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Gardening in time of crisis has brought me closer to my mother | Life and style

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It was the deck that sold me in late 2016, when we saw the Bronx apartment we now live in. For years, I dreamed of living somewhere that overlooked a forest. I imagined plants hanging on the windows, and a backyard garden like the one my mother had created in 1980 behind our first-floor apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn – although I hadn’t inherited my mother’s green thumb so I didn’t know how I’d care for all that greenery. The only plant I hadn’t killed was a golden pothos, also known as devil’s ivy because it’s nearly indestructible. But that’s the thing about fantasies: you don’t have to figure out the how. You get to dream up a garden you don’t know how you’re going to maintain, until you get the chance and you do.

Over the years, I expanded my vision and my handy wife helped bring it to reality. She put up hooks and installed shelves and planters. Then came the pandemic, and I set my eyes to the deck in a different way. If we couldn’t go anywhere, I would create a space where we could relax and remember hope, despite multiple ongoing horrors, from Covid to unarmed Black folks being murdered by police officers, to how the government, and specifically the president, were failing us.

***

Gardening during times of crisis isn’t new. There were the victory gardens of the second world war; the Black Americans who took to the soil during the Jim Crow era; and the immigrants and inner-city residents who did the same for decades in vacant lots, my mother among them.

She moved us into that first-floor Bushwick apartment the year Reagan was elected, and went right to work clearing piles of garbage from the long-neglected backyard and tilling its soil. In her newfound oasis, in a sofrito-stained nightgown, she used her right leg to push the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil and squirming earthworms. When the earth wouldn’t give, she got on all fours and used her hands. Then she went out and bought seeds. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, peppermint and rosemary, sunflowers and geraniums.

By mid-summer, we had a lush garden and I’d learned to climb the plum tree in the corner of the yard, scuffing my sneakers and scraping my shins and knees in the process. It was from my perch on a branch that I witnessed my mother’s joy when she first saw evidence of baby tomatoes and peppers. I picked a still green plum from a branch and bit into it. The bitterness burned my tongue.

This is my first memory of longing for my mother.

***

In March, when the pandemic hit, shuttering public schools and so much of the city, I turned to my deck. I recruited my family and we started germinating seeds. I also made the decision to call my mother, whom I hadn’t spoken to in months.

I reached out because when there’s a global pandemic, you call your mom, even if you’re estranged. That week I brought her groceries, and we started video-chatting every day. When I shared that I was planning a garden, she told me stories about gardening in her native Honduras. When I visited her, I didn’t go into her apartment; she kept her mask on and spoke to me from a distance. It didn’t feel odd because social distancing is the norm with her. My mother’s not affectionate. One day she passed me a gallon-sized storage bag filled with medicine bottles, most empty, some with a few pills that clinked when they collided. That’s how my mother told me that she’d had Covid and braved it alone.

At 44, having left my mother’s home 31 years ago and spent most of those years feeling unanchored in the world due to her absence, I stopped hoping for a reconciliation long ago.

But this pandemic has gifted me time with her that I haven’t had in decades, and a connection we’ve never had. We talk about my plants and vegetables. Mom is always ready with advice, and stories of working the land with her Abuelita Tinita. She smiles and I realize that despite the devastating hunger and poverty she endured, her childhood was filled with some joy. I remember that so was mine, and much of that I experienced in my mother’s garden.

My mother created life and sustenance in a world that told her she wasn’t worthy of such beauty. Isn’t that similar to what I’ve done during this pandemic? It makes sense that nature is where we find our first and greatest metaphors. That’s where I’ve chosen to place my hope. I am better for it.

Vanessa Mártir is a multi-genre writer and educator, and the founder of the Writing Our Lives Workshop and the Writing the Mother Wound Movement

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The right time to have dinner to lose weight

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In any case, never skip your dinner. This is because when people skip dinner, they rely more on snacks, which leads to overeating. If you are planning to work out after office hours, have a snack at 4 pm.

The snack could be a string of cheese with an apple, two dried dates with 1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter or some fibre crackers with 2 tablespoons of hummus.

One should also eat some nuts right after a workout to replenish muscles. .

If you plan to work out after dinner, divide your meal into two parts. Eat one portion before the sweat session and the second portion after the workout. Save the carb-rich portion for prior workout.


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The NHS Covid-19 app: three experts answer frequently asked questions | All together

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Dr Amir Khan






Dr Amir Khan: ‘The app is for anyone in England and Wales who has a smartphone, and can download from Google or Apple’

In September, the NHS Covid-19 app was launched, supporting NHS Test and Trace in England and NHS Wales Test, Trace and Protect, aiming to slow the spread of Covid-19 by alerting people to virus levels in their area, and when they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.

Here, Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE, Dr Amir Khan, and professor of pathogen dynamics Christophe Fraser, answer frequently asked questions about the safety, effectiveness and purpose of the app.

Who is the app for and who will it help?
Dr Amir Khan: The app is for anyone in England and Wales over 16 who has a smartphone, and can download from Google or Apple. If you have a smartphone, you should download this app. The reason why is that we need everyone to get on board with this idea of controlling the spread of the virus – the best way to do that is knowing where the outbreaks are and knowing when someone who has tested positive might have been in your vicinity. Then getting as many people to isolate as possible.

When will the app contact you?
Dr Sarah Jarvis: The app alerts you if you have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive for coronavirus, but it is only people who have been in close contact with someone for 15 minutes or more. If you walk past someone on the street who has tested positive, then you are not going to pick it up.

Will it alert me if there is Covid-19 in my town?
SJ: If you put in only half your postcode it will alert you to the risk of coronavirus in your area. I have had this app for a month and used this function the other day. The alert told me the risk had risen from low to medium. This is important for you to know; for instance, it might make you rethink what you do in terms of you visiting, socialising and going out and about.

If I get an alert, am I breaking the law by going out, or is it more, ‘Stay at home so I don’t infect granny’?
Prof Christophe Fraser: The app only advises and cannot force you. You don’t want to go out because you don’t want to infect vulnerable people. We all have loved ones with other illnesses that make them even more susceptible to really bad outcomes from Covid. Among some younger people, it’s much rarer but there are some bad outcomes. Of course, it’s very difficult to quarantine and it can be hugely disruptive and, therefore, it’s really important that the UK government supports people through payments. And it’s really important that employers are absolutely told in no uncertain terms that this is a way we will protect ourselves. We can see the current situation is alarming. Cases of coronavirus have been going up for weeks now, hospitalisation and deaths are following not far behind.

Will the app help to prevent a future lockdown?
CF: That’s what we’re trying to do. The more we can participate with the Test and Trace, the more we can stay in well-ventilated areas, wear face coverings, wear masks and wash hands, the less likely we are to end up in lockdown. So there’s a social pact, we all have people in our social networks who are a bit more vulnerable and who we’re worried about. You don’t need to look at the national numbers, you can just think if you, your friends and your colleagues use the app you’ve got an early warning system: here comes the virus.

Dr Sarah Jarvis



Dr Sarah Jarvis: ‘If you receive an alert, the app will advise you to self-isolate’

What do I do if I get an alert to say I’ve been in close contact with someone with coronavirus?
SJ: If you receive an alert, the app will advise you to self-isolate. If you then develop symptoms, and test positive, the app will anonymously notify anyone you’ve been in contact with.

What are the benefits of this contact-tracing solution over previous methods?
AK: It’s beneficial because you don’t have to ring anyone, you don’t have to go online and search for anything – once you’ve downloaded it, it’s there on your phone. It’s so much more than just contact tracing. It helps alleviate some of your concerns – eg, it has a symptom checker so if you’re worried that you may be having coronavirus symptoms and you don’t want to ring 119 to get a free coronavirus test, or face a queue of other people doing the same thing at a test centre, you can put your symptoms into the app and it will tell you whether there’s a chance you have coronavirus and you need a test. It will automatically direct you to a test-booking website. It’s really user friendly.

SJ: I was highly critical of the previous app, but all my questions and concerns have been addressed. That is why I agreed to be a spokesperson for Test and Trace.

What would you say to people who don’t think it will make a difference, or who are worried about their data privacy?
AK: When I was told I was going to be able to have a look at this around three days before the public, I was nervous about downloading it on my phone because I was worried about data privacy. I was also worried that in the past the old versions had not been working, so I must admit I thought: “Is this just not going to go anywhere?” Lots of people have similar concerns. However, the app protects privacy as it uses Apple and Google’s proven Bluetooth technology, designed so that nobody will know who or where you are. App users are anonymous and the app cannot be used to track your location for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing. The only personal information it requires is the first half of your postcode, not even the second half, that’s it. The more people who download it, the more effective it will be. I completely understand, there’s been a number of false starts and some people may have lost their faith, but we have got to get behind the app for it to work.

The NHS Covid-19 app open and in use on an Android mobile phone indicating that the app is active and scanning via bluetooth. The app was launched on 24 September 2020 to be used as a contact tracing app in England and Wales, UK



The only personal information the app requires is the first part of your postcode, and no data leaves your phone. Photograph: Katharina Brandt/Alamy

And is my data completely safe? Will it be sold to advertisers?
CF: The data about contacts are entirely private, you have complete control over them, you can turn on and off contact tracing. That’s private information that stays on your phone. No data leaves your phone.

What about my phone battery?
AK: It works by Bluetooth technology on your phone. I was worried that it would drain my battery because I am always on the phone talking to people, but it doesn’t.

What would you say to people who say we can’t do this indefinitely and life needs to return to normal?
CF: Life isn’t going to get back to normal if 20% of the population have to continue shielding. The way to get back to as normal as possible is to control the virus. There are 44 vaccines in human trials, five of them in phase three. Phase three is a large trial where you’ve already established the safety of the vaccine and that it elicits an immune response, so it’s really when you vaccinate very large numbers of people to look really closely at the safety of different groups. Let’s not get pessimistic about vaccines. We will have vaccines that work. But it’s a difficult time. Lockdown is incredibly painful. Quarantine and isolation when you test positive or are contact traced is really difficult, but hold on and keep the epidemic down so that we spend a larger proportion of our time being able to get on with life – it’s not indefinite.

Anything to add?
AK: People are worried that they have received a message on their phone alerting them to a possible infection and then it seems to disappear. [These “phantom alerts” are a default privacy notification from either Apple or Google. If you receive one, but do not need to take any action, you will now be sent a follow-up message from the app making this clear.]

This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All together (NHS app) is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, visit: gov.uk/coronavirus


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How to make soda bread – recipe | Felicity Cloake’s masterclass | Food

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If you’re thinking that now is the time to finally come good on that new year’s resolution to start baking your own bread, this loaf, which can be on the table in little more than an hour, is the one to start with, especially if you’re hoping to enlist the help of young children in making it. Popular throughout Ireland, soda bread’s soft and crumbly crumb is great warm from the oven, but it also makes unbeatable toast.

Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min
Makes 1 loaf

450g coarse wholemeal flour, plus a little extra to dust
50g rolled oats (optional, see step 3)
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp treacle
1 tbsp honey
450ml buttermilk
(see step 2)
1 tbsp butter, to finish

1 The clue is in the name

As the name suggests, soda bread relies on bicarbonate of soda, rather than yeast, as a raising agent, which is why it’s so quick to make – it gets to work as soon as it comes into contact with an acid, and the reaction between the two creates bubbles of gas that expand in the heat of the oven, causing your bread to rise.

2 The acid test

This acid traditionally comes in the form of buttermilk, but if you can’t find that (though it is widely available in supermarkets), use the same amount of milk soured with a tablespoon of lemon juice or even vinegar; the effect will be the same, though the flavour will vary, especially with vinegar. You could even use plain yoghurt instead, though in that case I’d recommend thinning it down with a splash of milk or water first.

Felicity Cloake’s soda bread 02


3 Mix the dry ingredients

Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and put a lightly greased baking tray in there to heat up. Put the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir to combine. If you don’t have oats, replace them with 50g flour; and if you want to use white flour instead, or a combination, feel free (see step 8).

4 Add the buttermilk and sweeteners

Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed (it will probably stick to the bottom of the jug at first, so make sure you incorporate those bits, too), then make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.

Felicity Cloake’s soda bread 03


Pour the buttermilk mixture into the well and use your hands to stir it into the flour. Mix until you have a soft, sticky dough.

5 Mould the loaf

Lightly flour a work surface, then tip out the dough and shape it into a rough round (alternatively, you could use a greased loaf tin, if you prefer). Take the hot baking tray out of the oven, put the loaf on it, then use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross (see step 9) in the top to speed up the baking time.

Felicity Cloake’s soda bread 04


6 Bake the loaf

Put the tray in the oven and bake for between 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it towards the end of the cooking time: it’s done when the crust is hard and golden, and the bread sounds fairly hollow when tapped on the base. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pan or in the microwave.

7 Brush with melted butter

Take the bread out of the oven and immediately brush with the melted butter.

Felicity Cloake’s soda bread 05


Leave to cool a little (soda bread is pretty indigestible while it’s still hot), then cut into slices and tuck in, preferably with copious amounts of butter. Note that this bread doesn’t keep as well as yeasted bread, though it is very good toasted.

8 Variations

If you’re using another type of flour, you may need to reduce the amount of liquid, because wholemeal flour absorbs more than white flour; and if you find the loaf is hard to shape, simply add a little more flour to the dough mix. Ring the changes by adding dried fruit, olives, caramelised onions, crumbled cheese, seeds or chopped woody herbs such as rosemary.

9 The sign of the cross

As well as helping it bake faster, the cross cut into the top of the loaf is also said to bless it against evil forces, or to let out the devil, depending on who you listen to. I was taught to prick each corner, too, to let the fairies out, though whether or not you choose to do so probably depends on your attitude to eating fairies.


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