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From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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Dirty rice: an easy filthy treat!

No sooner had I read Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Dirty Rice in The Guardian than marvellous MasterChef contestant Alison was cooking it on the BBC TV programme (her own version). Sadly for Alison, this was the dish that saw her wave farewell to the programme. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from her and am absolutely delighted to see that she and fellow finalists, Giovanna and Berwick’s own lovely Lorna have teamed up to form a supper club: Three Girls Cook.

Anyway, back to Dirty Rice. It doesn’t sound that great, does it? Reading Yotam’s recipe sold it to me. Minced pork and chicken livers. Yes please! Yotam is very specific about deglazing the pan multiple times: and he’s right, the depth of flavour is truly divine.

It’s a great supper dish: not difficult but filling and wholesome. In fact, I just ate the leftovers with an avocado halved on top and extra sprinklings of parsley. Yum. Yotam crushed some garlic and sliced some. The crushed is added to the cooking pot; the sliced is fried and sprinkled as a garnish after everything’s been combined. Personally I just chopped the lot and chucked it in. Still delicious. Yotam’s recipe as printed in the Guardian had a flaw:  the rice mysteriously appeared in with the meat mix (this wouldn’t work: the rice would be overcooked, I think). I opted to combine the meat mix with the rice after the deglazing process and gave a final parsley flourish to the melange.

The Husband and I had basically scoffed the lot when I realised I’d not taken a photo. Just call me slacker blogger. It looked pretty much like Yotam’s if you follow the link above: not a looker of a dish and I can kind of see why Alison struggled to prettify it enough for John & Gregg. However it tastes marvellous and presents all sorts of possibilities – but it’s the livers that deliver that true umami deliciousness.

Here, by way of an apology for my lack of photographic evidence of culinary endeavour, are some photos of a Yotam Ottolenghi feast The Husband and I prepared a while back:

I’m aware of bowel cancer. Obvs. But I don’t fit the profile, do I?

It’s bowel cancer awareness month. The thing about awareness is that it doesn’t necessarily equate to action. And it’s action as well as awareness that Bowel Cancer UK are focusing on this month.

Bowel cancer is treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early. The problem is that going to the doctor can feel like a faff for symptoms easy to attribute to other things…For example:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a tummy upset, piles, just your metabolism, busy life – we’re all a bit knackered, right?

Perhaps you check out the symptoms on a website. It may say something like ‘Most people with these symptoms (see below) do not have bowel cancer’. It will continue that you should still get checked out by your GP – but maybe you don’t really fit the profile of someone with bowel cancer…

You’re fit (ish) – or maybe you’re even very fit; you eat a balanced (ish) diet – maybe you’re a vegetarian or a vegan; maybe you’re young – 30s or younger, say. Maybe you like a few glasses of wine or beer or maybe not. But you are certainly not the classic profile of someone with bowel cancer.

So, what is the classic profile of someone with bowel cancer?

It’s a 35-year-old deputy head teacher who’s a bit of a fitness freak and a vegetarian… you can read more about her (you may have seen her on Breakfast TV yesterday, 1 April 2017) here

It’s a pharmacist in his early 50s who walks his dogs and is training to be a hypnotherapist – find out more about him here

It’s a 40-year-old teetotal knitting and sewing vegan who’s studying for a doctorate who blogs here

It’s a 39-year-old beautician who, as far as I’m aware (and you’re probably relieved to know), does not blog!

And it’s me. A 53-year-old woman (when diagnosed) who walks marathons and enjoys a madly busy life.

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Here I am with my beautiful London daughter, good to go for the 2012 Edinburgh Moonwalk.

I am eternally grateful for trained medical professionals who do not find my body embarrassing, revolting or unapproachable. They just want me to be well.

If you are in the slightest bit worried about stuff to do with your bowel, don’t hang about: go to the doctor. Doctors are not embarrassed about putting a finger in your rectum to check you out, they do not find it an inconvenience to refer you for a colonoscopy, send you for blood tests, or get you to do poo sticks (not pooh sticks, that’s something else entirely!). And that’s another thing, if you are of an age where you receive the testing kit in the post (screening is for over-60s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, over-50s in Scotland: yes, I know, not one of my friends listed above is over 60!), don’t put it to one side for later. Do it. Now.

Here is a list of possible symptoms you might experience:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
  • A change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
  • A pain or lump in your tummy

Find out more at Bowel Cancer UK

 

Scanning for stress: the villanelle

I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry. A good poem captures the essence of a moment or idea and satisfies the reader and writer in a way that is quenching.

However, studying poetry during the course of my Open University degree in English Language and Literature (I graduate this year – hurrah!), has made me realise what a poor ear I have for metre.

It’s only when you come to write in classic forms such as the villanelle, or attempt a sonnet in true iambic pentameter, that you realise that you have a natural sense of the rhythms and cadences of language: or if it’s something you’re just going to have to keep working at.

The Husband was an English and Drama student at Bristol back in the day when Brunel’s SS Great Britain was towed across the Atlantic and along the River Avon (it’s now a brilliant museum). The Husband went on to write plays complete with amusing ditties for The Covent Garden Theatre Company. He is a fine linguist and can trip off jolly and clever original rhymes that scan at the drop of the proverbial hat. He has the ear for language that I always longed for. I’m sure being musical helps and, although I love music, I am not music-literate. For years I thought scanning was all about having the same number of syllables in each line rather than the spoken emphasis placed on those syllables.

When you study another language, you develop a bit more awareness of the way syllables are stressed or not, simply because stresses tend to fall differently in other languages. Despite studying French beyond A level, I still get totally confounded by stressed and unstressed syllables in the English language. No amount of da-DUMs and symbols seem to help. Of course there are examples that make it seem so obvious: photographer and photograph (just in case you’re thinking ‘why?’, the first syllable in ‘photographer’ is unstressed whilst in ‘photograph’ it’s stressed – say them out loud). Or try saying ‘present’ (as in the noun ‘gift’) and then ‘present’ (as in the verb ‘giving someone something’). The Wikipedia page ‘Stress (linguistics)’ gives a good basic rundown on the whole thing – or if that seems like heavy going you’ll find a rather jolly guide to stress and metre here (it’s American – so meter rather than metre).

Writing in a so-called constrained form such as the sonnet or villanelle focuses the mind on these aspects and is a good training ground. Here’s how Bill Greenwell explains the villanelle in ‘The Creative Writing Handbook’:

“A villanelle depends on the repeated use of two lines, initially the first and third, throughout its nineteen lines. These two lines each make four appearances and are the closing two lines, so the sense of a refrain is very powerful indeed. Here are the rules for a villanelle:

  • There is no set pattern for the rhythm, although each line uses the same rhythm (commonly three, four or five beats to the line).
  • It uses only two rhymes (a and b) and is nineteen lines long.
  • In its most exacting form, the first line recurs with the same words in the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth line; the third line reappears as the ninth, fifteenth and final line.
  • The first and third lines use the a rhyme, and the overall scheme is arranged in five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza), as follows: aba aba aba aba aba abaa .

As you can see, there is some working backwards involved in attempting a villanelle. The moment you have chosen the first line, you have chosen the penultimate line, and the moment you have chosen the third line, you have the final line. You are always going to be working towards that final refrain” (2009, p. 229).

And there we have it. Here’s my attempt at a villanelle.It is not ‘in its most exacting form’ or, indeed, perfect in rhythm or metre. However, it was a satisfying exercise and I was relatively pleased with the outcome:

Beyond

I look beyond the pebbled shore,
where stilted waders peck and pray,
to waves that draw me to their core.

Muscular waves. Sinewed and sure,
binding the turbulent affray.
I look. Beyond the pebbled shore

splashes and bursts of foamy spores
salted colours of ozone, spray
and waves that draw me. At their core,

churning beneath the lithe furore,
fine surface slips on steady clay.
I look beyond the pebbled shore

how dreams are dazzled by the roar,
ripped from their anchor. Slipped away
to waves that draw me to their core.

Waders and waves fret and explore
fresh glistening veins exposed to prey.
I look beyond the pebbled shore
to waves that draw me to their core.

References
Greenwell, B. (2009) ‘Poetry: the freedom of form’ in Neale, D. (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, MiltonKeynes/London, A&C Black in association with The Open University.

Hippotherapy – horses bring movement and smiles to children with disabilities

It was just fabulous to catch up with Angela Torsch of Hippotherapy North Northumberland again today on Radio Lionheart. Last season 23 families and their children benefitted from the expertise of Angela and her team of volunteers. If you know anyone who might be interested in signing up for hippotherapy sessions starting on 7th April 2017 then let them know because they need to get in touch with the team now.

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Angela Torsch is a petite dynamo of a woman. Words tumble from her with amazing rapidity and fierce focus as she explains the methods, benefits and joys of hippotherapy – a horseback-based physiotherapy which, Angela asserts, has a radical impact on the lives of children with special needs and their families.

At Townfoot Stables in Shilbottle near Alnwick it is immediately evident how much the club means to its members. Theresa is a tiny girl with limited speech and poor physical stability. On the horse, she smiles and laughs as Angela and her volunteers lead her round the indoor arena. Theresa decides which of the colourful pictures of animals – upcycled by Angela from discarded cupboard doors and stickers – the group should head towards. Theresa’s mother says, “It’s really strengthened her core muscles. At first she collapsed forwards on the horse but now – look at her posture!” It’s…

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World Cancer Day – Feb 4th 2017

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Here’s a scary selfie to encourage you to support World Cancer Day on February 4th. Bowel Cancer UK is one of the ten charities aiming to get people talking about particular cancers, spotting and responding to symptoms, and dealing with treatments

Bowel Cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. As someone who’s just completed treatment for it, I  highly recommend that you get checked out if you’re at all worried. You can find a list of symptoms on the Bowel Cancer UK and NHS sites. You’ll find my own experience of discovering I had bowel cancer here.

I’m not a great fan of the language that’s developed around cancer. To me, terms like ‘beating’ and ‘fighting’ cancer are loaded and even unhelpful – you can read about why I personally feel that way here. However, I do believe that the more we talk openly about cancer, discuss the symptoms, and acknowledge the realities of living with it and through treatments for it, the more likely we are to save lives. Bowel cancer, for example, is treatable and curable if diagnosed early.

My own two favourite local charities that support people with life-shortening and terminal illnesses here in Berwick-upon-Tweed are HospiceCare North Northumberland and Cancer Cars (Berwick and District Cancer Support Group). I would urge you to support one or both of these splendid organisations. Alternatively, give to one of the big charities to support nationwide and worldwide cancer initiatives. Then get your phone out and promote a wider understanding of cancer and its symptoms by posting a wonderful selfie with a funky band!

 

 

Today is the time and place for miracles

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We invest so much into beginnings. We wish for better. Or for different. Or for change. And New Year is the classic time when we decide this is the moment that it’s all going to happen. It’s a time to breathe in new possibilities and exhale what’s past. Despite all the partaaays!, and Auld Lang Synes, and live-like-every-day’s-your-lasts, an indefinable profundity drapes itself around the start of a year. And what better place to be at such a time than the home of Hogmanay: Edinburgh.

Even before we’d arrived at the top of the Waverley Steps by the station, there was an expectant thrum about the place. It was New Year’s Eve or, in northern parlance, Old Year’s Night. Roads were being cordoned and stages erected amongst the shoppers and sightseers of Princes Street. Unlike London at times of mass gatherings, Edinburgh did not appear to groan under the weight but rather to expand happily to receive the flood of anticipation, awe and anxiety that comes with one year’s end and the next’s beginning. I deposited my daughter at the hip eatery Indigo Yard on Charlotte Lane with an agreement to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

Free! I tripped along Queensferry Street, past Randolph Crescent (which always makes me think of its namesake in London’s Maida Vale where I used to live), towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Suddenly I was in Alexander McCall Smith’s book A Work of Beauty ‘under the towering Dean Bridge’ and in the cobbled streets of Dean Village. I’ve been there before, but in that moment it felt fresh and new.

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To arrive moments later at Nathan Coley’s illuminated installation There will be no miracles here, is surreal in the very finest way. What more thought-provoking piece of art could you wish for when mangers and shepherds have still to be mothballed. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the concept of the miraculous: this time last year I had just come through a major operation and, in truth, was not sure whether I would still be around a year later. But here I was. Here I am. A miracle of sorts.

The Joan Eardley A Sense of Place exhibition at Gallery Two (until 21st May 2017) is a profound experience in its own right. Eardley tenaciously sketched and painted the tenements and people of Glasgow’s Townhead and the brutal and evocative landscape around Catterline just south of Aberdeen during the 50s. The exhibition is a tour de force that encapsulates the human and, specifically, one individual’s relationship with time and place. For Eardley this began with buildings in Glasgow and then extended to people – particularly children – who she portrayed with a curious and memorable blend of gritty macabre and Pierrot sentimentality. In Catterline, her initial focus was on the ramshackle fishermen’s cottages, rather than the stunning coastal views below the village. As you progress through this well-curated exhibition you are drawn into Joan’s world of urgent painting. From fishing creels to graffitied shopfronts, her’s is an emotive and at times jarring vision. You feel that she wanted to capture this moment, this place, to stop them being lost.

As I walked back to the meeting place I’d set with my daughter, I enjoyed the failing light and the drizzle. There was something about the water-smeared festive lights that brought a fitting wistfulness to the glitzy shop windows, fairylight-draped hotels, and spinning fairground rides. The fireworks later would be fabulous, but we were not staying to see them this time. Our moment here was done. As we sat on the train back south to Berwick-upon-Tweed, I felt strongly the creative miracle of time and place. And I thought how I would love to live 2017 not as if each day were my last but as if it were my first. Now that would be a miracle.

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Death is dry

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I wrote this poem following the recent death of my mum. It somehow seems appropriate to share it today when people are remembering those who have died in conflict. My mum remembered World War 2 well: her school was bombed and she was evacuated. We spend our lives trying to make sense of death and yet it always seems to take us by surprise wherever, whenever and however it comes.

Death is dry.
Dry bones sliding
like unruly stacks of kindling.
And light.
Death is light as light itself.
Death is a look of surprise and
a long pause where no breath
is breathed
and a sudden gasped
inhalation.

Death is unfinished business
a glass half empty.
A sip through a straw
that makes you
cough the cough you don’t have the strength
to cough.

Death is a puff of air
released when your body
is moved.
Death is men in dark coats
at 3am
zipping you into a bag on a low stretcher.
Death is your purpled hand
disappearing
beneath the zip.

Death is a puff of dust
from an urn perched in
a hole in the ground.
A puff of you
free from bones and breath and air
and zips.

Poetry and tea and cake! A perfect day.

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Do rhyming couplets thrill you? Does blank verse sooth your soul? Does Haiku make you happy? And iambic pentameter lift your senses? Check out the Berwick Literary Festival’s Poetry Café which will be humming with fun, tea, coffee and snacks at St Aidan’s Hall, Saturday 22nd October, 10am to 3pmfree entry. The hall is bang opposite Festival hub, The Corner House Café on Church Street.

Poetry Café – what’s on when:

1. 10am-12pm: Fun workshop for all ages

Colin Fleetwood, poet and primary school head teacher, will be leading an all-age workshop on creating and writing poetry with the emphasis on enjoying words and engaging in poetry together – whilst ensuring you have the opportunity to wrestle with your own poetry.

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Finding the right word is vital!

 

2. 12pm-2pm: Bookable ten-minute performance slots

For those who love to listen to poetry and/or read it aloud. Poets can pop in to the Café and reserve a slot to read their own work or a selection of their favourite poems. So, sit back, relax and enjoy an eclectic selection of poetry, conversation, snacks, and a nice cuppa tea!

Loss
by Wendy Cope

The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well

3. 2pm-3pm: Children’s hour

A special time for children to read their own verse or a favourite poem and for adults to read to children – my own current favourites to read to children are ‘Trouble at the Dinosaur Café’ by Brian Moses and ‘An Aussie night before Christmas’ by Yvonne Morrison. What are yours?

dinosaur-cafe

 

Ref: Cope, W., 1992, Serious Concerns, Faber and Faber, London

Literary Festival with a heart (2)

Engaging children and young people in the written and illustrated word has to be a key goal of any literary festival – after all, young people are the festival attendees of the future. Of course, it’s not always easy to lure youngsters along to events. That’s why the Berwick Literary Festival aims to meet children and young people where they are. This year’s schools programmes will do this in three key ways:

1. Primary Schools.

Workshops on Friday 21st October will be led by celebrated local author/illustrator/sketchbooker, Helen Stephens. Four local primary schools will attend morning and afternoon sessions with Helen in the town’s historic Guildhall. Helen will be aiming to enthuse, delight and inspire the children with reference to her latest book: How to find a Lion at School. *


2. Middle Schools & the Academy

The popular ‘illustrate a poem’ competition is also returning in 2016. Readings of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies will take place in the Academy and all local middle schools. Young people will be invited to submit their illustrations inspired by the poem and the winners will be displayed at the Guildhall. For the third year, the Rotary Club of Berwick-upon-Tweed will also be running its successful short story competition in schools around the area.

3. The Grove School

Newcastle-based Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books – will be leading a multi-sensory literary experience at Grove School, tailored specifically to the pupils at the school.

The overall aim of all three events is to ensure that all local young people, including those unlikely or unable to attend Festival events, will have the opportunity to get hands-on with words in ways that intrigue, inspire and entertain them.

*Helen Stephens will also be running a session open to all children on the morning of Saturday 22nd at 10am – tickets and more information are available for this event from the Maltings Theatre.

I feel like giving two fingers to the big cancer charities that blithely ask us to ‘wage war’ on cancer

This is a version of an article by me published on Voice of the North (VotN) recently. I’m posting it here in the interests of completion in terms of my thoughts on having cancer. Thanks to David Banks editor of VotN for the photo idea (his execution is way lovelier than my smeary snap!).

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I’m increasingly overwhelmed and irritated by some of the viral and advertising cancer campaigns that inundate our daily lives. I didn’t think I’d ever jump on the Jenny Diski ‘don’t call me brave’ bandwagon. I thought it didn’t matter how others perceive you or the way you live through cancer. That’s up to them, I thought. However, the pigeonholing of people with cancer as universal footsoldiers in the eye of a horrific conflict is pretty unrelenting. Targeted marketing on social networking means that as soon as there’s a whiff of cancer about you, your timeline is dotted with ads and rallying cries from cancer organisations to fight cancer. And there are SO many organisations that it’s hard to make sense of what they all actually do, other than encourage us to part with our money.

And it isn’t just online: you can’t walk out of the door or turn on the TV without an advert, poster, or message about some aspect of the condition being presented to you. Advertisers (and friends and family, of course) are extremely keen to see you conquer the disease, and to battle on, showing how brave, inspirational, or indomitable you are. Sometimes it can feel as if it is your duty to deal with this feared enemy in a suitable way. A way that, perhaps, encourages others to feel that they would do the same in your shoes. Most importantly, you should strive to be among the percentage who conquer cancer and go on to live a long and cancer-free life. If you’re unsuccessful, it’s important that you exit this life at peace after your brief or long contest with the mighty demon cancer. It’s a big responsibility alongside feeling like shit!

Cancer, of course, is not simply one illness. It’s a multitude of illnesses linked by the fact that they all involve mutating cells in some form or other. Of course no one wants to have cancer but the reality is that one in two people are currently likely to get some form of cancer. So it’s not unreasonable to suppose it might be you. Obviously, I hope it isn’t you. Don’t get me wrong, our family has experienced many blessings through cancer (and cancer is a shared family experience), including feeling more closeknit, communicating more openly with each other and meeting some fab people. Personally, I relish each new day in a way that I hadn’t realised I didn’t do before. But, overall, having cancer and being treated for it isn’t much fun.

So, endless images and conversations that present you and the illness you have in a way that you do not perceive yourself gets wearing. At the end of the day, you have no choice about being someone with cancer. It’s part of life and you find the best way to live with it and through it. Of course it helps having people cheering and praying and encouraging from the sidelines – the support and care of all those around you is thrillingly life-enhancing. And, of course, those who have life-threatening or shortening illnesses are wise to remember how difficult it can be for others to express their support – being seriously ill can make you a bit touchy!

During my operation and subsequent chemotherapy for bowel cancer there was a particular advert on TV that at first grated and then just got me down. It was a man who shivered alone in an icy black and white wilderness, unaware of the people around him. Then a nurse from the particular charity joined him and everything became full colour and he was not so lonely. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that annoyed or upset me about the ad (although the fact that my 14-year-old had to leave the room every time it came on will certainly have been a factor) – to be honest it might just have been that it was there!

It is lonely having cancer: the realisation of its impact on your life and the lives of your friends and family isolate you in an inaccessible way. Thoughts of cancer run like a constant tickertape across your mind. When you’re cleaning your teeth, when you’re reading a book, when you’re chatting to someone and telling them how ‘fine’ you are: it’s always there – in the way I imagine tinnitus to be a constant and wearisome companion.

Perhaps the ads and campaigns, such as the recent viral tic on Facebook to turn your profile photo monochrome as a symbol of solidarity against cancer, are simply too in your face for those who have (or have had) cancer.  So I do have sympathy with the woman who was so incensed by the black and white profile pic thing that she took a selfie in a mirror (defiantly bare-breasted and nipple-less) flicking a V sign, to underscore her disgust at the simplistic and lazy idea that recolouring your picture will somehow show solidarity with those who have cancer – or, more importantly, do something to help or support them. Personally I have no desire to reveal my cancer scar – although I acknowledge that many find it cathartic. I also acknowledge that there are campaigns about raising awareness of particular cancers, encouraging people to get themselves checked out, offering support services, and raising funds to find better treatments etc. But I do think that marketeers have got rather carried away with themselves.

This morning it was Cancer Research that got up my nose with the following ad on my Facebook timeline:

Stand Up To Cancer UK

For too long, cancer’s been playing dirty. It’s been going after kids, targeting grannies… and even taking cheap-shots at our breasts and testicles. It’s time to rebel against cancer.

What does this even mean? I can’t believe that personifying cancer is useful in any way, shape or form. I don’t see cancer as ‘playing dirty’ and I don’t see myself as a ‘rebel against cancer’.  Have these money-raising campaigns lost sight of why they are doing this? Have they forgotten about the people with cancer and focused instead on an idealised picture of having cancer? Or have they got carried away with the sheer joy of being able to pop out to run a marathon, walk a mountain, fly along a zipwire, and the satisfaction of getting sponsored for ‘a good cause’ for doing it? I often wonder just how much these big organisations spend on communications and advertisements. How much sponsorship never arrives at the charitable destination of choice?

And I think that’s it: all the adjectives and hyperbole seem to me to be a bedspread under which the process of breeding money has become a self-flagellating dirty secret. Cancer fundraising is increasingly all about itself rather than about the reality of the people who are dealing with cancer – whether they be medics, researchers, care workers, people with cancer or their families. Whilst I applaud the idea of raising money to support good causes (and medical ones) on a large scale, I wonder if big charities need a reality check, time out to revisit their purpose and ethos.

I would suggest that it is on the local level that cancer support charities meet tangible needs at source. Here in Berwick, Berwick Cancer Cars (Berwick and District Cancer Support) ferry people the 80-100-mile round-trip to Newcastle-based hospitals. For someone undergoing radiotherapy, that’s a daily journey – often for six weeks or so. HospiceCare North Northumberland provides free support to patients, carers and families – and care in their own homes for those who wish to die at home. This is the up-close-and-personal end of serious illness.

I’m not saying we don’t need research, and organisations with a macro, nationwide and global view. I am saying that such organisations need to ensure that what they are doing is about real things; real people, and not just about raising money for the sake of it.

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