Monday, 14 December 2015

December Already?

So it is! The weeks have been flying by and it's now only a week until Yule!

Apparently, November was unusually warm. Not that we had much sun - it was also unusually dull and wet. The relative warmth was due to the lack of frost here, only one real frost so far this winter and that didn't occur until around the 21/22 November. I can't remember the exact date, and didn't take a photo even though the fields behind the house looked rather nice dusted with ice, but I do remember thinking that it was about a month late compared to where I used to live.

We've had four winter storms in the seven weeks or so since the Met Office and Met Eireann started the named storms project to raise awareness of severe weather and to track how many storms we get over winter. I don't think I need my awareness raised, but it seems some people still don't take enough notice of severe weather warnings.

I understand that storms and severe weather warnings (and for that matter, the EA flood warnings) have a linked but separate existence, but I'm unclear on the criteria for a storm and for severe weather warnings. South West Wales was outside the area for severe weather warnings during storm Desmond, and yet there was heavy rain, flooding, and damage from high winds. In fact, when I went out to teach the other Thursday evening as storm Desmond started to build, it felt worse than on the previous Monday, when I cancelled a class due to the (then) severe weather warning. I left a comment on the Met Office Facebook page asking for clarification; given a reasonably high likelihood of the forecast, how much rain and how high a wind speed/gusts are required to be thought impactful enough to generate the severe weather warning? And when is stormy weather bad enough to be a named storm? Unfortunately, it seems the Met Office doesn't answer their visitor posts. And, judging from some of the comments on their posts, many of their visitors don't read the older posts or really understand the forecasts either, so there's lots of whinging comments about naming storms and the inaccuracy of forecasts.

I'm seeing far more birds now than earlier in the year, including a Robin who regularly comes to the garden, Blue Tits searching out spiders from the window frames and many more Starlings. The Swallows slipped away gradually at the end of the summer, and although I've seen flocks of winter thrushes flying over, none seem to settle on the horse fields behind the house. Back in September, there were often early morning skeins of geese flying over and I saw a Kestrel out looking for lunch one day when I was emptying the compost caddy into the main bins.

In the last week of November, I started to see Lapwings over and on the horse fields, with numbers building daily from 16, then 30, then 45, then 75. The flock flew back, forth and around, spilling a few members at a time until all were on the ground. They were happy enough on the ground with a few rugged-up ponies, Starlings, Rooks, Jackdaws and a mix of Herring and Black-Headed Gulls, but the occasional loud bangs from the other side of Langford Farm, where the new school is being built, was enough to send them all into the sky again, presumably in search of somewhere more peaceful. I reported this sighting to the Pembrokeshire Birds blog, which contains all sorts of sightings. Pembrokeshire is outstanding for birding, with passage migrants, accidentals and a huge variety of resident birds. If you want to do a spot of birdwatching and want to know where to look and what to look for, it's worth checking out the blog!

Over the following couple of days, the numbers of Lapwings reduced and I haven't seen any now since probably the beginning of December. On one of the last sightings, there was a glimmer of sun between showers which really set off the iridescence of the feathers as 30 or so Lapwings sheltered on a muddy strip of the field, poached by the horses' hooves as they wandered up and down a line of electric tape fencing. Everything was peaceful until some Herring Gulls started to get stroppy with a Buzzard, who had evidently wandered into their personal space. There has often been a rather wet and sorry-looking Buzzard pacing around the fields, presumably taking advantage of worms, slugs and other invertebrates in the grass. On one occasion there were two Buzzards, presumably a pair since they wandered around happily only a few metres apart from each other. Anyway, the Lapwings were fine with the Buzzard, but the Herring Gulls saw it off.

The colder weather has revealed what an unevenly-heated house this is. Downstairs is quite draughty, especially the extension, where the wind sounds like a kazoo as it forces its way in past the seals on the side door and through the outlet hole for a tumble drier. The big windows, so great for solar gain, are pretty cold when there's no sun. Suddenly, insulating tape, curtain poles and lined curtains have appeared on my priority list. And in order to put the curtain poles up, (once I decide what I want and can afford it!), I needed a combi-drill. When I was thinking about curtains, I suddenly realised that this is the first time I'm in a place where I can please myself about decor. No landlord, parents or partner to allow or object and the only compromises are related to the structure of the house and what I can afford (currently, not a lot!). The second realisation was that I no longer have any idea what I like or want by way of decor!

Cleaning, unpacking and sorting is still ongoing. It's a good job I have a lot of dusters and I get some daily satisfaction from tossing used ones into their wash-bin. I thought I would have finished within six months, but it is something of a constant problem-solving exercise and there's only so much I have the time and energy (and money!) for every day. For example, the co-ax cable from the TV aerial was too short to reach the TV. I was sure I had an extension cable, so unpacked more boxes until I found it. Then found the connector on one end was wrong and I didn't have an adapter, so went to buy an adapter, but couldn't find just the adapter, so had to buy another extension. I still haven't found the cause of the problem with my turntable, although I solved the problem with the speaker connections. And I think I may have a solution for using the old video player for playback, but need a type of lead which I definitely don't have anywhere and haven't been able to find in town. Similarly, I also need a wireless dongle for the TV, now that I can't easily run cable from the router to the TV.

One of the next jobs is to find the Christmas decorations, which have gone unused for at least six years, and make the place feel more festive. My place is looking a bit drab compared to the neighbours'. I've had two 'Christmas' dos already - a meal at a local pub with the local over-50s exercise class, and the Ceredigion belly dance classes' party which is always great fun. I was thinking of having a Yule party, but a friend has invited me to hers instead.
A late lunch, one of the cats and the To Do list are all calling me ....

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Not Meant To Be

I'm something of a believer in whether things are meant to be, or not. Whether you attribute it to the mysterious movings of the universe, serendipity, coincidence, fate, karma, predestiny, messages from God or the angels, there are times when you get the feeling that things are conspiring against a course of action. Then you have a choice; fight on and try to make it happen, or accept that some things are not meant to be. Of course, you may not believe in this and consider it a defeatist attitude, that you can make anything happen and do anything if you want it badly enough. I agree that some things are worth giving your all, but some are not. Pick your battles!

Last week I planned to treat myself to a somatics workshop. It's so long since I went up to Penpynfarch and I live even further away now, but the application of what I've learned in previous workshops has shown some subtle but positive results, both in dance and in managing the osteoarthritis.

Knowing I would hit the local rush hour, I gave myself an extra half an hour on the journey time suggested by the AA. The weather forecast was not good; Barney, the second of the Met Office/Met Eireann named storms was due. It would make for a horrible journey home, with a yellow warning for high winds starting from mid afternoon, but I reckoned if I stuck to main roads once out of Llandysul, it would be okay.

I set off on time and had only gone a couple of miles when I joined a queue of traffic into Haverfordwest. It took me all of my spare half hour to get past the town (normally a ten minute drive!), with red lights all the way. It was pouring with rain, blustery wind dumping bucketfuls onto the windscreens and roads. Drivers sensibly slowed down, but I got to a point on a road without a good place to overtake where I was behind a laden cattle truck grinding away at 20 miles an hour.  Each time we came to a junction, I was muttering 'please turn off', but no, it looked like it was going my way. I could see a tailback in my rear view mirror, and I bet those drivers were muttering something too.

By the time I had been driving for over an hour and a half, I had made 25 miles - half way - and had a splitting headache. I stopped at a garage for a toilet break and a drink of water. If I carried on in this worsening weather, I would get there in time for lunch, but feel compelled to set off early to avoid the worst of the weather. And I would hardly be able to move after driving for so long. Feeling like a complete and utter wimp, I decided to turn around and go back. Back up over the Preselis, through a pea-soup of low cloud and lashing rain. The cattle grid at Bwlch Gwynt was underwater, and the rain ran in rivulets down the roads to pool in the dips.

It took me nearly an hour and a half to get back home, too; a round trip of 50 plus miles in 3 hours. Knees stiff from driving, I dragged myself upstairs to email an apology, then into the kitchen to make a vegetable and bean stew, one of my ideal winter comfort foods.

I was waiting for a call to let me know the results of a job interview the previous day, but didn't get the call until a week later. It was a 'no', but at least they called with feedback, reinforcing my feeling that they would have been a good company to work for. Another thing that wasn't meant to be.

As I was writing this, I checked my email for a reply to another application, which seemed to be taking a long time. Sure enough, I had an email at last ... and it was a 'no'. It left me wondering what it takes, since I was sure I'd effectively ticked every skill and attribute in the job and personnel description. I can only hope that the two friends I know who were after the same job at least get an interview.

I've been pouring energy into trying to find employment, searching job sites, updating CVs, sending applications, reading around companies and skills in preparation for interviews which hardly ever happen. At a time when class numbers and commitment are low, and nobody seems to have money for anything which they consider non-essential (including proofreading!) I had hoped that employment would give me some money and security. Perhaps that's not meant to be.

Time to look again at my Plan B, and see what it would take to make it (or something like it) work. It will probably be a case of fighting to make it happen, but I would like to think that this time next year, things will be different.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Dancing Mindfully

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, perhaps because it seems more necessary in our daily lives than ever. Or perhaps it's an idea whose time has come. It involves the deliberately focusing your attention on what's happening in and around you in the present moment, noticing and acknowledging thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgement.

It's been something I've been aware of since I was young, even though I didn't know it was called mindfulness, and didn't practise it regularly. I remember a lesson in primary school when I was six, perhaps seven. We sat quietly with our eyes closed and trying not to fidget, focusing our attention on the sounds of others in the room breathing, the class next door, birds outside, traffic, the warmth of the sun coming through the window, the feel of the wooden seat on bare legs. From time to time since then, I've been reminded how useful mindfulness is and each time, I wonder how I could have forgotten. Mindfulness practice is so called because it needs practice. It's so easy to go through life on auto-pilot, bouncing from one task to the next, planning and looking forward, or thinking about what you could, should, ought to have done or be doing.

Looking back on my year of yoga lessons (with Rose Thorn, Inner Yoga Trust and I thoroughly recommend her as a teacher), I realised it was something quite amazing. I haven't managed to clear a space yet to start my own daily yoga (and dance) practice, haven't found (and anyway, can't afford) another class and I'm missing it. It sorted out a worsening sacroiliac problem; I discovered that I had been unconsciously bracing myself by contracting my glutes and the resulting tension was enough to trigger some inflammation. I had probably started it as a balance strategy. Consciously relaxing and 'softening' the muscles as I was standing still was difficult at first, but seems to have paid off. I used to float out of class feeling great and wake up the following morning feeling as though I had been hit by a bus, so there was obviously a lot of work going on deep in the body. The significant and unexpected bonus was how much it helped me mentally, in terms of my ability to focus my attention inwards on my body, its movement, stillness, relaxation, feelings and breath. After years of twitching restlessly or just falling asleep when I tried to be still and meditate, I re-found my ability to do it and I love it.

The somatics workshops and yoga classes were part of my ongoing portfolio of ways to mitigate and counteract the effects of severe osteoarthritis in my knees and feet, relearning and changing the way I use my body. The new awareness of tension and alignment is allowing me to release tightness, especially in the knees, before the pain builds too much. The combination of range of movement exercises, knee supports, heat, massage, awareness and adjustment of alignment and plenty of rest mean that it's now several months since I needed to take any painkillers.

As a result, I can do more, and dance more, providing I remain mindful of the way I use my body. A carelessly aligned foot and leg during a turn could be enough to cause pain and loss of balance. I had thought I was quite good at listening to my body, but learning to sit down before I need to showed me how much I ignored messages from my body, and that's very much a dancer's thing. In dance training, you learn the technique for the steps or moves and learn to ignore the minor (and sometimes major) aches and pains involved in doing them, the tired and burning feet and muscles. Even as you block some sensations, you are practising some sort of mindfulness as you dance in the moment, in the music, but rely on muscle memory for the movements and choreography, and a sort of subliminal awareness of the space that you dance in and the other dancers around you. Is automaticity the opposite of mindfulness? It seems to me that dancing mindfully requires more practice than everyday mindfulness, as dance involves so many senses, it's impossible to give your full attention to all aspects of dance at the same time.

If you focus your attention on the movements themselves, your face can show that concentration. Breaking the movement down and then putting it back together is an essential part of learning it, but over-thinking can induce analysis-paralysis and tension in the body. Anyone who has learned to dance is familiar with this. Dance looks easy, good dance looks effortless (even if the dancer comes off stage pouring with sweat!). You know you can boogie around to your favourite tunes and you thought you were a pretty good dancer. So you start to dance in a given style and you find it's very difficult. You fight for the shape and the movement and become tense. The tension stops full movement and affects posture, which makes everything harder. You try harder to get it right and instead it goes even more wrong. You get frustrated and cross with yourself. Your mind starts to whirl with thoughts of how to get it right and make your body do what you want it to. You end up losing patience with yourself and with learning to dance. (I have a theory this is why many people like to dance but don't want to learn to dance, preferring dance exercise classes in which they can hide at the back and move any old how, without having to remember a routine or strive for correct movement technique. Following the leader, the movement goes in through the eyes and out through the body but bypasses the brain, a bit like copy-typing.) This is where mindfulness helps; another aspect of mindfulness is recollection, remembering to be aware of something. Remember to relax, stop over-thinking and allow the movement to flow.

Noticing without judgement is a difficult thing. When you are practising and are fully aware of how your body is moving, it's easy to be distracted when you do something wrong. Although you are actually making a judgement that your dancing or movement isn't as good as it should be, the ability to look more objectively at it in order to make improvements is positive and constructive, without wallowing in self-criticism. Part of mindfulness practice is to acknowledge the thought and move on. This is important for rehearsal, as you wouldn't stop and acknowledge a wrong move while performing.

Accepting that it might be impossible to be mindful of every aspect of dance while you're dancing, a good way to incorporate mindfulness in dance practice might be to focus on different aspects for different drills, dance pieces or practice sessions. For example, you might create or learn a movement phrase and repeat it several times, on each repeat shifting the focus:
  • The movements themselves; the technical aspects and how they feel in the body
  • The transitions between moves and shifts of weight
  • Movement difficulties, finding ways to move more easily and reduce the effort required
  • The movement dynamics - are they soft, sharp, floating, heavy, percussive, flowing ...?
  • The expression brought by the dynamics and the music
  • Your breathing. Are you forgetting to breathe, could you use it to assist movements (for example, breathing out on an accent such as a hip drop)?
  • The space in which you move, the direction of your body in relation to that space and the movement pathways. (For further information on spatial relationships, see my blog post here.)
If all this sounds a bit too intense and academic, remember that dance can be experienced with all the senses. While dancing freely, try focusing your awareness on each of your senses in turn:
  • Listen deeply to the music, its beat and rhythms, all its nuances, the different instruments, how the key/maqam/dromos makes you feel, and the jingle of your hip belt.
  • Wear scent, spray a little on your veil or scent the room with a candle or incense stick.
  • Feel the costume fabrics, their textures, colours, the glint and sparkle of beads and coins.
  • Notice the way your clothing moves. If you're wearing a skirt, hold or brush it outwards so that it catches the air as you move.
  • Feel the way the air flows over your bare arms as you move them.
  • Look at the way your body is moving (if you have a mirror), or follow the movement of a hand, the colour, drape and float of a veil.
  • Take a break, drink some water, feeling the moist coolness in your mouth.
I shall be giving a workshop in Cardigan on November 15th on Graceful Movement, which is something which can be learned and practised mindfully. I'm also planning a workshop (probably January) on Dance Dynamics, those characteristics or qualities of movement which bring contrast, variation and expression to dance movements and are important in musical expression. I'm also giving short sessions of mindful moving meditation at a free healing event at Haverfordwest Cricket Club on 21st November. This can be one-to-one or in small groups, seated or standing, and is great for stilling a whirling mind, relaxing and re-energising the body, so I hope people will come and take advantage as some of my friends will also be there offering reiki and massage, a little bit of personal relaxation time to go with the early Christmas shopping.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Keep Dancing!

I watched the first season of Strictly Come Dancing, loved the dancing but hated the way the results were given so much that I only dipped in and out of subsequent series' Saturday night shows. For some reason, I started watching the latest series and am completely hooked!

Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman, what a team! They are so sympathetic and the presentation is slick, even some of the terrible puns and one-liners crack me up. Don't get me wrong; Sir Bruce Forsyth is great, but I love that the presenters are all women. I also thoroughly enjoy Strictly - It Takes Two with Zoe Ball on week nights, with the insights into costume design and dance technique, as well as all the behind-the-scenes shots of dance training and interviews with the dancers. Saturday's show consistently refers to the Sunday night show as 'tomorrow', but of course it's filmed later on the Saturday, after the voting closes.  It has to be, so that the dancers can stay dressed and made up. So the group dance and the dancing which accompanies the guest singer must happen and be filmed out of sequence, to allow the professional dancers to change. I note the presenters and certainly Darcey Bussell out of the judges change their outfits for the 'results' show. I caught myself wondering whether any of the presenters, or Darcey Bussell, wear the same outfit twice throughout the series. And if they don't, how many dresses is that each?  How many wardrobes ...?

The viewer voting still brings the element of a popularity contest, which is a shame. However, it does reflect a sort of popular vote on the entertainment value of each piece. It must also bring in some revenue for what must be a terrifically expensive show, with a heavy cast of dancers, live orchestra, singers, camera/sound/light/production crew, wardrobe, hair, make up, judges, guest performers, costumes, rehearsal space, studio overheads, and so on ad infinitum. Possibly the expense is the reason why it's an elimination contest, but it would be so lovely to see all the couples dance all the dances, see the improvement in the celebrities as dancers, and see weekly and cumulative leader boards of the judges' scores and the viewers' votes. The tension-pause before each couple's names are announced as 'safe' has lengthened from a ten count to twelve or more. Why would you do that? All of the dancers have mentioned what torture it is, and it's long enough for any suspense to evaporate into sheer annoyance. It's what turned me off Strictly in the first place. Count to eight if you must, but just get on with it!

We are at the half-way point of the series now, and it's started to get silly, with a couple who have been dancing brilliantly suddenly in the dance-off against the couple who sadly were at the bottom of the leader board. The look on everyone's faces when they knew the inevitable result even before they danced, and then after dancing before the judges' verdicts, had me in floods of tears, softy that I am. How the dancers held it together must be down to their sheer professionalism.

The viewer vote aside, it's really not about the celebrities being celebrities, but their weekly struggles to learn each new dance with the different techniques and styling. Or perhaps it's that the celebrity-dancers are all genuinely interested in learning to dance and are working really hard. I did a little ballroom dance in the past, but it was strictly social. Very basic steps, no mention of the finer points of footwork, hold positions and top line. I'm learning a lot from the judges' comments, which are generally fair and to the point. My internal critical voice now sounds like Craig Revel Horwood, which is an improvement. Yes, really! It's brought a new objectivity, making it easier for me to watch video of my dancing without beating myself up and feeling bad. It's like having a teacher I like and respect telling me what needs to be improved. ('Well, I'm sorry to say, darling, that there was so much wrong I don't know where to start. Hands, shape, definition, technique, and increase your choreographic content. The intensity was there, but you have to stop yourself getting too carried away and losing focus. And stop singing along.') So I can work on getting my internal critic to say 'Fab-u-lous, darling! A-ma-zing!'

Watching the show has brought up something which has long puzzled me: why are some people better dancers than others? There are plenty of scientific theories about 'beat deafness', insufficient GABA, and undeveloped neural pathways.  The first two to be eliminated in this series were both sportsmen. They were slim, fit, strong, should have a decent amount of coordination and body rhythm from their training and reasonable proprioception and control. Sportsmen should be fine with making their body do what they want it to, to follow instructions. It's clearly not enough to be slim, fit, young, strong, have great stamina or have the best one-to-one teacher and training time in real studio space with mirrors. The continual improvement of all dancers, however, shows just how important practice is. So what goes on? Setting aside conditions which affect proprioception, such as hypermobility and dyspraxia, and physical or motor problems, why should some people find dancing harder than others?

I've noticed that sometimes, women who are otherwise very fit and toned have a lot of trouble with belly dance, particularly finding it difficult to access soft, smooth movement in certain planes, especially using the core muscles. Having been an avid gym and aerobics bunny myself once (I know, hard to believe), I wonder if the two-beat, contract-release, on-off movement style becomes the muscle memory default. This is usually accompanied by a degree of tension, which stops full, fluid movement. Tension can be made worse by self-consciousness and self-criticism, over-thinking and trying too hard, until your mind is whirling and your brain has no processing power left to direct your body to dance.

Dance generally includes a wide range of dynamics; slow and fast, sudden and sustained, jerky and fluid. It also needs connection with the music, not just the beat, but an embodiment of rhythm. There are lots of other little details which need attention too, but they can be learned and improved with practice.

I'm giving a workshop in Cardigan this Sunday afternoon on graceful movement, to explore the dance elements which make the difference between gawky and gorgeous. So if you feel you lack grace, come to the workshop! You know you want to! And in the meantime ... Keep Dancing!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Just One More Piece

My closest beaches are on the Daugleddau Estuary. They're not ones you would really want to swim from, are not very scenic unless you like oil refineries, LPG terminals, jetties and so on, don't have much by way of interesting shells and shore life, and have pebbles and mud rather than sand. All the same, they are fairly clean, with very little rubbish mixed in with the heaps of seaweed. There are tugs and pilot boats going to and fro, yachts, a Ferry to Ireland, people out rowing Celtic longboats (generally not when the Ferry is due!), and a selection of birds to watch. Despite their rather muddy and industrial nature, these beaches are becoming my first choice when I want a short walk with a sea breeze.

Returning from a trip to the bank, I was seized by the urge to do a little beach combing for my usual 'shopping list' of water-worn glass and ceramic, interesting stones, driftwood and shells. I turned off my usual route home and was soon at one of the estuary beaches. There were a pair of swans and a small group of gulls, but otherwise I had the small beach to myself on an outgoing tide.

There was quite a lot of glass mixed in with the pebbles, but nine out of ten pieces were still too sharp and I soon became fed up of tossing handfuls of glass shards back into the outflow stream which had carved a stony gash down the beach. The last time I had visited this beach, I was struck by the number of rusty nails and they were still there. Definitely not a beach to walk on with bare feet, and I felt sorry for any dogs who came for a quick run.

I crossed the outflow stream and went to explore an area which had always been underwater when I'd visited before. The small rock pools had a few of the usual suspects - limpets, winkles, beadlet anenomes - but nothing much. I was still seeing a lot of sharp glass. I walked around another rock and found another little shoal of pebbles, this time with worn glass lying around, as if it had all been swept into one place by the tides. Keeping half an eye on the water, I picked up a several handfuls of glass, along with a couple of bits of clay pipe stem and a few bits of ceramic, plates and old stoneware jam or marmalade jars. I kept my eyes open for the pipe bowls too, but each time I thought I had found one, it turned out to be the curve of a worn and broken slipper limpet or cockle shell. Some of the glass had so much greeny-yellow algae covering it, that it looked green, but will probably be clear glass once it's clean. Some was the thick, blackish glass of old liquor bottles. The sailors, fishermen, shipwrights and other labourers who once worked along the waterway would have tossed their spent pipes and empty bottles into the water for the waves to deliver back, decades, or perhaps even centuries, later.

The calls of oystercatchers and a subtle change in the sound of the waves alerted me that the tide had changed. The water was indeed running the other way. I still had plenty of time before it would be high enough to cut me off, but the light was going. I headed back around the rocks and up the beach, taking a different route in the hope I might find something else interesting, but the tantalising glimmers were only slipper limpet shells and bits of wet slate in amongst the reddish stones.

With my bag of finds swinging heavily from my fingers, I was reluctant to leave the beach, wanting to find another piece. And another ... just one more piece.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Lampeter World Dance 2015

It doesn't seem long since the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival in August - well, it has only been two months. All of a sudden, Lampeter World Dance was upon us and I was in full cat-herding mode again.

Autumn is well and truly here; there has been an outbreak of horrible colds and dancers have been dropping like flies. Two pieces were cut from the running order in the 36 hours before the show. The main problem with the running order was to ensure variation in the style of dances whilst giving dancers who were in more than one piece enough time to change and catch their breath. With a bit of jiggling, it seemed okay. Luckily, there were no special requirements for lighting, the music was run from a few CDs, and we had a set of technicians who knew what they were doing to look after that side of things. I printed several copies of the running order, but it seemed to me that everyone wanted one and I ended up without one! Note to self, print enough copies next time so that every group gets one, plus one for each dressing room door.

Also creating problems was the Friday night show slot. It's fine for anyone living locally, but a bit of a scramble for people having to come after work and travel, since Friday night traffic can also be a problem. So it was wonderful that we managed to get Zara's Zouk up from London again, this time without Zara who was submitting her PhD thesis, and especially impressive that our star dancer and workshops teacher Tracey Jones managed to get to Lampeter all the way from Wiltshire, whisking her daughter away from school  and depositing her with her grandmother on the way. Mind you, Tracey Jones is impressive and inspirational; you can read about her story here.

This year, India Dance Wales joined the show with short piece of Bharatanatyam Indian classical dance. The three young dancers were utterly enchanting. One of them is the daughter of someone I used to dance with in Carmarthen, several years ago. She was there with husband, another daughter, and her mother and father.  I had only met her mother once, although we have mutual friends, but she recognised me and we had a lovely chat in the interval. My friend Wendy teaches ATS® in Lampeter and danced a slow duet as well as fast pieces with the whole tribe. Thalatha provided drum solo to live drumming and joined Tribal Unity for an impromptu post-show jam (which I was too busy chatting to join!). Rose and her dancers gave some of their pieces another airing, and two of her older dancers did an Isis wings duet, with the husband of one of them singing 'Music of the Night' to a backing track. He has a great voice, hitting the high notes (A4, I think?) with a resonance which made my spine tingle. There were other solos and duets, including a Chinese dance. A pair of dancers came down all the way from Corris again, and gave an unintended lesson on how to manage a costume malfunction during their belly dance duet.  They have no teacher and dance a sort of generic belly dance which would probably upset the purists, but they dance from the heart and their joy in dance is palpable and infectious.

I received some lovely comments about my Zeibekiko piece, which was nice after all the time I spent researching and rehearsing. I was disappointed when I watched my video; plenty of room for improvement and the lighting reduced me to a fuzzy bluish blob. Oh well, the only way to get better is to keep dancing!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Big Butterfly Count 2015

What with my new garden having little by way of flowers or larval food plants and therefore something of a green desert, and the generally cool, windy, showery weather we've had this summer, I wasn't expecting to record many butterflies for Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count. Sadly, I was right.

The idea is to count butterflies (and some of the day flying moths) and record the maximum number of each species during a 15 minute period.  Presumably the short period is to reduce the risk of double (or multiple) counting. Result for the first several attempts = none. Then I decided that a given session should start with me seeing a butterfly, then watching for another 15 minutes to see if another one turned up. I achieved a few records by doing this over a couple of days at the end of July.

Then I got really busy with preparations for the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival. I had another go during lunch break during the festival workshops at Small World Theatre on the last day of the Big Butterfly Count. It was lovely and sunny, and there's a small patch of lovely plants in front of the kitchen area (including lavender and cardoons). Not a single butterfly visited while I was watching! Then I was having so many problems with my computer/browser (I ended up on the Norton helpline until the early hours at one point) that logging my results completely slipped my mind. When I finally remembered and went in to do it, the results page was closed. So here, for what it's worth, are my results:
Wall Lasiommata megera

1 Peacock Inachis Io
1 Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae
1 Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
1 Small White Pieries rapae
2 Large White Pieris brassicae
1 Wall Lasiommata megera

The two Large Whites were together. The Wall is a UK BAP research species and I think I only saw one once back at the farm. I called in there the other day, when it was lovely, warm and sunny, to drop off and pick up a few things. The Buddleias were smothered in butterflies, all jostling each other for space on the flower heads. There was even a blue butterfly flitting around some ivy. I would have needed my clicker to count them all. (I wonder where it is; I haven't found it in my unpacking yet.) I didn't have my camera on me, either. Just my luck!

Perhaps by next year, the several small Buddleias I have in pots will be planted out, ready to flower and become covered in butterflies on a sunny day!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

40 Minutes a Day

My car radio is usually tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I sometimes catch something interesting while driving.  Sometimes I catch the same fragment of a programme twice. It happened this week, when I caught concert pianist James Rhodes talking about his memoir and briefly about what you can achieve by practising something for 40 minutes a day. The latter is not new; he wrote about it in his blog for the Guardian a couple of years ago. It started me thinking about time management, and quality time.

I'm often aware that I think I am busier than I actually am, and it's because I am allowing activities to linger; the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. At the moment, I am 'time-rich', and the luxury of it has meant that I've started to forget good time management practice and have started to drift. That repeated fragment of programme was a sign, a wake-up call.

I often hear 'I would love to belly dance/knit/crochet/sew/draw/paint/meditate/do yoga/get fitter'. What it comes down to is how much you really want to do it. Everybody needs some time to themselves to follow their passion, but it can be very difficult to make that time, especially when you generally feel so exhausted, all you want to do is sleep or veg out in front of the TV, without even really paying attention to what you're watching. I also suspect that hobbies are devalued, considered to be something that should have low or no priority, a remnant of the ethos which demands work before leisure, duty before pleasure.

So, do you really want to? Yes? It's too easy to find excuses why you don't, so play What If? What if you got your partner to look after the children one night a week (it's not a big ask, really, is it?). What if you ask your friends to club together to pay for the course of classes as your combined birthday/Christmas present? What if you arrange a car share to and from the classes? What if you steal a little time to yourself by getting up a little earlier some mornings a week to have a quick practice? What if you stop doing something else which you enjoy, but maybe isn't so important really, like those cups of frankly not-very-good chain-store coffee which masquerade as a treat and time to yourself? What if you and the other friends you meet down the pub all go and do something else one night a week, for far less than the price of a round of drinks? What if you ignore the demands of social media for a little while? Apparently, 40 minutes a day is what the average user spends on Facebook in the US. What if you found a way to do what you think you would love to do?

Why 40 minutes? It's generally accepted as the length of time most people can concentrate or sustain their attention on a topic or task before they need a break. It is also sufficient to practise and play without getting too frustrated, and to make some progress. It may be slow, but it's still progress. It doesn't have to be 40 minutes - if you can only manage 30 minutes, or even 20 minutes three times a week, it's still better than nothing.

I started thinking about what I might dedicate some time to. The trouble is, I can think of a dozen things and would have trouble picking one to focus on. Such a wealth of delicious possibilities.

If you're thinking about it too, I would love to know what you would spend your 40 minutes a day doing. Why not leave a comment?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Grade A Grey Days

For the past five days, it has been unseasonally overcast grey, windy with occasional heavy showers (and a severe weather warning for rain!), and the forecast for the next four days is similarly 'unsettled' (including a forecast for hail!). For a couple of days it was so darkly cloudy my solar garden lights didn't charge. What happened to the summer?

I know I bang on about the weather in true Brit style. Of course I do, it's so changeable and varied across the country, affecting our moods and activities. I get a bit fed up of the generalisations in headlines and weather forecasts, which seem to be centred on an area roughly including London and south-central England and an audience who want to know if they will be rained on during the school run/rush hour or weekend barbecue. A friend from the home counties messaged me the other day, finishing 'hope you're enjoying the sunshine' (because it was about 30oC where she was) and was surprised that it was tipping down here, and had been for days.
No playing outside today
Partial double rainbow, late afternoon sun

The cats are also pretty fed up when they can't play outside. At least with rain, there's a chance there'll be rainbows.

No viewing the Perseid meteor show for me - it was overcast, although the light cloud didn't obscure the Blue Moon at the end of July.
Blue Moon, 31 July 2015
By the time I had finished various jobs and errands on the last sunny day (a week ago!) it was evening. I went off to Broadhaven thinking I would swim, as the tide would be coming in over sun-warmed sand. But the clouds were already gathering for the rain party and I sat on the shore in a stiff onshore breeze and a sweatshirt, using my beach wrap as a scarf. There were people in the water, playing ball and swimming. As they emerged, I saw that everyone was wearing a wetsuit!

Broadhaven Sunset
The sunset was nice, but nothing spectacular. Despite taking an antihistamine, my hands were starting to itch with cold-induced urticaria and I hurried off back to the car, forgetfully leaving my newly-cleaned beach mat on a rock. I didn't realise I'd left it until I got home and felt guilty about leaving it as if it were litter. I hope someone picked it up and will get some use out of it themselves - although it probably won't be this week.

The Met Office forecasts are generally pretty reliable (although there are plenty of instances where the forecast shows sun and I look out at drizzle) and they have a blog. It includes news items on worldwide weather; tropical cyclones putting our grey rainy days into perspective. I was alarmed to see that the BBC were changing the source of their forecast information to another provider, so it will be very interesting to see how accurate that will be. I've tried some other sources, but generally come back to the Met Office for UK weather.

Sunset through office window
The old rhyme about red sky at night doesn't seem to be working, as I've seen lovely sunsets followed by rainy days and pink dawns followed by sun. I wish I could forecast spectacular sunsets so that I could see them on the coast - I see the best sunsets from my (slightly grubby) office and bedroom windows.
Sunset sky with Preselis in distance
Dawn sky with Preselis in distance

I hope we'll get some more warm, sunny weather before we have to accept that Autumn is with us. I don't want to give up on Summer just yet!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Cardigan Belly Dance Festival 2015

The years go by so quickly! It didn't seem any time at all since last year's Cardigan Belly Dance Festival and here we were again!

With class numbers so low and money in short supply, the Haverfordwest class became the Spittal class, which was the only one to contain performers and we were only meeting once a fortnight. A couple of dancers had challenged me to create a simpler choreography to a catchy pop song, so I did. In the event, one of the dancers who chose the music had so much going on in her life that she didn't make it to class at all to learn it! (Nor did she make it to the show to see it. Another former Imago dancer, whose life had become too busy to dance, had chosen that day for her wedding, so she went to that instead!)

One major disadvantage of fortnightly classes is the ease with which everything is forgotten between classes. Sometimes it seemed like we were starting afresh every lesson. Then the show looms ahead and there's a last minute panic to get it learned and rehearsed.

Costuming was simple - all variations on summer dresses or skirts and tops (with some bling, naturally!). Big flowery hairbands have been in fashion this summer, so I took a welcome break from cleaning and sorting out to find my stash of cheap, artificial flowers and elastic to create some hair bands for the six of us who performed.

I am so envious of my colleague Rose's class numbers, enabling her to present several pieces while I can scarcely manage enough dancers for one. However, several of her dancers were in more than one piece, which presented rather a challenge for me in setting the running order. It struck me while I was trying to achieve a flow to the show as well as provide time for dancers to change costumes and breathe, that it should be possible to have an app to create a running order. You put in some variables, like the style and length of the piece and the key dancers, and it uses rules like key dancers need 10 minutes before they dance again, and don't follow a piece with another of the same style (so you don't get drum solos one after another, for instance). It set me wondering whether I could learn to create the app. Not this year, though!

There was the predictable last minute scramble for dancer's details and sadly, last minute drop-outs, but the I got the tech details sorted the day before and still managed a good night's sleep.

Once again, the newest dancer not only made her debut in an Imago piece, she did the 'Pop-Up Troupe' workshop and performed the piece that they'd learned during the day. I was so proud!  It looked great fun, this year provided by Stephanie Gawne. I knew I wouldn't be able to dance all day and perform at night, so spent my time briefing and helping the theatre tech and putting glittery finishing touches to the hairbands.

I had decided not to do a solo this year, knowing that I really would not make the time to rehearse, let alone find space in the house still full of boxes and misplaced furniture, all of it filthy! It was something of a search to find the summer dress I planned to wear.

The show seems to get better every year, with our guest stars and local dancers alike providing a good variety. This year's programme included a solo on a suspended hoop. I had hoped to be able to start the second half with this, to allow the rig to be put together during the interval, but I was told that a 'surprise' act wanted that slot.  I had guessed that it was a couple of Imago dancers, and guessed which ones, but was indeed surprised by their act as a couple of belly dancing char-ladies. Such a laugh!

I missed most of the short post-show jam, too busy chatting to people, and we were all out of the theatre by 11.00 pm. Between long drives home and the need to get up for workshops the following day, nobody stays to dance the night away any more! I have a longer drive to Cardigan now too, so got home around midnight and it was 1.00 am by the time I'd fed the cats, put the flowers my lovelies had given me in water, removed my make up and wound down enough for bed.

The following morning, I drove back to Cardigan to get in touch with my inner Egyptian (Zara is so funny and does wonderful workshops!). I brushed up my ATS in the afternoon, revising fades and learning a new move (what more do you need from a workshop?). Then, just like that, it was over for another year.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside!

But I could wish for warmer weather. It's been a rather cool and wet July. When I mentioned to a friend that I thought I might have moved somewhere breezy, she referred me to this report about the notably windy weather.

I had a sudden desire for a fish and chip supper beside the sea the other evening, so explored my way, via the newly opened Tiers Cross link road, to Broadhaven. There was a stiff onshore breeze which was sending flurries of sand before it up the slipway and across the road, the Blue Flag standing out from the flagpole like a board while the cables twanged. A good evening for blowing some cobwebs away.

The cafe was doing a good trade, and I took my fish and chips back to the comfort of my car, where I could eat without the wind snatching the paper out of my hands and watch the clouds catching and hiding the sun. I went back to the cafe for an ice cream, meaning to eat it while walking, but I couldn't concentrate on both at once. I was rather fascinated by the way the sun gleamed off it, but it was melting too fast to take a photo of the gorgeous stuff. I had to eat it quickly, trying to catch the drips and keep my hair out of it while I stood on the slipway watching a windsurfer and kite surfer zipping back and forth across the waves.
Such indulgence called for a walk, so I set off along the beach. I'd only brought a fleece jacket to put on over my T shirt and wished I'd left a hat and scarf in the pockets. There were a few other people walking on the beach, wearing coats, scarves and hats. At the end of July, for goodness' sake, it should be warm and sunny! A group of young people in wetsuits ran down to the sea to play on body boards, their calling and shrieks at the cold water lost in the general buffeting of wind and waves.
The tide was a way out, but there wasn't much on the strand line. Some bladder wrack, a few broken shells here and there, an unidentifiable jellyfish (there had been quite a few smallish Common/Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) stranded at Newgale when I walked there a few weeks ago, so probably one of those) and a few small By-the-Wind Sailors (Velella velella). Before I knew it, I was almost at the other end of the beach, my path blocked by the water flowing from the stream which emerges onto the beach under Haroldston Bridge. Not wanting to get my feet wet, I walked up the shingle bank to the road and back along the prom, sitting for a few minutes to watch the sunset. It wasn't as colourful as I'd hoped. Judging by the disappointment and resignation on the faces of some more serious photographers there, they were probably hoping for something glorious too.

Still, it was rather wonderful nonetheless, to watch the sun glinting off waves before it hid behind the clouds, tasting salt from the sea spray on my lips, feeling my hair dance in the buffeting breeze. Hopefully, there will be a warmer and more mellow evening so that I can swim and laze on the beach without having to unpack my gloves and scarves just yet!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


For over a month now, I have awoken every day determined to finish getting the kitchen in order; all the cupboards cleaned, all the various kitchen paraphernalia unpacked, washed, dried and put away. And every day I get a little more done, a little nearer my goal, but I haven't finished yet.  I do a bit in each of the rooms too, and delight in my daily gardening fix, even if it's only to pull up a few weeds to add to the compost bin with the previous day's kitchen waste. Daily chores in the form of general cleaning (even the most cursory swipe around with the vacuum every couple of days leaves it half full of cat hair, which is being shed by the handful), laundry and shopping all take time, as well as dealing with paperwork, organising quotes for maintenance work and various other issues, such as new items delivered damaged and needing replacement (grrr!). I'm busy, and there is a steady outflow of boxes (which are removed with the weekly recycling, hurrah!) and am still not really making a difference. As far as the kitchen goes, I'm in the last 20% - which, according to the 80-20 rule, takes 80% of the time.

So it was with some sense of despair at myself and profuse apologies for the mess that I welcomed Ursula to the chaos that is cat-hair central, aka my new home, last week. It seemed incredible that it's been eleven months since she stayed with me on her way down to Tenby and then north again as she walked the Cistercian Way. For various good reasons, she didn't complete her 3000 miles last year, and it is going to be 3500 or perhaps more by the time she finishes this year. She's currently on her second loop around the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and recently passed the 3000 mile mark, so she is also in the last 20%.

She had been staying with one of my friends for some of the northern section of the coast path and had been able to leave her rucksack and manage with a borrowed day sack for a few days, to lighten the load. My friend then dropped the rucksack off with me. I'd previously commented to her that I felt for Ursula, coming from the relative peace of my friend's place to my chaos, and was assured that I had entirely the wrong idea of how orderly her place was, which was reassuring. Shortly before 7.00 pm, I wound my way to Dale to pick up Ursula, who was feeling quite justifiably tired after a 21-mile day. Dale is only 12.5 miles/20 km by road from here but takes at least half an hour, more if you meet a lot of traffic. The road is frequently not wide enough for two cars to pass easily, and well-used, as there is no grass growing in the middle anywhere on it!

I was planning to give Ursula my bed for the couple of nights she'd be with me, so that she could stretch and luxuriate, but she wouldn't hear of it, choosing a hastily-cleared single bed in the stack that is bedroom 2, just grateful for somewhere inside in relative comfort with a bathroom.

We had an early night ready for an early-ish start the next day, hoping that it would still be early enough for Ursula to be able to cross tidal inlets without a long walk round. The worst on the stretch west to east between Dale and Milford Haven is at Sandy Haven, which is only really accessible for 2.5 hours either side of low tide and outside of that, results in a four mile detour. The suggestion is to set off from Dale at a time which gets you to the first crossing (Pickleridge/The Gann) as it becomes clear, a couple of hours before low tide, in the hope that you get to Sandy Haven before the tide rises over the crossing there. Unfortunately, if low tide's very early in the morning, and the following low is late afternoon, as was the case, it's really not possible unless you do some of the walking at night. So Ursula had to detour and got to Milford late in the afternoon. It set me wondering: if the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is 186 miles, does that exclude detours? So could it be 190, or 200, or something, depending how often you have to go around rather than across a beach? (If you're planning to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, you can plan your route here and check 2015 tide times here.)

In her blog, she describes herself as 'a fat woman'. Last year she commented (as I plied her with Danish pastries for breakfast) that she'd changed shape rather than lost weight. It's true that you might expect someone who has been walking long distances on a daily basis not to have a spare inch of flesh, but I think under the feminine curves, she's pure muscle with a core of steely willpower, full of stamina and resilience, with the physical and mental strength to push through the pain and keep walking, day after day, in all sorts of weather.

So if she can complete this incredible feat of endurance (and she will!) then I can reach my goals too. Ursula's brief visit left me encouraged and motivated to get the kitchen and the rest of the house in order. And go and enjoy the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast, now that I live nearer.  And, while my knees aren't too bad at the moment, perhaps even do a little walking. (Steady on, now!) The question is, can I do it before she finishes her walk?

I dropped her at Milford Haven the next morning and she had disappeared before I'd even driven out of the car park. The plan was to meet her at the Cleddau Bridge and hand over her rucksack (which she was leaving with someone in Pembroke Dock to follow her to her next overnight stop in Angle). It seemed to take longer to get around through Neyland, but when I saw her, sunburnt under her tan, she was powering along. Hoping I wasn't being a complete pain, I wanted to walk to the centre of the bridge with her and take a picture of us, before we said goodbye. So I scampered along behind her, two of my steps to every one of hers and even then, scarcely keeping up, until we reached what we thought was the middle. I took a photo, but I look really terrible, so asked Ursula if I could take one of her retreating back.

There she goes, striding off into the distant heat haze, leaving miles of landscape and inspired people behind her. Despite the slow start, she made it all the way to Angle - a 23-mile day! As I write this a few days later, I see she has finished the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and is now en route to Cardiff!

You can read about her journey and more, including how to make donations, on her website.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Garden As Found

It's the end of June, and my garden should be a vision of abundant loveliness, with vegetables coming along, splashes of colour and scent wafting from shrubs and flowers. Oh well, give it a few years; for now, it's not quite a blank slate in need of some work!

This house was home to the same family since it was built 60 years or so ago. I was told there used to be a greenhouse, two sheds, vegetables, roses and other plants, with some trees at the bottom of the garden. Now, there's a rather shaky shed on a concrete plinth, overgrown lilac and some other plants at the end of a gravel bed. Why a gravel bed, I wonder? I hope it doesn't hide another concrete pad, but in the meantime, it's a good standing area for the pots I brought with me, as well as some I've inherited with the house. There is a weathered concrete path, which would originally have run alongside the washing line, and a 'lawn', where the original flower and vegetable beds have been invaded by grasses and wildflowers. The privet hedges on either side may be as old as the house, and take up about 10% of the width of the garden. The trees were taken down, but by the feel of the uneven ground, probably not out. There seem to be roots and ground-down stumps in the poor soil. Likewise, I can see a couple of dead-looking stumps and bare patches in what were flower beds near the house. Some roses have started to regrow, but a few look like Rosa glauca rootstocks, the graft having been cut away when scalping the 'lawn' (done twice this year before I moved in!).

The front garden is just a square of grass and wildflowers bounded by a wall, under which runs the gas pipe.  There is a rose growing up one side of the porch, which I have been asked to keep as a memorial to the mother of the family whose house it was.  I've no idea at the moment what the rose is; it's a climber with small clusters of deep carmine pink flowers and no scent. Not one I would have chosen, and in need of some TLC. I expect I'll track down its name at some point.

I know I should be getting the house in order first, but can't resist going out to potter and explore. I built my swing seat on the patio and like to sit out and plan my next job with a cup of something, while gazing at the waving sea of grasses, where I've left the 'lawn' uncut, to see what comes up. There are at least a couple of different plants with strap-shaped leaves, but I can't tell what they are without flowers. At first, I thought some were Crocosmia; I could dig one up and see if I have a corm on the bottom end. There are the leaves of some Geranium, two types of pinks, self-seeded evening primrose, Californian poppy and forget-me-not. The patio is edged by a low block wall, which doesn't manage to hold back some Campanula garganica (or one of the other similar species). My Mum calls it 'garden thug' because it spreads prolifically, but I can think of other far more thuggish things that are in the garden and up with which I will not put. These include brambles (oh no, not more!), plum suckers, privet seedlings, nettles, bindweed, ragwort and creeping and spear plume thistle, the latter presumably from the horses' fields at the back, where I can see a couple of thistle flower heads peeping over the back fence, which is about 6 feet tall!

I'm impatient to plant, but really need to attend to the boundaries. I can think of much nicer things to grow than privet and would like to dissuade the cats from wandering into the neighbours' gardens, especially Greebo, who will happily scent mark anything he thinks should be his territory. Between the expense and nesting birds, it will be a while before I can do anything about replacing the hedges with fences. Even though, and possibly because, it's a small garden, the design and any hard landscaping needs to be done before making 'permanent' plantings of shrubs and perennials, and positioning vegetable beds (hopefully also a greenhouse and soft fruit). My big rotary clothes line leans drunkenly this way and that in its temporary position, the soil spear only in half way because of some buried concrete.

I can't cope without compost bins, so you can imagine my delight to receive two for free! They are only black plastic and have been hidden away at the back of the garden, behind the shed.  Still, hurrah for Pembrokeshire County Council!

Leafing through some of my gardening books, I read that you should start the design by taking measurements and making notes on 'the garden as found', in other words, as it is, before you do anything else to it. What a lovely phrase, as if you've just stumbled upon a secret garden, and there it is, in all its glory, whether bare and unmade, or overgrown and neglected. First find your garden, then take time to find out about its basic characteristics; type of soil, pH, damp areas or dry, patterns of light and shade.

So, I shall content myself for the time being with sowing some annuals and growing some vegetables in temporary beds and pots, in the hope that they might be productive before the end of the season, while recording my new garden, as found.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Simple Joys

Sunny days and blue skies
Big windows facing east and west = solar gain = warm house
Loads of laundry drying on the line
Sitting on my new swing seat with my morning coffee
Watching the sparrow, starling, blackbird and jackdaw chicks find their wings
Rediscovering missed or half-forgotten items
Being able to recycle with the bin collection
The sense of satisfaction from even the smallest job done or slightest improvement
Swirling flocks of jackdaws
The smell of dry earth after rain
Sprawling starfished on the bed
Grooming and giving treats to my purring cats
Sleeping well (after years of not sleeping very well!)

Happy Summer Solstice!

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Scary Stuff

A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of a load of badges/stickers with a message to the effect that it was a shame that as adults, we don't get 'well done' stickers and gold stars for all the things we successfully do or even just cope with. Now we're grown up, we are expected to take everything in our stride. Mostly, and with some help from partners and friends, we do. Well, you have to. It's either that, or have a nervous breakdown.

In the past month, I have (more or less in this order) been:
  • cleaning, sorting and packing
  • tried to save one of my two remaining hens who had a prolapse (but she died)
  • exchanged contracts
  • had a recall after a recent mammogram, driven down to Swansea, had a biopsy after which I was told not to go lifting heavy boxes for a few days (in the middle of a house move, for goodness' sake! And in fact, I was much too sore anyway, and had to take a breather on my drive home)
  • spent my few days 'taking it easy' by organising the utilities (it takes hours!)
  • completed contracts
  • moved a few things into the house and repainted my office here
  • received the good news that I had a (benign) fibroadenoma which didn't need further surgery,
  • moved my last hen to join a friends little flock, (they manage their 'pet' hens in exactly the same way as I did, so I hope she'll be be happy there!)
  • renewed my DBS certificate
  • done more packing and organising
  • booked the cats into a cattery to keep them safe for a few days
  • moved house with a removals firm helping with the packing and providing much needed muscle, since I was behind on my original plan and still somewhat sore, and cannot carry loads like I used to
  • took delivery of my new washing machine, freezer and fridge, familiarised myself with them and also how to work the dishwasher, heating, hot water, shower, ovens and hob
  • went to a great belly dance training weekend
  • picked the cats up from the cattery, introduced them to their new home and sat cuddling them, all of us in some sort of shock
  • chased up and set up my new house phone
  • set up the compost bins and found out the bin days and recycling routine
  • litter-picked the patio and garden (some bits of broken bottle and lots of bottle caps, the aftermath of the previous resident's leaving party)
  • then, a steady stream of trying to create a place for everything, more cleaning, unpacking and sorting from boxes, and trying to find things (seriously - it took me four days to find my mobile charger and a fortnight to find the box with essentials like the can opener, because it wasn't labelled and I wasn't the one who packed it!
  • punctuated by text processing exams
  • teaching a few dance classes
  • cleaning and setting up the rotary line (temporarily, while I decide its permanent spot in the garden), 
  • doing laundry
  • cleaning up after the cats' 'accidents' while they are supposed to be using their litter trays,
  • more organising utilities
  • set up the router/hub, chasing down issues to make it work with my old PC (solved by buying a 15 metre Ethernet cable and running it down the stair well, held against the ceiling with white tack!),
  • starting the long process of letting all and sundry know my new address, and just trying to get back to some sort of normal (or establish a new 'normal') as soon as possible.
Everything takes so long to do, especially if I have to make trips up and down the stairs. Even deciding which kitchen cupboard will best fit the various pans and ingredients is a challenge; the cupboards seem narrower, with shallower shelves than the kitchen in the farm cottage, and all need a clean first. The house is stuffed full of stuff and I'm fed up with sidling between stacks of boxes, and not being able to find what I want. It's difficult and impractical to live like this and I'm finding that by 8.00 pm, I've run out of energy. The trouble is, there's scarcely space to move anything around, including myself. I'm covered in bruises from knocking against boxes, walls, door handles and worktops. I'm trying to work around an impasse where the furniture needs to be cleaned and moved into place so that I can unpack boxes into it, but can't move for boxes and furniture in the wrong place. It's like one of those puzzles of squares, where you can only move one square at a time because that's the free space, except that I have perhaps a quarter space until I unpack some more boxes, having only managed to unpack a dozen so far.

I have so much stash and just stuff in general that I have also had to do a few trips back to the farm to pick up more (and return some of S's things, having sorted them out), and the last of it is coming with the lovely Easi Move removals chaps tomorrow, including the heavy garden pots.

At the moment it feels like I've jumped out of the frying pan into the fire - I've changed location but the chaotic mess is the same. Still, I vowed to get organised and I am determined that it will all come together, preferably sooner rather than later.

I think I deserve at least one gold star.

Friday, 15 May 2015

A Good Yarn?

I love Ravelry (oh, did I mention that already?), and one of the things I love about it is the wealth of experience it contains.  I'm starting to learn (the hard way) that I should look at yarn reviews and project comments. Comments on yarns can be very revealing. I sincerely hope that the yarn producers read them and act accordingly. Free, relatively unbiased feedback, for which you don't have to do market research? These reviews are a gift!

A few months ago, I was browsing through the DK and Aran weight yarns hoping to find some which I can afford and don't have too many drawbacks, in order to do a couple of cabled sweaters, major projects after all of last year's socks!

Naturally, the yarn brand's own description is unlikely to reveal some of the downsides of a yarn and you may need to read between the lines of the description. Wonderful for felt? It probably felts very easily. Superwash wool? Is it, though? Plenty of people have experience which may say otherwise, even when they carefully follow the care instructions. Good stitch definition - does it keep it after washing?

On the other hand, many of the yarns have quite high star ratings from users and have been used in hundreds or thousands of projects, but have relatively few pages of users' comments, which tend to reveal the real issues. I found myself wondering what that was about. Of course, it's easier just to click the rating than put your thoughts together and write a comment.  It could be that users don't think to go back to comment once they've discovered issues such as the dye running, or growing after washing. Or perhaps when they do, it's all been said already and they don't think they can add anything, so they don't. Yarn comments are often included in project comments.

It's tempting to rely on the old maxim that you get what you pay for, but this isn't necessarily true. I saw a review for a mid-range to expensive yarn from a textile student who was creating a garment as an examination piece, and finding terrible problems with the yarn fuzzing and pilling, almost starting to friction felt, during knitting. She contacted the brand's helpline and it turned out they knew about the issues, and advised that she try to knit holding it well away from herself and with the stitches separated! (For the non-knitting reader, this is not a practical solution!) The yarn has since been discontinued.

Yarn quality is important. If you were spinning and dyeing the yarn yourself, you might be happy that you've produced something and take a relaxed view that 'it is what it is'. With experience, you may then improve the quality of your handspun and dyed yarn. We expect yarn producers to have that experience already and to manage quality issues as part of the production. Of course, commercially manufactured yarns and the resulting items, such as sweaters, may have quality problems too, such as the dye crocking or running and ruining the Fairisle pattern of the jumper and the blouse you were wearing under it, or a 'Superwash' sweater which shrinks and felts on the first wash. If that happens, you take it back to the shop. If the same thing happens after you've shelled out your hard-earned cash for yarn and spent many hours creating your knitwear, then all you can do is complain to the yarn producer, comment on Ravelry to warn others, and have a cup of tea while you curse and sob your heart out in anger and frustration over the wasted money, time and effort.

'Known' Characteristics
Some characteristics may be normal for certain yarns, but an unacceptable feature and a sign of poor quality in others.  For example, mohair yarns are naturally hairy and grippy, so stitches are hard to unravel and textured stitches will be hard to see. Apparently, alpaca is known for showing up uneven stitches, and paradoxically having poor stitch definition. Merino often grows on washing and pills when knitted too loosely. Singles (yarns which aren't plied, that is, more than one yarn twisted together), at any weight, may pull apart or snap if your tension is too tight. Nylon can feel quite harsh. Tweed yarns contain neps. Thick and thin yarns are deliberately thick and thin.

I saw someone complain that her wool-rich jumper smelled of wet sheep when washed! I suppose the smell of wet sheep isn't for everyone, but I would be disappointed if my wool-rich garment didn't smell of wet sheep when I washed it! I also had a look for comments on a very popular acrylic yarn, to find that no-one had anything to say, good or bad, although it had a reasonably high rating. Perhaps it's because it is so completely as expected.

Yarn Texture
Sheddy, linty: Hairs or bits of yarn drop/fly off while knitting or wearing the garment, leaving you and the area where you've been sitting covered in bits
Fuzzy: Some apparently smooth yarns develop a fuzzy 'halo' or 'haze', either after washing, or while they are being knitted. This can be a precursor to pilling and may make a garment look more worn or old than it is. Fuzzy, hairy yarns don't make for good stitch definition.
Grippy, sticky: Sticks to itself, may also stick to the needles (depending on their material - plastic and wood can have issues), difficult to frog/unravel or tink/correct stitches. This can work for you if, say, you are an accurate knitter creating a sweater with steeked armholes.
Pilling is a very common issue. It happens when short, loose fibre ends on the surface of the fabric form small bobbles. Wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and nylon tend to pill the most, with knitted fabrics pilling more than woven ones and loosely knitted fabrics more than tightly knitted. If you are working with a yarn which is known to pill badly, it's worth working out gauge and size to allow you to work on smaller needles. Wool pills tend to break away from the fabric and fall off, but pills on synthetics will need to be shaved off to keep the garment looking good.
Friction felting: Some yarns may start to felt while they are being worked, and the soles of socks may felt from the friction of being worn. 
Splitty: Especially in loosely plied yarns, where the plies unravel enough that you leave part of a stitch behind while knitting. If you pick up and adjust the leftover loop and it settles back with the other plies, no problem. However, some splitty yarns are unforgiving and the loop cannot be persuaded to rejoin the main yarn, leaving a snag. If you are working with a splitty yarn, sometimes it's worth changing your needles for ones which are less sharply pointed, and working more carefully.
Snaggy: Also in loosely plied yarns, or where two yarn types are plied together, such as a metallic thread or a binder thread with sequins. One of the yarn types may catch on things more than the other, leaving snags and pulls, which very quickly make the item look old and tatty.
Coarse, harsh, wiry, crisp, stiff:  Different colours of the same yarn may be coarser than others, due to the way that the dyes react with the fibres. Depending on the reason, this is sometimes resolved by washing and a rinse with fabric conditioner. If there appear to be no problems with the yarn/fabric growing on washing, pilling and snagging, it might be possible to work at a looser tension. However, very coarse yarns can be a literal pain to work with. I used to crochet doormats from recycled baler twine and have yet to find anything coarser than that!
Itchy, scratchy: This generally depends on how sensitive you are to the fibre types in a yarn. It's also a good idea to wash new garments to remove any lingering factory finish which may cause irritation. Even so, some yarns seem to be itchier than others. The scratchiest thing I have is a shop-bought shrug/wrap cardigan, made from a chunky-weight synthetic ribbon yarn plied with a sequinned thread binder. The sequins stick in at all angles - definitely not as comfortable as it looks.

Dye problems
Excess dye
Colour runs in wash:  There is often a bit of excess dye when it comes to natural fibres, either pure or blends, so always wash dark and saturated colours on their own, at least for the first time. You can try a dye catcher sheet or colour run remover for unexpected disasters, but it's worth knowing if the colour runs and taking steps to fix it as repeated running can lead to fading.
Crocking is a worse problem, because the dye starts to come off the yarn with friction or the smallest amount of moisture. You can often pick this up while knitting, as you realise your fingers and even the needles are a picking up the colour where you tension the yarn or hold the fabric.This also has the potential to ruin your clothes.
If you don't want to or can't return the yarn, you can try fixing the dye.
For cotton, linen and viscose, soak the yarn (you need to unwind it into skeins/hanks first) or the finished item in water in which salt has been dissolved (weigh your item dry first and use its weight in salt, with easily enough water to submerge the yarn). Use white vinegar in water for wools and silks (protein fibres). It's difficult to give proportions. I've seen advice which varies between a 'glug' and a cupful per bowl or (stainless steel) pot. It may be worth treating it as if you are dyeing the yarn; here's a good article from Knitty.
Having soaked the yarn, wash separately to try to get rid of any excess dye before knitting the yarn up (or wearing, if it's a piece which has already been knitted). Be careful of wearing the piece with other items of clothing which will show any transfer.
Colour fading: It's no accident that 'vintage' fabrics look slightly bleached or faded, with muted colours. Exposure to UV light (and oxygen) causes most dyes to fade, (some, such as reactive dyes on cotton, linen and viscose, faster than others). By the time the fading has happened, there's nothing you can do about it. So move that richly coloured cushion out of the sun, and don't place or hang items to dry in bright sunlight.
Unexpected colour variation within a ball: If it's a solid colour, this usually indicates something was wrong during the dyeing process. If it's a kettle dyed or hand painted yarn, then it's likely that the dye didn't penetrate a section of the yarn. Some self-striping or self-patterning yarns have knots (or, if you're lucky, splices) with abrupt colour changes either side of the knot or splice.
Colour variation within a dye lot: You don't expect it, but you do see it. Not good, yarn producers, not good at all! The best fix  I've seen, from someone who couldn't get a solution through their yarn supplier, was to buy more and use the variation in shades to create a subtle Fairisle pattern.

Spinning, plying and winding issues
You wouldn't think this would be a problem with commercially-produced yarns, but it reflects poor quality control.

The fibre may not have been cleaned very well, so that there are still bits of vegetable matter (VM) in the yarn. I've also found bits of plastic and nylon in some cheap yarn, and unwanted neps (small lumps of short fibres, sometimes in a different colour - normal in a tweed yarn, but a bit annoying in a fine sock yarn!)

An uneven spin/ply can lead to variations in the yarn weight, so that it is (unintentionally) thick and thin and there may be unplied sections in a plied yarn. Alternatively, the yarn may be spun (overspun) or plied so tightly that yarn twists into loops and tangles.

Overspun yarns and thin sections may result in breaks or yarn ends within the ball . Where these are found, and presumably also where thin, tangled, frayed or stained sections are found in quality control, the ends may be knotted together so that you get knots in the ball. I've seen a couple of comments to the effect that a couple of knots in a 100g ball is pretty much industry-standard for acceptable quality, so if you get a ball without knots, you're lucky. That said, most of the balls of yarn I've knitted so far have not had knots, but my experience isn't so very extensive!

I've seen some reviews of mixed-fibre recycled yarns, especially those containing silk, where the yarn pulls apart quite easily. I'm all for reusing rags, but some of these yarns seem quite expensive to me, so I would definitely read the reviews before buying!

The yardage/metrage is often stated as a rough guide, but you would expect the ball weight to be accurate. However, it can be out by as much as 10% (although it's rarely over; I've had quite a few 100g balls which have been 98g). I've also seen a review for a yarn stating that the length was incorrect - I can't imagine actually measuring a whole ball or skein of yarn, but it strikes me that you would have to keep the yarn at a constant tension to get an accurate result.

And last, but not least, loosely wound balls which fall apart, leaving a tangled heap of yarn.Try not to pull, as it might knot itself tighter. And keep away from playful cats!

During processing and winding into skeins, balls or cones, the yarn fibres may be stretched, compacted or have some residual oil or finish, so that the yarn can feel quite different after its first wash.
Growing, stretching is where the yarn stretches and relaxes. Especially a problem for loosely knitted, heavy items. If the maker's suggested gauge seems tight and the yarn is known to grow on washing, go for the tighter gauge.
Shrinking is a common problem with wool.
Blooming is where the yarn seems to swell or puff a little and have a slight halo after washing, and the fabric seems to get a little wider and shorter. It's not really a problem, as the fabric often feels and looks softer, although you may need to pull the garment back into shape or re-block and you may loose stitch definition. Finely crimped, downy fibres (e.g. merino, lambswool) often bloom when washed and dried the first time and woollen-spun more than worsted-spun yarn.
Felting in wash. If you want to felt, use hot water, rub and wring the garment to your heart's content and rinse in water at different temperatures. It should be enough that if you don't want felt, use cool-lukewarm water for both washing and rinsing, and handle the garment carefully, avoiding rubbing and friction. Unfortunately, some yarns felt (and shrink) regardless of how careful you are when washing them. And I would like to know why.

Other issues to look for are stitch definition (possibly related to how crisp or soft a yarn is) and how well the yarn/item holds its shape after blocking (heavy, soft, loosely knit items may not hold their shape).

Finally, the same yarn may change in quality or characteristics over time, maybe because the producer has made changes, so it is worth giving and reading recent feedback, as well as older comments.

There are fixes for some of the quality issues, but you may not think to do it, and why should you, when you've just paid for a yarn which you expect to be of reasonable quality?  This is where creating a swatch can be so useful and important. Not only do you check your gauge (number of stitches and rows over 10 cm/4"), but you can wash it to check for dye loss, dry it and block it to check for growth/shrinkage, felting, and other quality issues, and make notes for posterity in your design book and on Ravelry, so others can benefit from your research! If you're planning a very large project, you might want to buy only a test ball before buying all the yarn you need (in the same dye lot, of course!).

After I'd written this, I belatedly wondered what else was out there about yarn quality.  I found this post by knittingharpy, who strangely didn't mention Ravelry but pointed to other sources of information on the Knitter's Review and on WiseNeedle. The latter has been taken down, having become uneconomic in the face of competition from Ravelry. It contained reviews since 1995, and it's probably a vain hope that the information has somehow found its way onto Ravelry. The owner, String or Nothing, has a good reference section.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A Little Overwhelmed

Is it possible to feel only a little overwhelmed?  Doesn't the word imply being entirely overcome, utterly submerged?

The process of separating my things, bringing them in from store, cleaning, sorting and repacking is proving slow, frustrating and horribly dirty. Sorting out stuff inside the cottage is not much better, although thankfully cleaner. I can feel myself teetering on the brink of despair but refuse to feel completely defeated by this seemingly enormous task. Despite tackling it a bit at a time, it's difficult to be very systematic because of the random way in which things were put into store. (I should add, by someone else while I was out at work!) For example, vases; three different sources so far, and I think I may still be missing one. I've found candles, tealights and candleholders in four different boxes so far, and still have not come across the snuffer which should have been packed with the advent candleholder. There are currently boxes everywhere, as I try to find things, get them clean and pack like with like. I've become so cross with myself for not being able to find, for example, my jewellery tools (I'm sure it's not that long since I used them, they must be here somewhere, dammit!), that I have vowed never again to let things become so chaotic. In the meantime, I have other things to do too, not to mention the pile of laundry which is growing faster than I can get it washed and dried (mainly because I need a bath and a change of clothes when I've been rummaging around in the storage area in the back of the barn, and now that it's May, it keeps raining!).

People have been very helpful, finding packing boxes and making suggestions. A friend suggested I just pick out my things and repack straight away, leaving the cleaning and sorting until I'm putting away in the new place. That would probably be okay if things were just a bit dusty, but some things really are filthy. When I retrieved the rest of the mugs, one had a dessicated, headless mouse in it, presumably dropped and forgotten about by one of the owls. The muck stays here; besides which, I know I won't have the energy or inclination after the move.

A rather ruthless acquaintance pointed out that if everything was so filthy, and considering that I hadn't used any of this stuff in five years, I obviously didn't need it, so why didn't I just throw out the lot, or have a massive bonfire? And the simple answer is, because it would be wasteful, and there are some things in store which I have missed and felt too overwhelmed, or in too much pain to want to fight my way into the back of the silage shed, to search for until now. All my books on dance, old photos, a wooden kitchen tray, my honey drizzler ... even the Christmas decorations, unused for the past few years. I don't have the money to get rid and just treat myself to new whatever I find I need or miss.

Some people are minimalists, others have no choice, but most people accumulate things they don't strictly need, but keep just for the sake of interest, decoration, sentiment or convenience. If you have a grill, you don't, strictly speaking, need a toaster.  You can chop herbs and garlic with a chef's knife, but I love my mezzaluna. My cherry/olive stoner gets quite a lot of use, too. I like detail and find minimalist environments sterile and unsettling, distressing rather than de-stressing. Of course I could declutter more and no doubt will in future, but at the moment I take a load to the recycling, and a bag of items to the charity shop (trying not to bring anything back!) every couple of weeks, and constantly surprise myself by what I'm letting go. Bye-bye ice skates, the spare set of kitchen scales, the third teapot, my old jazz shoes.

So, no extreme decluttering for me. It always seems so cruel; I've seen advice to parents that they impose a 'one in, one out' rule for their children's toys! "You can only have a new toy if you part with one." feels like some sort of emotional blackmail, although I suppose some children have more toys than they know what to do with (and that's hardly their fault, now, is it?). As for the decluttering techniques which use disaster scenarios and questions such as "You have to flee for your life/your house is flooding/on fire, what do you save? What would you miss most and have to replace?", they fill me with sorrow for those who are actually living the nightmares, and gratitude for my abundant blessings.

It's easy to find lots of tips online if you're into that sort of decluttering, but I'm really enjoying reading articles from Apartment Therapy. (No, they aren't paying me anything for the mention, unfortunately!) They seem to take a more balanced, sympathetic, realistic view of things and there are lots of useful tips and life hacks, as well as practical interior design ideas.

I've just heard that the local searches are back at last, although it will be another day or two before I receive the report in the post. It's a bit too tight now to move in mid-May, but sometime from the third week of May to early June may still be feasible.

Oh help. I really need to get cracking with the packing