Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 










An adventure with limits

As you read this I will be on holiday.  Woo!

The plan for last few months has been that we will jet off to somewhere sunny – catch the last rays of southern Mediterranean sun.  There’s something about the sunshine that just makes me happy. And since we’ve been married we’ve only really holidayed in the UK, and a fair amount of torrential rain has followed us around.

So we earmarked a week in the sun, and I set about seeking out cheap deals.  With a growing sense of unease.

Everything looked so impersonal.  It was like a holiday conveyor belt, nothing that felt real or special.

Then there was the fact that my carbon footprint is already outrageously oversized thanks to the long-haul flights I take for work each year.

But the biggest questions in my mind came from this sense that we fighting against natural, environmental limits.

It is autumn now, and I like autumn a lot.  Why can’t we embrace and enjoy the changing seasons, relish the beauty of England at this time of year, without needing to flee to a different climate?

Working as I do for an organisation with strong convictions and policies when it comes to the environment, I asked some colleagues for their opinions.  Unanimously, they said I should go and enjoy my overseas holiday, despite the environmental costs.  I’m not writing this to name and shame them, they spoke out of love and generosity towards me, encouraging us towards a holiday.  But I couldn’t find anyone to challenge me.

And why this perverse desire to be challenged, even stopped?

For me it plays into a loud debate that has been raging in my head, on and off, for the last couple of years.  And it’s about limits.

A friend of ours in Brazil, a radical, crazy urban farmer called Claudio Oliver, spoke to us some time ago about his belief that we need to reinstate “limits, renunciation and a sense of sacredness” into how we live.

Limits aren’t very sexy.  Although I’ve read tons of articles saying how crucial they are to children – healthy boundaries in childhood get the big thumbs up.  But when it comes to life as an adult they’re seen as cramping our style.  Something to overcome.

And our crazy consumerist culture is always driving us to want more, to leap over the limits of our bank balances, and buy everything we want.  There’s never a reason to say no. Put it on the credit card.  Or riot and steal.

And whatever you want to eat tonight, you can.  Regardless of the time of year, or what we can grow in this country, you can go to a restaurant or a supermarket and get pretty much whatever you want.

It’s luxury.

But I feel like something’s been lost.  Treats, for a start.  I can get anything at any time, so where does specialness come from now?

And where does pushing the limits lead? To debt, obesity, burn-out, stress. To a banking crisis.

When we were booking our holiday I was agonising – what will make me happy?  Our whole culture says – something more, something new.

And the reality is that no holiday can really make me happy.  I’ve worked out enough about the world to realize on its own it can never make me happy.  Happiness comes from somewhere else, from an attitude of wonder and gratitude, an ability to take pleasure in small things, from knowing that I am loved and I belong.

Pushing the limits of our bank balance and our geography and our use of natural resources to grab some sunshine didn’t feel right.  And so we’re off to a beautiful spot in North Devon instead, for a blustery, cosy autumnal break.  (Check out the amazing – how gorgeous does it look?!).

Which is all well and good for us, but there are bigger questions, aren’t there?  About the planet and how we don’t engineer our own extinction by continuing to live on, blind to the limits of the natural world.  It’s a question that a lot of people are asking.  A big crowd at Tearfund are wrestling with it right now.

Politicians won’t legislate limits if it means they’ll get voted out at the next opportunity.  And we do need some legislation.  The law can’t do everything, just like abolishing the slave trade hasn’t got rid of slaves.  But it makes certain behaviours unacceptable, unjustifiable.

Legislation won’t come until enough people want it.  And there’s the challenge.  How do we unlearn what constitutes ‘the good life’ in our western bubble, and come to believe in something better?  If we can’t school ourselves, we don’t stand a chance in our communities.

How do we recover an appreciation for limits, which strikes right at the heart of our consumer ideology?  How do we begin to recognize a life with limits as a better, richer, more generous, more human life?

It sounds so hard, but I am a big believer in imagination. Humans are incredibly creative when we’re suddenly having to constrain ourselves within limits. But the hard bit at the start is that none of those limits are enforced yet.  If we’re serious about this (and I really am) we’ll have to begin by enforcing some limits on ourselves, and they’ll probably feel artificial.

The other bit is that’s it’s really hard on your own.  So company will be important.  Is anyone with me?

On shopping overseas & not regretting it when you get home.

Have you ever shopped at a fair-trade, ethical kind of shop or company and ended up buying stuff more because of the goodness of the cause than because you actually really liked the stuff?  I sometimes do the same overseas. Buy something because I love the story behind it, then get it home and think, ‘what was I thinking’ and never wear or use the item again. Now clearly there are worse motives for buying something, but I have just had a very different experience in Bangkok.

Chris and Jodie McCartney are an Aussie couple who live in the biggest slum in Bangkok with their three gorgeous blond daughters.  They’re part of UNOH (Urban Neighbours of Hope) – and you can find out more about them from my recent video diaries.  Jodie is a self-confessed op-shop fanatic (op-shop = opportunity shop = what Aussies call charity shops) and after she and the family had been living in the slums of Bangkok for a while she hit upon a way to bring the joy of the op-shop to the locals.

There are heaps of ex-pats in Bangkok, Westerners on assignment to the city who accumulate lots of stuff while they’re there and don’t want to ship it all on to the next place.  So an amazing amount of high quality gear (clothes, furniture, appliances) gets left behind.  And here Jodie saw her opportunity, and Second Chance Bangkok was born.

Not only does it help reduce the piles of refuse in the landfill, it also gives a boost to many people who make the local slum in Klong Toey their home.  There is work to be had.  Enterprisings locals often queue up in the mornings to bag a bargain and sell the best stuff on again elsewhere. The profits support community projects and help start other small businesses.

I have to be honest that I didn’t buy anything from the main shop when I was there.  It was in the midst of a huge sort out and looked like a bomb had hit it.  But, I snagged a brilliant bargain from another wing of the business. They up-cycle!

I met a beautiful girl who is the single mother of five daughters (whose names all begins with B – the very cute baby is BunBun!) and who was working in a garment factory, barely surviving.  Second Chance Bangkok have started her out in her own sewing business – she’s really gifted – and she’s now designing and making her own clothing which they also sell.

And my purchase, which I am as excited about in the cold light of London as I was in the muggy smog of Bangkok, is this fab bag, up-cycled from a bare of jeans and lined with a man’s dress-shirt. I’m holding out for the day they start selling on-line.  Until then, you’ll just have to envy my fab bag. (Or make one?)

A story of shopping

Shopping is the last thing I thought I would ever write about on this blog because our obsession with consumption does not strike me as a great cause for hope in the world.  But today I am thrilled to be joining Lulastic’s…

I am a huge fan of charity shops because they provide a brilliant alternative economy when it comes to shopping.

Have you seen (or read) The Story of Stuff?  It’s an amazing and terrifying account of the world produces stuff (plastics, electronics, anything coming out of a factory really) and the effects this production has on the environment, and then the way we think we can throw things away without consequences.  They are also great at flagging up stories of hope and change (especially in their book), so it’s not all doom and gloom.  But I thought that joining in the charity shop blog hop this week would be a great way to talk about one way of opting out of the endless chain of buy-discard-buy-discard made possible by today’s super-cheap clothes shopping.

The host of this bloghop, Lulastic, is a paragon of resourcefulness and thriftiness so I am pleased to be able to talk up her alternative shopping ethos and share a little about my own charity shop journey.

I was doing a talk in a church a while ago about how, as Christians, we don’t just do things like buy fairtrade chocolate because we think our individual participation will necessarily change the world (although lots of small actions can and do) but also because it’s an issue of integrity, of trying to live in a way Jesus might.  And I talked about buying clothes, seeing as the whole sweat-shop issue is a hot topic.  I know there is a huge campaigning job to be done about employment policies, and that everyone opting out of the clothing economy might not bring about the change we want, but I can’t bring myself to believe that Jesus would buy his clothes from companies who essentially use slave labour to make them, or who employ children.  So I decided there and then, in the middle of the talk, that I’d stop.  I’d just buy from ethical companies or charity shops.

The joy for me is that I work in beautiful, leafy Teddington (it’s about half an hour out of London to the south west) and there are simply heaps of charity shops lining its streets full of beautiful, hardly worn clothes.  This is probably related to how much it costs to live in Teddington, meaning its residents are fairly well-off and regularly donate their barely-worn items to such shops.  And here is my regular little tour, and my top buys! (All shops can be found on the small stretch of Broad Street that runs between Church Rd and Stanley Rd).

If you start at Tearfund and turn left onto Broad St the first one you come to is the newly opened Barnados Children’s charity shop. Just yesterday I went in to find a present for my friend Ruth’s newborn little girl, and look what I came out with, for less than a tenner in total!:

Then there’s the traditional Oxfam which has been there forever.  Not so great for clothes, but totally brilliant for all your ethical toiletries and cleaning products:

The best place for dresses is definitely Fara, which also looks as if it may have had a Mary portas-style make-over as it’s streets ahead of the others in layout.  Just look at all those nice dresses (Note to husband: I did not buy any this week).
Further on down is the Princess Alice hospice where I have bought many a stripey top, some fab Boden stuff, and these gorgeous yellow teacups which we used for a German teacup dance in The Ruby Dolls’ first show, and which I have now approrpiated for my home:
And then finally there is Cancer Research which can be a little random, but not long ago I bought heaps of this fabric for about £2 which I have since made into all kinds of things, including this little curtain screen.  And old discarded duvet covers have also become head scarves and cushion covers.  Genius!
So there is a little taste of my shopping life and how I am joining the mini-revolution against waste and the injustices of the garment trade.

rice and beans

This week Tearfund is inviting you and me to live off rice and beans for five days, to help us understand poverty issues more deeply and personally.  And then to give the money we save to support their work.

I raised my eyebrows when I heard. How entirely unappealing.  A number of staff members signed up, and I mentioned it to Andy.

“Tearfund are doing this thing next week where you only eat rice and beans, and really small portions, for five days.

A pause.

“Okay, let’s do it,” he says.


“I wasn’t offering to do it!” I cry. “I was just keeping you informed.”

He clearly doesn’t understand what a week of rice and beans will do to me. I love food, I have a deep and emotional relationship with my food. I dream about good dinners and weekend brunches.

And it’s not like I’ve never had to eat rice and beans. You never know what you’ll be able to eat when you travel, and rice and beans has often been on the menu. But to eat them by choice in the midst of the abundance of London cuisine, without recourse to snacks I may have packed in my suitcase? That actually feels really hard.

At the same time, I love bold and radical decisions; I love that Tearfund is suggesting something so full-on, something that is such an affront to my lifestyle. I read a blog this morning by Mark Powley that made a powerful case for a wake-up call from the anaesthesia of our comfortable western lifestyle.  It’s going to be proper hard and I hate that.

But I’ve opted in.  And I can’t answer for my grumpiness later in the week.

I had a small portion of porridge (with water! and no syrup!) for breakfast and I’m really hungry. But here’s hoping it brings home something a bit more important.

How not to go broke in year one of parenting

Let me be clear – I have not been secretly parenting for a year, nor will I be in the next year (secretly or otherwise).  But, I just read this great post from my friend Lucy (Lulastic & the Hippyshake), which mentioned how the average spend on a baby in the first year of their life is £9000 – which is NUTS.  She shared how she has totally rejected the ‘buy lots of new stuff’ approach, and frankly, I am re-posting it because it gives me hope!  There’s a chunk of it below and you can read the rest by clicking on the link at the bottom. I love finding anyone with the imagination to live differently in this world, and I am inspired by loads of her parenting ideas.  So here’s to thrifty baby-raising!:


It is due to a mixture of cheapskateness and environmental consciousness that I have yet to buy Ramona a single new toy. She does have some new things, bought for her by loving friends and family, but only a handful. All the rest have come from charity shops, around the home and the side of the road. When I see the jawdropping cost of toys in real shops I am not surprised that the average spend on a kid in their first year of life is £9000. When you really needn’t spend a penny.

The BEST kind of toy for me is one that she, er, likes (such a loving mother) but also one that is nice to look at. Give me wood and old over plastic any day. (I know, I know it’s not about me.)

We have found some absolutely beaut things over the last few months and fortunately these are also some of Ramona’s favourite toys. I think she loves the pure simplicity of them. Here are a few:

Abacus- 50p from charity shop in Essex

Rainbow thing- £1 from car boot sale

Big Soldier – £5 from OXfam in Streatham

Soldier train – £5 from Kids Fara in Pimlico

This is my fave of Ramona’s toys- he actually plays his xylophone as he is pulled along!Puh, who needs an Ipad?

He was £5 from a charity shop. (Steep I know, but a musical duck!)


I am surprised at how often Ramona spurns her fanciest toys in order to play with some thing that is, frankly, rubbish. The main reason I think she does this is because that something is fitting perfectly with her stage of development. When we flew home from NZ last month I packed an entire pull along suitcase with the coolest little toys. She spent most of the time just posting pegs and other small items into a drink bottle. She was intent on it – posting them in, tipping them out, posting them in again.

To read the rest of the blog, click here.