Thursday, 1 March 2018

Snowed in, lion around

I'm sure Arctic countries find the British response to snow bemusing. In Scotland, drivers were stuck on a motorway for fifteen hours, while my commute into London Bridge yesterday took four times longer than usual because of cancelled trains and - this was new to me - trains that couldn't move because their doors had frozen.

Today is World Book Day, and some parents might have felt their effort spent on costumes was wasted after the schools closed because of the weather. But I hope the children still enjoyed wearing their costumes at home. I had a day off work and I stayed indoors and started rereading Gone Girl. Although a lot of it is set in warm weather, there's a key scene in a snow storm.

But the books that I think of the most when I think of the snow are The Snowman (which also reminds me of Christmas), Love Story (which I've mentioned on a previous World Book Day), and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

My wonderful primary school teacher, Helen Baxter, read the C. S. Lewis novel to us over I don't know how many weeks. I probably had books read to me as a toddler, but once I could read to myself I rarely had stories read to me at home. So story time at school was incredibly special to me. And whatever I now think about the message of the book about the four children and their trips to Narnia, I have a strong affection for the novel because I remember the first time I heard those words spoken. 

If you're someone who reads children's books to children, I hope you know what a nourishing thing it is you're doing for them.

Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow. Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on to the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops. 

Soon there were more wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers- celandines. The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve

I woke up at 4am today. Of course, having a day off means I wake up early anyway! But it's Christmas Eve, so I'm happy. I had some panettone and tea and watched the end of the Hollyoaks omnibus. Then I read this beautiful article by one of my favourite people on Twitter, Ian McMillan. It's about why he prefers Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Although my memories are different from his (I'm not quite old enough to remember Apollo 8), I agree that the magic of Christmas is in today.

So I'll be meeting my lovely friend in our usual cafe this afternoon. We usually meet on Christmas Eve apart from a few years when illness or travel have got in the way. We must have spent our first Christmas Eve together in 1995 when we first started working on Sundays at Boots in Bromley, and Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday that year. I remember making a bet with someone that I would say "Happy Christmas" to every single customer I served, and I did. I'm not sure I would have been so perky if I'd worked in the shop full time and been subjected to the same Christmas CD all throughout December!

We usually swap presents today, but this year I wanted to make her up an advent calendar, so she got hers early. I enjoyed planning what to put in each drawer, but then as I stuffed them, I saw there was a 25 as well. I think I ended up swapping days 24 and 25 so she would get the best treat on Christmas morning.

Have a lovely Christmas!

The Walking Dead gingerbread hospital

It's been five years since my first and only attempt to make a gingerbread house. I had enough gingerbread that time to make two small houses - one for my close friend who I nearly always meet for a drink on Christmas Eve, and one for my sister.

This year a different friend had to cancel her 40th birthday party because her little boy was ill in hospital. She said she felt like Daryl from The Walking Dead when he was trapped in the Sanctuary and forced to listen to Easy Street over and over - because another family in the same ward kept playing Three Little Kittens to soothe their poorly girl.

Once her boy was feeling better and her girl was off school for the holidays (and I was on holiday from one of my jobs, working at a school), we planned to meet up for a belated birthday/early Christmas lunch. I had an idea of making a gingerbread hospital (like the one Rick wakes up in during the first episode) on the outside that is the Sanctuary on the inside.

As ever, my ideas are usually better in theory than in practice, but hey - it kind of worked and my friend seemed to get what it was. Although the figure inside which was meant to be her as Daryl needed some definition for the arms and folded legs - she thought it was a handbag. Whoops.

You might be able to spot the record player, the character Jesus (who would have had brown hair if I had brown icing), Lucille, and a random star that looks more like a spider's web.

What was impressive to me is that I managed to carry it on two crowded trains to her flat without it collapsing. Royal icing is an amazing invention! (No, I don't make my own, as my Great British Bake Off book recommended. Gingerbread buildings take long enough to make without whisking egg whites as well.)

And if you like torturing yourself, here's a 30-minute loop of Easy Street.

Friday, 23 June 2017

On National Pink Day: A funeral for a friend

I don't know where to begin with this one, but I must write it today, even if I can't write it as well or thoroughly as I'd like to. Apologies in advance for the clumsy nature of my writing in this post, and most of the photos are at the end if this post is too long/upsetting to read and you just want to see pretty photos.

The last few posts here have been about loss and that's no accident - losses or pre-losses have been a significant factor in my life for the last year. It's one reason I haven't blogged much.

When I told my friends I was doing a floristry diploma back in 2011, a few got excited and said I could do their wedding flowers if they got married. Others got excited and said I could do their funeral flowers. I remember those conversations, because I wasn't excited at all by the idea - I didn't want to think about my friends dying and I didn't enjoy doing funeral flowers anyway. But that was a long time ago - I've since finished my therapy degree, worked for three years as a voluntary bereavement counsellor at St Christopher's Hospice, and processed my own bereavements from long ago. I've also come to - I can't think of the right word. Not "enjoy" exactly, but I've become much more comfortable with doing flowers to do with loss, and have found beauty and love and human connections through that work.

And so I have done wedding flowers for a few friends, birthday and anniversary flowers for others, but no funerals for friends - until this week.

Vicky came into my life a few months after my partner and I called off our wedding. I was in a state of not-quite denial at the time - constantly doing new things and meeting new people and not wanting to sit with my pain because I worried if I sat with it too long, I would fall apart and be unable to piece myself together.

I was at the Depressed Cake Shop in Sundridge Park in August 2013 - and I've just remembered that it was only 100m up the road from the flat where I lived with my (ex) partner. I was there all day, and Vicky turned up in the middle of the day. All I can remember about her that day was how friendly she was, how she seemed like she knew me already, how many photos she took, and her nails were painted pink and blue. I wish I had photos of her from the day but I don't.

We became firm friends at once, and although the shop was supposed to be about fundraising and awareness, it was also the place that brought two women who were often crippled by depression (and anxiety) together. She was a troubled sleeper like me, and we would often write crap to each other on our night-time Facebook posts or text at odd hours. And, like in maths where two negatives make a positive, our mental ill-health seemed to cancel each other's out, and we would feel so comfortable and often joyful with each other. I told her father recently (he encouraged me to write this post today) that being friends with Vicky in my late thirties was like having a childhood friend to go shopping with in the 1980s - we never went anywhere especially exciting, but we both liked pretty, kitsch, weird things, we had a sweet tooth, our favourite colour was pink, and with her I felt the closest I felt to being a little kid and getting excited about pick 'n' mix and Easter Eggs and Adam and the Ants records in Woolworths. The one time Vicky and I went out for my birthday, last autumn, we asked for colouring-in posters and crayons and we sat in Giraffe eating our dinner and colouring in monkeys and elephants (and lamenting that there was no pink crayon).

Only four months after we met in 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After initially being told she would make a full recovery within a year, she was then told that actually she had secondary breast cancer - that's what the pain in her shoulder was - and at the age of thirty she suddenly had to get her head around the idea that her life expectancy was only another 5-10 years. That turned out to be an optimistic prognosis. I don't want to write about her cancer now because there is SO much to say, but I will just say that her attitude and her kindness and generosity of spirit during the last three and a half years are beyond incredible. She remained a support to me, with my disabled sister, with my mental health, with my lack of self-esteem and confidence, with my other loved ones with cancer, even while she was so ill herself. She never wanted to die, until right at the end, when she was in so much agony and the brain metastases, radiotherapy and steroids had left her in a terrible state. She shared every medical update with her friends and family on Facebook and sometimes in her exquisitely-written blog, and so we were able to support her (and each other) as much as possible. Because of this, many of us connected during her last five weeks in St Christopher's Hospice, and continued to do so after she died there three weeks ago.

During one visit to the hospice, I sat in the room while Vicky slept, and I talked to her mother. Her mother told me that Vicky had told her she wanted me to do a coffin spray for her. I was choked by this - Vicky and I had never talked about funeral flowers and I had no idea she wanted me to do hers. She gave me a free hand as well, which was - as ever - a sign of her love, trust and generosity to the people she cared about.

I'm so tired now, I can barely write...but I want to try to explain why I chose the flowers I did.

Vicky had asked me to source striped roses before, and I used some in the bouquet and posy I did for her 33rd birthday. I ordered "Angry Bird" white and red striped roses for her funeral flowers, but they were unavailable, so I had "Frou Frou" pink and red striped roses instead.

I wanted lots of beautiful roses for her because she loved them and they're a symbol of love and grace, so I ordered "Charity" David Austin roses because of their scent, unusual appearance with the bright green stamen inside, and the name - Vicky was the embodiment of charity in the biblical sense, and apart from the coffin spray she didn't want any flowers but rather donations to St Christopher's and to cancer charities. It was also a thank you to the hospice that cared for her over three years but especially at the end.

I also ordered "Tess" David Austin roses, because they are named after Tess of the d'Urbervilles who's one of my favourite fictional heroes - so loving and tenacious. They're not especially scented, but they are such a gorgeous, sexy dark red, which is a colour I associate with Vicky even though I don't think I ever saw her wear it.

There were bright pink "Dr Alexander Fleming" peonies because she was so appreciative of medical research and because peonies are symbolic of a few things, including anger, and I am so angry she got this horrible illness and died so young. There were pale "Shirley Temple" peonies because of her playful, child-like side.

I did order "Karma Choc" dahlias (which look like and smell of chocolate) and bright "Labyrinth" dahlias (because she liked David Bowie, a "fellow cancer patient" as she called him, and was gutted when he died), but that bloody heatwave pretty much killed the dahlias, despite some great advice on keeping them cool and hydrated from Sara at My Flower Patch (it was at her flower patch last year that I smelled the chocolate-scented dahlias for the first time). I snuck in a few not-too-shabby chocolate dahlias so Vicky could have one last chocolate fix, and I used a few buds of Labyrinth which had lasted better than the main flowers. Dahlias symbolise dignity amongst other things.

There was jasmine from the garden, which started flowering the day after she died. It symbolises attachment and amiability.

There was also ivy, which is sign of love and fidelity, magnolia (more dignity), eucalyptus for protection, fern for sincerity, rosemary for remembrance, and mint for protection and warmth of emotions.

It is British Flowers Week, so I bought lots of flowers from Zest on Monday, including achillea which the Victorians called "a cure for a broken heart", astilbe, and brodiaea, as well as giant alliums and scented dill. The last two were a tribute to one of Vicky's wonderful sisters, who organised the funeral (pink hearse and pink cupcakes and all) and who grows organic vegetables. There was also pale pink malope, which I've grown from seed for the first time. It was also Zest where I ordered her roses, peonies and dahlias.

It was an honour and a privilege to do this for my friend and I am so glad she let me. I listened to Nirvana and Radiohead and Joy Division while I worked in a dark garage. It was hard at times - I suddenly started crying when I had to use a measuring tape and long stems of rosemary to measure out the size I would be working to, realising that I was measuring my dead friend's body. It was horrible. This was a flipping world away from doing wedding flowers for a friend.

I need to finish now, but not before sharing a few links.

Firstly, the funeral directors Varley and Varley who were so personal, intuitive, and sensitive. Clayton Varley is an exceptional man.

Secondly, St Christopher's Hospice - if you have been bereaved of someone who received care there, you can request bereavement counselling if you would like. You can also help with fundraising or become a volunteer as I was up until a month ago. It is a lovely place to work, as well as an amazing place to receive care - Vicky and I would sometimes have lunch together when her outpatient appointments and my supervision meetings were on the same day.

And finally, the Samaritans on 116 123, because cancer, death, depression, all of it is a shit, and if you need to talk to someone, they are there.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Love and loss with flowers

Mother's Day feels like so long ago now - but it was only a few months ago. 

The alternative flowers workshop went well. I had rosemary and forget-me-nots for remembrance, mint for warmth of feeling and protection, ranunculus which says "You are radiant with charms" according to the Victorians. And French lavender, just because it smells beautiful.

There were people who'd lost their mother and people who'd lost their child, but everyone connected and shared their stories. I went down to get more tea after we'd been chatting for an hour and before we started the floristry, but when I came back up, everyone had got stuck in and started making posies. There was flower-swapping and jar-swapping, and beautiful, scented posies were made for keeping and others were made to lay in memory. It was heartbreakingly sad at times, but it was also wonderful. The talking, the connecting, the kindness, and the grounding qualities of flowers - all of these things did their bit.

If you would like support with the loss of a child, Child Bereavement UK have resources here.
For other bereavements, you can contact Cruse here.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

If you find Mother's Day difficult: alternative workshop on 25 March

When I did my floristry diploma, we were taught about the importance of certain dates in the calendar - the most significant being Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter, and Christmas. For another module, we were taught how to sensitively take an order for funeral flowers. We didn't really put them together, and it's only because of personal losses in the last few years (my own and my friends') and my work as a bereavement counsellor that I've seen how the two are connected.

I have mixed feelings about Valentine's Day, and I still wish it was used as a day to celebrate all kinds of love rather than solely a day for couples to remind themselves that they're a couple.

I've seen how Mother's Day can be upsetting for people - whose mothers or children have died, or whose mothers or children are ill or disabled, or who are estranged from some of their family. It could be that someone has a difficult relationship with their mother or child for all kinds of reasons. It could be that a woman wants to have children but can't. It could be that a woman chooses not to have children but gets messages that she's less of a woman for it. Last year, Jennifer Aniston wrote about the scrutiny she comes under for her maternal status, amongst other things.

It's easy to suggest that someone just ignores Mothering Sunday and the messages that are implied with it, but unless you're a hermit, it's near-impossible to ignore Mother's Day in Britain. Adverts and articles will pop up on television, newspapers and websites, the shops (that includes florists - sorry) will do their damnedest to make you remember, and even if you want to just go out for the day, there might be themed lunches and afternoon teas in cafes and restaurants.

So, with some encouragement from other therapists and flowery friends (waves to Sara at My Flower Patch who is running a Spring Workshop in Wiltshire and donates to local charity The Finlay Foundation), I am running an alternative workshop the day before Mother's Day.

  • In this workshop, we'll get to talk to each other about what makes Mother's Day difficult.
  • We'll do some mindful exercises with flowers.
  • Then we'll make a scented posy that people can keep for themselves, give as a gift, or leave as a memorial.

The workshop will be held at Neal's Yard Remedies in Sevenoaks on Saturday 25 March from 1.15-3pm. You can book your place by visiting the shop at 134 Sevenoaks High Street or phoning the shop on 01732 456402.

The cost is £30 and this includes the workshop, a posy to take away, and a £5 donation to the charity Child Bereavement UK.

This year, Child Bereavement UK has launched a campaign called Make for Mum to encourage bereaved people to remember their mothers or mothers to remember their children. The charity supports children and parents who are bereaved or facing bereavement through their national helpline; one-to-one, couple, family and group support; and training for professionals and schools.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Review of the year: Winter 2016

Only a few weeks to go before the days start getting longer again. I can't wait - apart from Christmas, I'm not a fan of dark mornings and evenings.

Winter flowers included 28 candelabras for an event at Middle Temple Hall celebrating Shakespeare (which chimed in nicely with the #floristfilms hashtag: 28 Candelabras Later). It's where the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night took place in 1602, so it was a real privilege to do the flowers for this event. The flowers were not so much flowers, as trailing ivy, which hopefully created an ethereal, Midsummer Night's Dream feel to the hall.

There were scented arrangements of pine, spruce (aka blue pine), eucalyptus, stocks, and lavender, along with pussy willow, alstromeria, silver brunia, silver kochia, and white hypericum for Neal's Yard Remedies in Sevenoaks.

The scent of the foliage, herbs, and flowers nicely complimented the Christmassy smells of cinnamon, clove and mandarin that filled the shop. Pussy willow has an irresistible, tactile quality, and it lasts for weeks and weeks, which is wonderful for a shop display.

Oh, and there was white, glittery skimmia. The glitter was barely noticeable in the arrangements, but it was all over my workspace and buckets and took weeks to finally clear!

There were satsumas for Father Christmas.

And on Boxing Day, after eating leftover Quorn roast (I used Nigella's ginger-glazed ham recipe), I used my leftover flowers to try to create some modern ikebana arrangements. Ikebana is not the most obvious style for Christmas flowers, but one of my lovely Canadian cousins sent me Keiko's Ikebana book to challenge my Western-wild floristry style, and I thought I'd give it a go. I failed my natural line arrangement practical at college, along with the rest of my class - this Japanese style of floristry did not come naturally to any of us (we scraped passes on our resits though!). A lovely tutor from my diploma course, Neil Bain, encouraged me to share my efforts on Twitter - and his generous response to my photos was reassuring.

The bowl arrangement is not-quite moribana (which means "piled on") and the vase arrangement is not-quite nageire (which means "thrown in"). It looks deceptively simple in the book, but it is such a challenge if it's not your natural style. But hey - it's good to be challenged sometimes.

Now there's just over a month until Easter, I can think about clearing out my Easter leftovers with some spring ikebana.

I'll finish with some gratuitous Christmas baking photos...even though it's completely the wrong weather and time of year for eggnog cupcakes and mince pies! It was the first time I'd made eggnog from scratch, and like many homemade things, it was time-consuming but worth the effort. You also get to drink the leftover eggnog, which is a nice bonus.