family

Camping People

tent cropped.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 2 20 21 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 3 28 04 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 3 55 55 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 4 09 04 pm.jpg

Do you ever go camping?

I need to preface this blog post with the confession that we are not Camping People.

This makes me a little bit sad, because I really want to think of myself as a Camping Person. In my head, Camping People are super-evolved. They know how to pare back their living requirements to the bare minimum, ridding themselves of the clutter that threatens to overwhelm the rest of us on any given day, and bringing only what they can carry, leaving behind only footprints in the sand.

Camping People cook delicious one-pot meals in cast iron… (pots? Dutch ovens? What are those things called?) over picturesque fires, with mushrooms and fennel they foraged in nearby pine forests, or mussels they pulled from rocks on pristine beaches. For breakfast they eat bircher muesli they had pre-made in individual mason jars, which they kept cool overnight by submerging them in an alpine-fed stream, Famous Five style. After dinner they uncork the wine, and tell hilarious stories to one another in the glow of the fire. They drape hand-woven rugs around their shoulders as the chill draws in, and they look good in beanies.

We are not those people.

We tried camping, one time. I won a beautiful, canvas tent in a competition, and off we raced to a campsite among the trees in the mountains. I remember it had been a lean week, so I only had $90 in the budget with which to purchase four inflatable beds, one pump, four sleeping bags, two lanterns and four little folding deck chairs, all from K-mart.

Let’s just say you get what you pay for. The pump didn’t work so we had to blow up the beds by mouth, and they deflated during the night to leave us sleeping on cold rocks. Only one of the two lanterns worked. The sleeping bags made up in bulk for what they lacked in actual warmth, and we froze, huddled together on the deflating beds in our winter coats, through the long, six-degree Celsius night.

I had forgotten to bring the instructions for pitching the tent, so we had attempted it earlier that day amid dust and wasps, tripping over pegs and ropes and arguing pointlessly, while a motorhome the size of our home in Melbourne rolled up and parked within touching distance of our tent (we couldn’t even stretch the ropes out fully or we’d have had to peg them into the side of the motorhome). A marathon runner pitched his one-person tent in front of our car, climbed inside at around seven at night, and commenced a rumbling, avalanche-causing snore that continued with impressive consistency until sunrise the next day.

I couldn’t get the kindling in the brazier we’d hired from the campsite ranger to catch alight, despite or perhaps because of the well-meaning aid of the children who plied it with green wood and leaves, but it didn’t really matter anyway because my K-mart budget hadn’t stretched to anything with which to actually cook a meal.

(On the other side of the camping ground, actual Camping People were stirring paella on a little gas cooker, while a teapot suspended over a neat little campfire and children roasted marshmallows on sticks. Later they pulled out camp-chairs that looked like armchairs, and drank wine out of enamel cups. I watched them from the shade of my lopsided tent, through narrowed eyes.)

Because it turns out that, at least for most of us, the amount of stuff needed to actually feed, clothe, shelter and maintain basic hygiene for a family of four is actually a LOT. I mean seriously, there’s so much stuff in camping! Definitely more than we could fit into our tiny Toyota Corolla, even if the budget had allowed me to fully prepare. (The tent alone weighed more than 44 kilograms and filled the entire boot of the car. What’s even up with that!?)

After that one night we hurried back home: filthy, freezing and forlorn. My husband called some friends that same afternoon and gave the tent away, and I donated the sleeping-bags to charity (with a note attached that said “for summer”). We swore we’d never go camping again.

Photo 19-4-19, 3 56 15 pm.jpg
Photo 21-4-19, 2 40 12 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 3 26 22 pm.jpg
Photo 21-4-19, 2 47 21 pm.jpg

And then we did.

One of the lessons we learned as a family, while we were in France last year, was the importance of taking time out, and switching off, together.

So we cleared the calendar for three nights over Easter. The budget didn’t stretch to much (thanks in part the the aforementioned stay in France) and so, with some trepidation, we decided to try camping again.

It was definitely easier. Not perfect, but easier.

We took the ‘glamping’ route, the best part of which involved someone else pitching the tent, and packing it up afterwards. Oh and floorboards, pre-made beds (with doonas and blankets), a little bar-fridge to keep the milk cool in the absence of any alpine-fed springs, and even a heater!

Of course, we were still covered in dirt most of the time, the campsite showers had scary creatures on the walls, and the campsite ‘kitchen’ was so rusted over I couldn’t even boil water, let alone cook paella. We ate a lot of dim sims from the local take away shop.

And fish ‘n chips on the beach, under a high, full moon.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad.

Photo 20-4-19, 4 52 21 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 2 38 27 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 5 07 14 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 12 24 42 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 12 22 04 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 3 27 07 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 12 27 45 pm.jpg

The children splashed in the icy sea-water, building sandcastles and a conical abbey of sand that they called le Mont Saint Michel. We explored seaside villages and manicured gardens. Old-fashioned hedge-mazes and sun drenched pathways to remote lighthouses.

In the evenings, we read our books and drank hot tea - and later red wine - wrapped in soft blankets. When it was time to turn off the lantern, the moon painted Chinese calligraphy in the leaves and branches of nearby trees on the canvas walls.

I could hear the soft breathing of my family, all asleep but me. Distant waves kissing sand. Night birds. And, on the final night, the winds of a gathering storm.

Maybe this is how Camping People feel.

Photo 19-4-19, 1 52 08 pm.jpg
Photo 19-4-19, 1 47 21 pm.jpg
Photo 21-4-19, 4 08 31 pm.jpg
Photo 21-4-19, 4 45 15 pm.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 7 49 04 am.jpg
Photo 20-4-19, 8 32 15 pm.jpg

Never miss a post

Comfort food

Photo 28-8-18, 10 04 38 am.jpg
Photo 28-6-17, 1 25 11 pm.jpg
Photo 16-3-19, 7 36 39 am.jpg
Photo 19-5-18, 3 15 08 pm.jpg
Photo 9-9-18, 4 50 13 pm.jpg
Photo 28-4-18, 1 53 20 pm.jpg
Photo 30-8-18, 6 07 21 pm.jpg

When I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend and I used to go and stay with his grandparents, in their little blue weatherboard cottage in the country, beside a lake. I remember waking early in the morning and going for long walks on the sand, watching dolphin families fish for breakfast. Morning tea with his grandma, served precisely at 10am every day, was always tea in a big pot, and Iced Vo-Vo biscuits.

One year, a few days after Christmas, we were less than an hour into our journey back home to Sydney when we received a sad phone-call: my boyfriend’s grandfather had had a heart attack, and died. We immediately turned around and hurried back to the weatherboard house, which by the time we arrived was already overflowing with family-members: parents, sisters, uncles and aunties, all with their jobs to do, somewhere on the spectrum from grief-counselling to hearse-ordering, depending on their skill-set.

All except me. As the little-known girlfriend of one of the grandsons, I felt acutely in the way. Awkward, a noisy presence (although I rarely spoke) during a time when the family needed to close in, bunker down, and support one another.

Often, food is how we show someone we love them, when they are going through a difficult time. Something hearty and lovingly baked, and left at the doorstep to be consumed when there’s no time or energy left for cooking, or frozen for a later day.

But as a superfluous guest in the bereaved person’s house, I couldn’t do that, so I made the next best thing: tea. Pots and pots of tea. I made so much tea, in fact, that everyone got sick of it. I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen where my boyfriend’s mother and grandmother sat together over the table by the window, and offering to put on the kettle. “I think we’ve all had enough cups of tea for today, thank you Naomi,” they said.

Photo 18-3-18, 8 21 46 am.jpg
Photo 13-9-18, 3 40 15 pm.jpg
Photo 24-3-19, 9 54 07 am.jpg

We had a bereavement in our family this week and, once gain, my mind turned to food.

I can’t erase the pain of those who are most affected, but I can sit in the stillness with them. (I have learned, since my 20s, that sometimes it is OK to be still with someone. We don’t always have to be doing, doing, doing). And the other thing I can do, this time, is make food. Nutritious food because grief can take a toll on the body. Hearty meals because they feel like edible hugs. Handy dishes that only need to be heated up to feed a whole family. And sweet treats, for emotional self-care and to have something easy to offer the inevitable well-meaning guests who drop around.

It was serendipitous, also, that the day after we lost our loved-one, I received a gift in the mail from Sophie Hansen (of Local is Lovely): her latest cookbook, A Basket by the Door. Actually, I received two copies of this book on the one day, one that I had pre-ordered, and another as a personal gift from Sophie.

Sophie’s book is all about food that is made to be given away. The edible care packages through which we share love during the large and small milestones of life: the loss of a loved one, a new baby, a school picnic, pre-exam jitters, a graduation, welcoming a new neighbour… and the list goes on.

This is such a heartwarming concept for a book, don’t you think? There is nothing fancy or flashy in here, and most of the recipes are relatively easy to make. The goal is to share love, not show off. Delicious, tasty, wholesome food that is intended to be given away (although Sophie does make the clever suggestion that we double some of the recipes, to keep some for ourselves as well!), alongside practical tips on how to ensure it travels well.

Country hospitality.

Photo 30-9-18, 6 30 27 pm.jpg
Photo 1-10-18, 7 16 43 am.jpg
Photo 12-9-18, 1 17 16 pm.jpg
Photo 12-9-18, 1 16 44 pm.jpg
Photo 1-10-18, 7 21 02 am.jpg
sophie.jpg

(I realise at this point that this is starting to sound like a sponsored post: I assure you it’s not. I bought my own copy of this lovely book, and nobody asked me to write about it. I just really, really adore the concept of edible care packages, and even I can cook these recipes!)

For my grieving family, from A Basket by the Door, I have already made a rich and hearty lasagne, half to eat now and half to freeze for another day when cooking feels like too much. I’ve prepared a simple and delicious filling for chicken sandwiches so we can stuff it into crusty bread rolls and take it to the park to recharge in nature. I plan to make and freeze some bliss balls during the school holidays for the kids to take in their lunch boxes when term starts, and there’s a coconut and lemongrass broth that has caught my eye for dinner some night soon.

I baked the blueberry, lemon and rosemary cake you see in the photograph above this afternoon, as a treat for the children when they came home from school, tired, grubby and low on reserves. (It freezes well so there’s a lot of future after-school treats in that tin!)

Sophie made all the food for this book, and photographed it, herself, over two years. Doing it this way - slowly, thoughtfully - meant the food she made was shared in the way it was intended, with family and friends, each dish an individual act of abundance and love.

In this spirit, I was thinking I’d like to send you a care package, too, to say thank you for being my community.

Photo 24-3-19, 11 32 25 am.jpg
Photo 22-10-18, 6 35 45 pm.jpg
Photo 1-11-18, 11 02 05 am.jpg
Photo 21-9-18, 6 05 31 pm.jpg

This blog is my happy place. I called it “Naomi Loves” many years ago, because I wanted it to be a celebration of the things, places and people I love, and that has never changed. In fact, of late I have really fallen back in love with this form of storytelling, and it gives me great joy to write a blog post each week.

But what really makes me swoon about this blog is you. In 2019, when so many people are saying blogging is dead and the only real community is on social media, you are here. You read, you leave your comments, you send me emails, and I cannot tell you how wonderful I feel to know that we are sharing this little time together, and that you allow me into your world in this small way.

Those of us here on this blog are a much smaller community than on my Instagram or my newsletter, but that makes it feel all-the-more intimate when I am writing to you, and I feel I can be more vulnerable here than anywhere else in public. It’s almost as though we’re family.

And so, I want to thank you. I’d like to give you my second copy of A Basket by the Door (the one I paid for, because the one Sophie gave me has a little note in it that makes it extra special to me). I won’t post this opportunity anywhere else online, I’m keeping it only for this little blog community, because I appreciate you so much.

Photo 28-10-18, 12 13 27 pm.jpg
Photo 28-8-18, 12 41 55 pm.jpg
Photo 3-6-17, 4 53 16 pm.jpg
Photo 1-10-18, 7 19 12 am.jpg

If you think you’d like A Basket by the Door, either for you or a friend, simply leave me a comment in this post below (if you’re reading this via email you just need to click on the title of this blog post to see it in your browser, and then you’ll see the comment box), letting me know what your favourite ‘edible care package’ is (either to give or to receive), and what makes it special. (Mine is chicken pie, but the why of that is another story for another day).

I know some of you have missed out on past opportunities on this blog because of time zones, so this time we can take it slow. I’ll choose a winner a week from today, on Friday evening, Australian Eastern Standard Time, and email that person. The opportunity is open to you anywhere in the world and, depending on the laws in your country, I might bake you a batch of my mother’s Anzac biscuits (they travel well) to go with the book.

Big hugs,
Naomi xo

UPDATE 15/04/19: This competition is now closed, and the winner has been notified. But if you’re in the mood for some inspiration, have a browse through all the kitchen-generosity in the comments below. It’s utterly heartwarming! And do still feel free to share your thoughts on this. The community on this blog genuinely makes it my happy place.

Never miss a post

The wuthering north

Photo 15-12-18, 11 12 37 am.jpg

We drove into Cumbria after dark, just as the winds were picking up. Outside it was right on zero degrees, although the little weather app on my iPhone said, helpfully, “feels like -6”. It did.

The journey had been almost twice as long as we’d anticipated, an unlucky accumulation of London traffic that had continued for three hours outside London; a sun that set at half-past-three in the afternoon, leaving us to navigate our oversized hire-car through steep and winding country roads after dark; and, speaking of navigation, numerous opportunities to take wrong turns and get lost, which we did (there were even road-signs saying “don’t trust the sat-nav”).

From bed that night I could just see the soft, watery light of the crescent moon behind the still-gathering clouds, filtering and refracting through diamond-paned windows that had filtered and refracted moonlight into this room for 500 years, exaggerating the shadows of the beams in our ceiling. The wind was picking up, battering around the ancient walls of our gatehouse in a beautiful fury.

“I love it here,” I whispered to my husband, although he might already have been asleep. “I can’t even tell you. I really love it here!”

The moon was long gone by morning, and the sun was doing its best job of hiding, too, but the grey dawn revealed bare trees and stone walls and crumbling ruins and bracken-covered hills as far as the eye could see. I ran outside in my slippers, hugging my pyjamas close, and drew in the wild view like oxygen.

Back inside, I put on the kettle and made eggs on toast for my family, while the wind positively howled. “Wow!” said the children (about the weather, not my eggs). And as we sat down at the farmhouse table under a window, beside a cast-iron fire that was cracking and popping and spreading warmth, I thought, “We are inside Wuthering Heights.”

Naturally, there was a pretty village nearby, where one could find welcoming locals with musical accents and a cafe with cockle-warming, home-cooked meals. Also naturally, there was a castle ruin, a 900-year-old edifice on an ancient mound that was once settled by Danes and was still part of Scotland until a thousand years ago or so.

I climbed the hill to the ruins alone, while the rest of my family went to find somewhere to buy groceries. The promised “ice rain” had begun, and I have honestly never felt as cold as I did atop that wild and windswept hill, not even on the January night I walked home beside the Hudson River in New York with my friend, and we learned later that it had been -18 degrees.

It was the wind. The wind that burned my ears with cold like razors, stung my eyes with dry tears, tipped me sideways, and genuinely sucked the breath from my lungs whenever I faced into it. Literally breathtaking.

How is it that this world is so full of so many beautiful places? How can we bear it, in our hearts? We only stayed in this ancient gatehouse, perched on the edge of lovely emptiness, for two nights, but I cried for the beauty of it all three times.

Photo 15-12-18, 1 10 53 pm.jpg
Photo 15-12-18, 1 10 08 pm.jpg

I didn’t want to leave. But then, that’s also how I’d felt when first we climbed the steep, cobblestoned streets of Dinan, when we made our picnic under the trees at the castle ruins of Lehon, when we lay down in sunshine among fields of wildflowers in the grounds of Hever Castle, and when we lost ourselves inside the ancient, golden-hued forest of Broceliande. I know I’ve talked about this on my blog before, the twin concepts of home and belonging.

When I married my husband, we made the song Home is wherever I’m with you by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes the unofficial theme-song of our marriage, a testament to where we’d been and where we were going, after I’d left New York to live with him. Every time we moved to a new city, I sought out ways to make it feel like home. I enrolled in a Master’s Degree when we moved to Queensland. I planted a garden when we moved to Sydney. I volunteered when we moved to Adelaide. When we moved to Melbourne, I was already pregnant with my daughter, so new mothers became my community.

I don’t quite know when I started growing restless again. Partly, I think it had to do with having children. The day you hold that new baby in your arms, your world instantly unfolds like a meadow of night-blooming cereus: dazzling flowers, hypnotically-scented, and all opening en masse in one, magic night. But parenthood can also draw your world inside (like the night-blooming cereus closing at dawn, maybe?), and even if you don’t have kids, you’ve heard enough stories from friends and siblings and aunties and grandparents… or read enough mummy-blogs… that you don’t need me to talk about that odd and disorienting and beautiful and isolating parenthood bubble right now.

My point is that becoming a mother, while undeniably the best decision I ever made and the best thing I will ever do, also taught me to see my home-town in a different way. The exciting cafes and galleries and festivals and street-art and food trucks and pop-up events that once helped me fall in love with my city became, almost overnight, all-but lost to me, sitting at home with sleeping (or not-sleeping) babies while my husband worked 100 hours a week.

I have watched the world go on without me, from the distance of the Internet.

And when you take away all the wonderful things about life in the city, you start to notice the restrictive things. The lack of fresh air, open spaces, and trees. The reliance on other things (shops, cars, telephones) for even the most basic necessities of life. With a fidgeting toddler in one arm and a hungry baby in the other, the world feels as though it doesn’t belong to you any more, and for those of us used to being “in control” in the workplace, this new workplace feels about as out of control as workplaces come.

Photo 15-12-18, 11 14 44 am.jpg

So, as I stood alone on that ancient hilltop in the breath-stealing wind, these were some of the thoughts that were going through my mind. I wanted to live in this place more than I’d wanted to live anywhere, ever. I sort-of cried, again, but I didn’t truly cry, because the wind stung my eyes and dried my tears before they could fall.

We won’t be moving to Cumbria any time soon, no matter how badly I want it. And the truth is that even more than I want that open-fielded life, I want to stay with the people who fill my life right now. They are my home, wherever I go (Home is wherever I’m with you).

After I climbed down from the castle ruins, I found my family in a little second-hand shop on the high street, deep in conversation with three locals who had each lived in this village and known one another for eight decades, or more. They recommended the fish and chips shop for lunch and, an hour or so later when we bustled in from the rain and found somewhere to sit, our new friends were already ensconced around a table at the back.

As we left, my husband secretly paid for their lunch and another round of their coffees, and it’s times like this that I remember why I first made him my home.

Never miss a post

All the light we see

Photo 16-10-18, 4 23 26 pm.jpg
Photo 16-11-18, 8 40 59 am.jpg
Photo 16-11-18, 7 49 12 am.jpg

As the days grow shorter I find I am following the light around our little apartment, seeking moments of calm in a sun that illuminates but does not burn. In the afternoon, the light slants through the dormer windows and over the table where I paint, creating patterns and shadows that are as real as they are transient, and breathtakingly beautiful.

I sit by the window and make notes in the little ‘field notes’ notebook with a blackbird the cover that I picked up at the Horniman Museum gift shop when we were in London in September. As for so many other people at this time of year (maybe you?), my thoughts are turning to introspection, a kind of ‘life stocktake of 2018’, if you like, alongside all my hopes, dreams and plans for 2019.

When it comes to ‘hopes, dreams and plans’, the key challenge I find is deciding where to put my energy. I have been guilty (and I’m sure I’m not alone here!) of taking on way too much. And as I don’t like to do anything half-hearted, I throw myself into all the things and all too often end up exhausted, burnt out, and unable to be present for my family in the way I want to be.

Do you relate?

Photo 5-11-18, 12 01 36 pm.jpg
Photo 5-11-18, 1 59 59 pm.jpg
Photo 26-9-18, 3 43 16 pm.jpg

Certainly, the first half of this year looked like that, but this extended stay in France has helped give me the mental white-space I’ve needed to see things with a little more clarity.

For example, with the clarity of emotional distance, I can look on our French sojourn as the cumulation of all those missed holidays and breaks. Aside from one week in Tasmania 18 months ago, I have not taken a break since I fell pregnant with my daughter in 2011. I worked up until the day before both of my children were born, and was back at work when my daughter was only six weeks old, and my son only three weeks old.

Of course, I work from home, so it’s not as though I’ve been in the office for all that time, and my hours equate to part time. But working from home means it’s almost more difficult to switch off, and the lines between work and family blur even further. And the rest of the time is taken up with those not-insigificant hours of cleaning, cooking, administering and nurturing to my little family. As much as I enjoy work and parenting none of it feels like a break!

This stay in France has been like a recuperation period, a chance to finally stop and rest and reflect and play. If I’d been sensible and taken two or three weeks a year during the past six years for holidays, they would have added up to the same amount of time out, but maybe just maybe, I could have avoided the sense of overload and overwhelm I’d been experiencing in the lead-up to this trip. (I suspect there’s a lesson in there for me somewhere.)

Photo 26-9-18, 4 59 13 pm.jpg

So now I sit by the window in the weakening light and sip my tea, and make notes in my blackbird notebook. Everything I’ve been doing, work-wise, this year. What’s working for me, and what isn’t. What feeds my soul and supports my family, and what detracts from soul or family (or both).

And I write down all those plans. So many creative dreams, all of which I am eager to sink my teeth into. Finally releasing that snail-mail book. A podcast about meals in the mail. Another colouring book. An illustrated year-book. A collaboration on sustainability that I’ve been invited to take on. A charity cook-book. Weekend intensive workshops for students. Postcard and zine projects. Stationery kits. Seed packets. Finally learning pottery. And how to crochet.

My first instinct is to take on ALL the plans, and pile them on top of everything I’m already doing. But in the calm and quiet sunshine of this much-needed time out, I can see more clearly. Looking down at that notebook, I can see projects that I loved this year but that didn’t serve me or my family. I can see creative ideas that I know I’ll love but that won’t serve us in 2019.

Slowly, I am paring back and choosing favourites… and choosing health and family and joy as well as, well, sheer productivity.

It’s easy to see a holiday as a great indulgence. Maybe it’s a vestige of the Protestant Work Ethic, but both my husband and I find it hard to stop. If one of us doesn’t work at night after dinner, the other one exclaims in surprise, “Oh! No work tonight!” and within the celebration of freedom there’s also an unspoken undercurrent of, “Must be nice to lead such a leisurely life.”

It’s time to reset. We both need to stop glorifying ‘being busy’.

Instead, I want to structure my days like the farmers of old. Work hard all day. Stop for a proper lunch to gain sustenance and energy for the afternoon ahead. After dinner, enjoy a well-earned rest: read a book, paint, watch TV, play board-games, write letters, crochet… in other words, leisure. Earmark at least one day each weekend for family and no work.

And once a year, while the earth sleeps (aka quieter times at work), take a break. Nothing necessarily as grand or expensive as an overseas trip (although wouldn’t that be lovely!), but ensure a deliberate, physical separation from work and obligations, to rest and reset.

These thoughts are all scribbled down in my notebook, in jumbles and pieces side-by-side with shopping lists and plant-doodles and wifi keys from the various places we’ve stayed. As I read over them before the light fades, I realise I may be making changes in 2019, bigger than I’d anticipated, pivoting again. And it feels good to finally begin to see.

Photo 5-11-18, 12 09 36 pm.jpg

Never miss a post

The magic beach

Photo 31-8-18, 3 46 13 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 2 33 45 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 2 06 26 pm.jpg

There are cliffs at the edge of the horizon, behind the rocky island, so pale and misty they could be a mirage. I wonder aloud at what point the coast curves around, until somebody tells me that no, that is Jersey. The day is so clear that we can see all the way to the British Isles. 

We arrive just as the tide is drawing out, unaware of how lucky we are. Long stretches of golden sand, still rippled with the marks of the waves, unfold under our feet. We explore rock-pools, a waterfall, an infinity pool built into the ocean wall. Gingerly we step between barnacles and in and out of patches of seaweed, making our way to a fort and prison on a hill. (Only a few hours later, there will be no beach at all, and the fort will become a wave-battered island.) Here are ancient walls, hidden rooms, and breathtaking views across to the castle walls and the old town. 

I picture all of this under water in only a matter of hours. The paths, the steps, the hewn-stone alcoves... and then I think about Atlantis, and I wonder...

The children start the day in long pants and jumpers and slowly shed layers as the sun grows in strength, ending up gleefully racing across the sand and through the shallow waves in just their underwear. We plan to visit for two hours and stay for seven instead, barely making it to the last bus home, tired, sunburned, and overflowing with happy memories. 

As if to complete the cliché, seagulls circle above the castle towers, calling. I feel joy. 

IMG_0505.PNG
Photo 31-8-18, 3 04 23 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 2 44 45 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 2 05 53 pm.jpg

Pirates! For centuries, the treacherous coastline, hardy sailors and impregnable castle walls made our magic beach a haven for pirates. Think of every swashbuckling Treasure Island story you have ever heard: yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, and all the rest. Ruthless crews would lay in wait for English, Dutch and Portuguese ships carrying gold, spices and other precious cargo from the Caribbean, then hide their treasure away in the many secret harbours and hideaways that pepper the cliffs and coves. In the 17th century the King of France legalised the pirates (for a share of the profit), and so they became known as corsairs, privateers pillaging on behalf of the Crown. They were so feared that British mariners called our beach 'the Hornet's Nest.' 

Ralph chooses a random spot in the sand and starts digging. "Soon I'll find treasure," he announces, with supreme confidence. 

This is a place rich in history and beautifully, sometimes brutally, ruled by nature. As we clamber over the still-wet rocks, Scout starts chanting to herself softly, "At our beach, at our magic beach..." from a well-known children's book we have at home. The book is about a beach that is beautiful and magical in its own right but, on every second page, the children in its pages imagine something more: knights battling dragons; an exhilarating underwater race on the backs of seahorses trailing pearls; smugglers, sneaking along the rocks at dusk. 

The book is called Magic Beach

Photo 31-8-18, 2 09 44 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 3 48 01 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 2 37 08 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 1 49 15 pm.jpg
Photo 31-8-18, 1 52 31 pm.jpg

Never miss a post

6 snail-mail games to play with children (and why)

mail-art-darcy This picture is of the first 'mail-art' I ever made. It was for a little boy who was super into civil war stuff.

(Actually it wasn't mail-art in the strictest sense, because it didn't end up travelling through the postal service. The boy's mother was staying with us, so I wrapped up a parcel for her son, painted his address on and glued some vintage stamps to the right-hand corner so it would look realistic, but then gave the parcel to the mother, who snuck it into the family letterbox when she flew home.) 

But the point of that little piece of subterfuge was this: children love getting letters. It's so rare these days,  that sometimes people contact me to tell me that they are in their 20s and my letter was the first they had ever received. Often, parents write to tell me that the letter I had sent them made their children so excited, and curious, and inspired them to send letters of their own. After all, you and I already know the joy of going to the letter-box and discovering something personal, and friendly, with your name on the front. For children, the novelty factor triples that joy and excitement. 

If for this pleasure alone, teaching your children about the postal system and having someone write to them is a wonderful thing to share with them. But there are numerous other benefits. Teaching children about the post office reinforces all kinds of other important skills: 

* Counting (weighing parcels and buying stamps)  * Reading (the fabulous letters that come)  * Writing (storytelling in their own letters)  * Handwriting (developing their visual, cognitive and fine-motor skills) * Art (enclosing drawings or making mail-art) * Geography (looking at maps to see where their letters will travel) * Learning about other cultures (from international pen-pals)

A few years ago, Mr B and I gave a bunch of envelopes to Emily and her cousin, asking them to address them for us. The girls were about 11 years old at the time, and we had 50 envelopes to address, so we offered them some pocket money for the task. They gleefully did the job and then ran off to the shops to spend the pocket money, only for Mr B and me to discover that the envelopes were no use to us, we had to throw them out and redo them all.

The girls had written the addresses in tiny handwriting in one long line at the top of each envelope, and then stuck the stamp right in the middle. It wasn't their fault; we realised they had never been taught the proper way to address a letter or affix a stamp. Instead, they'd simply done the logical thing when it came to writing anything: they'd started at the top.

I don't know if many schools are teaching children about mail any more, so maybe it's up to us to take that on. This is not just a fun craft activity from a lost era: even in 2017, mail is still very relevant. Just ask Amazon or Ebay! 

And finally, I would say that sometimes, ‘slow-living’ is about teaching your children a different kind of play. Getting back to basics, helping to create an imaginary world without the need for apps, buttons, sound-effects, motors, or the digital experience.

As blogger Jennifer Cooper says on the PBS Parents website

"But for me, there’s an even more important skill kids learn [from snail-mail], patience. Raising kids in the digital age means they don’t have to wait for much anymore. Almost everything is just a click away. And that’s great for some things, but for others it’s a problem. 

Writing letters with pencil and paper slows kids down. It makes what they read and write even more special. It also helps them write more thoughtfully about things that are important to them."

Here are some post-related games you can play with your children:

1. Cut out pieces of cardboard roughly the shape of postcards and invite your children to write (or scribble) messages on them: to other family members, to friends, to pets, even to toys. Once they have ‘posted’ the postcards, take them out and deliver them to family, friends... and toys.

2. Make stamps by using simple, white, sticker-labels sold at news agencies or office supply stores. Cut the ‘stamps’ to size if you need to, and invite your children to draw pictures on them or colour them in. Perhaps you could find some envelopes – or cut out postcards as above – to put the stamps to use.

3. Introduce them to the fun of stamp collecting. Keep any interesting stamps you receive in the mail, and keep an eye out for new series at your post office. Have them take a close look at the pictures, and talk about the people, events or scenes they depict. They might even enjoy their own album to house their collection.

4. Sorting the mail. Collect any junk mail you’ve received, and invite your children to sort the ‘mail.’ Perhaps by colour, by theme, or size? I think my children would especially enjoy this game if I made them postie hats to wear!

5. Set up stations all over your home or garden, to represent houses. You could use shoe-boxes, or even lunch boxes. Your child is the postie, so give them letters to deliver to each house. Perhaps you could number the houses, so your child has to find the matching envelopes in order to deliver the right letter. If they don’t know numbers yet, maybe match simple drawings instead, like flowers or cars.

6. At the real post office, get the children involved. Invite them to guess how much the parcel weighs and choose which stamp to buy. Let them stick on stamps and airmail labels themselves. Ask for your letter back when you’re done at the counter, so the children can post it themselves outside.

I'm sure there are plenty of other fun activities that teach kids about the postal system. I'd love to know them if you have any ideas, suggestions or advice! 

Never miss a post

Rhythms and rituals

Processed with VSCO with a5 presetI'm in the middle of one now. As I type it is 5.30 in the morning and the rest of my house is still sleeping. Outside, it is dark and refreshingly cool. I've made a cup of tea in my green mug. Usually I choose my favourite stoneware mug (you'll recognise it if you follow me on Instagram) but, on mornings when I am extra tired, like today, I'm realistic about the increased likelihood that I might just knock or drop my cup, so I choose a less-precious alternative. The tea still tastes good. Really good. And almost-but-not-quite unbearably hot. I like to be up before the family every day. In the glorious chaos that involves parenting two small children, non-responsible alone-time is premium. Some days it is worth more, even, than sleep. I say "non-responsible" because on the days the children go to daycare I am technically alone, but those are my work days, and my time and mind belong to someone else. I'm on the clock, and I don't take a minute of those days for myself.

These mornings, on the other hand, belong exclusively to me. It doesn't matter what I do with them, as long as it is for myself. Sometimes I work on my book, other times I paint, others, like now, I write my blog. Make stickers, make mail, write postcards, read a magazine. Do a French lesson online. Always, there is the tea. (If there is time, I have more than one cup).

My early mornings are a deliberate pause before the whirlwind of the day begins, like a galvanising hand on my shoulder and a little voice that I trust, saying, "you got this." By the time the children wake and start calling for me, I feel settled in my mind but also satisfied, because I have done something I enjoy, whether it is furthering a project or simply indulging an interest.

Now, with the children awake, I am free to be (joyfully and without impatience) all theirs.

Yesterday during my morning ritual I began cutting out dozens of little handmade stickers, rsvp labels I have drawn to enclose as gifts in some of the mail I send. While I was cutting, I listened to podcasts. There was an episode of The Slow Home Podcast with Brooke McAlary, in which she and her husband Ben were answering listeners' questions. Someone had written in to say that with small children at home, decluttering felt like an impossible task: what other things could she do, instead, to "slow" her life and home?

They both had some useful responses, but Ben spoke briefly about rituals and this really resonated with me. He was referring to checkpoints or important moments that we can build into our routines, that encourage mindfulness, or gratitude, or just help us be "present" in what we are doing and who we are with. These are spiritual or social slowing-down activities that are structured into the rest of our week as habits, and they can be done no matter how busy our lives are, and no matter how many Hot-Wheels cars or Sylvanian Families pieces roll and crunch under foot on the way to the bathroom.

As I listened, I realised, "I'm doing that!" My husband and I love creating traditions and appreciating the small things, so maybe it comes naturally enough to us to do this, but I realised we had unintentionally built a number of rituals into our lives that help us connect as a family, despite pretty insane hours put in by both of us.

My alone-with-my-tea mornings are one such ritual. And in case you're interested, here, in no particular order, are some others.

Taco Sundays

Every Sunday we have tacos for dinner. The children help make it so we all cook together, and then sit around the table with little self-serve bowls of taco-filling in the middle to pass to one another, while we crunch and chat. The tacos aren't fancy: we get the probably-very-unhealthy versions that you can buy in a kit. But they are quick and easy to make (so easy, a four year old and a three year old can do it). Nutrition isn't the priority of this particular meal, it's family. Mr B's hours are so long - he is often at work before 6am and home after 8pm - that he can go days or even a whole week without seeing his children. On Sunday nights, we reset the week with the millennia-old practise of cooking together and then sitting down and eating together, and it is our favourite meal of the week.

Making the beds

There are all kinds of research studies about the benefits of making the bed, and I know for me the day feels more "under control" once my bed is made, and I get genuine pleasure from seeing it all nicely made up (nerd alert).

Recently, my children got new "big kid" beds. Previously they slept in cots that had been converted into toddler beds, but these new beds are the real deal. That also meant new bedding because they old cot-sheets didn't fit, and a bit of a clean-out and rearrangement of the room they share, because it is a small room. You've never seen two children more eager to go to sleep at night than they were the first night they got to snuggle down in those new beds and a fresh new room. But the point of this is that it is super easy for them to make their beds (just a sheet and a doona), so I simply incorporated that habit into their mornings. We don't leave the room to start our day until the beds are made.

The best thing that happened today 

This is not actually one of our rituals yet, but after listening to another of the Slow Home podcasts, it is about to become one. It is a question to be asked around the dinner table (or in our case, to be asked while the children eat dinner and I supervise them): "What is the best thing that happened to you today?" Sometimes when they come home from daycare and kinder it is so hard to learn about what they had been doing and how they were feeling all those hours we were apart. "What did you do today?" "Don't remember."  The "favourite thing" question takes the pressure off. It is positive, so not fraught with anxiety, and it is just one thing, not a whole day's worth of things. On its own, this is a lovely little gratitude exercise. But I'm also hoping it will lead to more openness and sharing between us. 

Mummy magic 

"Mummy magic" is our word for a kind of Reiki-style meditation that I do over the children before they go to sleep. It started a few months ago when one of the children was afraid of returning to a nightmare if they fell asleep. Now, it is an indispensable part of our bed-time routine. After bath and brushing teeth, we read some stories, and then the children each get into bed. One at a time, I "lay hands" over them, without touching them. I pat my heart then hover my hands over their hearts, focusing my mind on just how much I love them. Then slowly I pass my hands over their whole body, from head to toes. At the toes, I kind of flick my hands and imagine I'm pushing all the toxins (physical or emotional) out, and then work my way back up their little bodies, trying to pour all my mama-love (mummy magic) back in. 

Sending postcards from holidays 

Who does that any more? The Bulger family, that's who! Every time we go on holidays, even a weekend break, Mr B buys postcards to send to some of the lovely donors and supporters of the charity he works at, to let them know he's thinking of them. (Imagine how good it must make them feel to have the Executive Director of the charity writing them a personal postcard! I don't know anyone else who does that, but then maybe I am biased because I think I married someone pretty amazing). Following his lead, the children like to write postcards, too. So over a breakfast meal at some point in the holiday, we all sit down and think about what we have seen and done and what we enjoyed and what stood out to us, and we write those things down, put a stamp on them, and send them to someone we care about. 

Leaving notes 

One lovely habit Mr B has to counteract the long hours he works is to leave little notes for us to find when we wake up in the morning. Notes telling the children how much he loves them, and what he hopes to do together on the weekend. Notes telling them how much he loved the drawing they did for him, or how the video I sent of them made him so proud. Notes telling me how much he appreciates me. Last week I opened up my recipe book (the one in which I write or paste all my favourite recipes) and discovered a beautiful letter from Mr B tucked inside the pages, from September last year.

Those letters, scribbled on the backs of envelopes or receipts or shopping lists, are keepsakes. I keep all the letters he writes to the children in a little book, so that one day when they are older I can show it to them and they will know (if they don't already) how deeply they are loved. 

Slow mornings 

Circling back to my alone mornings, my children have a morning ritual too. I have taught them how to read the clock, and, no matter what time they wake up, they know they are not to call out to come downstairs until the clock reaches 7am. Often (although not always), they wake up a lot earlier. Any time from six in the morning, they could be awake. But I have learned that if I bring them downstairs when they first wake, the day rarely goes well. They are tired and grumpy and bicker with one another and with me. Burst into tears for no reason. 

But their mornings, while they wait for 7am to roll around, are slow and lovely. Downstairs enjoying my me-time, I listen to them on the monitor. One wakes and says in a croaky sleep-voice "Do you want to cuddle?" Then you hear rustling and the pad-pad of little feet, more rustling, and they have snuggled down in one of the beds together. Everything goes silent for a little while. Then slowly, the talking begins. Games, questions, ideas for the day. Sometimes Scout pulls out books and reads to Ralph (she can't actually read, but can recite many of their books word for word). Other times, they start a tickle game, or play with the soft toys in a basket in their room. It is a gentle, slow waking up that gradually becomes louder and more rambunctious as the morning continues and, by the time the little hand points to the 12 and the big hand points to the seven, they are excited to start the day. 

Now it's over to you. Tell me about your rituals! 

(ps. That beautiful window is not in my house, it's from a country home I visited recently that has me dreaming about a tree-change. It just so happens to be for sale if you want to wake up to that every day!)

Never miss a post

Holidays at home

Processed with VSCO with k3 presetProcessed with VSCO with 5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a9 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a7 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

Summer holidays at home are for bare feet and late nights. For dining on ice cream instead of vegetables, watching Netflix instead of deadlines, and reading trashy novels instead of weighty text-books.

They are for heatwaves and plummeting rain and, when the rain clears, for a million petals carpeting the footpath like confetti.  

Holidays are for languid afternoons and lazy nonchalance, for baking and making, for staying in pyjamas all day one day and swimming costumes all day the next. For games. New games, old games, games together and games alone, games of action and games of craft, games of imagination and games of giggles. And for at least three complaints of "I'm boooooored," issuing from among mountains of new Christmas toys.

Then, the new year. 

Holidays turn to tidying bedrooms, cleaning out cupboards, making plans, and writing lists. So many lists! To-do lists, shopping lists, lists of recipes to try, lists of creative projects, gratitude lists, mailing lists. And new calendars and fresh new planners, lined notebooks full of promise, and bright new collections of art-paper, ready for rainbows. 

What have you been doing lately? 

Never miss a post

New year, new project (1000 postcards)

postcards-2 It wouldn't be January without a million people making plans, would it?

Mr B and I spent the days after Christmas slowly recovering, and hatching schemes. He bought a book called The Barefoot Investor and declared that this would be the year we take back control of our finances. I let the children consume their very last icy-pole and bucket of chips while we were in Bendigo, then returned home and emptied the 'fridge and pantry of all the leftover chocolates, cakes, biscuits and ice-creams that had made their way into our house over December. I declared that this was the year we would take back control of our health. 

And then together, Mr B and I hatched a plan that involves YOU. 

He purchased for me a giant box containing one thousand vintage and antique postcards, all unused. The postcards date from around 1905 through to the 1970s, and have been waiting all these years for someone to stick a stamp on them, scrawl "Wish you were here," and send them into the world. 

Well, that someone is me. I have decided to launch the Thousand Postcard Project for 2017, a year-long project in which I intend to send a thousand vintage postcards to people anywhere in the world. Each one will include a unique message: maybe a short story, a snippet from my life, a recipe, a poem, and so on. 

Every now and again, I'll share photographs of some of the sent postcards on my blog, so you can see what they look like (I'll only show the picture sides of the postcards, never people's addresses). 

Would you like to receive postcard from the Thousand Postcard Project? Fill in the form on this page to give me your postal address, then sit back and watch your letterbox for a little vintage surprise. 

 

Never miss a post

Eccentric escape

sea-table gerald

arrival

sunbathing

at home

You can move away, you can run away even, but, 90 percent of the time, your quirks and fears and troubles stow away with you. I know this because I have moved a lot, and sometimes a long way.

This is the underlying theme of a new TV show called The Durrells. Thankfully, the quirks, fears and troubles that follow the Durrell family from Bournemouth in the UK to the Greek island of Corfu are also frequently adorable, affectionate, and genuinely funny.

Oh my gosh, I am so in love with this eccentric family of misfits and, in particular, with their mother Louisa, who is most often at her wits' end but is also my hero.

The series is inspired by the trilogy of books by Gerald Durrell. Remember My Family and Other Animals? My father gave me this book when I was a child, telling me how much he had loved it when he was a child. So now I can't think about the book without thinking about my father, which makes it doubly joyful to revisit the hapless Durrells in their warm and sunlit world.

In fact I never want to leave that world. A fruitless wish, since there are only six episodes to a season, but thankfully I hear a second season is already in the making.

And in the meantime, since summer is only just around the corner here in Australia, I am going to take a leaf out of the Durrells' book and eat lunch in the ocean, to keep cool. Tablecloth included. It looks kind of perfect, don't you think?

ps. more of my favourite TV shows here and here

Never miss a post