Gone paintin’, gone writin’

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Oh my gosh, I have SO MUCH drawing and painting to do, and SO MANY letters to write. I owe mail-art letters to more than 30 (!) readers of this blog (this picture is of some parcels I’ve prepared to send to some of those lovely readers). Are you one of these patient people? I’m so, so sorry that I’ve been so appallingly slow.

And then there are the beautiful people who have written to me, and sent me lovely gifts, and have probably given up all hope by now that I would ever do the decent thing and write back to them and say THANK YOU, despite all the gratitude that swells in my heart.

I also need to write to thank all our dear friends and family who came along to Ralph’s recent first birthday, and gave him so many thoughtful, wonderful gifts.

I really need to get a wriggle on and plan out some paintings for a very exciting children’s book collaboration I’m doing (and by “doing” I mean “actually need to start doing and not just think/talk about it”) with a wonderful writer.

I promised Scout I’d paint a picture each for her and Ralph to hang above their beds.

AND there is that little matter of the book I’m trying to complete, and the guides I promised to write approximately one year ago…

So, I’m going to take a short break from this blog while I catch up on all that writing and painting. It might take me a week or it might take me a month (depends a lot on how well the children sleep at night), but I’ll be back soon folks.

In the meantime, here are some fun links to keep you amused. Why thank you, Internets.

*Play Pong at the traffic lights

* Tree Hotel. Just glorious

* Fashion leaders? Seinfeld’s girlfriends

* 10 secrets about the Eiffel Tower

* Making art out of ordinary things

* It’s a musical storm-cloud inside your house

* If I get enough writing and painting done, I’m going to try making these napkin rings

* What to do in Canberra – definitely bookmarked for our next visit

* Summer holidays fun: giant Scrabble, in a banana!

* Monogram marshmallows!

* I think it’s time to skill up. My aesthetic ambition for this blog consistently falls short of my actual ability. Early next year, I want to take these e-courses on DSLR photography, and Photoshop

* Making me hungry today: Wild Sorrel Ravioli with Burnt Butter and Garlic (hold me)

* Would you ever try making a Christmas garland like this?

* Love this road-trip idea. Meet the Story Monster!

Aaaaand this:

* ‘Rather than asking yourself: “Who do I want to be?” Ask: “How do I want to behave?”’ I rather liked this post on pursuing creative habits

See you soon! xo

ps. A few people have said they were sad I didn’t have any more copies of my book Airmail to send them, and were wondering where they could get hold of one. Cripes, thanks guys! That makes me feel VERY good. You can order Airmail online pretty much anywhere, and it should cost you less than 10 bucks in paperback (go elsewhere if it’s more). Here’s a list of stockists I made a while ago. Let me know what you think if you read it!

14 tips for a first birthday party

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A first birthday is tricky, you know, because you can’t focus on the child’s age. So you can’t plan party games because they’ll most likely be too old for some of the kids and too young for the others; but you can’t have no games at all because then you’ll have a lot of bored kids (and nobody wants that).

Same goes for food: you’ve got to cater to the adults AND the kids. You’ve got to plan around nap times, and factor in the limitations on your time and energy when it comes to cooking and cleaning and being the perfect host in general.

We had planned a picnic for Ralph’s first birthday, and figured we’d order in pizza and have some cakes and slices made and that it would all be super easy and super fun. I intended to hang paper lanterns from the trees, and put out croquet and petanque for the adults, with bouncy balls and bubbles and – let’s face it – a whole playground for the kids. Easy, right? But three days before the party, the forecast was for heavy rain and 30 kilometre winds, and we had to make an emergency dash to an indoor venue instead, so everything changed.

Here’s what I learned.

1. Get creative with the invitations. If you want to do something similar to ours (above), you can buy one beautifully laid out and designed by Particular Paper. By the time I found this design it was too late to order the invitations, so I painted my own. Not as pretty, but the personal touch was there!

2. Arancini balls. Everyone loves them! The mums and dads, the babies, even the fussy toddlers! Make or order loads and loads. Ours were even more popular than the mini burgers and fries

3. If you live in Melbourne, don’t plan a picnic unless you have a really good wet-weather option

And on that…

4. Before you hire out an expensive “kids’ party cafe,” or book a community hall months in advance only to find yourself having to lug everything there on the day and then clean up for hours after… talk to your own local cafes to find out if they have a back room or an upstairs area you can use. We moved the ‘picnic’ to upstairs at the Paragon, and it was a fantastic venue (plus no room hire fee, and we were packed up and out of there half an hour after the party ended)

5. Music. It doesn’t really matter what because once the party gets going you won’t hear it, but music makes the room feel like a party when people first start arriving

6. If you find yourself short of children’s entertainment (for example if you’d planned on having the entire resources of a park at your disposal and instead found yourselves locked indoors with a bunch of sugar-hyped toddlers), face paint and balloons are a great fall-back. I called We Love Facepainting literally a day before the party, and they sent the beautiful Julia who spent the entire party making balloon animals and painting faces (plus she had a Working With Children check and public liability insurance). We had kids at our party ranging in age from 10 months to 12 years, and everyone was happy without me needing to provide any games

7. Themed parties are great, but sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I THOUGHT about making Very Hungry Caterpillar cupcakes and fruit and lollipops… but it all got too much for me. Instead, I chose a sunny colour scheme of orange and yellow and let that guide my decor, and that was enough to pull everything together

8. Pick one thing to create “wow factor” in the room decorations. I chose giant balloons and made tassels for them (then I failed to put enough helium inside the balloons and they kind of sat weirdly on the table instead of floating up high on long strings, which I actually thought was kind of cool), and ordered some more balloons filled with confetti, which the kids all LOVED

9. Use your fancy china plates and cake-stands for the dessert table. Give it height, give it interest. That will make things look special, and you can still make do with paper plates and cups (to save on washing up!) for the rest of the party

10. A croquembouche birthday cake may seem like a good idea at the time, but too much toffee and that baby will be impossible to dismantle and pass around. Just sayin’

11. Be prepared for a LOT of presents. A first birthday often involves a lot of adult friends, many more than are likely to come along to any subsequent birthday parties, and suddenly you’ll find yourself needing a “present table” and it will look like Santa came early

12. Related to the above, consider a toy cull in the lead-up to the party. Use this as an excuse to give away or throw away all those soft toys and teething rings and rattles that your baby doesn’t use any more

13. Do the whole wedding thing and make a note of who gave your baby what gifts, so you can properly thank them later.

14. Give the party an end time. Not only does that politely protect you from folks who are prone to linger (after all, you have a baby who is probably in desperate need of a nap), it also gives people a sense of what to expect and how they can plan their day without finding it dominated by your party

(Photos are mostly from before the party, just to give you an idea of our simple, picnic-adapted decorations, because I didn’t want to show other people’s children and almost every picture included someone else’s child. It was a good party that way!)

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That’s all I’ve got for now. Have fun!

The Secret Garden

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And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if anyone was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly – slowly.

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

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{Excerpt from The Secret Garden (Chapter 8) by Frances Hodgson Burnett; photographs by me from our recent visit to Lambley Nursery and Gardens}

One year

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How do you compress a person into a year? How do you tell, without being impossibly shallow, what a child’s birthday means to a mother?

Can anyone truly build into words the story of a little one who one year ago wasn’t here and now, as the sparklers on his birthday cake sizzle and glow, must surely have been here forever?

Ralph turned one on the weekend, and I kept trying to find moments for us: quiet cuddles at the morning feed, kisses on his round belly while changing his nappy, the blowing of Weetbix-filled raspberries, to really notice and remember and mark this occasion with the weight I felt it deserved.

So when the Happy Birthday song was all over and the rousing “hip hip hoorays” of 40 of Ralph’s closest friends and family had all died down and the sparkler in the shape of a 1 on his cake had faded back to grey, I found myself in the very unusual position of wanting to say a few public words.

“Thank you for coming,” I told our friends, as toddlers shrieked across the room with balloons and streamers in their wake, and small conversations started up while Mr B began to dismantle and distribute the croquembouche. “This little man deserves celebrating…”

I paused. By then the room was so full of the noise of friendships and celebrations and music and food that nobody else was there with me, so I gave it up. Instead I kissed my little boy on the forehead, feeling all the heavy beauty of loving him, and the body-memories of a connection that only he and I could share, and went on with the party.

But this is what I would have said, if I had been brave enough to raise my voice.

Ralph is the kind of kid who is loved by people who don’t like kids.

Anyone who has ever met Ralph knows his big, wide smile, because it beams from his face most of the time. Ralph is a gentle and loving little boy who gives people the very special gift of trusting them.

He spreads joy.

He barely cried when he was born, and spent the following days and weeks calmly watching, or easily sleeping, while I learned how to be a mother all over again, and adjusted – not entirely seamlessly – to life with two under two.

Ralph smiled early and often, and crawled late. He was content to sit and watch the people he loved – which was pretty much the whole world – go about their lives and businesses.

Now that he is finally on the move I have watched his confidence and curiosity grow.

With a thumping crawl that sounds like the muffled footsteps of a clydesdale, he follows me faithfully around the house, secure in the knowledge that he is wanted and loved. Which he is.

And then I will look around and he is gone, the thump-thump-thump of his crawl receding to the far end of the house as he embarks on another adventure of his own making.

Ralph’s sister Scout is teaching him to talk, and tickle, and play. When he sees her he squeals with delight, racing to be near her. He laughs when she laughs and, when she cries, he is round-eyed with concern.

When Ralph gets tired he puts one thumb into his mouth and lifts the other hand up to twirl his hair. I gather him into my arms and carry him to his cot, where he flops his head to the side (always to the right) and closes his eyes. Utterly trusting, again, and asleep in moments.

It breaks my heart, every time.

(ps. What? That’s not his name, is it?)

Tea auction: tea + travel + home

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Stop the Press. The Travelling Samovar tea house is having a tea auction! Have you ever heard of such a thing? They will be auctioning off beautiful hand-crafted and vintage tea-cups, tea-bowls, tea-pots, trays, an honest-to-goodness vintage samovar and a host of rare and unusual teas, all collected personally by the owners during their global tea-travels.

The reserve prices are ridiculously low so if you get lucky, you could pick them up for a major bargain, just in time for Christmas.

The event kicked off yesterday and will run as a silent auction until the evening of 15 December, when they’ll announce the winners at a special event with tea-infused drinks. You can bid via phone or in person any time between now and then. You will probably see my name on a couple of items (I’ve got my eye on that samovar!).

I popped by yesterday to see what was on offer and snapped some photographs for you, but the pictures really don’t do them justice so if you can get to Carlton North in the next week or so, I recommend you go in and take a look for yourself. I really can’t show how feather-light and delicate was the antique Japanese stoneware tea-bowl I cupped in my hand – it didn’t feel real. Or the wholly satisfying weight and texture of the ornate silver Moroccan tea pot, or the stunning beauty of four porcelain Chinese tea cups, each with a hand-painted figure inside that seemed, honestly, to glow.

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* You can see each auction item here (if you can’t make it into the shop to place your bids, they’ll take them for you over the phone).

* If Travelling Samovar sounds familiar to you, you can read what I wrote about them when they first opened, and take a virtual tour, here.

And now for a gratuitous shot of the photographer’s assistant wearing nectarine on his chin and a pink bowl on his head. Because, those chubby arms!

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Have a wonderful weekend friends.

 

Christmas magic?

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Sometimes do you go along to something that has so much potential but it just falls short? And you’re left with a bit of an empty feeling and you think, “This could have been SO GOOD, why didn’t the organisers take it there?”

Yeah me too.

I spent the afternoon on Saturday imagining how I would create a Christmas wonderland for children, the way I felt Santa’s Magical Kingdom SHOULD have been. My imagined North Pole was truly amazing: a place of wide-eyed wonder and play and magic that both children and adults would want to explore.

So I sat in the car on the way home from the real Santa’s Magical Kingdom and regaled Mr B with my ideas, while the children slept. And Mr B listened patiently for a not particularly long time, before saying something along the lines of “Stop, my ears are bleeding.” And also, “You needed to marry a billionaire, because your ideas make exactly zero commercial sense.” This was rather insensitively practical of him, so I pushed my argument further with an irrefutable “But imagine how amazing it would all be!”

And I’m pretty sure he agreed, but all he said was “My right ankle hurts,” which was open to a fair bit of interpretation.

Mr B and I had been anticipating this trip to Santa’s Magical Kingdom with almost breathless enthusiasm. We’d heard people rave about it, and couldn’t wait to take the children along, especially since Scout this year was old enough to properly understand and appreciate Christmas.

Neither of us said so while we were there, but by the time we staggered into the car at the end of our three-hour session, we both agreed that the whole shebang had fallen a fair bit short of our expectations. I had expected North Pole snow and Santa and magic and Christmas joy. What I experienced was a neon-lit Christmas-themed sideshow alley. For the not exactly bargain basement price of $40.27 per adult and $35.68 per child.

I dunno. People rave about this experience, it has won awards, and I realise Mr B and I are probably in the minority in our rather damning assessment. Have you been along? What did you think? I don’t think Scout will beg us to return, and Ralph is too young to really care but, to be fair, they certainly didn’t seem hate it.

Later that night, when I was looking through the photos on my camera, I could see some of the beauty of the event that I’d missed while I was inside it. And I could see Scout smiling quite a lot. So, maybe I just wasn’t the target audience (Santa forbid!) and the organisers got it right after all.

3 highlights
* Fast-moving lines
* Riding with Scout on her first carousel
* Decorating (and eating) gingerbread men

3 low-points
* The world’s slowest, most boring Ferris wheel (we were stuck on that thing for about 25 minutes. Scout was crying. I was carsick)
* The circus – probably good for older kids but after waiting 20 minutes for everyone to find their seats, we had to leave 15 minutes in because our little ones just weren’t that engaged with jugglers and they were starting to lose it (to be polite)
* The snow area – this was the section I was looking forward to the most, but the “actual snow” comprised two areas not much more than a metre in diameter each, with a tiny bit of slush falling from above

Bring on the photos.

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3 advent calendars

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It’s almost time for the official count-down to Christmas to begin. The advent calendar was one of my favourite Christmas activities when I was a child. Normally my aunt or my Nanna would give us a calendar, and we couldn’t wait to open the new little window each morning. All that anticipation. WHAT will be behind the window? What’s in the picture? Sometimes the calendars had chocolate behind the windows but to be honest that wasn’t such a big deal. It was the surprise and the anticipation that made the advent calendars so special.

There are three advent calendars in our house this year.

1. The North Pole Express

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This lovely wooden Christmas train was a gift from my parents last year. The idea is that you hide little ornaments or sweets in each drawer in the train. I don’t want Scout and Ralph to go straight for the sugar without understanding the anticipation so, this year, they’ll get a Christmas story instead. I’ll hide a slip of paper with one sentence of the story in each box and we can read it together every morning.

2. The Victorian calendar

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This traditional calendar will be our main advent calendar. The cardboard tree folds out and stands on your table. The snow-scene picture is filled with numbered windows, like a traditional advent calendar. There’s a tiny cardboard tree-ornament behind each window, which the children can then take out of a morning and place on the cardboard tree.

3. The children’s book

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The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder is a favourite children’s story of mine, with 24 chapters, named to match the advent. A little boy finds an old, dusty advent calendar in bookstore. When he opens the first window, a tiny story falls out, about a little girl who followed a lamb back through time and across continents, to the origin of the Christmas story. This year I’ll read The Christmas Mystery (again) myself but, when the children are older, I’ll read them one chapter a night until we reach Christmas Eve.

What are your favourite advent calendars?

If you’re a fan of the homemade variety, I still love this punch-it-through calendar, and this one made out of old match boxes.

Thankful for…

Thanksgiving

The growing semblance of sleep at night
Air conditioning
Being loved
My lemon tree
The exquisite, unbearable heartache of motherhood
The morning’s first cup of tea
Creative freedom
Creative inspiration
Peace, in my corner of the world
The opportunity to contribute
Turkish Delight

On the weekend our family shamelessly appropriated the North American custom of Thanksgiving and adapted it for our own purposes.

In our case, that meant gathering together a group of friends and family, eating way too much INSANELY GOOD traditional Thanksgiving fare (cooked up by the good folks at Gerald’s Bar, who truly outdid themselves), and talking and laughing and shouting and joking and eating and drinking and eating some more, all afternoon.

The motivation was that Em was leaving for the UK at the end of the week and wouldn’t be back until after the New Year. We were a little bit devastated to miss out not only on Christmas with Em, but on the usual summer holidays we would get to spend with her. Em, likewise, would miss out on seeing all the family she normally spent time with at Christmas. So we held the whole shebang a month early and thought “what the hey, let’s call it Thanksgiving.”

I was over the moon because I have been trying to get my family to give this particular holiday a go for YEARS. It was such a special time for me when I lived in the US. Here’s what I wrote about understanding Thanksgiving a little while back.

This was such a fun and stress-free lunch and, unlike Christmas, it was loaded with exactly zero family dramas or expectations. I guess that’s one of the best things about taking on a holiday (or elements of a holiday) that belong to somebody else’s culture, huh. Clean slate! No expectations! So we plan to do it again next year. And every year.

Next time I might even remember to bring the camera.

What are you thankful for?

Photo credit: Todd Quackenbush (licensed under Creative Commons)

The Honourable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal with Oliver Bodur in The Honourable Woman

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Stop a minute. Why is the Internet not exploding with people talking about The Honourable Woman? Why did I only discover this mini-series in a roundabout, accidental way on iTunes because I happen to like Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actress and happened to notice her face in the promo picture?

Holy everything! I can’t believe bloggers all over the world aren’t talking our ears off about this show! So I guess I’ll have to do it.

The Honourable Woman is an eight-part spy thriller. It starts off compelling but slow, and winds up completely, totally, under your skin. Gyllenhaal’s character is Nessa Stein, a British-Israeli woman at the head of her family’s company. The company formerly dealt in arms but now, under Nessa’s leadership, builds communications networks. Her goal, pursued at great personal cost, is to create equality in communications access and opportunity for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Honourable Woman is taut, considered, complex, clever, vulnerable and of course entertaining. And it is driven, sometimes relentlessly, by a phalanx of powerful, intelligent, broken, fully-drawn female characters.

Had enough of all the adjectives?

Maggie Gyllenhaal in this is exquisite. I couldn’t look away. And have you heard of the stunning actress Lubna Azabal? The two of them together made for some of the most intelligent, brave and beautiful television I have watched in a long, long time.

The final episode (the hands, the hands, look for the hands; also, black on white and white on black, oh the symbolism) has destroyed me. I am undone.

The 10 best herbs to start growing today

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Once upon a time, on my parents’ property, I had a herb garden.

A really big, old-fashioned, formally laid-out herb garden. I grew herbs for cooking, and also for medicine. My poor family: they were my guinea pigs. I used to grind up herbs and squeeze them into glycerine tablet casings to make them easier to ingest. I made verbena-infused lemon butter and pineapple sage jelly and herb crusted pies.

At some point during the 90s, I wrote this:

“…My garden becomes a place of comfort: hard work, gentle rest, no need to swallow these herbal remedies for the healing to begin.

“Grape vines curl and twine up the walls and espaliered wire that anticipates their embrace. Old briar roses climb over one arch, filled with used and abandoned finch nests, and at the other end, jasmine pulls apart a flimsy metal gate. Different tastes and colours of thyme, marjoram, oregano and sage blend with camomile, tarragon, two types of parsley and lemon grass.

“In this garden comfrey grows in abundance – kept green even in the harsh summer by its deep tap root – tansy, horseradish and borage; onion chives, garlic, santolina and marigolds.

“Chinese allspice flourishes here with the rose-scented geranium, lemon balm smells so good I can almost taste it, mint, spearmint, cold and dark, French lavender fills a middle diamond, while coriander and tarragon spice the furthest end. Strawberries line the path, though few survive the birds’ early morning breakfast – and a lemon verbena tree is a suitable diving board for the bellbirds to splash in and out of the birdbath.

“In summer, the basil takes hold, calendula marigolds go wild, and in some years, sunflowers are encouraged to wave their golden heads over the front fence.”

It sounds like a rather heavenly place, doesn’t it. It was.

Now, I have a tiny, one-metre square box in which I grow herbs and vegetables (although I’m working some extra hours and saving as hard as I can to have our tiny courtyard converted into a tiny garden to grow herbs and flowers and where the children can play. One day…).

But the good thing about herbs is that they grow just about anywhere and for just about anyone. And herbs are incredibly versatile, wonderful plants to have around: they smell good, they taste good, they look good, and many of them come packaged up with a generous dose of colourful history and folklore.

If you’d like to start a herb garden, these are my 10 favourite herbs to grow:

Basil
Why? Yum! And also, oooh that smell.
Cool folklore quirk: in medieval times, some ‘experts’ believed that if you laid basil to rot in horse dung, it would breed venomous beasts. I have not personally tried this.

Lavender
Why? Purple flowers almost all year ’round. Crystalise the tiny petals and use them to decorate cakes; dry the flower heads and use them to give a relaxing and cleansing scent. Mildly antiseptic.
Cool folklore quirk: “Lavender is of special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as apoplexy, falling sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and often faintings.” Culpeper, 1653

Lemon balm
Why? You will never smell anything better. Beautiful to flavour summer drinks, jellies and jams.
Cool folklore quirk: apparently taking lemon balm makes you live a long time. For example in the 13th century, Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan regularly took lemon balm tea and lived to be 108.

Nasturtium
Why? Grows rampantly and covers a big area with beautiful, sprawling, orange and yellow flowers. The flowers taste like pepper in a salad.
Cool folklore quirk: native to Peru, nasturtium was first brought to Europe in the 15th Century by the conquistadors.

Mint
Why? Takes your Asian salads to a new level. Not to mention your cocktails, your smoothies, your desserts…
Cool folklore quirk: in Greek mythology, Minthe was a nymph who caught the eye of Pluto, the god of the underworld. When Pluto’s wife found out about their affair, she turned Minthe into a plant. Pluto couldn’t save her, but he gave her a wonderful smell that would get even better when someone stepped on her (!)

Lemon verbena
Why? A beautiful little tree with rough, lemon-scented leaves that you can use in cooking or tea. Gives the garden soft shade in summer and lets the sunshine through in winter.
Cool folklore quirk: I couldn’t find one! Came to Europe from South America in the 17th Century (via the Spanish).

Calendula marigold
Why? Happy, sunny, yellow and orange flowers. The petals are a nice addition to salads, and can also be used to treat pimples (true!).
Cool folklore quirk: the name comes from the fact that it seems to flower just about all year ’round.

Parsley
Why? To eat! In anything (savoury)!
Cool folklore quirk: was used by the ancient Greeks to crown victors at the Isthmian Games. Can you imagine sticking parsley on the heads of our athletes today? Let’s bring this tradition back!

Comfrey
Why? Apparently full of vitamins, and has more protein in its leaves than any other veggie. Also does amazing things for compost.
Cool folklore quirk: historically comfrey was considered a “miracle herb” that could fix all kinds of ailments and even mend broken bones.

Rosemary
Why? Tastes great with meats and roast vegetables, grows into a beautiful hedge, smells amazing.
Cool historic quirk: was believed to strengthen the memory and therefore became an emblem of fidelity.

Photos are of Scout planting and watering basil in our little garden box on the weekend

Incoming mail

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I have been remiss in sharing my incoming mail of late, so I’ve gathered a some bits and pieces together to show you this SERIOUSLY amazing collection of drawings, craft, collage, hand-sewn gifts and beautiful stationery, sent from all over the world.

I can’t tell you how blessed I feel every time I receive something in the mail, and you guys are SO thoughtful and SO generous and put so much time into writing to me. I am blown away. And humbled. That sounds insincere but I want you to know it is TRULY, SINCERELY how I feel.

Thank you. THANK YOU!

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ps. If you like the look of that gorgeous, hand-made apron, you can find more like it at Libby’s Lifestyle on Etsy

Life at mine

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Lonely gold shoe // Christmas already? // A tale of two cities: New York and Melbourne // First face paint // Mummy Pig // Celebration in stock // Typewriters in the city // Ralph is crawling now. Can you tell? // Boys’ night // “Hey Mummy I writing your name” // Afternoon light

I’m taking inspiration from The Veggie Mama for this post. What’s been happening at your place?