauce between two bowls. Spoon the stir fry into the centre, and serve with lime wedges and the chopped peanuts.
10. Consider wearing a bib when eating... this stuff goes everywhere :0D

Monday, 5 March 2012

Meditation No.2 The Walk Through The Forest

I turn away from The Bay. There's a narrow path that leads into the forest. It's illuminated by the slowly rising sun which catches the damp on the leaves and reflects a thousand glittering dewdrops. I walk along the path and push my way into the forest.

It's dimly lit, still holding onto a soft blanket of night, but rays of early morning sunlight reach through the trees and hang in the air in gold coloured shafts. I can feel the cool, moist air on my skin, and the soft mossy ground beneath my feet.

The trees of the forest tower above my head: palms and giant ferns, woven with a chaotic network of Kareao vines. Somewhere nearby I can hear water splashing across the rocks of a small waterfall.

The path winds through the jungle inland. Somewhere along the journey, the water I had heard gushing down the waterfall earlier, intersects the path from the left and I cross it using a small wooden-planked bridge. The stream now flows past me alongside the path as I head up a gentle hill. Large rock-faces now puncture through the undergrowth to my left, and the stream excitedly burbles and fizzes down its stony course.

The path is running under a rocky overhang. Deep into the jungle and sheltered by the half-cave I am walking through, the sunlight doesn't penerate in rays like before, and I walk through a grey-blue gloom. But now overhead, tiny white-blue lights glimmer from the damp walls. Dotted in small patches, glow worms cling to the rocks and hang, glowing like a hundred LEDs. The trail of lights lead the way until the undergrowth breaks through the rocks once more and I am heading out of the jungle and back onto the Island coast.

The sky in front of me is now an odd pinkish-grey: the kind of light you get just after an evening storm in summer, when the setting sun dips below the dark clouds and hits the earth almost horizontally, giving everything a kind of chiroscuro-sharp focus. The forest to my right yeilds to moss-covered rocks. The rock face is too steep and high to climb, but in front of me the rocks gradually break up. The path leads towards these rocks and then bends to the left and runs alongside them.

And here, carved into the rocks, are hexaganol stone pillars reaching taller than my head and lined up alongside each other like a giant three dimensional jigsaw. They're cold and damp to the touch, and are covered with the same spongey moss that forms the pathway through the rocks.

Gradually the size of the rock-puzzle decreases, and the weather-worn tops of the pillars become low enough to look over. Now, beyond the maze of stone I can see water stretching out ahead of me: the same pink-grey of the sky, motioness except for a gentle lapping ripple on the surface. On the horizon, a small and distant thunderstorm rumbles grumpily away, lightening flashing intermittently through the cloud.

And then the hexagonal pillars gradually become nothing more than stepping stones, and I pick my way across them towards the waters edge and stand for a while, breathing in the fresh, crisp air and watching the meandering lights in the distance.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What in the world is God?

I'm starting to believe that Neil Gaiman is a genius with a knowledge of levels of consciousness unattainable by most of us mere humans.
I could easily write a whole blog on the power and magic of books, how inside of that 20cmx15cmx3cm rectangular paper package you can fit entire worlds, cultures and lives. But that's not what this blog is about, so I'll stop there.
What I intend to do is discuss... and at the same time straighten out my own ideas about... what in the world 'God' might be.
I've just put down American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This book's, like, 10cm thick and I finished it in a couple of days because every time I picked it up for a bit of bedtime reading, I didn't put it down again till many hours later: swept away into a space in my mind where Gods live just because we believe in them, where dreams are full of messages and lessons, and death is anything but final. It was so believable, it almost sounded like a fucked up kind of common sense!
Halfway through the book I had to stop and recover my senses. I had the same thing when I read Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy. It might sound a little crazy (but then I am a little crazy) but I find that these kinds of thought-invoking fantasy novels help me to determine my own beliefs far more than, say, reading an informative book on religion, or having a discussion about God. I suppose it's like lucid dreaming in a way.
The thing is, you have different levels of consciousness: there's the level you're on during the day, when your brain is working on moving parts of your body, processing what's coming in through your eyes and your ears, as well as thinking about what needs to be achieved during the day, who you're talking to, what you want to eat, etc, etc... Then there's the level your're on when you're asleep, when the 'awake' part of your brain is out of gear and you have no real control over where your thoughts take you, and often no memory of them once you're awake... And then there's the magical place between the two, which you find yourself in just as you fall asleep and when you wake up, and sometimes during lucid dreams. It explains why some of us get our best ideas as we're falling asleep: your brain is no longer using energy on moving parts of your body or organising your daily activities- it's able to play (for want of a better word... no on second thoughts that's exactly the right word). And I think that when you've lost yourself in a fantasy novel, the same process takes place: your conscious brain is still working, but it's no longer processing the outside world, so it lets you work 'real' things out at the same time as drifting away from reality. Makes sense?
Now a bit of religious background on my part: my Mum was a pretty strict Christian when I was a child. We went to church every Sunday so Mum could speak to God, so Dad could sing the hymns, and so me and my brother could get bored and act up. Years later, Mum strayed from the path of Church of England Christian belief and got tired of having to hide her real beliefs from judgemental peers, so she became a Quaker. My Dad is a physicist and believes (mostly) in science. We had physics lessons at the dinner table. But over-all, both of my parents wanted to make their own minds up about everything, and allowed me and my brother to do the same, within the framework of what we had learned about religion and science.
If you asked me five years back what I believed about religion and whether I believed in God, I would have said 'I don't know' and fully meant it. I had contemplated it, but never been able to find anything that seemed to make sense. Science explained the details but had massive gaps. 'God' explained the massive gaps, but clashed hideously with science on the details. It's only in the last few years that I have begun to pull together a thousand little puzzle pieces of science and religion and philosophy and other 'boxes' we put existance into, and have started to form a picture in my head that seems to make some kind of sense. Phillip Pullman helped me to do this. So did Neil Gaiman. 'God', not so much... not in the Christian sense anyway.
But I would still say 'I don't know' if I was asked the question again.
So let's not say that this is my belief, because then it becomes something solid and lasting. It's not. It's an idea, open to change, ready to be abandoned if proven wrong, willing to shift and mould itself into something else. So I'll use the word 'idea'. I like it better.
Take this idea: God/Heaven/Hell is not something that exists in it's final form already, it is something that is being created. Every day that goes past, every second, every thought, every action that takes place is creating it. It's living in everything: from a piece of dust floating in deepest space, to a blue whale swimming through Earth's oceans. And in some way that we're not able to comprehend, it's conscious. It's trying to make itself. Maybe it knows what outcome it's working towards, maybe it doesn't. Maybe there's no outcome. Maybe the outcome is just to keep going. Maybe that's the game.
So, accepting this idea, you must accept the idea that everything is joined as one huge 'thing' and that nothing's ever finished. You die, your body breaks down but God/Heaven/Hell's still there in every little part of you, and every little part of you goes back into the system and becomes something else, something new.
This is the part of my idea that came to me when reading Phillip Pullman. His two main characters love each other completely, but can't be together during their human lives, so they agree that after they die and their bodies break down, every little atom in their body will search for every little atom of the other's, and they will fuse together so strongly that they can never be broken apart. It's one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read and I fell in love with the idea. That, to me, sounds like heaven. And it sounds like earth too. In fact it almost sounds like science, doesn't it...
So basically, we make our own heaven or our own hell. If we love each other, we can join together and be a part of our own kind of heaven. If we screw the world up, if we're all assholes to each other, and teach our kids to be assholes; if we rape the earth of all it's natural beauty and all it's resources, we will make our very own hell to live in forever; in all the forms we will ever take.
And this kind of leads me onto the part of my idea that began to gel whilst reading American Gods, and is about as far as I've got with my idea so far. Imagine that you're a real, living God. Now, we break our Gods down into boxes in the same way we break everything else down into boxes: little nibbly chunks of understanding so we can make sense of it all. We put them into boxes of good and bad, destruction and creation, life and death.
But what if you had to put all of that into one big box and deal with all of it? What if you had to be a God of good, bad, destruction, creation, life and death, all at once. What if you could see it all? Every starving child crying? Every moment of blissful orgasm? Every single happy thing and every single sad thing, and the unavoidable connection between them? Imagine how it would feel to be that God. I imagine you would feel it all, you would feel all the sadness and all the happiness at once, but you would also accept and understand that it must be this way. It just is this way.
So when you put both of those ideas together, you're basically saying that since 'God' is just a living part of every single fucking thing in the universe, that we are all that same real living God I was just talking about. Maybe we're just not aware of it because we've got our own lives to think about. But maybe, if there is some form of consciousness to it, we've all got atoms (and parts even smaller that atoms) from millions of years of caring, living things inside us and around us, that are aware of the whole inevitable spectrum of good and bad, of destruction and creation, happiness and sadness. The more time that goes by, the more lives, the more experience, the more it creates itself and the more it understands and feels. And it wants to help whilst still understanding that shit will, of course, happen.
It's just an idea...