Clothes shopping: a few things I’ve learned so far


Clothes must fit perfectly.  Okay, there are two things I’ve learned on this point.  First, I will only buy things that fit more or less perfectly.  I used to be terrible for talking myself into buying something that wasn’t quite right because it was on sale, or I liked the colour, or I thought there was some way I could make it work by wearing a belt, etc., etc.  I now know that I’m just throwing my money away if I do that.  I’ve become choosier about what I invest in, but I’ve noticed that my instincts for what will really work is much sharper.  The thing about perfect fit is this: you know instantly if an outfit fits you properly.  You look fabulous, and you feel beautiful.  Instead of talking myself into something, these days I listen to that intuitive judgement.  Second, I’ve been won over by the European tendency to have clothing tailored.  I know that sounds contradictory, but in fact it’s a complementary practice—I find an item that fits me perfectly, then I take it to the tailors to have it tweaked.  It’s amazing what a big difference a few small adjustments can make.  Really.  I do this with blazers, trousers, jeans, blouses, dresses … it’s a habit now, a normal extension of the shopping process, and because I spend so much less by buying only a few high-quality items each season, adding in the cost of tailoring still works out to less than what I used to spend.  And I look better—and feel better, because tailored clothing is comfortable clothing.

Clothes must be in good condition.  Before shopping for the season, I go through what I have and decide what needs to be donated.  This does mean being a bit ruthless.  If something has lost its shape, or is faded, or is wearing thin, then it needs to go, no matter how well it’s served me and how much I love it.  From there, I can see what I need to a working wardrobe.

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A working wardrobe, for me, means that everything goes with everything.  I used to think this just meant co-ordinating colour, but I’ve figured out what may actually be obvious to others—texture and cut matter just as much.  For colour, I do follow the one-base-colour rule, and I’m really boring in this regard: black for winter, white for summer.  For texture, I like lightweight cotton and linen for the summer, and I love merino wool and cashmere in the winter, and even tweed (I have a wonderful skirt in grey herringbone tweed).  I’m a recent convert to silk, which I’ve always been a little scared of because it’s so expensive and seemed easily damaged.  I have two silk shirts (washable silk, that is) at the moment, and they’re proving to be hard-working trans-seasonal pieces.  As for cut—I’m no expert, but this goes back to the question of fit, I think, and I do find it means ignoring trends, at least somewhat.  I’m still learning, but cut is all about shape, and shape affects how successfully different items can be combined, e.g., I really like floaty cardigans, but these look best with skinny jeans or simple skirts, rather than equally floaty dresses or skirts.  Unless I want to look like a meringue.  Well, no, I don’t.

Shoes and bag matter because they go everywhere and are always visible, even under the long raincoat that is often so necessary in the west of Scotland.  And, for that reason, my coat(s) matter a lot to me, too. This is where to invest, at the risk of stating the obvious.  These pieces work hard, and with shoes, in particular, your body relies on them to stay healthy and well (i.e., I want to be able to walk when I’m 80!!).

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This cheeky little robin ate Hobnob crumbs right out of my son’s hand. I was astonished. My son was not. He merely stood still, his hand extended, waiting patiently. And when the bird swooped in, nabbed a crumb, and swooped off again, we were both delighted.

I’ve just added the photo to my new Pinterest board, which is called “Mindfulness: A Year of Moments.” I was inspired to do this by the piece “Get Creative with Pinterest,” by Diane Shipley, which appeared in the spring 2016t issue of Mslexia. I created the board for myself, really, as a reminder to myself to slow down and pay attention. It’s so easy to rush, isn’t it? The to-do list never gets any shorter, and the words “there-aren’t-enough-hours-in-the-day” are said, with complete accuracy, at the school gates over and over. It took me five years of parenthood to accept that this phenomenon wasn’t going to go away. To be fair, I did have the same feeling of trying to do too much before having kids, but I always dealt with it by making extremely detailed to-do lists that I tackled with efficiency.  It was an effective strategy, but it no longer worked: efficiency is pretty well anti-childhood. Which is grand—but I clearly needed a new strategy.

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All the rushing about, pounding up and down our stairs in search of this or that, hurrying out the door, always in a panic.  I was making me make mistakes, too. I would forget important things (dates, school supplies, the names of other parents), and spend large parts of the day feeling cross and annoyed with everyone around me. This is no way to live, I thought, and I could see clearly that there were only two ways forward. I could either carry on, waiting for my kids to grow up on the assumption (possibly incorrect) that this would magically make everything better, or I could slow down. This second possibility was infinitely more appealing, not least because it didn’t involve treating life as it is right now as an inconvenient detour.

Slowing down, for me, involves two things. When that sense of panicked we’re-not-going-to-get-there-on-time-and-where-are-your-shoes-anyway? feeling kicks in (you know the one I mean!), I stop what I’m doing and breathe. Deep, slow breaths. Sometimes it takes several breaths, but the feeling of panic is always replaced by a sense of calm. A friend of mine, a psychologist who specialises in anxiety disorders, once told me that the body can’t panic if you’re breathing slowly and deeply. It forestalls our physical response to fear—a kind of trick, if you will, that you can play on your body to persuade it to relax. Once calm, I concentrate on what I’m doing, just then, rather than leaping ahead to what I’ll need to be doing in ten minutes.


This week, I’ve decided to add a new dimension to my slow-down strategy: paying attention. Whenever I see something remarkable—and most of what’s around us is pretty remarkable–I take a photo. At the end of the day, I upload them to Pinterest, which displays them as a kind of visual diary of different moments throughout my days. Just five days into this new practice, I’m already tuning in to my surroundings, to conversations, to small yet wonderful things, and to what I’ve accomplished (like making a salad—I mean, it is accomplishment, to make something delicious to eat!).

As for the robin, well, he gave my son and me a moment of pure joy, and my son knew, because he’s anti-efficiency, that standing still was the way to bring this into being. Thank you, both of you!

Smart and Chic

Orchids on Your Budget (or, Live Smartly on What You Have). I read this book a few years ago because I was intrigued by the title. No doubt things have changed since 1937, when Marjorie Hillis published this lovely and intelligent l’art de vivre book—I don’t believe purchasing an orchid will break the bank these days—yet, many things have not changed, and Hillis’ advice is timeless, down-to-earth, and delivered with a sense of humour. The central idea of the book is simple: figure out what you really, truly want, then go out and get it. Everything else, the things you kind of want, or think that you should want, you can discard. How liberating is that?

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I remember reading, and re-reading, the chapter “Please Dress.” I was going through a transitional phase—from maternity leave to work in a new job—and was desperate for some good advice. Hillis begins her chapter with the remark, “We aren’t going to make a budget, or even a plan. Budgets presuppose that you are […] naked with a chequebook” (41). I laughed out loud. You won’t find any dull plans here.  Her emphasis is on respecting your individuality, which extends not only to choosing the styles that are most flattering to you, but also to choosing what suits your lifestyle. Blindly following trends and dressing for the life you wish you had, both of which have caused me to be dressed in a ridiculous and unflattering manner on more than a few occasions, are not recommended! Whilst you could argue that her specific examples of what to wear are dated, presupposing that women’s daily accessories include gloves and hats, I found this little window into 1930s fashion thoroughly enjoyable.

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The classic principles of building a stylish wardrobe are still discussed, and they’re classics for a reason. As she puts it, “The basic rules behind any smart budget wardrobe may be pretty old, but they’ve got a lot of wear in them yet. There’s the old saw (tell us if you haven’t heard this one before) about building your wardrobe around one colour. You may have learned that one just after the alphabet …” (37).

With breezily titled chapters that include “Well, Who Isn’t Poor?” and “Can You Afford a Husband?”, as well as a little quiz called “Are You Thrifty or Stingy?”, the book covers all aspects of modern, everyday life, and the kinds of decisions most of us have to make, whether it’s what to eat for dinner, or if and how we can manage to travel. I enjoyed her little life observations, too, which include “Anything from a Yogi gathering to a picnic can be interesting if you have an open mind” (126) and “Generosity has a curious way of paying back with interest” (87).

I think Hillis’ ideas work for me because she acknowledges that all of us are individuals. I don’t need, or even want a 5-bedroom house and a swish car. I do want to the time to write—possibly one of the most costly acquisitions ever—and I do love to travel. At the moment, my chances to do either of these things is extremely limited, because I also want my kids to live in a safe neighbourhood and attend good schools, and that, as it turns out, means hefty mortgage payments on a house that seems to require endless repairs (an opportunity to learn some DIY skills, perhaps). The point is, these are the choices I’ve made. They work for me.

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Roses, rather than orchids!

Hillis in fact wrote a whole series of books, and led a pretty interesting life herself.  Check out Joanna Scutts’ excellent “Second Glance: The Daringly Sensible Marjorie Hillis“, in which Scutts notes that “on the whole the book is pragmatically feminist in its argument that managing your money and exercising your independence are one and the same thing, and that, in the burned and sober years after the Crash, no woman could afford to live in blissful ignorance as a man took care of her money” (para 7).

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about two of my favourite l’art de vivre authors: Jennifer L. Scott’s, whose Madame Chic series I adore, and Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, which really is quite magical.

On Joining the Women’s Equality Party

Six years ago, if anyone had suggested I’d join such a party, I would have laughed and laughed–and laughed some more. I would have believed, quite naively, not that the work of feminism was done by about 1984, but that I could, with hard work and determination, make my way in the world against whatever odds gender inequality might create. After all, I’d had equal access to a good education, and I’d made use of it. My career was off to a good start. I was doing everything I’d been told to do, and while I occasionally wondered how I would make things work after having children, I assumed–this time naively–that the support myself and my husband would need, particularly in terms of childcare, would simply be there.

After joining this much-needed new UK party, members are asked if they’d like to share their story. This falls under the tab “End Discrimation and Sexism at Work.” I considered not telling my story, because I’m sure that there are many, many women who have been treated far worse than me. By not sharing my story, however, I would basically be saying that I am okay with the way that employers treat women, and that I see the UK’s maternity leave programme and childcare funding and infastructure (or lack thereof) as fair. I am not okay with these things. So. Here is my story, as submitted to WE earlier today:

I hold a PhD in English literature. Gaining this degree required dedication, passion, and the belief that I had a long-term, meaningful career ahead of me. I occasionally wondered what it would be like to manage my career and raise children, but like many women I’ve talked to since having my children, I naively assumed that everything would work out–meaning that I naively assumed that childcare would be affordable and accessible, and that I would be treated fairly by my employer with regard to maternity leave, benefits, and returning to work.

Six years ago, I had just completed my first postdoctoral fellowship. I was also pregnant with my first child. After he was born, I returned to work, taking on a second postdoctoral fellowship. In order to return to work, I had to find childcare. I was shocked by the cost–£900/month–although my shock was underwritten by relief at having secured any childcare at all. My local authority provided no childcare whatsoever for children under three years’ of age, and the private nursery attached to my place of employment had a poor reputation. Additionally, our local authority provided no help by way of information or support in arranging for private childcare. I eventually found a good nursery through word-of-mouth, and was almost grateful to give up half of my net income simply to have the time to work at what I considered to be my dream job.

After two years, I moved up to to a post as a lecturer. It was a one-year contract. I believed that I would be able to go on maternity leave, as I was then pregnant with my second child, who was due to be born six months into my contract, and then return to work to finish the last six months of employment. From there, I hoped to be appointed to a permanent post, or seek employment elsewhere, something that would be facilitated by having returned to work after having my baby.

Unfortunately, my employer has set up their short-term contracts to run continuously, even if a woman takes time out for maternity leave. This meant that my job was terminated whilst I was on leave, caring for my child. I not only found myself unemployed, but also denied the full maternity pay and benefits that I would have received, had I been permitted to return to my job.

I am equally troubled by the fact that my work in raising two children is considered worthless: after all, I am not paid for it, and I suspect that I will be undervalued by employers in the future because of the perception that I “took time off,” as if raising children is sort of holiday. Yet, from a purely economic point of view, I am caring for and education the next generation of taxpayers, the ones who will fund health care, pensions, and education. How is it possible that my work, and the work countless other parents, do in this regard is so easily and so utterly dismissed?


All lives are interesting.

I love this quotation, by author Mavis Gallant. I think of it often when I’m writing and wondering “Who is going to read this story? Why am I writing it?” I can never answer either of those questions—I don’t think any writer can—but I do believe, deep down, that what I’m doing is worth doing because all lives are interesting, all lives are equally important, and unique. This is such an obvious truth, yet much of our society denies it, through a combination of economic inequalities and the promotion of lifestyles that are far removed from the everyday lives most of us lead.

I was thinking a lot about all of this yesterday as I was getting ready to collect my son from school. The “school run,” as it’s termed in Britain, does indeed make me as if I’m on treadmill, going to the same place, at the same time, at the same pace, day on day, year on year. “I’m always there,” I thought, rather gloomily. Then I turned that idea on its head: I’m always there. My son will remember that, and it may well be something we both look back on as part of an interesting life. We talk, we take shortcuts that typically involve a lot of mud, we stop to look way off at the mountains, we get rained on and have to deal with being cold and, frankly, a tad miserable. I know it’s trite to talk about how kids make you slow down and notice the little things, which is funny, given that very young children, at least, have the effect of forcing you to rush about in search of matching shoes, etc. So, I’m not going to suggest that adopting a child-like attitude is the magical means to an interesting life. No, I’m saying that whatever we are by nature, whatever happens to us, whatever we choose to become, is inevitably unique. Having an interesting life is an unavoidable fact. Mavis Gallant knew this, just as she knew that the way you tell a story IS the story, and that is my very good reason for keeping her quotation in mind, when writing, when living.

Food and Stories

My husband and I arrived in Devon in Sept 2006. In November, I bought a cookery book for his birthday. By Christmas, he declared the book to be the best gift he’d ever been given. I was rather surprised by this, but as the two of us cooked our way through this book, I understood what he meant. Our everyday life had been changed forever, for the better.

The book is Made in Italy: Food & Stories, by Giorgio Locatelli.P1080362
What did I learn that was so life-altering? Well, I learned a new respect for the people who grow the food we eat,  which takes on a personal dimension when you’re living in a region famous for its farmland, complete with farmer’s markets every weekend.  I was introduced to foods that, coming from North America, seemed exotic (everything from saffron to porcini mushrooms—it’s a pretty long list, actually), and I learned about foods I’d long taken for granted (olive oil and salt, for example). I also learned how to prepare food so that can be enjoyed at its best.

The emphasis on quality and taste was vastly different from what I’d grown up with in North America. We were taught in primary school that a well-balanced meal consisted of foods from four groups (milk and mild products, meat and alternatives, breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables). There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact I still rely on this thinking all the time as I try to plan healthy meals. But there’s a decided absence of passion, a way of thinking about food that reduces it to fuel that keeps us alive, rather than an integral part of living well.

A spirit of adventure underwrites this particular idea of living well.  After all, we’re talking about Food and Stories, and what is a story if not an adventure rendered in words? Adventures, I discovered, don’t need to be grand things like trekking through mountains or moving to a foreign country (though obviously, they can be).  The first time I made gnocchi, every surface and utensil in my kitchen was decidedly sticky, and I began asking myself the same question I’ve asked on many a mountain trek: why on earth did I think this was a good idea?  Then we ate the gnocchi.  It was so delicious that un-stickifying the kitchen afterwards became a minor detail (granted, I had help!). Adventure, living well, stories–they come out of trying new things, even small things, and seeing where those things lead.

Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten/Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Travel and art are interwoven for me: whenever I arrive at a new destination, (or re-visit one), I always seem to end up at the art gallery. Once there, I rarely wish to leave, not least because of the sense of adventure, of wandering through time and imagination. Six years ago, I had the pleasure of strolling through the Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten/Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.


My husband and I practically had the whole place to ourselves, which is a rare treat, given how busy galleries can be.  We spent the better part of a day strolling through what I came to think of as the Uffizi of the north, for it has some of the most wonderful works of art to come of out the Flemish Renaissance. Indeed, this gallery taught me so many news things, both about painters and their works, and about the history of the Low Countries. Now, I am not an art historian by any stretch, so I will leave any edifying comments to the experts and simply urge you to visit the Koninklijk Museum if you are ever lucky enough to be in Antwerp. If you are really lucky, you can do as we did, and round out the day with dinner at Brasseurs!



I’ve always liked January.  I’m a little weird that way, and since my daughter was born in January 2014, I now feel a peculiar need to defend it, too.  I like the newness of it, and when it snows (which it did here in Glasgow in the 16th) it’s stunning.  Who couldn’t love all of that glittering white with the green boughs beneath?  It’s nearly the end of the month, and I have to admit, even I’m glad that February, with its slightly longer days, is nearing.  I often try to wake up by 6:30 (and every morning miss the days when this was not necessary), but when you wake up to pitch-black, it’s difficult to convince your body that it doesn’t need more sleep (and, very probably, it does).  As I write this, I’m waiting for my daughter to awake from her morning nap (lucky girl), and when she does, I’ll be onto my second shot of espresso.  My husband’s parents brought some Bourbon Espresso back from their recent trip to Madeira, so perhaps I’ll try that.  Though I’m really more of a champagne girl than a bourbon one …