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The birthday I never expected to have

Yesterday was my birthday. My 56th birthday. And this is a big deal, even though it doesn’t have a zero at the end. Here’s why. Warning: this is going to get weird. But I can’t not write this post, for some reason.

There have been times in my life when I have known something. Something I had no way of knowing. Something I had no business knowing. And – most of the time – something I haven’t wanted to know.

Let me give you an example. One of the clearest examples from my life. One day, when I was at boarding school, our temporary matron walked past me and I knew she was about to die. Imminently. The certainty of her death settled over me like a thick, heavy, black blanket. Just a few hours later, an announcement was made that she had indeed died.

This is one example. There have been others – usually less dramatic than this, but still very unsettling. There is something very uncomfortable about saying something to a person that you think is obvious and well-known, only to have the person look at you in horror and/or mortification and gasp, “How could you possibly know that?”

Some people talk about being ‘a sensitive’. In the charismatic/pentecostal church the term is ‘word of knowledge’ and it is regarded as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There may be other terms in other faiths. I don’t know. I haven’t researched it. I don’t want to know. I recognise that you might be reading this thinking, I know what this is, and I could explain. Please don’t. I don’t want to know. It’s no gift at all.

Some people have identified this trait in me, and have encouraged me to develop it. After the death of the matron, I became quite hysterical, repeating over and over that I had known it was going to happen. Most of the girls just shrugged it off as attention-seeking on my part. There was, however, a pair of sisters at the school who practised some alternative belief system. I think it was spiritualism, but I couldn’t say for sure after all these years. They were overcome with excitement at the discovery of my ‘psychic ability’ and wanted more than anything to mentor me as I developed it. I didn’t want to develop it. I didn’t want a closer relationship with the sisters, who made me feel uncomfortable at a fundamental level. Years later, I would say ‘they made my spirit itch’. I didn’t want to know when random people were about to die.

About 10 years ago, I went to an osteopath, expecting to have my skeleton realigned. The very first words the man said to me when he walked into the waiting room were, “Oh good. You’re a sensitive.” He was appalled that I had no interest in discussing my aura or my chakras or any other invisible/intangible thing, and just wanted him to sort my back out. He kept trying to steer the conversation in that direction, until I snapped at him that I was paying £1 per minute of his time, and I’d like to choose how that time was spent. He more or less asked me never to come back. As if there was any danger that I would.

So… that’s the context.

One of the things I have known, is that I wouldn’t live past 55. I attended my father’s funeral in 1998. He had taken his own life at the age of 57. It wasn’t his first attempt. During his wake, I became aware of a certainty that I wouldn’t even live to see 57. And the knowledge felt old and familiar, even comfortable, like a pair of well-worn shoes. As if it had always been there, but I was just looking straight at it for the first time. 55. That was it. That number was as clear in my mind as if it had been posted on a billboard. That was all I was getting. The knowledge didn’t scare me. It was just…there.

Until yesterday, I had only shared that information with two people.

The first was a young man we fostered for a while. Things were beginning to go pear-shaped and we were having one of many arguments. He made a comment about not living to a ripe old age, and I snapped out my certainty that I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday.

The second was much more recently. I was speaking to one of my oldest, dearest friends who knows me and my baggage well, and who also happens to be a doctor. I was discussing my chronic pain condition with her, and raised the possibility that this would be what finished me off, since I knew I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday, and that day was closing in apace.

I had never told another living soul. Not my husband, not my kids, not my Mom. Yesterday I did tell Mr Namasi. But you’re the fourth person to know this weird secret I’ve been keeping.

As you can imagine, as I neared 55, any condition that arose (including my bouts of depression and the attendant suicidal thoughts) would have me wondering whether this was the thing that would do me in. A cluster of cells in my breast? Oh, perhaps I’m going to die of breast cancer. Post menopausal bleeding? Ah, perhaps it will be cervical cancer. Unspeakable chest pain? Hmm… perhaps it will be a heart attack. And not in any hypochondriac way, either. There was always an element of academic interest, like watching something under a microscope and being interested in the developments.

And then I turned 56.

And the thing that I knew – the bedrock, familiar truth that has always been there – turns out not to be real after all.

It raises a delicious uncertainty. I have now entered into a period of life I never foresaw. I can plan a trip to South Africa for my mother’s 80th next December. I can start thinking about Mr Namasi’s 60th birthday. I might live to have grandchildren, after all. I might get to be mother of the groom. Maybe even twice! I might get to share my husband’s retirement years with him.

And perhaps some of the other things I know are also not true. Perhaps I have unwrapped the ‘gift’ and found an empty box.

I’m in uncharted waters. The next landmark comes on 1 June 2020, when I become older than my Dad ever lived to be.

Will you keep me company as I find out how that feels?

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DIY body lotion

Since I have the ingredients to hand at the moment, I’m exploring a variety of first aid and personal care products. I have already had a go at:

  • deodorant, which I’m wearing as we speak, and which is proving at least as effective as any commercial products I’ve used in the past. Of course, only extended use will reveal whether my skin copes with it.
  • pine resin salve, which I have several occasions to use since making it. I’m pretty happy with its effectiveness as a salve, and my skin has shown no negative reactions. But then, I’m not allergic to pine sap!

Yesterday, I tried making some body lotion. I have found it increasingly difficult to source body lotions. Because of my long-term use of corticosteroids for a chronic condition, my skin is parchment thin in places, which has bearing on the sort of body lotions I choose. For the most part, I find that the cheaper ones are pretty useless. Some of the more expensive options are richer – perhaps they are less diluted during the production process?

Finding effective lotions that are also cruelty-free makes for an even greater challenge. Whole food shops, particularly those that are independently owned, will often have a variety of cruelty-free personal care products (see my post script for a short note about how to identify cruelty-free products), and of course, there is always Lush and The Body Shop.

I explored a few different recipes, trying to find something that could be made with fairly readily available ingredients. This is what I settled on (see note below about where I got my ingredients):

6 ingredients
  • 125ml jojoba oil (you can substitute any other liquid oil, such as almond, avocado, olive…)
  • 60ml coconut oil
  • 60ml beeswax
  • 30ml shea butter
  • (optional) few drops of essential oils – I chose bergamot, because it’s my favourite, and added a few drops of peppermint just for fun

Place all the oils, apart from the essential oils, into a bain marie/double boiler and heat gently until they have all melted, stirring occasionally to combine them. Remove from heat and add the essential oils. you won’t need more than about 15 drops, but this bit is entirely up to you. And for goodness’ sake, don’t use an oil you’re allergic to, or that you can’t stand the smell of! Pour into a tin or a jar (if you’re using a glass jar, you might want to warm it up first, to prevent cracking).

My initial reaction is that the lotion leaves quite a greasy residue on the skin at first, so I might tweak the recipe a bit. One thing I definitely would add is 30ml (or perhaps even more of vitamin E oil), but I didn’t have any to hand at the time.

Where did I get my ingredients?

  • Jojoba oil – local whole foods shop
  • coconut oil – CostCo, but almost any supermarket will have this
  • beeswax – this lot came from LiveMoor, but I’m exploring options with a local beekeeper
  • shea butter – CostCo
  • essential oils – local whole foods shop or Essential Oils Online

PS: a quick note about identifying cruelty-free products.

When China opened up to imported products, many companies couldn’t resist the lure of an additional one billion potential new customers. The Chinese government stipulated that all products had to have undergone animal trials before being allowed to be sold within the country. A number of companies which had previously had a strongly stated cruelty-free position, changed their stance in order to access the new market. This includes some of the front-runners within the ‘no animal testing’ space.

I won’t bore you with the details of some hair-splitting, semantic pretzel conversations I have had with representatives of some of those companies. What I will say is this: if it matters to you whether the products you use are cruelty-free, please don’t just assume that the products you buy fit that bill, even if they did in the past. There are smart phone apps that you can download to help you check on the spot whether a product is cruelty-free.

The one I have is called Cruelty-cutter. I scan the bar code of the product with my phone’s camera, and the app searches the database for information about the product. If the product is not on the database, I can submit details of the product for it to be researched and added.

For a bit of perspective: I spent an hour in my nearest Boots, checking the shampoos for sale there with the Cruelty-cutter app. I found not one single shampoo that was certified cruelty free. To be fair, a significant percentage of the products weren’t on the database, so their animal testing status was unknown. Everything was either ‘not cruelty free’ or ‘status unknown’. I gave up and went to Lush, which was a bit more out of my way but where I was spoilt for choice.

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Pine resin salve

Pine resin salve

It’s been far too long since I did any making of the sort that I could share here. Which is not to say I’ve been idle. Far from it. I have been tending the largest garden I’ve ever had in my life, and loving it. This is not, of course, any guarantee that the garden will thrive. I am not known for green fingers!

But today I did a bit of making I thought I’d share with you.

I made some pine resin salve, using just three ingredients: pine resin (you’ll be astonished to learn), jojoba oil, and beeswax.

Three ingredients
I sliced my finger

Before we go any further, I should probably explain what pine resin salve does, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether it’s worth making some. Oddly enough, I had just made this batch, when I needed to use some of it on myself. I was busy with another make, when I sliced my finger on a very sharp metal edge. See the photo taken just this very minute, which was quite tricky with a ‘proper’ (non smart phone) camera and my left hand!

Pine resin is naturally antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. So the salve can be used to treat minor grazes and cuts. As well as preventing infection and reducing inflammation, the stickiness of the pine resin also helps keep a wound closed. Some people swear by it as a treatment for eczema.

Caveat: some people are allergic to pine resin. In case it needs to be said: such people should not use this salve.

The proportions are:

  • 60ml pine resin
  • 125ml jojoba oil
  • 30g beeswax
Pine resin

Pine resin doesn’t tend to arrive in conveniently usable form. It tends to be large crystals.

You can use it like this if you like, but it’s harder to measure out by volume that way, and it takes aaaaaaaages to melt.

Much more usable

So I recommend that you crush it first. Pour a quantity out onto a sheet of baking parchment or waxed paper or newspaper or something. If you have waxed cloth wraps, these could serve, too. Fold the paper/cloth over the resin crystals and then whack them repeatedly with a rolling pin or a hammer or other blunt instrument.

The result is a far more usable product.

Bees wax

 

You can buy beeswax in pellet form, but it’s more expensive. So I buy the sticks and grate it myself. I have a dedicated wax grater for this purpose, so I don’t have to go through the faff of cleaning it before using it for food again. It’s not that I’m particularly extravagant. It’s just that our old hand grater broke, and when I replaced it, I kept the old one for crafts. I also have a dedicated fork for stirring wax-based concoctions. This is one that must have been left behind by a barbecue guest at some point, and remained unclaimed.

 

Kit:

I am reliably informed that the main piece of kit you need to use for this is called a bain-marie in the UK. I know it as a double boiler, and when I went shopping for one in Swindon, was appalled that I tell people who worked in specialist cookware shops was a double boiler was. To me, a bain marie is a whole different thing used for keeping food warm when catering. Hey ho. If you don’t have one – whatever you call it – you can use a bowl over a saucepan, or a smaller saucepan over a larger one. If you’re feeling extravagant, you can buy the top pan bit separately… as long as you call it by a name that the shop assistant recognises! Do not, under any circumstances apply direct heat to the sap – it’s highly flammable!

You will also need containers for the finished product. You’ll need something that won’t melt, like glass, ceramic or metal. To give you an idea of yield: using this recipe, I filled 15 small (lipsalve sized) tins – roughly 10g of salve in each.

Melt the resin in the oil

Fill the bottom pan of your double boiler/bain marie with enough water to come about halfway up the sides of the upper pan, and bring it to a boil. Pour the oil into the upper pan and place it on top of the lower pan. Add your pine resin and stir occasionally until it has melted. This might take a while, and it will go through a stage of sticking in a gloopy mass to your fork (or whatever you’re using to stir).  If your resin had bits of bark in it, you might want to strain it through a piece of muslin once it has melted.

Once the resin has melted, add the wax. If you want a softer salve, you can choose to reduce the amount of wax by as much as half. Stir until the wax melts. This should happen very quickly.

Then you’re ready to pour your salve into containers. If you’re using glass jars, I suggest you preheat them first, to avoid cracking the glass. Leave to cool, and hey presto.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t fancy going through all that faff, but you’d still like some pine resin salve. As luck would have it, I just happen to have tins of it for sale at £2.50 each. Let me know!