Monday, 28 November 2011

Christmas is coming – that means cooking!

I thought about telling you all about my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy module and my fascination with Attachment Theory but I think it will have to wait for another time because …it’s time to get out my special recipes and begin my Christmas cooking – hurrah!
Growing up in Melbourne, I could never see the point of rich fruit cakes, Christmas puddings with brandy butter, and big roast dinners  in the middle of summer  which is when Christmas falls in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere.  If you have never been south, imagine eating like that in the middle of July here and you’ll get some idea of how weird it was.  However, I grew up in a family that originated in the northern hemisphere  - my mother’s father came from Ireland, her mother, although born in Oz, had English parents, while my father’s father was English and his mother American.  Our family tradition dictated that we celebrated Christmas with all the northern hemisphere traditions, the only concession being to serve chicken instead of turkey that my mum considered to be tasteless and dry.  In those days chicken was a luxury that we ate only at Christmas day and Easter Sunday, one bird carefully carved to feed all eight of us accompanied by roast vegetables, many of which had been lovingly grown by my dad in the backyard.
Since I was little, traditions have changed so much in Australia. Back then the indigenous culture was pretty much ignored and non-indigenous Australians looked outward to their ‘mother country’ for validation and tradition, taught in school that our arrival in Australia was the start of the civilisation and taming of this wonderful country. How wrong we were.   
Now Christmas cards often feature Father Christmas as a surfie in shorts, singlet and sunnies with Oz kangaroos, echidnas and wombats instead of reindeer.
People gather for barbies and salad on the deck or the beach, well armed with Aerogard to fight off the hoards of mozzies and flies* while others celebrate this mid summer festival with a beach holiday or wonderful cuisine originating from our Asian neighbours - China Vietnam, Japan, the Pacific Rim – and given that special Australian twist. Then there is that wonderful and new tradition of Christmas in July where those who love all the European rich food traditions of their ancestry gather together for a feast in the middle of winter down under – July.  How sensible it that? Besides - what a great excuse for a party!

Coming to England, I finally got the mid winter celebration thing of eating, drinking and making merry in the bleakest, darkest time of the year.  It isn’t just a Christian tradition either; so many other cultures and religions have festivals of lights, feasting and gatherings at this time.
..So here I am and I love it!  This week I got out all my recipe books stained with little blobs from the years of turning pages with sticky fingers and marked with scribbled notes of when I cooked the recipe, who was with me and what we thought of it –  such comments as “yumbo” “scrumptious “ “cooked this with currants instead of sultanas ‘cos he forgot to buy them” and “bit of a disaster - we forgot to put the timer on” .  For the last few years I have got together with my lovely neighbour Gill, originally from Zimbabwe, for our cooking sweatshop.  It is so much more fun to cook with someone else.
As I type this my mincemeat is cooling in jars and I am waiting for the Christmas cakes to cook.  I am feeling rather nervous because Gill is the cake expert and she has left me in sole charge of assessing when they are cooked.  Mincemeat is so easy to do – a matter of bunging all the ingredients in a pan, leaving it overnight to suffuse and then cooking for 3 hours in the oven at 150  the following morning.  You then give it a stir, spoon it into jars and leave it to mature until you’re ready to make mince pies closer to Christmas.  I am absolute rubbish at making pastry so I have given up trying! I just use the ready-made stuff from the supermarket instead.  In my opinion, no perfect looking bought mince pie comes anywhere near a wonky old home made one with attitude!
Now making Christmas cake is whole different animal and thank goodness for Delia Smith’s Christmas book and my mentor Gill.  Gathering all the ingredients together is fairly simple and, like mincemeat, you soak the fruit, juice and alcohol overnight and then mix in all the other ingredients.
It is the preparation of the cooking tin that is quite a technique but lots of fun if you have a friend with you and lots of gossip to catch up on.  The cake tin has to be lined with four layers of buttered greaseproof paper, and after adding the mixture, is wrapped with a further two layers of brown paper and tied up with string.  A loose cover of brown paper is laid gently on the top of the mixture to stop it burning and the cake cooked for about 4 ½ hours at 150 .  I had always been scared of cooking a Christmas cake until Gill and I did our first joint session three years ago.  I love the whole ritual of it now – so any of you out there who want to give it a go – Delia is the queen of recipes that always work – so long as you follow the instructions perfectly!
I have taken so long writing this blog that the cake is now cooked and cooling on a rack.  When completely cold I have to ‘feed’ it before wrapping it in greaseproof paper and re-feeding it weekly. Feeding involves pricking it all over the top and bottom with a darning needle and spooning brandy over it.  As I ‘feed’ my cake I am reminded of when I was a nurse so many moons ago, and every ward would be given a Christmas cake to share amongst the staff.  Those rock hard tasteless cakes must have been bought as a job lot but by filling 50 ml syringes with the donated alcohol from grateful patients and injecting them (the cakes, not the patients!) at regular intervals we  rendered them (the cakes, not the patients!) wonderfully tasty!
This time of year is, for me, about gathering with friends and family and celebrating with wonderful seasonal food and drink.  I am totally not bothered about presents – if you can’t eat it or drink it I am sooo not interested!  Maybe it’s old age creeping up on me – or I am just weird!
…so my next cooking venture will be gingerbread, shortbread and chocolate truffles so watch this space for updates…and I might even tell you a bit more about my course!
*Translation  Oz  - English
Barbie = barbeque    Sunnies= sunglasses    Surfie=surfer     Mozzies= mosquitoes     Aerogard= an insecticide roll-on to (hopefully) detract  the flies and dissuade  the mozzies’ from treating you as their Christmas dinner

Friday, 18 November 2011

That ‘Heads Down’ time of Year


Everyone is so busy getting stuck into their studies, with deadlines looming and Christmas fast approaching – too fast for me! I am extra busy with my new clinical placement.  I see four clients on Thursday morning in the placement I started at the beginning of my second year. On Friday I see three in my new placement in an inner London Borough.  I also have extra supervision to attend and all those extra notes to write up.

The two placements are very different.  My first is set in a leafy outer London suburb above a GP surgery.  It is a charity funded solely from donations and fund raising activities.  Clients can either refer themselves or be referred by their GPs.  It is in a quiet suburban road with only the sounds of birds and the occasional train to disturb the silence.  It is a very new building with new furniture, walls painted in tasteful shades of soothing lilac with calming prints on the walls. When there is sunshine, it streams through the windows. I greet clients in the waiting room and bring them through to our counselling room.  My other placement is part of a GP surgery with 12,000 patients on its books located in a huge old stately Victorian former bank building set right on one of the busiest intersections in South London.  All clients are referred by their GP’s, or another professional. The paintwork and furnishings have seen better days and none of the chairs match.  The waiting area walls are liberally sprinkled with notices requesting people to stay away if they have the flu and urge them to come for a flu jab if they haven’t.  I work in the basement where the sound of police sirens, ambulances, and the general hurley burley of the outside world is somewhat muffled by the thick walls that still house the huge former bank vaults and block out any vestige of sunlight. There is a sense of real calm there with every effort being made to soften the harsh environment with subdued lighting and soft furnishings. Reception notifies me of my clients’ arrival by computer system, and I then  pop my head outside the door to call my client patiently waiting with the patients booked for blood tests, walking frames etc.  As soon as I show my clients in, I have to notify reception by computer system and ask them to complete a monitoring form – and only then are we able to settle into the work. Although the settings are so different, the clientele still come with the same concerns and my role remains the same – to be the best counsellor I can be. It is wonderful experience working in such contrasting settings.

There are only eleven in our year group now, it feels much more intimate.  After three hours of theory we split into two case discussion groups and then those who are doing the long research project are free to go where the six of us who are studying the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy pathway stay for a further two hours for theory and practical work. We are all now qualified to diploma level and are referred to as counsellors rather than as students or trainees.  We are expected to be even more self- directed with our studies this year and our tutors seem different – more like mentors guiding us towards that time we will be leaving Greenwich as fully fledged counsellors – a scary thought!

In between my two clinical placement ‘slots’ I still attend my weekly stained glass evening class.  Sometimes it feels such a struggle to get it together after a busy, tiring day but once there I become lost in the joy and wonder of working with glass.  It is incredibly important for me to balance my academic work with practical projects such as my stained glass work, gardening and house renovations.


Walking through Autumn woods followed by indulging in a big bowl of warm homemade soup, watching David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series with its stunning photography, browsing in my local fabric shop with my senses bombarded with colour and texture, a warm bubbly bath filled with gorgeous smellies, are some of my favourite things for renewing my flagging spirits!


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Presenting under duress!

I’m now in week 6 of first term - half way through already and time seems to have flown. I had a nasty shock on receiving an email from the course tutor to say that I needed to prepare a presentation about my Personal Development Project(PDP) , an 8,000 word piece due in on 1 October next year. This is meant to be a research project with the subject being ME and how I have developed as a counsellor over the three years of my course.  The problem is that most of the course involves reflection on practice, keeping personal and professional logs, case discussions, supervision about my practice etc so there is quite a lot of thinking about me, writing about me, talking about me... to the point where I’m getting very bored with the subject of ME!  I have already written four 3000 word professional logs about ME and my response to taking part in the experiential group relating it to theory, my practice and my cases. I feel like I have been reflecting on practice and ME for the last 30 years -  aaahhhh!
 Of course I had done nothing about beginning it at all.  I have been feeling so uninterested I had  gone into ostrich mode – if I don’t think about it for long enough it might go away!  
Unfortunately my strategy was never going to work so with deadline looming accompanied by a rising level of panic I downloaded the handbook then emailed my project supervisor to arrange a meeting.  That was enough to concentrate my mind and I started by looking at the seven points that had to be covered by the project.  I figured I treat this quite mechanically and just write 1000 words on each point and use the last 1000 to tie it all together into a conclusion.
I went to my meeting feeling thoroughly grumpy and laid out my plan for a straightforward ploddy piece only to be told that I would be very bored with it and find it ‘difficult to engage’.  My tutor knows me only too well and can easily detect when I am in tantrum mode – digging my heels in and screaming “nooooo”!  So we began to talk about my thorough resistance to doing the project and why I have decided before I start that I am going to be bored, find it too difficult or make it as unpleasant for myself as I possibly can – ie if it isn’t painful I am not working hard enough!  It is often my default position – dread it for ages, use avoidance behaviour, ie procrastination,  get grumpy at everyone around me ...then finally settle down to it and get it done.  Then I, and everyone else around me who had suffered as collateral damage, wonder what all the fuss was about!

So there we have it - my working title is ‘Doing a counselling course from the back foot’. The two students presenting before me were really positive with wonderful power point presentations  and I began to feel worse and worse.  I had written one page that seemed to be completely negative and had visions of everyone feeling like slitting their throats by the end of it.  I was pleasantly surprised to have my proposal received very positively.  Blimey – you could have knocked me down with a feather!