Being Practical

I’ve been intending on writing a blog post for weeks, but yet again I’ve been swept up in a flurry of activity that has left me without the time to just sit down and scribble/type/dribble all over the keyboard. How did November come around already? How can I be subjected to Christmas advertisements and the dull, grey misty skies of the eleventh month of the year already? Where has 2011 gone? What the hell am I doing?!?!

Actually, I’ve been doing quite a lot since my freelance ‘office’ days were suddenly reduced by 25% a month. You’d think I’d be out hunting for work like a normal person. But you’re probably getting to know me a bit by now and if there’s anything I’ve learnt about myself (and been told), I’m not typical or normal or run of the mill in many ways. I just don’t function in that way. So although I have spent a considerable amount of time putting together an interim website to showcase my professional “talents”, I have also spent a considerable amount of time doing other activities that may not have always been a top priority, but have always been on my To Do Someday list. I thought it was about time that I acquired some new skills, seeing as I have a little extra time, and a minuscule amount of breathing space before I have to go out and win me some more freelance work.

So after doing a very good impersonation of whirling dervlish whilst I tried to tidy up the house and bring some semblance of order to my tumbledown home, I was in the mindset to Try New Things. I spend a lot of my time on computers, and in my spare time, I’ve turned into somewhat of a practical beast. My first task was sorting out my parents’ bedroom. My Mum and Dad downsized a few years ago into a DIY nightmare of a house. We’re talking live wires in the walls, random and weird DIY solutions such as drilling a hole through the outside wall to move an internal aerial cable from one floor to another. The house had been inhabited by about 5 owners in 10 years or something ridiculous, each of which put their own dodgy “mark” on the property. In the year or so before and after Nannie died, my parents went through a lot. As over 50s, they’ve struggled to find work. They’re worried for their future. They haven’t been able to repair and renovate the house as they intended and they’ve been constantly living in other people’s disastrous mess. So Rich and I (in return for being fed rock cakes and other delights, for gardening services from my Mum, and for assistance with my online business) started renovating their bathroom. We had to back pedal so far to undo all the dodgy DIY that a year on, it’s still a bare shell.

But in the summer, I took to my parents’ bedroom with a wallpaper steamer. I told Mum we were going to get one room in the house straight. A place for them to have their own mark on. Mum has been pretty beaten down by everything that’s happened to them and the constant stress, so she found it very hard to go along with my bullish attitude. But I pressed ahead, and started on the bedroom. Mum got more enthusiastic. We ripped up the disgusting, ill-fitted carpet. Mum repainted the fitted wardrobes from a drab 80s grey to new white. She painted the ceiling, painted the walls in a gorgeous mellow buttercream and glossed all the original 30s wordwork. A few weeks passed with little happening. We discovered some very dodgy floorboard cutting, where the floorboards had been cut next to the joists and were essentially ‘floating’ with nothing to hold them on. They’d been replaced by badly fitting bits of wood that creaked and groaned when any weight was placed on them. So Rich brought around our DeWalt mitre saw (my practical present to him a few years ago – it’s an amazing piece of kit!) and we bought a pack of new floorboards, put in a new joist (reclaimed from a renovated house down the road) and voila – new, safe, non-creaky floorboards. Mum went out with some money she’d saved up over the last few months and managed to wrangle the carpet salesman down to her budget on a piece of end-of-roll carpet. “Dad said he’ll fit it,” she told me. The carpet lay in the empty room for a week. Dad is always working at his craply paid sales job. I knew he wouldn’t have the time or inclination to lay the carpet. So I called Mum up.

“Mum, I’ve watched a video on how to do it, and I’m going to lay your carpet,” I proclaimed. We had a few carpet laying bits and bobs and I’d helped Rich lay one in a small back room of our house. So I went round and Mum helped me lay the carpet out. I struggled with getting the tension right. I swore a lot. I swore more and refused to give in. I got very cross. I think Mum felt like taking me out with the carpet stretcher. I called Rich and he came round and told me I was doing OK. He helped a little. I felt less angry.

After two days of kicking in, cutting, tucking, more kicking in, carpet rash on my knees and two minor gashes from the stanley knife on my hand, I finished the job. We didn’t need professionals. We’d renovated the whole room for £147. Rich and I helped Mum move the bed back in, put the curtain rail up. Mum got out her new bedside light lampshades that she’d bought for pennies at a carboot. We moved Nannie’s old turn of the century dresser in. The room was complete. Mum hugged me and told me how lovely it was, how lovely I am. Dad came home from work and called me up to exclaim about what a good job I’d done.

I felt proud. I’d fitted a carpet, and helped Mum and Dad finish their first job. Mum text me last night to say how lovely the bedroom still is. I’m so pleased. It’s the small things in life, yada yada… You can see my carpet fitting shenanigans here. Careful! It might be too rock’n’roll for your liking…

But that’s not my only practical endeavour. Not only have I fitted floorboards, fitted a carpet, and made an apple crumble of late (I need sustenance for all this practical work), but last week I finally got the sewing machine out that I inherited from Nannie in 2008, and read the instructions. Sewing machines have always been a mystery to me. I’ve always wanted to able to make thing for myself – a vital aspect of self sufficiency – but again it’s one of those things that I just never got around to. But I managed to thread it up, and started practising on some scrap fabric. You see, I have a fundraiser craft fair that I’m helping at in December, and Mum and I have a half stall that we’re selling things on. So we needs things to sell. Whilst Mum is perfectly adept at sewing, knitting and such, I am not. But I hope in a few weeks, I’ll have something to show. I managed to make a little hanging dove in funky fabric as a first little project, and I’m hoping to eventually progress to the likes of soft furnishings (we need curtains in this house), clothes and bags for myself. Recycle old fabric and make something new from something old. I really enjoy that.

So whilst I continue to grapple with my sewing machine, get the knitting needles out (I had a disaster with circular knitting needles and almost punched something when it all went wrong), and look for more excuses to hone my DIY skills (I have my eye on our crumbly windows and there’s also still Mum and Dad’s bathroom to finish), in the back of my mind I’m fully aware that my financial situation has to improve. I see these new skills that I’m learning as more strings to my bow, more steps forward on the road to some degree of semi-self sufficiency. I like being capable.

But I can’t ignore that I need more savings, more income and that I am going to have to think ahead a lot. I’ve had a lot of encouragement behind the scenes with finding new work and new clients, and the prospects are not at all bleak – if I put in the time and effort. I don’t expect it to be easy, but I know if I focus I can do it. And then, with my physiotherapy and the prospect of being finally ‘fixed’, a full time job working at a desk is also an option I can start to reconsider.

But if I have learned anything from the past few weeks, it is this. My current dream  – that I share with Rich – remains property restoration and development, preferably with an eco twist. I love being practical,and feeling tired in a good, physical way at the end of the day. I like seeing my progress. I love seeing something new come from something old, to see new life breathed into something. I really, really like that idea… I just need to get the funds together to make it happen, and for now, that means working my backside off.

With Spring in my Step

Last night I sat swathed in my dressing gown, slouched across the sofa, having just had a long and relaxing bath. I’d been soaking my aching muscles in the hot, lavender-scented water after a long, satisfying day of Being Productive.

Since I went back to work after Christmas, I feel like I’ve been trying to catch up on myself. Usually I like to make the most of my weekends. But for some reason I felt inclined to laze around, or have bursts of doing ‘something’ – anything to feel as though I hadn’t just slobbed about. I felt like I just needed to rest, and it was as if I’d given myself permission to lie in, and wander around in my pyjamas for most of the day.

Not yesterday though. After getting my hair (and feeling so much better for it), I came home and flew around the house being a Domestic Goddess, sucking up the ten tonnes of fluff that had accumulated since the vacuum cleaner’s last outing, and generally getting all the shitty jobs (quite literally, in some cases) like cleaning the cat trays out and changing the bins out of the way. I did it all in a mad whirlwind of speed and skill because I Just Wanted To Get Outside.

It was milder than it had felt in weeks. The watery sun was throwing a welcoming warmth – warmth! – onto my skin. It felt good. I plonked each of the rabbits outside to ‘free range’ under my supervision whilst I got all of my tools out of the shed. And methodically, therapeutically and satisfyingly, I worked through my veg plots, turning the crumbly soil over, extracting the weeds, cutting the edges straight. I wasn’t aware of how long it took me, only of the fact that it was something I’d been aching to do for a long time.  Bobbin Robin sat in the hedge, eyeing me as I worked, piping his faint melody every once in a while, obviously impatient for me to move onto the next task.

And so I did. Next job – my mini woodland garden.

It’s tiny. It’s literally a small patch under the damson and apple trees that, in summer, is in shade for most of the day until the late afternoon when the sinking sun lights it up in a blaze of glory. In spring, when the fruit trees are budding, it gets a fair amount of sunlight and stays relatively moist, so is perfect for planting woodland plants.

But last year I neglected it somewhat, allowing the grass, bindweed and nettles to take over. With my wild daffodils and crocuses starting to poke through already, I had work carefully. It was a nice change from the more heavy-handed vegetable patch work. Almost like a different discipline. I cleared space around my emerging forget-me-nots, the wild primos

e, the oxalis and something else that I planted last year, but can’t remember the name of, or what it looks like exactly. We’ll find out soon enough.

As the afternoon sun sank quickly, the temperature rapidly dropped and I herded my rabbits back inside. I felt so satisfied – my veg plots just need some nutrition and I’m ready to go. I do still need to get some proper edging to stop the grass continually creeping in, and so I can also build the plots up with lots of gorgeously rich, crumbly home-made compost and leafmould. But it’s another step forward. At the moment I have time to do this. It’s so incredibly important to me.

After a quick cuppa and stop-off at Mum and Dad’s, I fired up the steamer and set about stripping more wallpaper off our dining room walls. I only have one wall left to do, and the ceiling, and we’re ready to start prepping the room properly for re-decoration. Steps forward. Good.

I should explain. For the past few years I’ve been embarrassed about the state of our home and my Smallest Smallholding. I haven’t felt as though I can have friends around. I’ve felt quite isolated because of it.  I don’t allow anyone outside of the family through the door. We hide from the electricity meter man because we just don’t want anyone to witness what we live in day-to-day. The house is a half-baked renovation job, and the Smallest Smallholding has, for the past couple of years, been out of control.

But I want my friends to visit, and to be able to stay over. I want to welcome people into my home. I want to have friends and family over on warm summer’s evenings. So this year, I’m sure as hell going to try and get closer to being able to do that. Sharing my Smallest Smallholding, getting people encouraged, involved, excited about what I do – that, for me, would be an achievement.

Oh, and incidentally, I have a new job. It’s an exciting prospect. Things are going to be changing, for the better, I think. But more about that next time… I’ll write soon… stay tuned…

Weight: 11 stones 5lb (oops)