This year, I am pleased to say that it was the greenest Christmas I’ve ever done. All the presents were simple and inexpensive or even free, and bought from small shops (as opposed to buying from a large online store which shall remain unnamed!), and wrapped in old paper from previous Christmases or in newspaper (the Guardian does central spreads which are worth using as wrapping paper!). My cards were all homemade using leftover card, ornaments and paints. The food was all home cooked as ever. I made my own cranberry sauce this year- it was extraordinarily simple and very tasty. Finally, my fake Christmas tree and its ornaments – all of which have been going well for the last 16 years!
Every lesson you have learnt about time management, decluttering, managing your work, dealing with people, healthy living and finding happiness boils down to one thing- the choices you make. Whether you decide to spend some time reading, keep a piece of paper, do a particular type of work, the friends you have, your weight and the fun you are having is down to the choices you have made in the past. Buddhism says that if you want to know the future, look at the choices you are making today. And that if you want to change your future, you need to change the choices you are making today- it is as simple as that. However, despite being simple, this can be a daunting and not everyone is ready to throw something away- whether a piece of paper or a friend. But as I have grown older, I think it is getting easier to let go. But if you can do, you have the most powerful tool for living your life as you want- your choices.
This powerful talk by Caroline Myss is worth listening to if you have any doubts or are feeling you need some support in this area. It really helped me.
This follows on from my musings after helping to clear out my parents’ house. There were many things that I realised and I kept on writing notes to myself as I reached certain milestones or achieved a key goal. Most important was how was I feeling? Did I feel good? Did I feel sad? Did I feel ‘lighter’? Did I feel free? Did I feel guilt? Actually as I moved on through the process, I felt all these emotions. One of the worst moments of hat clear-up was finding cheques worth a lot of money, cheques that had not been cashed and now were worthless. How much my mother had saved and scrimped; and yet so much money that was already there had simply wasted away because we hadn’t found them. And the sadness from seeing her pristine and unread books given to her as marriage gifts now being bitten by rats which also had to be thrown out. So from my notes here are some points-
- Fear of deprivation– Some of the stuff my mother was storing, like plastic bags, were not really needed- she had so many of these. Despite feeling angry and frustrated at this, I realised that my mother’s needs to hold on to things stemmed on from her very deprived childhood. I had to be sympathetic and understand where she came from. But there was also a fear that my mother felt that if she let go of these things, she wouldn’t get anymore (again stemming from her childhood). So my solution was to put all the plastic bags in front of her and ask her how many did she really want? Could we get rid of some that were torn or dusty? In the end, slowly, after selecting a few useful ones, my mother let go off most of the bags.
- Delayed action– My mother put things away for another time to do-, so one day she was going to sort out her children’s clothes. In the years that followed, her children grew up and moved away from not only her home but also country. Now that my mother is old, she doesn’t have time. I wondered how much clutter accumulates because one day we are going to tackle it- receipts, clothes, etc, etc. As my parents have grown older and less mobile, the growing clutter was actually becoming dangerous to them in their daily lives. After I explained that to her, she realised that she and we were at a stage in our lives where the things she’d saved up were of no use to either us or her and she was able to let go.
- Achieved function– Each thing that comes into our lives has a function. So the purpose of the envelope is to bring to your a letter or bill. Once that thing is has done its job, then you have to let it go. I have heard that Thoreau used to look at something once and then chuck it if it was of now use. Now in our current age, we can’t just chuck things like that- we need to sort it out as most of our waste is not biodegradable anymore. So we need time to do that and we should but let it go as you can. It is now possible to recycle everything. Give away unused presents. This was the most useful thing I learnt about getting rid of clutter for others.
Last week was half term. It was also the week that my neighbour left her flat, I think, forever. She is 41, with a loving family and two children- aged 18 months and 6 years and dying of cancer. I first came across her, bubbly bouncy and very French. I used to talk to her, waiting for the lift or seeing her somewhere in the building. I remember her being pregnant with her second child, pushing the young baby, and then being a working mother. Then she sort of disappeared. I was busy and sometimes I passed by her door, thinking perhaps she’d left but I never knocked on her door to say hello.
Then one day, a courier left a parcel for me with her. When I came back home, I knocked on her door to get the parcel. The person who opened the door was no longer the bubbly, bouncy woman I had known- a thin, tired woman appeared, barely struggling to get to the door. But again, I didn’t ask. Bizarrely I am ashamed to say, I even thought, perhaps she is on a diet or something (not that she was fat anyway). I thanked her and left with my parcel. But something didn’t feel right. So a couple of days later, I emailed her to ask her if she was okay. Then she told me that she had cancer. Then over the next two years, I began to email her, sending her little gifts or books, things for her children and asking her mother about her. I knew she had an aggressive form of cancer that was spreading fast, so I didn’t knock on her door as I didn’t want her to come to the door. Over the two years, it was like a yo-yo, sometimes she looked good and positive, sometimes thin and tired. I continued to pray for her. I wanted her to win over this terrible disease and I never doubted that she would.
Then two weeks ago, I got this email-
“I went to the oncologist last Friday with my husband and was told that they could no longer offer any treatment. My last chemo did not work and will cause more suffering at this stage to continue with the current or new treatment. I have therefore decided to spend some time in France with my family for now.”
I emailed her to say, I’d like to take a photo with her before she left but she said, “when I come back”. I realised then that she didn’t want her photo taken and also that she was saying good bye. And that all memories don’t need photos. So I emailed her a sketch I made many years ago during of my time working and living in France-
She thanked me and that was it. Last week, when I saw the furniture and removals van, I stopped to ask her husband who was at the door. He said she was resting and they were leaving soon. I wished him well and asked to be in touch. I don’t think I will see her again. But her door, soon with new occupants, will remind me, why we must knock on doors and ask how people are. Ask when things look not quite right, help and encourage people- you never know how short time you have with them.
‘Just do it’ is the phrase used by a well known sports brand but I am using it in a different way. I am using to mean a determination to be happy- to be just happy. I was recently watching a programme about advertising and how advertising creates a gap between yourself, the reality and the image presented (the illusion). We try to buy stuff to try to close this gap. Often we get ourselves into trouble of various sorts, such as financial difficulties or unhealthy mental states. In particular women are more prone to compare themselves to others and make themselves unhappy. So many of the ‘happiness or beauty products’ are aimed at women because it creates a compulsive and everlasting consumer.
I have also been cleaning my house, using the ‘Konmari method‘ which is basically a method of editing your stuff (keeping only stuff that ‘sparks joy’) and keeping them tidily. Out of my dark cupboards, hidden for years, have come out piles of self help books, mountains of clothes, cosmetics, and many things I bought for ‘just in case’ occasions. Looking at them and adding up the costs of buying them, not using them and now having to dispose of them in a responsible way, is costing me more time and money. Why oh why did I buy these things? Perhaps I could have saved some money to pay off the mortgage, perhaps saved some time looking after myself instead of shopping for that perfect thing that would make me happy? Perhaps. Anyway, the feeling was first of disgust at myself and then forgiveness. Perhaps, it was convoluted path I took to get here and some people don’t get here easily. So I have decided not to buy anything more unless it really nourishes my life, not to watch any thing that doesn’t inspire me to do good and not to feel bad about the past. I decided, I am happy as I am- that is it. No more reading about happiness or perfection- I doing it, I am already happy and perfect as I am.
About ten days ago, I went to a funeral of a neighbour. I had designed the ‘Order of service’ booklet which she had left to the last minute. Through doing this, I had learnt about the remarkable life of her husband. I learnt about her life and her children. From knowing nothing about her, apart from greeting her when I met her, I learnt so much about another person. I felt uplifted by this experience.
Unknown to me, she had mentioned to many of other neighbours who had come to give their condolences that I had helped her so much. So couple of days ago, when I needed help to move furniture and sort out some house repairs, I was very grateful to have the help of neighbours. My little act of helping someone had ignited the spirit of help across the block. I regret now that it took a funeral for me to get to know someone and help them but also grateful for the realisation that all it takes for a community spirit to begin is to knock on people’s doors and ask them if they need help. I am now helping another neighbour who is seriously ill. So much of our modern lives are taken up with living just for ourselves or family. Our human family is much bigger. This is our privilege and honour to be part of this human family.
My neighbour accepted a delivery for me when I was out. When I went to collect it, I was shocked at her appearance- she had lost a lot of weight and looked very gaunt. Not sure of anything, I mumbled thanks and left. But it bothered me that I hadn’t asked. She was a bubbly young French lady, with two small children and her appearance and behaviour were totally out of character.
Then a week later, while shopping, I met another neighbour and asked her if she knew anything. This lady told me that the French lady had cancer which had spread. It all made sense to me now- why I always saw her mother ferrying the children to school, not her; and her appearance. I felt deeply ashamed that I hadn’t said anything to her, offered to help even. But even then, I did not do anything. But my lack of action kept gnawing at the back of my mind.
Couple of days ago, I put a book for her and one for her children and a card through her letter box. The book I sent was a book that I read when I was ill with a stroke. That very evening, I received an email from her-
Thank you very much for your kind words and your prayers, it means a lot to me.
Ella was delighted with the book and I will read the other one with great care.
As you know, when sickness takes over your life, you see it differently and dream of normal things and I can’t wait to put this ordeal behind me. I am so lucky to have a supportive family who take good care of me and the children.
My treatment is going well but I spend most of the time in bed as I go through chimio every 2 weeks for 3 days… 14 done, 9 to go ! My kids keep me strong.
Thank you again for your kindness and I trust all is well.
I was touched that she had taken the time to thank me despite everything- a sign of a great person. I write this post not to proclaim how great I am but perhaps to say that how stupid I had been. As my other neighbour said me, ‘You don’t need to know the technicalities of someone’s illness but reaching out is enough- it shows you care.’ Secondly, I learnt that you need to reach out as soon as you can. Life can go by too soon and you miss opportunities to show kindness and experience it. You miss chances to be part of the human family.