Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Self-Care In The Era Of Trump & Brexit

I spent much of 2016 depressed, a mental health crisis triggered by the Brexit vote and exacerbated by the US elections. Yet I've begun 2017 in the most positive place for years and I wondered, why? When the world is undeniably getting worse, not better, and the news out of America becomes more and more dystopian, why am I feeling so cheerful?

I think the answer has to do with finally cracking a self-care routine that really works for me. Siobhan wrote eloquently and brilliantly last week on why self-care can be a problematic term and I very much suggest you read it, but I'm about to completely ignore her very valid argument that "self-care articles are [not] the way forward" and write one of my own.

I am very privileged - I hold a UK passport and am white, cisgender, and middle class, all of which means I am able to sometimes close the door and take a break from the noise of the world. It's important to recognise that this is not a privilege that everyone in this country - let alone the world - has. My self-care routines aren't about ignoring what's happening, they're about taking time to regroup and recharge so I'm better able to be useful in what has become a fight against fascism.

I'm accepting my limits with regard to activism and advocacy, while recognising what I can do
I spent a lot of 2016 beating myself up about the fact that my anxiety prevents me from going to protests and marches. I find large groups challenging in so many ways, from social anxiety to crowd-related panic attacks to IBS anxiety about not always having a loo accessible, and I saw this as a failing on my part, rather than looking at what else I could do. I wrote at the start of the year about not wanting to use my mental & physical health as an excuse to not take action, but I'm learning that it's important to recognise that there are many and varied ways of carrying out activism and resistance.

Thomas has encouraged me to view my writing as a valid form of activism, and one I can engage in from home even when my health is bad. Instead of marching, I'm writing regularly to my MP (which Write To Them makes incredibly easy). I'm putting my money where my mouth is on local, national and international levels. I've set up a direct debit to Leicester Rape Crisis, donated to the UK Black Lives Matter justice fund, Planned Parenthood and, after this weekend's events, to the ACLU as they seek to challenge the Muslim Ban in court.

Think about what actions you can take within your own limits - but also don't be afraid to sometimes push those limits. I know that a large protest in London is not achievable for me, but I joined a smaller local demo last night and although it was outside my comfort zone, I'm very glad I went. Being with others who feel the same anger, who also want change, is also a form of self-care.

I am staying off social media
I'm a social media addict and can happily spend an evening whiling away time on Twitter and Facebook, without achieving anything concrete. But I realised after Brexit that Twitter was having a detrimental affect on my mood; I could feel my anxiety and unhappiness kicking into higher gear as soon as I opened the app. And no wonder! At the moment it's an endless scroll of misery, brutality and fascism. So I deleted the app. I'm still reading the news, keeping abreast of what's happening, and taking actions where I can. But only visiting Twitter once a day has made an enormous difference to my mood.

Take time to consider your social media use and ask: is it telling me something new or does it make me happy? If the answer to both is "no" then switch off. It's ok to acknowledge that you have limits; it's ok to prioritise your health.

I am making & doing
In the run-up to Christmas I started sewing a lot and noticed an immediate upswing in my mood. And now that the festive season has passed I'm in full-on zine mode. Since the start of January I've finished one and started on my second, and seeing something tangible come out of my scribbling is hugely rewarding.

Make time each week for creative pursuits. This could be anything: baking, gardening, drawing, knitting, colouring... whatever you find most enjoyable. Spending time on an activity that requires both concentration and calm is a quick route to zen-like relaxation

I am embracing hygge
Yup, that word I'm afraid, but never fear - I'm not about to tell you to buy expensive new throws or designer Scandi candlesticks. What I am doing is making duvet forts on the sofa, lighting the fire, turning off my phone, and drinking lots of tea. Not exactly revolutionary, I know, but I'm trying to recognise this for what it is - essential self-care and something to be enjoyed mindfully - rather than beating myself up about not being more productive. Some days just call for fresh pyjamas, a 99p bunch of daffodils, and a good book, and that's ok.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Photo An Hour: Saturday 28th January

Sunday was the official Photo An Hour day this month, as arranged by Louisa and Jane. However, Sunday was the day I'd designated for pyjamas and sofa and not much else, so in an attempt to get vaguely interesting pictures I did mine on Saturday (together with a handful of others).

Last January I went to Nottingham with Thomas for shopping, vegan pizza and cider. This year my day involved heroic levels of procrastination, blogging, a 50th birthday party, and lots of vegan food (some things never change!).
Wow, I slept SUPER late! We went to see La La Land last night (opinion - did not enjoy it very much. I love musicals but the oh-so-clever ironic detachment of it really turned me off. I did love the end sequence though, which was beautiful) followed by the pub, doing that thing where you go for "a" drink and roll home 4 hours later. So I needed to catch up on my sleep!
Making vegan pancakes for brunch. This recipe is so easy: just flour, sugar, baking powder & a pinch of salt, plus water and vegetable oil, mixed to make a batter. We ate them with slices of banana, in an attempt to be healthy, plus syrup of course.
Ah isn't procrastination grand? What I should be doing today is working on my application for a Masters in Gender Studies. But I urgently needed to rearrange my kids & YA shelves in colour order.
Exchanging bookshelves for supermarket shelves. Our local Morrisons has such a brilliant range of vegan frozen foods, it makes shopping so much easier to not have to go into town to health food stores to get Frys stuff (FYI, their peppered steak-style pies are immense with mashed potato).
Got home from the supermarket to find the postie had been, and delivered this most wonderful card from my brother. It makes me smile every time I look at it.

Still procrastinating by catching up on blogging. Which is also on my to-do list for the weekend, to be fair.
Missy's absolute favourite game at the moment is to watch the wall of the office while we make shadow puppets, which she then endeavours to catch. Sitting in front of the wall is is her oh-so-subtle way of telling me that she wants to play.
Still. So. Much. To. Do. I can't be the only person who writes completed tasks on a To-Do list, simply for the pleasure of ticking them off, can I?
An earlier-than-usual dinner. I listened to Craig Charles' Funk & Soul Show on 6Music as I got everything ready.
Getting ready to go out. I'm designated driver for tonight's 50th birthday party in a village south of Leicester. And yeah, I literally only have one winter going out outfit - if you follow me on Instagram you'll have seen this quite a few times before!
At the party. As it's a guy I used to work with, there were lots of old colleagues there and it was fun seeing them all and catching up with everyone.
Finally home from the party and feeling exhausted, but I had this little furface to greet me so it's not all bad.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Day Trip To York

This post could be subtitled: In Which Janet Visits Somewhere Lovely And Fails, Once Again, To Take Enough Photographs. Or the shorter: In Which Janet Is A Shit Blogger.

So anyway.

Thomas and I had talked about going to York for a short post-New Year break but, when we realised it only takes 2 hours on the train from Leicester, decided to save some pennies and travel there and back in the same day.

Luckily, after a week of unsettled weather, Saturday dawned gloriously sunny, if very cold. Just the weather for wrapping up warm and exploring. We started our day at the lovely Little Apple Bookshop on High Petergate, before popping in to the brilliantly named Grimoire Bookshop a couple of doors down. A few pounds lighter - and our bags somewhat heavier - we walked past the Minster to Goji on Goodramgate, where Thomas got the most epic vegan hotdog ever (sadly one of the many things I failed to photograph - he'd scoffed it before I could even get my camera out.
Keen to make the most of the glorious sunshine, after popping into some charity shops, we headed to Monk Bar, from which we ascended York's ancient city walls. One of my favourite activities when I visited the city as a child was walking along the walls and peering into the back gardens as I passed by, and I can attest to the fact that having a good old nose around is still as fun now as it was then.

In need of sustenance (after all, I hadn't had a hot dog) we headed to Betty's. The crowd outside their St Helen's Square branch was enormous and we decided we'd rather queue in the warmth of their smaller Stonegate location round the corner. This is a much more traditional-feeling tea room but with the same excellent food and service as you'd expect from the venerable Yorkshire institution.

A few glasses of prosecco down - yes, we really did visit a tea room and fail to drink any tea - plus sandwiches for me and a torte to share, we reluctantly gave up our seats in the cosy nook by the fire and headed back out into the cold.
All told, it was a lovely day, and the perfect reminder that we don't need to spend heaps of money on weekend breaks to have a relaxing time away from home. Now to plan the next day trip: any suggestions?

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Year Of Buyer's Archive

For the past two years I've been keeping a note of all my clothing purchases, after being introduced to the concept of the Buyer's Archive by Elise. The goal was twofold: first, to make myself more accountable for my spending and to face up to the frankly ridiculous amount of cash I piss away on new clothes and shoes. And secondly, to give myself a tool with which to analyse my purchases a year down the line, the aim then being to become a smarter and more savvy consumer, buying what I know I will wear rather then frittering money away.

Numbers & Statistics
Between January 1st and December 31st 2016 I spent £712.57 on clothes, shoes and accessories and bought 61 different items, giving an average per-item spend of £11.48. This is a significant decrease of £457 on my spending during 2015, when the overall total was £1170 (partly because I didn't buy as many 'big ticket' items like coats in 2016 and partly because my income dropped so sharply after I left teaching).

A Closer Look
- Unlike 2015 (when I bought more dresses than anything else) in 2016 I obviously started experimenting with separates, buying more tops, t-shirt and blouses, and skirts, than any other item. I didn't buy any coats or jackets last year, but my shoe collection increased by 6 pairs. All of which, apart from one, were tan. Ahem.

- If striped tops and t-shirts were a discrete category, they would have made up 16% of my 2016 purchases. I definitely need a ban on new stripes in 2017!

- Almost exactly half (49%) of my purchases were bought new and at full price, with 12% bought secondhand and the remaining 39% bought new but at a discount (ah I love a good discount code!)

- 13 items came into my wardrobe from secondhand sources - charity shops, vintage stores or clothes swaps - which is the same total as in 2015. It can be extremely difficult to find decent plus size clothes in charity or vintage shops, but I did ok last year.

- The high street store I bought the most from in 2016 was H&M, followed by ASOS, Dorothy Perkins and La Redoute. All the bags and jewellery I bought were from independent sellers and markets, while clothes-wise I only bought a couple of t-shirts from independent sellers (via Etsy).

- My most expensive buy of 2016 was £40 on a secondhand Fjallraven backpack. The cheapest was £1.75 for a floral midi skirt from Age UK in Leicester.

- 12 items - or 19% of the total - have already been returned, sold on or donated. This is an improvement on 2015, when I returned, sold or donated 24% of what I bought.
The Best & Worst Buys Of 2016
My best finds were a black denim skirt from Primark, which I wear constantly, and the amazing t-bar shoes from Deichmanns which I bought in September (other ace purchases that month were the Fight Like A Grrrl t-shirt and the perfect polka dot midi skirt). While on the subject of polka dots, this skater skirt, a bargain at just €7 from C&A, was another bargain buy.

Sadly, my H&M cat t-shirt did not turn out to be a smart buy: Missy is mortally afraid of it so I'm going to be selling it on soon. And I haven't used the Fjallraven backpack as much as I expected - I think I'm too wedded to my tote bags to adjust to wearing a rucksack. Meanwhile, I'm not thrilled that such a large percentage of my buys are still being returned or sold/donated within a year.

Targets For 2017
Overall, I'm pleased that my spending went down in 2016 but I'd still like to get it lower: below £600 ideally. It's also ridiculous that - a handful of items aside - the majority of what I wear on a day-to-day basis are items I've had in my wardrobe for two or more years. Good for getting wear out of things, yes, but it suggests that the majority of these new purchases aren't actually useful additions to my wardrobe. So in future the questions I'll ask are: Does it fill a gap in my wardrobe, and Does it go with something I already own? If the answers to either are "no" then I'll be leaving it in the shop.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016: A Year In Books

Despite the resolution I made this time last year to read more varied genres, in 2016 I once again stuck to a fairly limited diet of crime, thrillers and YA, with a smattering of literary fiction and non-fiction (all links will take you to my original review of the book).

Best Book I Read In 2016 (Broken Down By Genre If Necessary)
I really enjoyed Dumplin by Julie Murphy, gloriously fat-positive YA and a book I would have loved to have read when I was a teenager. I also adored This Song Will Save Your Life, which reflected many of my own teenage experiences.
Contemporary/Literary Fiction
The Museum Of You by Carys Bray was just stunning: a moving meditation on grief and family, and properly funny too.
I read the Daughter Of Smoke & Bone trilogy at the very start of 2016 and was absolutely hooked. Fantasy is not my usual cup of tea, but this tale of the battles between chimera and angels, across multiple worlds, transcend genre.
I read Lie With Me when on holiday in September and thought it was brilliant, while The Kind Worth Killing is one of the best psychological thrillers I've ever read, and one I've pressed upon many other readers.
A Man Of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg chronicles the life of one Somalian refugee and is absolutely essential reading in today's world.

Most Surprising (In A Good Way) Book Of 2016
I love Pride & Prejudice and I love Curtis Sittenfeld, so it shouldn't be surprising that I loved Eligible, her modern take on P&P. And yet I've hated most of the other Austen Project books, so I was shocked but thrilled to adore this.

Book I Read In 2016 That I Recommended Most To Others
As my job is now literally recommending books, there are so many I could mention here. But outside of work, my most recommended books have to be the Murder Most Unladylike series. I ended the year by buying piles of them for my nieces.

Best Series I Discovered In 2016
As someone who's not overly keen on reading series (I hate having to commit myself to anything beyond one book), I'm surprised to find that for 2016, this is a difficult one. The Wells and Wong series, as mentioned above, was one of my favourite finds, as was the Daughter Of Smoke & Bone trilogy. But as I've already talked about them, I'll go for the Spinsters Club series by Holly Bourne. Properly funny feminist YA fiction? I'm so there.

Book I Was Most Excited About & Thought I Was Going To Love, But Didn't
The Art Of Being Normal had been critically lauded both on the Bookstagram/book blogging scene and in the mainstream media. So I was disappointed to find it was not only a fairly middling read but also super problematic on class. If you're looking for YA with a trans heroine, If I Was Your Girl is a far superior book, and written by a trans author too. The #ownvoices campaign is something that I'll be getting behind in 2017.

Best Book That Was Outside My Comfort Zone Or From A Genre New To Me
I wouldn't have discovered Lucy Knisley's lovely graphic memoirs if it weren't for Laura mentioning that her new book was about marriage. As I'm in the midst of planning a wedding, I decided to take a look and I'm so glad I did. Something New was exactly what I needed to read - her reflections on bi erasure and what it means to be a queer woman marrying a straight cis man were particularly valuable to me - and I've since hunted down all her backlist, too, as well as seeking out more graphic novels.

Favourite Book From An Author I've Read Previously
I've found David Levithan's recent work very hit-and-miss, but You Know Me Well, his book with Nina LaCoeur, was a lovely queer YA novel as much about the important of friendship as about romance.

Best Book I Read in 2016 Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Someone Else
I don't think I'd have picked up Deon Meyer's Benny Griessel series were it not for the constant recommendations from my aunt in Cape Town. But they're properly brilliant: high octane police procedural thrillers, but with the added benefit of insight into modern-day South Africa. Oh, and amazing settings too.
Favourite Cover Of A Book In 2016
Umm hello? Just LOOK at the cover of Dumplin'! I think I'm going to adopt Go big or go home as my motto for 2017.

Book That Had The Greatest Impact On Me In 2016
The book that, according to Kirkus, could "have been titled Black Lives Matter", Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is tough but essential reading.

Book That Had A Scene In It That Left Me Reeling And Dying To Talk About It With Someone
Another series I loved in 2016 was Charlaine Harris's Midnight, Texas series. And it didn't so much leave me reeling as wanting to talk about the multiple plot revelations across the series. It's impossible to describe the characters without major spoilers, so reviewing it was a challenge.

Favourite Relationship From A Book In 2016 (be it romantic or friendship)
The fierce father-daughter love between Darren and Clover in The Museum Of You.

Genre I Read The Most From In 2016
YA and crime, again. I'd rather be relaxing with another crime novel or YA romance than plodding through Bleak House, and I'm past feeling I need to apologise for this.

Best 2016 Debut
I thoroughly enjoyed Missing, Presumed, a superior crime novel with a political conscience, but strictly speaking it wasn't Susie Steiner's debut novel, just a debut for the series. Not Working by Lisa Owens - think Bridget Jones for the millennial generation - was probably my favourite actual debut.

Book That Made Me Cry (Or Nearly) In 2016
I sobbed like a baby at the afterword to When Breath Becomes Air, in which the author's wife describes his peaceful death from cancer. Unfortunately, I was on a train in Belgium at the time and got some rather odd looks.

Book I Read In 2016 That I Think Got Overlooked When It Came Out
I know this comedy of manners wasn't to everyone's tastes, but I really enjoyed Modern Lovers by Emma Straub and didn't see it mentioned much when it came out. I also really loved Naomi Alderman's feminist dystopia The Power, which was reviewed glowingly in the press but hasn't had quite the promotion I think it deserved.

Total Number Of Books Read In 2016
2016 was the year I stopped blogging every book I read, so unlike previous round-ups I have no idea what my annual total is: around 200, at a guess? The vast majority of what I read was by women authors, both cis and trans, but I could still do better at reading more books by PoC, so that's one goal for 2017 (and luckily, Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie is top of my TBR pile, so I'll start 2017 as I mean to go on). However, my 2016 goal was to read less crime, and that didn't exactly come to pass....