Something for a rainy day

Sophie Caldecott

When life runs away with you

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Some time late last year I read an old blog post by the wonderful Erin Loechner (Founder of Clementine Daily and Design for Mankind) from 2012 about “slow blogging” that really struck a chord:

“We live in a world of more; this much is obvious. More things, more information. More time-saving tricks we use to find the time to uncover even more time-saving tricks. We live in a world of Pinterest, where visual images shoot out like firehoses of pretty, manifesting themselves in the parts of our brain we reserve for planning elaborate feasts and fetes. We have hundreds of RSS subscriptions to blogs creating amazing tablescapes and Halloween costumes and DIY floor lamps. And we take it all in, bookmarking each project for future use when ‘someday’ is finally today.

Yet friends, I fear that someday will never come. Because there will continually be more to do, to see, to buy. And our someday file will slowly become outdated with a new sea of ideas and thoughts promising to fulfill our lives in ways we never dreamed possible.

I want less. I want less for this site; I want less for my life. I want to return to the days when I didn’t feel the need to ‘keep up’ with the Internet. Where less truly was more, where editorial calendars didn’t exist and the words ‘I should totally blog this’ were never uttered.

…This year, one of my personal resolutions is to live a slower, more thoughtful (meaningful?) life. Less travel, more adventure. Less work, more challenges. And I need this to translate into all areas of my life: Less blogging, more learning.”

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s a thought that I keep coming back to, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve not been pushing myself to write regular blog posts here, recently.

My family and I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, though, and I found myself thinking back to this time last year when I created this blog and the actors who were wrapping up on the set for that film gave dad the incredible gift of their support before he passed away. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? I loved seeing so many of the characters and relationships develop, discovering a little more of their back stories, fears, and motivations. With all great sci-fi and fantasy films, after all, it’s the characters and exploration of what it means to be human that compel me to watch, not the action.

Another reason I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently is that I’ve been hard at work with our team creating the new ethical lifestyle website, A Better Place (read more about the idea behind this concept, here). We are hoping to launch it later this summer, and to be able to reveal the new look and design over the next few weeks. It’s going well, but researching and testing all of the products for it is a lot of work, and taking rather a long time. It will be well worth the wait, though, and all the better for being done slowly and carefully. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Meanwhile, my daughter has been growing and learning and changing from a baby into a willful toddler. Putting her down to sleep has become like a more frustrating version of pick-up-sticks or Jenga because she is so busy all the time that she hates to switch off. Last night as she fell asleep in my arms she was twitching and saying “No!” fretfully under her breath. This is a difficult phase, and I’m trying to remember that it’s all natural and necessary development.

I wrote about figuring out how to divide the housework and improve communication with the person (or people) you live with, as well as a response to the New York Times’ article, No Kids for Me, Thanks, on the parents vs. non parents theme, both for Verily Magazine, as well as contributing to their weekly culture news roundup, While You Were Out (check it out, it’s published every Friday, and is a great way of catching up on the week’s happenings). I also wrote a piece about Monica Lewinsky’s brilliant and thought-provoking TED Talk on cyber bullying and the need for compassion and empathy online.

This piece from the New York Times about becoming the kind of person who “radiates an inner light” is one of the best I’ve read in a while. “These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all,” David Brooks writes. I am privileged to have encountered many gems like this throughout my life, and I think a life spent trying to become more like this would be a life well spent.

I also love this piece that a friend shared with me recently about not being a kid person just because you have kids. Amongst other wise things, the author writes: “Sometimes we feel we must want ahead of time everything that happens or else we are being victimized by our own lives. In fact, our need to choose each event and its outcome might make us a nation of control freaks… More than anything else, though, my children have taught me to get outside of myself–to transcend the tyranny of my own wants.”

Finally, something else I’ve been treasuring recently is J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in the form of this beautiful little book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. Profits from the sale of the book (which it took me about 10 minutes to read) go to her charity for children, Lumos. It is so uplifting, I really recommend it. Here’s a little nugget from it to whet your appetite: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

I hope you’re having a beautiful Spring and enjoying the sunshine, friends!

Chocolate peppermint Christmas brownies | Recipe

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This year we’re spending Christmas with my American in-laws, and in the name of embracing new traditions I’m getting pretty into the concept of the cookie party: literally, a party where people get together to eat copious amount of sweet baked goods (something I can definitely get behind!). An American friend shared her amazing and oh-so-simple festive peppermint brownie recipe with me recently, and they’ve been a big hit.

You can use whichever brownie recipe you prefer (my personal favourite is Nigella Lawson’s – lots of melted chocolate, no chocolate syrup) to make the base, but I’ll share the proper American one here.

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For the brownie layer:

– 1 cup flour

– 1 cup sugar

– 1/2 cup butter

– 4 eggs

– 1 1/2 cup chocolate syrup (or melted chocolate)

– 1/2 cup of chocolate drops

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Soften the butter, then beat well with the sugar. Sift in the flour, and then mix in the eggs, one by one. Add the chocolate syrup and the chocolate drops, and then spread in a greased baking tin (approx. 13×9) and bake for around 30 mins (until the mixture feels springy to touch).

For the peppermint layer:

– 1/2 cup butter, softened

– 2 cups confectioner sugar/icing sugar

– 1 tablespoon water

– 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract

Sift the sugar into the softened butter, then beat in the water and the peppermint extract. Taste, and if you’d prefer it to be even more minty, go ahead and add a little dash more!

For the chocolate layer:

– 6 tablespoons butter

– 1 cup of chocolate for melting

Melt the butter and the chocolate together in a heatproof bowl over simmering water, stir well, and leave to cool fully, but not set.

When you have made all three parts, simply spread an even layer of the peppermint buttercream over the brownie (making sure the brownie has completely cooled – you don’t want the buttercream to melt!), then spread an even layer of the melted chocolate mixture over that. As a final fun finishing touch, crush up some peppermint candy cane (I found using a mug to do this gently in a high-sided bowl worked better than some more violent methods!) and sprinkle this over the top of the whole thing before letting the chocolate set and cutting it up into small squares. It’s pretty rich, so a little goes a long way.

Enjoy, and have a very happy Christmas next week! xo

chocolate peppermint christmas brownies recipe, christmas sweets, candy cane christmas bark recipe

On assisted suicide, choice, and personal freedom

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Yesterday Verily Magazine published an article that I wrote about how my father’s recent slow and painful death from prostate cancer convinced me that assisted suicide is not the answer to suffering. It is a sensitive and very controversial subject, and I was expecting a lot of readers to disagree with my conclusions, so the flood of indignant – even angry – comments on social media and on the article itself came as no real surprise. There wasn’t space in such a short article to go as deeply into how my personal experience is relevant to society and law-making as I would have liked, so I thought I’d address that a little here.

First of all though, I should probably clarify quite a basic point: many people object to the use of the term ‘assisted suicide’, preferring terms like ‘assisted dying’ instead. I keep using ‘assisted suicide’ because I believe that is the most accurate description of what we’re talking about here. The dictionary definition of suicide is: ‘the act of killing oneself intentionally’. Someone who chooses assisted suicide is intentionally seeking to end their own life, and they want medical help to do so. If we’re going to have an honest discussion about this, we have to call it what it is. Whether the actual act is right or wrong is another matter.

One thing that pretty much all of the objecting comments have in common is an underlying accusation that I am trying to tell other people what to do in an area where it should be totally up to their own personal choice. What was right for us isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Who am I to tell people that they can’t decide how to end their lives, that they must stick with it if they don’t want to? My father didn’t want assisted suicide, but if he had and I had stood in his way, I would have been a horrible selfish monster. And I am an awful person for telling people what they can and can’t do, right?

So, when it boils down to it, this is an argument about freedom and choice.

The thing is, I think it’s very disingenuous to claim that you are not directly impacting my life if you are campaigning for this change in legislation; to accuse me of standing in the way of your personal freedom, without acknowledging that you are doing the same to me. You may think that I can happily ignore any changes in the law that I want to, that it doesn’t have to concern me, but you’re wrong. You’re talking about making a radical change to the society in which I live, to the society in which I will someday die, and that is something that affects me in a very real way. I have every right in the world to protest that, quite aside from the personal experience I related that informs my views.

The fact that these proposed changes to our law wouldn’t just impact the select few who choose assisted suicide without affecting the rest of us really hit me when my father was dying, and that is why I decided to share our story. The very week before my father died, a proposed change to British law allowing assisted suicide was being discussed in the House of Lords, and in a horrible twist of fate, the experience our family was going through made us a textbook case for the debate. Everywhere I turned, the press was full of it, and it felt like they were all talking about us. It was as if they were putting value judgements on the last few years of my father’s life since his terminal diagnosis, crowding into my head and telling me I was selfish for being glad that assisted suicide wasn’t an option so that we could have as much time as possible together without the added stress of having to consider an ‘alternative’ to him seeing life through to the end.

As I sat by his bedside in the hospice during those last weeks with my family, utterly grief-striken, I was unspeakably grateful to the nurses who shifted his weight so that he didn’t get bedsores, who kept checking his pain relief was working even when he no longer proactively told them. We put ice chips on his tongue when he could no longer drink to relieve the dryness in his mouth. When his lungs started to shut down, my mother made sure that he was given oxygen to prevent him feeling like he was being asphyxiated (a childhood fear of his); it couldn’t make him live longer, but it made him more comfortable. We held hands and told him we loved him, over and over again.

It wasn’t about trying to keep him alive, stringing out the suffering longer than was necessary; it was about making every last moment he had with us as comfortable as we possibly could. I’m not arguing that people have to accept treatment for their terminal illnesses, though in our case we were glad to buy as much time as we could. All I am arguing is that we cannot pass a law that permits doctors to kill people, even as an act of mercy. If assisted suicide laws become widespread, our already stretched palliative care systems will fall into horrendous neglect. For every terminally ill person who claims that their choice to end their life impacts them and them alone, there is another terminally ill person whose palliative care will suffer if the campaigners have their way, placing an even heavier burden on terminally ill patients and their families than they already have to carry.

I can’t stress this point enough; for all that suffering is an intensely personal subject, in debates about changing the law it is anything but private. The motto of the hospice where my father died was ‘Believing every moment matters’. Would our society think this way if assisted suicide became widespread? Would our doctors and nurses still be properly trained in palliative care? Would it not be the case that more of us would start to think like the Lithuanian Health Minister, who has recently said that euthanasia is a good alternative where palliative care cannot be afforded, opening up the way for euthanasia of the poor?

Looking at countries where assisted suicide has been legal for a while is telling; in the Netherlands, the number of mentally ill patients killed every year has reportedly tripled in recent years. Earlier this year, Belgium extended its euthanasia laws to children and minors. Where the Hippocratic oath is scrapped, a whole host of nightmarish scenarios become possible, even probable.

Activist Penny Pepper also believes that assisted suicide threatens some of the most vulnerable members of society; not only the mentally ill, children, and the elderly, but also disabled people like herself. She argues that her life is just as valuable as any other, despite pain being ‘a constant’ factor. (That she even has to remind us of that is a mark of where this debate is heading.) She is afraid, like me, of what would happen to palliative care if assisted suicide laws were passed. ‘As an activist I want to rage, rage against the dying of the light, with every beat of my heart’, she writes. ‘I want assistance to live now; I want decent social care, left alone by government and not subject to cuts; and I want palliative care from doctors doing what the best of them do to the highest degree – helping me to live well.’

I do not want to live in a world where people kill themselves for fear of being a burden, as Giles Fraser so eloquently wrote for the Guardian.

People on both sides of the debate feel moved to share personal stories precisely because, in this case, the personal is not private. Much as my heart goes out to people like Brittany Maynard in their suffering, they are trying to influence legislation which will touch my life, and the lives of my loved ones, so I feel that I must speak out. Is she allowed to make her pain public in defence of her beliefs and choices, but I am not? Ultimately, whoever is right, I don’t think that’s consistent or fair.

Perhaps the objection to the term ‘assisted suicide’ is founded on the fact that it implies a choice. Perhaps people who seek assisted suicide don’t feel like they are choosing to die because they have already been given their death sentence, but rather that their hands are being forced by horribly difficult circumstances from which they can see no escape but a quick and painless death ministered to them by a medical professional. I understand that, and I sympathise; I really, really do. I know what it is like to reach the point with a loved one where you wish for death, knowing it will be a kind of merciful release when it comes. I know what it is like to be haunted by images of a dying face for months after the difficult passing of a loved one. I won’t deny the pain and trauma of these experiences, or try to claim I have all the answers and a neat theory of life, the universe and everything.

But, even though at first to many it may seem counter-intuitive, my father’s struggle with cancer has convinced me that if we really want to help the dying, we need to make the time that they do have left better, not cut it short. Better pain relief, better nursing, better care. That is what assisted dying should mean. No one should ever have to turn to suicide, assisted or otherwise. Some life, even when it is severely compromised, should always be better than no life.

That is what I will fight for until it’s my turn to leave this world, and if you want to call me selfish, so be it. Just remember that no one ever makes  a choice like Brittany’s in isolation, and that if you change the law it will impact me and everyone else in the society we all share.



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