How to Live Like a Poet This Year

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A new year is upon us, and it is time again to choose a word that will serve as a guide for living more intentionally throughout the next twelve months. I’ve long given up resolutions and instead dedicate each new year to a particular word or phrase to be sprinkled liberally through all facets of life. My past words have included simplicity, joy and wisdom. For me, 2023 is the year of living poetically. 

In his 1929 book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” The quote always grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me into remembering that every day, every moment, is a gift filled with beauty that is mine for the taking. 

Living a poetic life requires a shift in how we move through the world, in what and how we choose to see, speak, act and think. Sitting on the cusp of a new year, we have no idea what adventures and challenges await us. Like years past, there are likely to be moments of monotony, heartache, rage and splendor. Some of us will sleepwalk through it all barely allowing it to register in our souls and reaching the end of our year, and eventually our life, wondering how we missed it. Here are ten ways to poetically call forth the riches of daily life, as Rilke so eloquently urged. 

  1. Notice the sublime. That which is sublime possesses awe-inspiring excellence, grandeur and beauty. In literature, sublimity refers to elevated language that is said to strike the listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt. The sublime exists in everyday moments, the quiet of the morning, the notes of a song, a juicy grape, and the hand of a friend.
  2. Stay present. In his poem, What We Need is Here, Wendall Berry wrote, “And we pray, not for a new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.” We just need to pay attention, stay mindful and be present. 
  3. Observe nature. Poetry is often filled with images of nature’s magnificence. It seems impossible to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird or see an orange-pink sunrise and not be somehow moved. Lord Byron wrote, “by the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less but Nature more.”
  4. Seek solitude. Emily Dickinson was a poet who understood the benefits of being alone. In her poem There is a solitude of space, she explores the idea of being alone even amongst a sea of humanity. It is only in occasional solitude that we can sort out our thoughts and disappear into them without the influence of a noisy world.
  5. Read poetry. One of the surest ways to live more poetically is to read more poetry. Keep a book of poetry on your nightstand and read a poem every morning or evening. If you prefer to read poetry online, sign up for a poem-a-day at https://poets.org or read the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day at https://www.poetryfoundation.org. 
  6. Write poetry. Thirty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the late poet Robert Bly who told me he instituted the routine of writing a poem every single morning before getting out of bed, drastically changing his life for the better. In 1997, he published the book Morning Poems. I can think of nothing that would help us live more poetically than actually writing poetry.
  7. Follow your dreams. Living poetically means living deeply and fully. We are reminded of this in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. In it she poses a burning question we might constantly ask ourselves, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
  8. Explore your senses. We experience life through our senses ~ sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Poets lean into these senses to create strong images. Walt Whitman joyfully wrote, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” Maya Angelou wryly appealed to our sense of taste in The Health-Food Diner and William Carlos Williams wrote how the nose knows in Smell! Tuning into our senses will help us live more poetically.
  9. Show gratitude. In the busyness of life, we can take things for granted. In Our Prayer of Thanks, Carl Sandburg thanks God “For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river, our prayer of thanks.” A poetic view of life increases our awe and appreciation for the simplest things in life. 
  10. Create beauty. The Cambridge Dictionary defines poetic as anything that is very beautiful or expresses emotion. Living poetically means elevating our daily life. John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” In how we dress, keep our home, talk to our children, and treat our neighbors, we can add beauty to all we do.

    Even if we never publish, or even write, a single poem, we can live like a poet in every little thing we do from morning to night through each new day of the next twelve months. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote the poetic life  “makes your toenails twinkle.” That seems like a pretty good way to step into the new year. §

See Your Shadow this Winter Solstice

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The Winter Solstice occurs this week. On the shortest day of the year, we cast our longest shadow. I recall a memorable walk I took on the Winter Solstice last December. I was alone, except for the comically exaggerated shadow that playfully followed me.

As my shadow mocked my every move, I felt like Peter Pan, whose shadow was a distinct character in the novel by J.M. Barrie. At its insistence, I finally stopped and addressed the figure that boldly stretched more than fifty feet across the ground as the late afternoon sun hung low in the horizon. My shadow seemed to plead, “Look at me!”

Had I been accompanied by a child or a friend with my sense of wonder, I imagine I would have waved, jumped, danced and laughed out loud at my circus-like shadow. Instead, I just moved my arms and legs a little and giggled, hoping no one was watching.

When we look at our shadows, we don’t see facial features or skin color. We don’t see signs of status or wealth. We don’t see talents or insecurities, good luck or misfortune, successes or failures. We only see the shape of a human body, a vessel that carries us through every moment of our lives.

Despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than different. Line us all up shoulder-to-shoulder around this big blue marble and deep in our shadows we all want the same things ~ health and happiness, equality and respect, love and peace.

Psychology has much to say about the shadow self. My limited understanding is that it’s the darker side of our personality containing parts of ourselves we might not even be aware of or want to admit to if we do. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

The dark shadow I cast on that sunny winter day didn’t reveal all the things I try to hide about myself, traits I’m convinced are negative, undesirable and embarrassing. The truth is our shadow self is what makes us unique, and understanding it helps us lead a more authentic life. As Wendy said to Peter Pan, “After all, one can’t leave his shadow lying about and not miss it sooner or later, don’t you agree?”

The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of brighter days. It comes at the end of another year filled with stunning moments that should make us re-evaluate who we really are, what we really stand for, and how we really want to live. When the Winter Solstice arrives on Wednesday, I will take my daily walk along an open field. Without any concern for who is watching, my shadow and I will joyfully turn a very sloppy cartwheel. §

“The shadows are just as important as the light. ” 
~ Charlotte Bronte, English Novelist

It’s a Wonderful Life, Not a Perfect One

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicIn the final heartwarming scene of one of the most beloved holiday films, George Bailey, beaming with happiness and surrounded by family and friends, realizes it’s a wonderful life. If you only saw that last scene of the movie, you would miss the part where George, desperate and overwrought, stands on the edge of an icy bridge contemplating ending it all on Christmas Eve. Things aren’t always what they seem, especially during the holidays.

The film itself has a backstory that proves life doesn’t often come wrapped in a big shiny bow. The movie is based on a short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern spent years trying to sell his story with no success. Eventually RKO Pictures bought the rights, but the project languished for a few more years. Producer and director Frank Capra came on board but had trouble finding stars who wanted to be in the movie. Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart ultimately took on the roles of Mary and George Bailey.

The film was released in December of 1946 with mixed reviews. It was considered a box-office flop that failed to recoup its cost of production. The film forced Capra to close his studio and nearly ended his directing career. To make matters worse, the Federal Bureau of Investigations flagged the film as Communist propaganda citing an unflattering portrayal of big-city bankers. 

The film did garner five Academy Award nominations, but it didn’t win any. The movie remained relatively obscure until it began airing on television during the holidays in the 70s. It wasn’t until 1990 that The Library of Congress deemed the 45-year-old film culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.

I look forward to watching It’s a Wonderful Life with a box of tissues every holiday season, but I have to remind myself it’s only a movie. The picture-perfect New England town of Bedford Falls doesn’t exist. The movie was filmed in the summer on a backlot studio in the San Fernando Valley. The glistening snow was made from painted cornflakes that created its own share of filming issues.

The movie always reminds me it really is a wonderful life, but it isn’t perfect, particularly at this time of year. For some, jam-packed calendars are filled with extra demands of cooking, shopping, baking, decorating, cleaning, entertaining and traveling. For others, the season can be a lonely time that renews feelings of grief and sadness. Financial concerns are often magnified, and the era of COVID-19 brings a whole new set of worries.

Holiday movies, music, advertising, social media and our own expectations can set us up for some not so wonderful feelings like sadness, loneliness, stress and anxiety. It’s important to put the holidays in perspective and protect our mental health by being realistic, taking good care of ourselves, and reaching out for help if we need it.

I don’t know if you believe in angels, but George Bailey had one. Clarence Odbody was a goofy AS2 (Angel Second Class) who after 200 years had yet to earn his wings. This most unlikely angel showed George the value and beauty of his life. He gave George his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with this inscription, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!” §

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
~ Clarence to George in It’s a Wonderful Life

This video will inspire you to rest this season

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At the end of a recent essay titled Resting Like the Fallow Fields, I wrote that I was going to heed my own advice and rest a little more during the month of December. To that end, I’m lessening my load by only writing my Sunday columns this month; however, something special happened this week that I just had to share with my subscribers.  

I was enjoying one of my favorite Youtube channels, Inspired by Nikki, when I saw my own words come to life. Nikki Moreno is a romantic and creative soul who has become a long-distance friend. We are often so in sync with our ideas that we are able to share each other’s content. Nikki reminds me of myself when I was a young mother, devoted to bringing calm and order to home and life. She does it beautifully. 

In this video, Nikki puts my words to music and her own soothing voice. I know you will enjoy it. You can find Inspired by Nikki on YouTube and Patreon. Please click on the link below to watch Nikki’s video featuring parts of my essay, Resting Like the Fallow Fields

Swans Inspire Simplicity and Joy

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicAfter writing for the Southern Illinoisan for more than a year, my editor recently allowed me to change the name of my column to The Simple Swan, the name of this blog I started writing several years ago. I have always had an affinity for swans as featured in some of my favorite literature, and I have grown to be more and more inspired by them.

My earliest encounter with storybook swans was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling and its powerful message of transformation, acceptance, kindness and love. Who can resist the idea that no matter how awkward and rejected we feel, deep down we are all beautiful swans?

Another favorite novel of mine is E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan. It tells the sweet story of Louis, a trumpeter swan cleverly named for Louis Armstrong, who learns several lessons on his journey first to self-love and eventually to true love with a swan named Serena.

My love for swans was sealed when I was a little girl taking dance lessons. My mother took my sisters and me to a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The story, music, dancers, costumes and scenery transported me to another world, and I was mesmerized. Ever since, a picture book of Swan Lake has had a place on my bookshelf. It was my love for reading magical books such as these that led me to become a literature teacher.

Seeing real swans in nature only increases their fictional dreaminess for me. With their gracefully elongated necks, strong bodies and regal composure, I’m struck by their natural poise and positivity. They might be paddling like crazy just below the surface, but they always appear to be peacefully gliding through life.

When my own children reached the same age as the eighth graders I taught, I had a daily routine of stopping by a park on the way home from school. For fifteen minutes or so, I would sit in my car and watch the swans serenely float on the small lake. In the midst of hectic days blessed by teenagers at work and home, the swans put a smile on my face and reminded me how I wanted to show up in the world as a teacher, parent and human being.

Especially now that I am sixty, swans seem to possess a wise and mature sense of joy. They aren’t showy like peacocks or flighty like chickadees. They rarely flap about like chickens with their heads cut off. Though they are beautiful, it is a deeper quality of simplicity and bliss that I find so admirable and want to capture in my writing and in my life. Swans remind me we live in a truly magical and enchanting world. How can we be anything but happy? §

“It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most essential things are invisible to the eye.”
~ Hans Christian Andersen, in The Ugly Duckling

Note ~ Thank you for reading something cheerful today! Sunday blog posts are also published in the Southern Illinoisan. Wednesday blog posts are a bit more personal and will return in January. Wishing you a holly jolly December!
❤ Alicia

Rest Like the Fallow Fields

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicHere in America’s Heartland the fields lie fallow now. Barren squares stretch out like a patchwork quilt gently covering the land while it settles in for a well-deserved nap. The scene makes me want to snuggle under a cozy blanket and enjoy the time of year when nature encourages us to rest.

Fallow periods are traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of the land. Leaving a field inactive for a time allows the soil to recover, restore and rebalance itself. You see, the land becomes depleted and unproductive if if isn’t given a chance to rest.

Can you relate? What if we took a cue from nature and thought of this season of the year as a natural time to recover, restore and rebalance ourselves? I know, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is often the busiest time of the year.

Maybe you’re in a season of life when relaxing seems impossible. A stressful job, child-rearing, caregiving and other challenges can be exhausting. Keeping up with the daily news can be taxing. Even fun-filled celebrations can leave us feeling worn out. All the more reason to rest. Writer Pico Iyer said, “It is precisely those who are busiest who most need to give themselves a break.”

My husband is the most steady and calm, yet efficient and productive person I know. He manages to get everything done and more, but he’s the first one to suggest we stop and chill. It’s no surprise his favorite Christmas carol is Silent Night. Like my laid-back husband, the hymn hushes and reminds, “All is calm. All is bright.”

Rather than waiting until the hustle of the holidays is over, let’s give ourselves the gift of rest now, when we really need it. Here are ten ways we can follow the fallow fields, even if just for a few minutes each day.

  1. Be still. Being busy isn’t necessarily being productive. Sit in complete stillness a few minutes every day to let your body and mind recharge.
  2. Stay home. Sometimes we stay on the go out of habit or fear of being bored. Be it ever so humble, home should be our happy place.
  3. Renew your spirit. Read, pray, sing, create. Do more of whatever renews your soul.
  4. Turn down the noise. Do what you can to quiet your surroundings. Unplug at least once a day and experience total silence.
  5. Say no. We aren’t obliged to say yes to every invitation or request. Graciously decline an avoidable situation that’s likely to be more draining than fulfilling.
  6. Eat well. When a field lies fallow, the soil regains nutrients. Be sure to consume healthy foods to replenish your own nutrition.
  7. Take a walk outdoors. Not only is walking good exercise, the crisp air is a great way to clear the head.
  8. Practice self-care. Schedule a massage, a haircut, a manicure or try some at home spa treatments. Take time to take care of yourself.
  9. Go to bed early. Sleep research shows human beings have a natural circadian rhythm that mimics the sun’s rising and setting. Shorter, darker days are a good excuse to get more sleep.
  10. Observe nature. Take a closer look at nature. Appreciate its beauty. Be inspired by its simplicity. Learn from its wisdom. §

“It is well to lie fallow for a while.”
~ Martin Farquhar Tupper, English writer and poet 1810-1889

Note to Subscribers ~ I am heeding my own advice and getting a little more rest the next few weeks. I will still post my weekly newspaper column here on Sundays, but there will be no Wednesday posts until the new year. I’m excited about my writing goals for 2023. Thank you for joining me. I wish you a holiday season filled with peace and joy! ❤ Alicia

Morning Poem Assuages Morning News

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Like many of you, I begin my day with the morning news. I want to stay informed, so like any unpleasant task, I prefer to just get it over with. I do find reading the news, rather than turning on the television, less of an auditory and visual assault on my senses. One morning this week, I came across the word war so many times, I unconsciously began reciting a favorite poem…

Hug O’ War
by Shel Silverstein

I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins

The poem’s hopeful message made me smile while I processed the woeful news of the day. I laughed out loud at the thought of Republicans and Democrats rolling around on the floor with world leaders in a giant tickle fight. It affected my mood in such a positive way that I now have a new morning routine. First the news, then the Wordle, then a poem. Like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, a beautiful poem tempers the distastefulness of the news, and helps me start my day in the most delightful way. §

“Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act,
a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.”
~ Edward Hirsch

Celebrate World Kindness Day

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Have you noticed a little more kindness in the air this week? I hope so. Sunday was World Kindness Day, a day that has been celebrated on November 13 since 1998. Initiated by an international coalition, the goal was to create a day that would help raise awareness of kindness as a unifying power between people everywhere.

Kindness may seem a vague concept, too simple to hold much sway, but I think it could be the simple solution to most of life’s problems.  According to MentalFlow.com, here are five positive side effects of kindness ~

  1. A Healthier Heart ~ Kindness creates emotional warmth and produces oxytocin in the brain and body. Nitric oxide is released and expands the blood vessels, which helps in lowering blood pressure.
  2. Better Relationships ~ Kindness helps to reduce the emotional barriers between two people and allows people to be more open and bonded with each other.
  3. More Joy ~ Kindness increases happiness by elevating levels of dopamine in our brain, which helps in lifting our spirits.
  4. Anti-Aging Benefits ~ Oxytocin also helps in slowing down the aging process by reducing high levels of free radicals and inflation in the cardiovascular system.
  5. Kindness is Contagious ~ Acts of kindness have a ripple effect that is passed on and inspires more and more people to be kind.

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Of course, like other important holidays such as National Taco Day and National Kitten Day, we don’t want the celebration to last just 24 hours. We can keep the kindness going by setting a personal intention to perform at least three random acts of kindness each and every day.

Here are a few random acts of kindness to get us started ~

  1. Say hello.
  2. Let someone go first.
  3. Help someone in need.
  4. Share what you have.
  5. Stop for a chat.
  6. Offer a sincere compliment.
  7. Listen.
  8. Check on a friend.
  9. Hold the door.
  10. Give a hug.
  11. Clean up a mess you didn’t make.
  12. Use a nice tone of voice.
  13. Be patient.
  14. Pick up trash.
  15. Mail a greeting card to someone.
  16. Say please and thank you.
  17. Make a donation.
  18. Take the high road.
  19. Read to a child.
  20. Do someone a big favor. §

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
~ Dalai Lama

Late-Blooming Roses ~ Accepting Joy as it Appears

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My rose bushes disappointed this year. I waited all summer for them to explode into a riotous celebration of yellow, but they never did. I watered them, fed them, sprayed them, pruned them, and pleaded with them, but throughout the hot dry summer, they only produced a few wimpy flowers.

By summer’s end I’d stopped paying attention to the leggy bushes and never even got around to cutting them back this fall. Halloween came and went, and the calendar turned to November. Imagine my surprise when, without any help or encouragement from me, the bushes suddenly produced a bounty of beautiful yellow roses!

At first, I admit to being slightly annoyed. “Oh, great, now you decide to bloom.” And then it dawned on me those roses might be teaching me a few things. Stop trying so hard. Good things take time. You’re not in control. Beauty is spontaneous. Stay present. Be open to joy whenever it appears.

I rejoiced in the late-blooming roses for a couple of weeks as I watched an abundance of sweet yellow buds slowly unfurl into big silky soft flowers. The prolific rose bushes looked so odd surrounded by bare trees and covered in crispy brown leaves. Alas, it seemed our unusually warm weather had come to an end, and with a forecast of snow flurries, I cut the roses and took them inside.

As any flower-lover knows, the process of arranging them is part of the delight. I set the roses by the kitchen sink, carefully removed excess leaves, and delicately cut each stem to the right height. It was a ritual I performed slowly and mindfully, knowing it would be the last time for many months.  As I placed the roses in vases of water, I couldn’t help but thank them and apologize for my impatience, my pushiness, and my lack of faith.

I ceremoniously set a vase in the living room where a shaft of autumn light came through the window. My curious kitten hopped on the table and pressed his heart-shaped nose into the yellow flowers. “Yes, Mr. Darcy, you’re right. Stop and smell the roses, especially when you least expect them.” §

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“The earth laughs in flowers.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

10 Reasons I Love the Great British Bake Off (and I don’t even bake)

Copy of Copy of Copy of cheerful graphicThe Great British Bake Off is now in its 13th year, and I’ve been a fan from the start. In case you aren’t familiar with the show, you can catch it on Netflix where new episodes drop on Fridays. Each new season begins with twelve amateur bakers from Great Britain. Every weekend, they compete in three challenges. At the end of each show, one contestant is named Star Baker, and another is sadly sent home. At the end of the season, one of the four remaining bakers is declared the winner. So why do I, and millions of others, love the Great British Bake Off? Here are ten reasons, and not one of them has to do with dessert. 

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  1. Happy Colors ~ The show is filmed during the summer in an outdoor tent filled with simple and bright candy colors. Inside the tent there is an abundance of colorful bunting, sky blue refrigerators, and the infamous blue gingham tablecloths. Even the contestants, hosts, and judges wear colorful clothing. 
  2. Friendly Contestants ~ Unlike most reality shows, the contestants on the GBBO are kind and supportive to one another. We watch their friendships grow through the season and see their genuine sadness when one of them is chosen to go home. It’s just so nice to watch people being nice.
  3. Kind Mentors ~ Not only are the contestants friendly, so are the hosts. The current hosts, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, never demean, yell, or throw things like chefs we’ve seen on other cooking shows. If Paul Hollywood is particularly impressed with a contestant’s bake, he might give a firm handshake and wink one of his twinkling blue eyes.  
  4. Inspiring Creativity ~ Even though I don’t bake, I am always inspired by the contestants’ creativity. The weekly show-stopper competition results in amazing displays of baked goods fit for a grand party or special event. Even if it’s a baking fail, the creative effort is appreciated. 
  5. No Prize Money ~ One of the most delightful aspects of the show is that the grand prize is flowers and a simple cake plate. There is no prize money to bring out greedy, unsportsmanlike conduct. These amateur bakers have found a passion they love that has little to do with money. 
  6. Funny Hosts – The show’s hosts add slapstick humor, silly puns, and double entendres. The current hosts are Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas. They open the show with a corny comedy sketch like the one featuring Luke Piewalker and Princess Layercake a long time ago in a tent far, far away. Their pie crust was a little on the dark side. Ba-dum-dum.
  7. British Accents ~ Let’s be honest, it’s fun to listen to folks from across the pond. In addition to their accents, we learn a bit of slang like crack-on, chuffed, gutted, and innit. We also learn biscuits are cookies, pudding is dessert, and a soggy bottom is not a good thing. 
  8. Lighthearted ~ I usually find myself watching the latest episode of GBBO when I need a little pick-me-up. Unlike most television shows, it is innocent, lighthearted, and literally as sweet as pie.
  9. Nature ~ Since the show takes place in an outdoor tent, the show frequently cuts away to scenes of nature in the English countryside. Butterflies, bunnies, wildflowers, and blue skies add to the show’s playful and happy branding. 
  10. Memories with Mom ~ The number one reason I love the show is because of memories of watching it with my mom. When it came to television, we generally had nothing in common, so I was surprised when she liked the show. Although I’d seen them all before, we binge-watched eleven seasons together during the Covid pandemic. I miss watching new episodes without her now, but I can still hear her comments, which always make me smile. §

“On your marks, get set, bake!”
~ The Great British Bake Off