fantasy v reality

I was so thrilled to bring Jo Pratt’s marvellous ‘Madhouse Cookbook‘ to your attention recently – it’s clearly a book which is needed in more households than just mine, and I’m delighted that several of you have ordered it since seeing it on here. (And, if you haven’t, it’s currently just £3 if you follow the link above – practically a steal.) But now it’s time to bring you up to speed on my other challenge for 2015 – reading a book a month.

The two novels I’ve read recently look pretty different, on the face of it. They’re both set in the 1800s, and they both straddle England and America, but the subject matters couldn’t be further apart. Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’ is a romantic, magical fantasy – that wonderful sort of escapist writing which teeters on the edge of believable and then snatches you away on a dream-cloud, where you have simply no choice but to trust the characters and situations. The story is of a pair of illusionists and the incredible ‘circus’ in which they operate – and, beyond that, I really can’t tell you any more for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice to say, it’s a tale full of colour, imagination, magic, romance and life, and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read.

By contrast, ‘The Last Runaway‘ (Tracy Chevalier), deals with the hardened, gritty realism of 1850s America – the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, quilts, whiskey and Quakerism. A young British Quaker girl finds herself in Ohio, unable to return to England, but with no family or identity in America. She starts to build her life around the strong convictions she has, starts to find a voice for her beliefs. This book taught me so much about America in the 1850s – and the British opinion of Americans back then. I loved getting to know Honor Bright, the heroine, and felt every emotion along with her.

One novel is fantasy, one is reality. But perhaps the two are more similar than they first appear. They both pick up the theme of running away – from situations, circumstance, and the expectations of others. Both books are, essentially, about individuals trying to break away from the life which is being dictated to them, and follow their hearts instead.

I love that two such different books can have this common thread. And in life, held together by the common thread of our own existence, we need a healthy balance of fantasy and reality as well. Too much fantasy, and we become useless to those around us, unable to function in community or relate to others. Too much reality and we lose our ability to imagine, to dream, to hope. My life has certainly been a good mix of the two recently – the gritty, hard stuff sitting alongside the joyful stuff that elevates me – and I hope yours has been too.

on giving away – and letting go

It’s Amy’s fault.

As soon as she mentioned she was doing a 40bags challenge for Lent (giving away one bag of Stuff each day during Lent), that was it – I was hooked. Like Amy, my motivation was largely selfish, excited about the excuse to de-clutter all the Randomness which quickly builds up in our home, but I also sensed that sorting through our possessions on such a large scale would also be spiritually cleansing.

As you’ll know by now, I didn’t achieve this challenge in 40 days. (Why stick to 40, when 60 is so much more…expansive?) So now, more than a month after Easter, here’s what I learnt from my Lent challenge.

The first two bags were filled in about 20 minutes one afternoon before the school run. The ease at which I could release these possessions both relieved and disgusted me – relief from the sense that I was holding lightly to what I own, but disgust from just how easy it was to identify superfluous goods.

I gave away some classic books – and, with these, gave away the notion that I will ever be the sort of person who will read a book twice.

I gave away my academic texts which look impressive on our bookshelves – and let go of the need to look intellectual when people visit our home.

I encouraged my children to fill a bag with their toys – and, as their non-materialistic selves happily made a pile of things they didn’t want, I let go of my overwhelming urge to cautiously rein in their generosity, knowing that to do so would be to point them towards the path of Consumerism.

I gave away the beautiful, soft maroon suit I bought for my first job – and, with this, let go of the need to define myself by what I used to do.

I gave away my favourite ever boots, which have long been unwearable – and let go of the idea that they could ever mean more to me than simple foot coverings.

I threw away food which has been around longer than my children. Cornflour pushed to the back of the cupboard, pomegranate seeds I will never use, ready-made icing – hardened and unforgiving. I threw it away – and let go of the guilt I’m wired to feel when throwing away food.

It scares me how much of my identity is wrapped up in what I own. But, this Spring, I untangled myself a little from the complex relationship I have with my Stuff. Perhaps, instead, I will find a little more of my identity in Christ.


retirement, already? think: retiresavvy!

I’ll be honest. Retirement is not something that regularly enters my mind. When DesertDad and I decided that I would take a career break to care for our kids, we did it on the basis of being afford to live on one salary now – not in retirement. We calculated the income difference (virtually nothing, since I’d supported DD for the three years leading up to having our first child) – but we didn’t calculate the impact of me not paying into a pension plan for several years.

Added to this, pensions have always been a tricky discussion point in our household. As Christians, we’re always trying to negotiate the careful balance between Trusting God and Being Sensible. How much security is too much? How much should we trust God to provide for our futures – and how much is He providing for them right here, right now? Should we aim for financial independence, or mutual support from the church family?

Skipton Building Society has realised that there are many people floundering like me when it comes to pensions, and has put together an excellent online resource called retiresavvy. It’s not just designed for older people – although has plenty of information and guidance for those nearing retirement (as well as those already there) – but is aimed at younger people too. There are some great articles written by young parents, which take into account how hard it is to pay into a pension fund whilst also raising a family, with reduced income and increased expenditure. If you fit into this demographic, I’d seriously encourage you to take a look at this part of the site in particular – I found it tremendously useful.

There’s also plenty of up-to-date information on the latest changes to pensions. For example, I discovered that, to receive a full State Pension, you have to have been making National Insurance contributions for 35 years – but also that “you continue to accrue National Insurance contributions towards your State pension if you’re not working for a period but claiming Child Benefit, right up until your child reaches the age of 12″. Phew! I love that retiresavvy doesn’t come across as simply one huge advertisement for Skipton but, on the whole, gives sensible, impartial advice.

None of the website is patronising, dismissive or spoken in financial jargon. The info is there – plus lots of interesting articles on all aspects of getting older – and you can make up your own mind on what you need. I can read it in the light of my existing questions about retirement, and not feel like it compromises my faith.

The portal has been created so that you pick an area you’re interested in (e.g. ‘Retirement planning for families’ or ‘Keeping busy in retirement‘) and then select from a number of interesting posts written within that field. This took a little while to get used to – initially I was looking for some straightforward menus which would take me directly to one piece of information – but, as I spent a bit more time navigating the portal, I found the multi-faceted approach more interesting. It gives you a much broader perspective on retirement, so that whilst you leave the website feeling more informed, you certainly don’t feel like you’ve been to the Headteacher’s office for a Good Telling Off.

From the moment I heard about retiresavvy, I was excited to try it out, but have to say I was a little disappointed in the appearance when I first visited the site. Given that Skipton are trying to entice younger people to use the portal to think about their futures, I do feel that the Homepage could look a little brighter, a little more fun, perhaps with a few more photos (and not just of people in their 60s). Also, the helpful little video – which can be found if you scroll down the Homepage – should really be higher up, as it’s a useful first-port-of-call. However, the font and pictures are great, and the overall layout feels good: the right balance of information and white space. There’s also a forum – great for asking questions or contributing to the ongoing, complex discussion of retirement. Articles are the right length and tone – and generally this is a very helpful resource, which just needs some minor tweaking, I feel, to give it maximum impact.

Having goals in life is important in retirementOver to you: are you a younger person thinking about retirement? Or an older person relieved that you did think about it in advance? How should we be stewarding our money wisely, now and in the future?

I was asked to review by Skipton and the Mumsnet Bloggers Network. All views are my own. I was entered into a prize draw to win vouchers as a token of thanks for blogging. View other blogs on this topic here: bloggers/retiresavvy-portal- what-our-bloggers-thought-

madhouse march (it’s another GIVEAWAY!!)

I’m the first to admit that this blog is not a very useful one. I don’t teach you how to braid Afro hair, give you numerous recipes for gluten-free vegans, explain some complicated piece of computing, or provide numerous rainy-day activities for hyperactive preschoolers.

If you’re new to the blog and haven’t yet sussed the vibe, it is this: I witter on about something or other for around 800 words and people read it and sometimes comment and then get on with their lives regardless. This blog does not change lives.

But, dear friends, now I want to repay you for your loyalty and commitment to my various rants. This blog is about to change your life. Get ready for it: I am about to share with you my one biggest secret to organising your family’s meals forever. Some of you may remember that way back in the distant past of January 2015, I made a resolution to cook from a different cookbook each month. Hands-down, the best and most practical family cookbook I have ever come across is the one I was lucky enough to cook from throughout March.

Madhouse Cookbook

Madhouse Cookbook, by Jo Pratt, is a pretty apt book for me – the fact that I’m writing up what I did in March when it’s nearly May should be evidence enough that we qualify under the ‘madhouse’ moniker. I have two kids to feed, as well as a husband with an odd working schedule and a lodger with an aversion to lamb, fish and meat-on-the-bone – not to mention sundry others who pop in, sometimes planned and invited, sometimes unplanned, sometimes uninvited, but always welcome. There has to be food on the table by 6pm (or else our kids will flip) and there has to be enough to feed whoever God may bring to our door that day. Jo Pratt’s recipes are flexible, child-friendly, quick, easy and yummy. I’m telling you: buy this book. It will change your life. (Get to know Jesus first though – He will change your life more. But, after that, buy this book.)

What makes this book stand out? First, nearly every recipe is pure gold in terms of flavour. Quite outstanding. From Chinese to Mexican to Italian to Indonesian, Jo Pratt has produced a stellar selection of meals which will give your kids a hugely varied diet without them even realising, whilst the grown-ups enjoy food that is in no way ‘dumbed down’. Second, there are virtually none of those recipes that you might just throw together yourself with no need for guidance. (I always get so disheartened flicking through a recipe book and seeing titles such as ‘tomato and courgette pasta’ or ‘roast chicken with garlic’ – why pay good money for recipes you don’t need?) Those few recipes which do fit this category are briefly summarised in categories, e.g. ‘Very, Very, Very Quick Pasta Dishes’ or ‘Stir Crazy’, a collection of stir-fry sauces.

Third, the book is just so comprehensive. Section one is ‘Monday to Friday survival: the need for speed’ – and it does what it says on the tin. Quick recipes, yummy flavours, great for kids and adults alike. We loved the Very Special Fried Rice, the Chicken, Cheese and Corn Quesa-d-easies and the Mediterranean Baked Chicken and Rice – all great, none of them time-consuming. We regularly use Jo’s Risotto Primavera recipe – sometimes following to the letter, sometimes varying with whatever veg we have to hand, always scrummy. Section two is ‘The Busy Weekend’ – great (but still quick) recipes to improve your weekend, from lazy brunch ideas, to baking-with-kids projects, to relaxed family meals. The Sticky Sausages with Sweet Potatoes and Peppers is a work of genius – 15min prep, then bang in the oven for an hour. Rich Vegetable Lasagne was a winner too. (And did I mention that we found plenty of new vegetarian recipes to suit our half-vegetarian diet?) Section three is ‘Cling on to your social life’ – a selection of slightly smarter recipes for when friends come round. But of course nothing takes ages to make because Jo realises you have Kids Who Are Not Tired to put to bed and All The Chaos to clear away and Unidentifiable Hardened Food to scratch off the dining table – in addition to cooking for your guests. The Beef Rendang and South Indian Chicken Curry were amazing, and the Chocolate and Ginger Brownies were so good I made them three times in one week. (Beach-ready body? Er…)

Add to all this the accurate preparation and cooking times, guidance on how many adults/kids the meal will feed, ingredients lists which don’t require a trip to a specialist deli, and plenty of tips for leftovers or how to vary the meals for fussy eaters – and you’re left with an incredible resource, not only for family life but for anyone who likes to cook. Honestly, if you want decent recipes which don’t take long to prepare, buy this book, whether or not you have kids, a spouse, a lodger, or a dog – and prepare to weep over its sheer ease and yum factor.

But don’t buy the book just yet. Because I think it’s such an invaluable aid to anyone’s cooking repertoire, I’m going to give away a copy to a commenter picked at random this Saturday at 7pm (OK, you know that this means sometime during Sunday or Monday…). This time I’d like you to comment on the most mad thing you’ve ever cooked. I once made a Marmite, sweetcorn and squid sandwich. Fire away.


adoption: it’s not plan b

Although there was a time when I thought it was.

Back in my naive, idealistic youth, before we had kids, adoption was our Plan B. “If we can’t have children, we’ll…” and all that. Truth be told, I was bloody scared that we wouldn’t be able to have children – because then we’d have to face the messy reality of adoption, and I wasn’t sure if I could cope. When we found out we were expecting Mister, I let out a huge inward sigh of relief. Now we could continue ignoring the A word.

Back then, adoption was only a Plan B – something you considered only when all other doors had been slammed in your face. In my naivety – and I’m incredibly ashamed to write this now – I would wonder why childless couples didn’t ‘just adopt’, as if it were akin to popping to the Post Office for a book of stamps. If this is you, please know that I feel so terribly sorry for this attitude, which came from an immature, misinformed position, and not from a desire to be accusatory or hurtful. Infertility is painful enough, without idiots like me putting unrealistic expectations on you. And whilst, for many couples, infertility can be the trigger which gets them thinking about, and eventually excited about, adoption, it is not a given that just because you can’t have children naturally, you will automatically be in a mental, emotional, social and financial position to adopt. And, of course, you may just not want to – and that’s fine. Adoption is a big ask. It is certainly not Plan B.

For us, adoption has become Plan A. And I’m always expecting people to ask us why we’re not planning any more birth children, but they never do. Perhaps they think it’s too personal? Perhaps they’re worried that there’ll be some medical details which will be just a little too gross? Or perhaps they genuinely don’t care? Whatever the reason, I can’t believe people aren’t just a teeny bit curious. The truth is, I’ve been fortunate enough to have fairly easy pregnancies and labours. There have been no conception problems in the past, and no reason to believe there would be in the future. We could withdraw at any point of this adoption process, and, to the best of our knowledge, find ourselves expecting – naturally – within a few months. We are not adopted, nor do we have any adoption in the family. In short, our motivation to adopt is not based on any practical, medical or historical reasons – our motivation has, in fact, come from the sense that God is calling us to expand our family in this way. Adoption was always God’s Plan A for bringing human beings into His heavenly family – and so He calls many people to consider it as a Plan A for their earthly family too. We don’t expect this to be perfectly understandable to those without a faith, but there it is, and we can’t change it.

Let me try to explain how we feel about pursuing adoption. We feel as excited as we did when we were expecting our two birth children. We have no qualms about being able to love all of our children, birth or adopted, equally. We don’t see adoption as ‘parenting someone else’s child’. Although God hasn’t actually closed my womb (to the best of my knowledge), it wouldn’t feel right to try and conceive again. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to have a child by adoption. None of these feelings would be true if God hadn’t intervened to change our hearts and minds on the matter.

Adoption was Plan B. Now it’s Plan A.

(And, listen: for the record, I’m cool with answering your questions. Please don’t feel there’s anything you can’t ask. If you want to tell us we’re mad fools, please do it. We’re going to have to become pretty smart at talking through issues, emotions and identities with our adopted child as they grow up – so we might as well get good at it now.)

holiday hijack

My heart sank as I looked at the list we’d just created. My son’s hopeful, sometimes ambitious suggestions of what he’d like to do during the Easter holidays. My daughter’s enthusiasm for anything her big brother said. And my awareness that there was going to be precious little time to do any of these activities.


Easter gardens, made by the kids

One of the implications of the exciting news I shared last week is the amount of annual leave my husband has had to take. This year, well over a week of his leave will be spent pursuing adoption, and more leave will be needed should we be successful at panel, as he takes time off for meeting our (at this stage) hypothetical child, as well as the statutory paternity leave. The fact that the four-day adoption training course was scheduled for these Easter holidays has meant that all Desert Dad’s days off have gone on this course, and we haven’t had much time off as a family. And I feel like the holidays – usually a time for me to spend extra-special quality time with the kids – have been rudely hijacked.

But now, looking back over the last fortnight, I’m so incredibly grateful at how the days have panned out. Trying to see things from the kids’ point of view, I really think they’ve had a lovely time, despite us abandoning them at different points to pop off to the training.

For starters, Granny and Grandpa came to look after them for the first couple of days, and their Aunt and Uncle-to-be came for the next couple of days. Our kids don’t get a lot of exclusive time with their extended family, so this was a special treat for everyone. Yes, I’d love to have been around for them, but recognise that me being forced to be elsewhere for a few days was actually a healthy thing for all of us. Everyone had a lovely time, and the kids have been spoilt for attention.


Then there was the Easter Weekend, which we enjoyed together as a family. On Good Friday we took part in some lovely all-age celebrations at church in the morning, followed by a bunny trail around the market in the afternoon. The rain was persistent – but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. Saturday had no agenda – God knows we needed it – and, despite my lack of thinking this year about how to make Easter meaningful for the kids, this day revealed all sorts of special moments.

We watched The Miracle Maker, made an Easter garden cake, and Missy spontaneously decided to give some of her money away to ‘people who don’t have any money’. Her brother followed suit. They didn’t go to sleep for AGES that night, which was kind of annoying, but also brilliant because it meant they were so excited about Easter!


Our Easter garden cake…


…smashing it open…


…to reveal an empty tomb!

Easter Sunday was great – how could it not be? – and we headed off to the in-laws after church and enjoyed some wonderful family celebrations. On Monday we went to Underwater Street, the most amazing place for young kids, and I thoroughly recommend it.


Holding himself captive in a giant bubble. As you do.

The concept is so simple (‘get all the things that kids like to do in one room’) that I’m surprised never to have seen it done before.


Painting a Mini. Why not?

There were craft tables, science experiments, giant bubbles, a climbing wall, sensory areas, water play, role play shops, dressing up, a construction site and a cannon firing plastic balls.


Mallyan Spout, Goathland

Somehow, quite a few things have been knocked off the ‘Easter holidays’ list. Cinema, soft play, a trip to see some waterfalls (Mister’s special request), playdates with friends.


Falling Foss, Whitby

There are a few things left but, under the circumstances, methinks we ain’t done badly. Just a little more affirmation that God’s called us to pursue adoption, and has our family well looked-after, even when we can’t be around so much.

What have you been up to this Easter?

adoption: our story so far

I promised there’d be a couple of surprises here on the blog for 2015, so here’s the first: I’m excited to share with you that Famille Desert are in the process of adoption! Whoop! It’s something I’m buzzing to write more about in the future but, for now, let me take you back a few years and share what’s brought us to this point.

Adoption was always something we’d had in the back of our minds. From the time we were engaged, and talking about our future together, Desert Dad and I knew that adoption would be the right route for us if we weren’t able to have kids biologically. And then, of course, we found we could – so we didn’t give adoption a second thought. Until Missy, our second child, was born. The birth of a child wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with thoughts of adopting another, but it was during the long nights feeding this little life that I sat scrolling through Facebook and blogs on my phone. I discovered the blog of an old friend, and although she didn’t write exclusively about adoption, whenever she did (for example here and here), something in my heart went all a-flutter. It was as if I was jealous of her. Perhaps I wanted to adopt a child as well. Could this be God tugging at my heart strings?

“Well God,” I reasoned, “you’re going to have bring hubby up to speed on this too – if this is meant to be, then prompt him as you’ve prompted me.” This had to come from both of us – I knew it would never work if I was having to motivate my husband to get as excited about it as I was. And, besides, I trusted that if this was something God was calling us to, He would call the both of us. It may have been the very next morning when, as I was coming downstairs for breakfast, Desert Dad alerted me to a news headline which had caught his attention: a pitifully small number of children had been adopted in the last year, raising questions about over-complicated bureaucracy and calling for reforms. Most importantly – and sadly – it meant a huge number of children were remaining in the care system, with their chances of adoption getting lower by the day.

This article had moved DD enough to draw it to my attention, and from that moment on, adoption was something the two of us could talk openly about, pray about, ask others about. Fast forward three-and-a-bit-years, and the time felt right to pursue growing our family through adoption – so here we are, two months into the process. It’s exciting and it’s daunting – mostly in equal measure.

The two most asked questions from friends so far have been what age we’re hoping to adopt, and when we might be expecting to adopt, should we be successful at panel. We feel it wouldn’t be right to adopt older than our birth children, which means we’re looking at age 2 or under. There’s a big need for adopters of older children, and it saddens me that we can’t offer a home to an older child. But there’s also a big need for adopters of younger children with additional needs – and this is something we’re open to. The only ‘needs’ we feel we would have to say no to are those which we wouldn’t be able to provide for alongside providing for the children God has already blessed us with. In terms of a time frame, thank goodness that the news article I referred to above was the start of some major changes for the adoption process in the UK. It’s a lot quicker nowadays – although no less rigorous – so if we were successful at panel, we might be hoping to adopt in the autumn. Not long!

As we’ve shared the news with friends over the last couple of months, we’ve been overwhelmed by their support and encouragement. Not that we were expecting them not to be – but the level of enthusiasm has certainly surpassed what I was expecting. Of course nothing’s confirmed yet – we still have a lot of paperwork, social worker interviews, reading, training and general soul-searching to do. And ultimately an adoption panel will make a decision about whether or not to approve us. There are a lot of unknowns. But, for now, this is our journey and I’d love you to join us.