Planning food during a pandemic

In the days leading up to the COVID19 pandemic, photos of queues of people trying to buy food and that of empty shelves in supermarkets ( for some unknown reason toilet paper and pasta have been very popular!) have become the norm for a modern society used to having everything at the click of a finger (or a click on your computer screen). It is hard to get even delivery slots for food if you don’t want to shop in store.

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I saw this during early March when the panic buying had just started
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Within a few days, shelves were beginning to look like this!

I was also swept away by the societal urge or rather the herd tendency to stock up on food, although probably my shopping was nothing compared to the people who bought up shelves of toilet paper and even fought and got arrested over that.  I found that I had bought some extra onions and potatoes but its not too much of a problem to eat them.  Even then I have thought of some ways I could prevent myself from panic buying potatoes and onions or anything else.

  1. Make a food plan for each day and a grocery plan for the week: Write down a possible menu plan and what ingredients you may need. It is not always possible to find everything you need, so you have to be flexible about this.  Check if you really need to stock up a month’s supply of toilet paper or that you are a good enough baker if you are buying so much baker’s flour.  Food has limited shelf life and buying too much means you might end up having to throw it at the end.  There is a viral video of a man who stored hoarded items on top of his kitchen units, in the hallway, toilet and everywhere possible- creating trip hazards in the house and possibly, fire risks.  This also means that someone else didn’t get to have it- this is also selfish behaviour.
  2. If you really can’t find something, look up smaller stores: Many so-called ethnic or speciality shops have stocks of things not available in the supermarkets.  The last time, I looked they had toilet paper, pasta, bread flour and everything else- without the queues. Shopping at smaller stores helps them to keep going during the tough economic times. So it is a win-win situation.  I also learned some special recipes during my conversations when shopping.
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Smaller independent stores often have enough
  1. Look for long life items: These could be either dried foods such as rice, lentils, beans, etc. but also canned and frozen items.  I’ve no idea why people need so much pasta but I found that I could make many dishes by using brown rice for example- Chinese, India, Mexican, Japanese and Italian. Some fresh foods like onions, garlic, apples, and carrots also keep well for a long time.
  2. Freeze what you don’t need: I have prepared food and cut vegetables that might not keep in the fridge and so I’ve frozen these for quick meals. I have also frozen herbs (I found some on sale or about to be thrown by the shop and reduced).  Even opened canned food that can’t be used straightway can be frozen. I am also freezing milk in batches to use later.
  3. Share buying with neighbours: Buying in bulk will be cheaper and you may find that food shops will prefer larger deliveries, rather than small purchases.  Bigger shared purchases also bring down carbon emissions by reducing numbers of deliveries.  In my building, people have also shared shopping duties for older or ill people.  Many hygiene experts recommend washing hard items like produce, bottles and cartons while cardboard boxes, paper and cloth if left aside for 9 hours or more will kill any lingering virus on them.

There are many guidelines about disinfecting stuff bought from the shops.  But washing with water remains the cheapest and the most effective.  I’ve been washing all hard things like vegetables, bottles and cartons- a good habit anyway.  Research from the US National Institutes of Health found that the COVID19 virus survives for longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces such as door handles, plastic-coated or laminated worktops and other hard surfaces. So it might be a good time to reduce the amount of plastic you have in the home! Of course, with fresh produce that is used immediately, the cooking kills all bacteria and viruses.

The researchers discovered that copper surfaces tended to kill the virus in about four hours.  So I’ve been using all my Indian copper and brass plates.  Coronaviruses can also be inactivated within a minute by disinfecting surfaces with 62-71% alcohol, or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide bleach or household bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite. Higher temperatures and humidity also tend to result in other coronaviruses dying quicker, so if you can, wiping surfaces with hot cloths or using steam cleaner might be more environmentally friendly and even cheaper. On can follow common sense hygiene practices handed down from ages like washing hands and wiping surfaces often, separating raw meat from other foods, cooking and serving to the right temperature. Many religious or cultural practices also require this- Jewish, Hinduism, Islamic, Indian, etc.

Finally the best tip is not look at supermarket queues and avoid social media or news stories about food scarcity- herd mentality makes people scared and buy more than what they need.  It is estimated that in the UK, people have hoarded up £1billion worth of food while some may go hungry while there is enough food and grocery in the supply chain.  Social media and news sometimes stirs up unnecessary fears.  Believe that you will find what you need or become resourceful enough to use what you have! As the Italian writer, Francesca Melandri, who has been under lockdown in Rome for almost three weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak, wrote,

‘First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do.

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.’

(I have not printed her entire article but you can find it here)

Hope springs

‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

I’ve been very sad recently.  My childhood home in India which was locked up, had been burgled. Not satisfied with not finding much there (yes, we were very poor), the thieves then ransacked the place, even ripping apart the mattresses.  Even if a home has been a very humble place, with not many things there, it still has its memories. It was also my first home and a place I always went back to.  I learnt to walk there and play with the children who lived nearby.  Our school was nearby.  So many people came there.  The address is forever etched my heart.  My beloved uncle and my father both passed away there. That place was the centre of my universe for decades until I left but I always came back to it whenever I visited India from the UK. My British born children loved it too.

Then this burglary happened- totally out of the blue. I felt violated myself because my home was so intimately connected to me- it was who I was, it was my body. The mattresses that had been ripped apart lay on the same bed that my father had died.  I was angry and helpless. But there was nothing to be done. When I was praying, the thought came into my head, ‘You need to concentrate on yourself. There is nothing to be done by getting angry or upset’.  And then I read about the people in Australia who had lost everything in the recent bushfires- and precious things like their pets, photographs of their childhood, livelihood, etc.  Tragically some had even died trying to save their homes. I began to feel grateful that such physical evidences of my life were still there- photographs, mementos, and my memories too.  No one had been injured during the burglary.  I heard a woman say about her home being destroyed during the floods in the UK, ‘After all, it is just bricks and mortar.’  And I thought about all those people around the world who had lost homes, left their homes fleeing wars or other disasters, or were even homeless.  Suddenly I began to see a brighter side to everything- and really how lucky I was.

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Black mountain on fire, February 2020 (image: Wikimedia commons, Saritha Balram)

Then today, I saw this- a little tiny shoot of a cactus plant.  Cactus plants are quite difficult to grow at home from seeds but somehow this little thing had managed to sprout. I felt like it was saying to me, ‘Don’t give up hope.’  It is still a long way from becoming a proper cactus plant but I thought this little thing has struggled and found a way to come out of the dark sandy soil, so could I come out my own dark place.

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My tiny cactus plant!

Increasing creativity through mindless drawing

When I was sketching in Venice in 2017, a small crowd gathered around me, watching.  As the crowd grew in size, there was even a person directing people.  At first, I felt very conscious of the people staring at me and then as I suffer from fear of crowds, I started feeling fearful. In an age when people use their smartphones to take selfies and photos, it must seem very archaic and time wasting to sketch.  But recently I discovered that it also helps others to watch people sketching.  There is a South Korean artist, Kim Jung Gi, who draws fantasy art and many people pay to spend hours watching him. It is said to be therapeutic, and induces a feeling of stillness and calm in the viewers.

There is another way that ‘mindless’ drawing can help- this is with increasing creativity.   Just like sleeping on problems and dreams can help with solving problems, using drawing (especially organic shapes) can help with problem solving and increasing creativity.  The Nobel Laureate, polymath, poet, musician, painter and author corrected his texts by doodling over mistakes.  His wooden seal with his initials is also of an organic shape.

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Even when feeling tired, I have found that doodling and drawing can be done when reading is too difficult.  These drawings are no practical use but to me, they are part of my creative self.  I’ve given myself two different rewards each day- when the weather is bad, I draw, and when the weather is good, I go out and take photos.  Sometimes I draw without my glasses and sometimes I use both hands (I’m right handed). It’s always good for me to see what I create and how well I feel after that.

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Organic shapes just joined together
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Who is she? Why is she smiling?Why are her eyes closed shut? I don’t know- she came out of my head after a busy and tiring day. Maybe I’d like to be her!ption
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One of the good weather days when I photographed this spectacular sunset

Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Why I have problems with Konmari methods

The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising.  Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy.  In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill.  Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK).  Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).

So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone.  In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes).  Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die.  When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there.  And it was liberating to be just so.  Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’

Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a  ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’.  Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials?  In the actual Japanese version of the book,  Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy!  But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.

Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding.  The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them.  Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house.  For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons.  Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well?  Anyway, it was my gain.  But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard.  That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy.  There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?

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Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’).  So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop?  Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so?  Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up.  Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.

Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after.  Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly.  But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives.  Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life.  So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system.  Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born.  Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever.  The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,

‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’  (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)

I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself.  The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer.  Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections?  Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.

Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders.  This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful.  I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc.  Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.

So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself?  First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops.  Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire.  I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world).  These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants.  And there are lots of books!  (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was)  I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them.  My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials.  Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time.  There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always.  But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that.  So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!

Lesson from candles: part 2

Earlier I wrote about how I learn something from my altar when I do my prayers.  I have two candles, a little offering of water, and an incense urn along with two vases of greenery.  Watching my candles I relearnt the lesson of ‘slow and steady wins the race’.  One of the candles appears to be in the path of a slight breeze that blows through the gaps of my patio door.  This one splutters everywhere and naturally burns faster than the other one.

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The other one burns steady and lasts much longer. I try to switch positions to avoid one candle looking shorter than the other but the one that started life fast never recovers.

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So the lesson here is start and keep slow and steady.  You cannot make up for the ravages of a fast life later on.  There is something to be said about a life that concentrates on keeping still, rather than trying to out do everyone else. No wonder that someone doing too much suffers from what is called ‘burn out’.

 

The life of a spider

For many weeks, I have been watching a spider in my garden.  There is almost a zen like quality in the way the spider makes its web, busy but methodical.  Then when winds and rain bring the web down, it starts again (I wrote a blog about that).  That spider gave me a lot of hope!

I watched it getting bigger, swaying like a trapeze artist in its web when the wind blew, or (as I imagined), relaxing in its delicate hammock, enjoying the last of the evening sun. In some comical moments, I would imagine it reading a book and I would be envious of its carefree and contained life.  I would water the plants around it, treading carefully so as to disturb it. Once I accidentally touched the web and it scampered off into the cranny of the wall, frightened.

Now I have to confess, I am not a spider lover- I used to be terrified of them. I still think I wouldn’t want to meet another one that I had seen once that was the size of my hand or the tarantula I saw in the Amazon forest.  But this orange-brown one had landed from somewhere, lonely and singular, and I had become its admirer and human friend.

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Then as the days went, while it got bigger, it started staying more and more in the wood of the surrounding wall.  It would come out occasionally and I went once or twice to see how it was doing.  The web started getting more tangled up but it seemed the spider had retired into meditation.

Yesterday as my son and I were clearing up after a thunderstorm, we found it on the decking, dead and dried.  The web had gone too.

I wondered how good it would it would be if humans also lived like that.  Enjoying the days of youth, eating what was local, making and living in a self build home, flourishing and then to die in contentment without leaving a trace.  The perfect minimalist life style!  A life without the complication of wills, money, inheritance, family beds, and pollution and waste.

There is so much I’ve learnt from my spider friend- thank you and farewell!