Why I won’t tell others to declutter

I have a close relative who, until this week, I did not recognise as being depressed.  The signs were all there- habitual untidiness, slowness, procrastination, hoarding and wearing of mismatched and old clothes (some of which were in tatters). She would refuse to visit others and refuse to let others visit her (except me).

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cluttered desk is a sign of cluttered mind?  (credit: wikimedia commons)

I could see her habits were having a detrimental effect on her family and her children.  The hoarding also helped to prevent others visiting her and her husband was complaining that they could not invite others.  Her husband would come home from work and stand, drinking his tea because there nowhere to sit- just stuff everywhere.

I thought it was a simple case of being careless about her appearance.  For many years, I sent her books and videos on decluttering, self improvement, spirituality, household management, and even fashion.  She never read or saw anything I sent her, instead all this piled up on the existing clutter.  I’d cajole her sometimes and sometimes plead with her.  I took her to other people’s homes on other pretexts but I was secretly hoping that she might be inspired by other’s tidiness. Each time I visited, I would tidy up her place, hoping that the change would inspire her to keep it that way.  She would refuse to part with anything, so I would leave these things in a bin bag and pray that after I left she would throw the rubbish away.  Each time after a few days, the place would go back to how it was.  She would explain that she was so busy that she had no time to tidy up but in reality she was at home, not working elsewhere.  Her home was her work.

She resisted any efforts to ‘improve’ her. People would always talk about ‘poor her’ and how she could not manage- and I didn’t like hearing people talk like this about her.  But I felt there was nothing I could do.  Slowly I stopped visiting her, instead I would ring her from time to time.

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Clutter may not be as simple to get rid of by asking questions about sparking joy

This week has been the Mental awareness week in the UK, and I was listening to a young woman on the radio talking about her depression.  One of the things she said that struck a chord with me was that she deliberately wore tattered or mismatched clothes to draw attention to her mental state, i.e. she would use her choice of clothes, instead of words, to show the world what her mind was going through.  I realised that my relative was doing exactly the same. I had failed to understand that and instead in a superficial way, was trying to ‘correct’ her.  I feel extremely ashamed now of what I had been trying to do. Instead of seeing her inner life state (depression), I was viewing it as a superficial problem, which could be solved through ‘logical’ and rational means such as self help videos and books.  I had been extremely insensitive for decades while she had descended into chaos- she wanted help in other ways but not through books and videos.  She had let me into her life perhaps hoping that I would help her but I had failed to even grasp the problem for years. I had failed, not her!

I have now reflected on my own selfishness and ignorance and am no longer going to tell her how to live her life or tidy her home.  Instead, I am hoping to rekindle our friendship and love- and help her in the way she wants. People sometimes confuse grief and depression and I had done that too in this case. In some decluttering books and videos, hoarding is viewed as signs of grief and loss.  People are asked to look at things and ask if they ‘spark joy’ and to let them go if they don’t.  While grief is a natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness.  People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future. In contrast, people who are depressed don’t enjoy anything and find it difficult to be positive about the future.  So for depressed people, nothing sparks joy- this is a useless question to ask of hoarders who are also depressed.  This is what was going on with my relative. This incident also showed me how judgmental and insensitive I was- I am grateful for my relative for helping to reveal this part of my nature to me. After all these years, I realised I needed to work on myself, not her!  She was my mirror but I had not looked properly.

Have you faced a problem like this, trying to help someone close to you?  How did you go about it?  Let me know by commenting.

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Finding treasures when the skies are clear

There are so many blogs, vlogs, books and other guidance on minimalism, money saving, and living simply these days, that it can be hard to distinguish between them and use the different techniques effectively.  Does this thing spark joy? Should I put things in different boxes and if I haven’t used them in six months, then throw them? How should I go about getting a minimalist wardrobe (if I haven’t got a stylist!)?  And how should I prioritise my day?  How can I save money when I want to buy organic goods?

The title of this post comes from an ancient Japanese saying, used by many Buddhist philosophers, ‘When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated’.  It has become a key part of how I try to deal with everyday life, including clutter.  First, the concept is about clearing your mind, so that you can take care of the mundane- the things ‘on the ground’.  When your mind is free of worries and in an expansive state like that of the sky, then you can ‘look down’ and see what the priorities are. These include in order- treasures of the store house, the body, and of the mind.  As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk, says,

‘More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all’.

What he is saying is that the most valuable things are what is in our heart- our intention, followed by our health and matters of our body and lastly, come the accumulation of stuff.  When our heads are clear, we can see instantly which work enables us to accumulate the ‘treasures of the heart’, then tend to our body, and then perhaps to material things.  If we follow this advice, then clearly accumulating stuff is the last thing we ought to do.

So, for instance, for last couple of days, I decided to see some friends and listened to what was going on in their lives.  Although they didn’t reciprocate and ask me what was going on in my life, curiously I wasn’t bothered as normally I would have been.  I was accumulating treasures of the heart which mattered more to me.

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My traditional Indian mortar and pestle 

Another simple thing I’ve been doing over the years for decluttering is the ‘non replacement’ technique. If something breaks down, then I don’t replace it. Usually I find I can manage quite fine without it.  So when my food processor broke down several years ago, I found this piece of stone which was going to be thrown away from an exhibition stand on stone products, and a traditional Indian pestle which my mother had given me.  The pestle had precious childhood memories for me.  I now use this to grind wet spices and herbs- remembering this rhythmical action from my childhood, the sound of the stone against stone, my mother’s hands where my hands are now.  I’ve not bought anything thus saving money (first by not replacing and secondly, by not using electricity); and also the hand pestle is a good way of exercising my arms and getting rid of tension (perhaps like kneading bread). Quite simply, as my experience with the pestle and the piece of stone proves, if you can associate something with the three ‘treasures’, then it is a keeper.

And what of the food processor?  I recycled the electrical part but kept all the other bits as they are quite useful for storing liquids and dry stuff.  One of the parts has become a an unusual plant holder for me.  As the food processor was given to me by my son, again this is part of my three treasures concept- each time, I look at the plant, I remember my son.

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Can you spot the food processor part?  The glass ‘vase’ was part of a tea maker and the tile it sits on was found in a rubbish dump in Caracas, Venezuela!  All marks and chipped bits on the tile tell me stories of the house it once was a part of.

 

How my father’s death made me rethink social media

My father died two months ago and I am still coming to terms with his passing.  There were many personal issues for me which were separate from those of my siblings, and I realise I have to deal with these in my own way and in my own time.  The pain of these thoughts and processes are present with me each moment. Although I am trying to get back to work, immersing myself in new projects and also practising mindfulness, the sad thoughts still manage to infiltrate and I am forced to acknowledge the rawness of that pain.

But what has equally been painful and saddening has been to find out how many ‘false friends’ I had on social media.  Now don’t get me wrong. I have consciously had under 85 friends on Facebook, rooting out people who didn’t seem to respond to my posts, whose posts I didn’t relate to, and who knew me for less than five years.  I thought I could manage to take in the stories and posts of these 85 people and posted thoughtful and relevant comments on their posts.  I have friends from all over the world and it is easy to keep in touch via Facebook this way. I thought I had the perfect system not to get drawn into the dangers of Facebook with my more or less perfect set of friends.  I also chose not to show my birthday, and instead people who remembered would automatically wish me.  This happened and I was reassured. I was also careful not to post many photos of my father who was deteriorating in health and of other family members who might be sensitive to the exposure.

However, when my father died, for the first time I posted a photo of me and him together as a cover photo along with a very short tribute poem for him, and his birth and death dates. I didn’t want to announce, ‘My father is dead’- I felt this was a much better and personal way.  That cover photo got 34 ‘responses’ with 24 ‘likes’, three ‘sad’ and 10 ‘loves’ and 18 comments.  I did not post that photo to get ‘likes’ or ‘loves’- it was my way to inform my ‘friends’ some of whom who had met my father.  What I wanted was some show of genuine love and support for me, even some words of condolences to acknowledge the passing of my father, who was also a very brave man who had helped many.  But I realised that people had only looked at the photo, did not bother to read the poem and clicked on ‘like’ buttons- out of the 34, only 12 had read the poem and realised its significance.  They wrote their condolences and I thanked them- this should have alerted the non-responsive ones but none came forth.  They’d done their like and that was the end of the interaction for them.  I felt sad that for someone who had helped so many, how few remembered his passing. I’m ‘friends’ with one person and her mother on Facebook. When they both wished me happy birthday last month, I wrote a private message to them to say that my father had died (giving them the benefit of doubt in case they hadn’t noticed).  The mother wrote back to say how sorry she was and said that her daughter was too busy to write to me.  Too busy to write eight words, “I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing” ?!  And I had thought these were my genuine friends.

In Japan and many other Buddhist countries, people do not celebrate anything for a year after the passing of a close relative.  As Buddhist, I have decided to have a ‘Facebook fast’ for a year. I have deleted my twitter accounts.  I have posted couple of times on Instagram, photos of the sky which my father used to love as way of remembering him.  I use Linkedin as it is for work and have posted a few things only recently. Now having had the realisation about how false this sense of friendship on Facebook and social media is, I realise why I am not getting any ‘likes’ and not even my so called friends asking me why I haven’t posted for so long.  So I am not just mourning the death of my father but also of friendships and kicking myself for not realising how shallow social media is, no matter how careful you try to be.  I have started talking to people in a more genuine way, listening respectfully and carefully to them. Who knows I might get some genuine friends now?

On taking other people’s junk

Let me say this straightaway, ‘Don’t ever do it!’  

It seems a bit strange to discuss the cons of taking what others have thrown out- in fact, there’s a saying to the effect that someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure. For many years, I took in stuff given by people and also those I found lying in the street.  I believed that it was good manners to not only accept other people’s gifts but also use them, whether they proved to a hindrance to my daily life or not.  I believed that picking what other people had left out on the street, not only could help me (just in case I needed those items suddenly!) but also helped to clean the streets and the environment, giving things a second life.  My way of thinking also came from having been brought up in great poverty and having too little.

For years, these objects lay in my home, in boxes when I moved, and in my new home.  Even if they were difficult to use, I had to use them.  The turning point came when I realised that I had become so tired of taking care of these things, storing them and cleaning them when they are so patently useless.  Of my gifts, I noticed that one of my friends had a knack of giving me stuff that cannot be washed in the dishwasher.  Hand washing is one of thing I hate, having done it from childhood and I love my eco-friendly dishwasher.  Dishwashing is one chore I would be gladly free off.  One gave me flowers and bowls which although very pretty did not last.  So I would be left with utensils (or broken crockery that I thought I would use for arts projects!) that I could not use and empty flower pots. I picked up stuff from the street, stuff I haven’t used at all- books, cutlery, glassware, etc.  Of the things I have picked up, furniture has been my most used item and I have even sold some antique stuff for profit.  But the money made is really negligible.  But the most despicable thing I have done is, giving my own unused stuff to my parents.  Perhaps out of love, they did not say they couldn’t use it and at times, they even tried to, but gave up.  These items have been languishing in their homes for years.

Now my eldest son having left home, and my father having died, I am now finding stuff stored in all corner of my own house and that of my parents. My mother is going to move to a smaller place.  I’ve spent more than two months trying to declutter and stuff keeps coming out of everywhere. I tried selling them on eBay and no one would have them (although they are either brand new, unusual or antique items).  It is also an effort of put items on the website and then keep checking and then having to post them.  I’ve had people who bought the stuff without reading t&c’s and told me that they thought I was going to deliver the item to their home!  Really!  I tried selling them at antique shops- they were interested but always told me to come back when their shop had a little more space. In the end I got tired of ringing them and waiting for them.  They also would give me very little money, which really wasn’t worth the effort.  Then I tried giving them to the charity shops which are also filled to the brim with other people’s junk.  But taking them on public transport to various charities, really tires me- I’ve got an incurable blood disorder which is debilitating.  So I’m now ‘freegling’ stuff which means people can take it away.  Bu that has been a great pain as well.  People promising to turn up at an agreed time and then not doing so.  One person even kept me waiting for two days giving all sorts of improbable excuses.

I now look back at my time over the years, collecting all this stuff (dragging some huge pots or furniture from the street), looking after it, moving it, trying all sorts of creative ways of re-using or up-cycling it, trying to give it to others, selling it, donating it and having failed in all these ways, then storing it.  What a waste of time (and space) that could have been spent more creatively and usefully!  But I still will not litter the streets with my junk, even though I might have picked the junk off the street.  But perhaps something in me has changed. Today, my younger son, who is a hoarder, has given away two boxes of children’s books to someone who was very happy to have them.  He even hoovered and cleaned his room- a teenager doing this is very rare!  I am slowly decluttering- things that have been collected for years will take some time leave.  In Buddhism, the word ‘karma’ means action and also denotes the effects of the action. So I think I may have changed my karma. I have thanked all the junk that came my way for the lesson it taught me and how it has helped changed my ‘poverty karma’. I feel rich and full, without all the junk in my life. I will leave up-cycling, selling, organising and re-using to all those people who get paid for it, have time for it, and do it well.  My life’s work is different although it is still very creative. Also, I’ve made many friends by giving away stuff but disposing of junk does take a lot of time from my work.

As for picking other’s people’s trash, I will never do it again!  So here are some lessons I’ve learnt-

  1. Do not have a junk mentality- do not let junk enter your body and environment in any way- junk food, junk mail or junk stuff.
  2. Do not even consider a junk drawer- if you have stuff that you are unsure about, put it where you and your family will see it everyday.  If the sight irritates you or you haven’t used it for a month, give it away.
  3. Do not give junk to others, especially your family and friends. If you receive what you know is junk, accept it gracefully and then give it away. No one will care or ask about it!
  4. If you have no skills in up-cycling, re-purposing, or DIY, do not ever pick up junk that you think might be useful.
  5. Do not clear other people’s junk- their karma is theirs, they don’t need your meddling.

What are your lessons? Do you agree with me?

Making a good gift for your child leaving for university

The main premise of this blog post is about creating value using beauty, goodness and benefit.  So I was wondering how to make a suitable gift for my son who is leaving home for University.  In the UK, this is the time of departures for Universities, of leaving the nest and so emotionally this will be a sea change for us and him.  I wanted him to have something that was homemade and practical.  It was his birthday as well this month.  So I made him a cook book and a ‘cooking tool kit’.  It was in the form of two things- a cookbook (the software as I call it) and the toolkit (the hardware!)- plates, utensils, tools, etc.  It took me almost a year of planning and making, so here are the steps-

  1. The cookbook– This is actually a photo album that I found in a charity shop.  In it are my cooking, healthy living, and money saving tips, his favourite recipes and photos of him cooking as a baby and child.  I did a cull of photographs which was something I had to do anyway and found a treasure trove of photos that reminded me of the recipes that he has always loved. Of course, coming from mum, the tips and recipes have corny titles! So the making the recipe book also served many other purposes.
  2. The toolkit– Over the year, I ‘retired’ several items from the kitchen and cooked without them, just to get used to not having them.  These included cooking and serving spoons, bowls, pans, etc.  I rang up my son’s University and asked them what facilities he was going to have in his kitchen and based on what he liked to cook, I added some new items- either from charity shops or bought at sales.  Some items had even been picked up from the street!  Some items were repurposed from ready meals such as the china bowls from an environmentally responsible brand that makes chilled food and glass shot glasses from a French yoghurt brand.  These ready made food items were also reduced so this made for a double reduction!  Some items are also ones that came from my University days thirty years ago.  Most items can be used in at least two different ways, for example the wooden tray can be used as a serving tray, a rolling board and a chopping board.  Obviously this took a lot of planning and thought.

IMG_9679These items were then packed into his dad’s old rock n’roll box.  The final toolkit looked like this when packed.  All neatly tidied up into boxes and bags, using tissue and paper and strong bags I had saved up.

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I know that some items might not come back and I am happy with that. Life is about loss.  There are items I haven’t put in, deliberately- I need him to make some effort too which I I know he will.  At least I know I have set him up, food wise!

Let me know if you’ve done similar things for your child when they headed off to University.

Drawing this summer

This summer my boys and I went on a cruise.  Usually cruise ships are the domain of the elderly people and we were in minority. Most of this 600 room ship which sails around Norway was full of elderly people, some with drips and taking medications.  But cruising can be a slow and gentle way of travelling that allows you to relax, take in the views and do something that is healthy for your body and mind.  So it was lovely to see my teenagers who love their smartphones pick up paintbrushes and jigsaw puzzles!  We played games and looked at the amazing scenery that Norway offers.  Here are some snippets of our travel along with my sketches.IMG_8764

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Of course, we met some rude people on that journey but mostly our art also became a way of connecting with the passengers and staff.

What did you do this summer?

How childhood affects us

Lately, I have been thinking about how growing up in India in extreme poverty has made me into what I am.  At one point, I used to be extremely embarrassed by our family’s state- especially as my father who was a very proud man told us never to talk about our lack of money. We wore badly fitting home made clothes out of scraps of materials that my mother found.  Our school clothes were also made at home, while my friends had tailored clothes.  In Delhi’s bitterly cold winter, we went without sweaters- sometimes wearing cast offs, and saving our school sweaters and blazers for school wear and occasions. We went to the local BATA shop where we bought shoes at least two sizes larger and cardboard was inserted so that they would last a bit longer as our feet grew.  My mother went to the street market late in the evening when the sellers were selling off damaged or not so fresh produce at cheaper prices- I still remember her walking slowly in a distinct gait coming back with her shopping, as she has a pronounced limp on one leg. She bought rice, lentils and other goods from the government ‘Ration’ shop. These were of very poor quality.  So I used to take a long time to eat- two three hours sometimes- picking out maggots and weevils from the rice and vegetables.  We could afford fish and egg once a fortnight while chicken and goat meat were a luxury for once a month.  My mother used to write each and every cost in a diary, the most meticulous record of expenses that I have ever seen in my life.  We were severely malnourished though and in particular, despite being inoculated, I had every disease going- from malaria, whooping cough, diphtheria amongst others and nearly died from a severe case of jaundice. I remember being given steroid injections in order to make my muscles grow but evidently they never worked as can be seen today.

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A ‘studio’ photo with my mother as a new born

We (three girls and our parents) lived in one small room surrounded by an open terrace which was baking hot in the summer while the leaking roof and badly fitted doors allowed rainwater to come in during the monsoons.  The kitchen was also outside and my mother used to get wet getting food from there and back.  There was an outside toilet and bathroom with asbestos roof and tin doors that didn’t shut properly.  There was one small table fan.  The day when we got a ‘ceiling fan’ was wonderful- we sat, taking in the cool breeze that came from the top that cooled down the hot room.  Mains water came in intermittently- once in the morning and once in the afternoon (as it still does).  So everything from cleaning dishes to cleaning the rooms had to be done in those times- these were such hive of activity all around the neighbourhood.  We each had a set of one dish, one bowl and one glass- all made of stainless steel and given to us at our ‘annaprashana’ when the baby eats the first solid food at 8 months.  So we had responsibility to wash these after each meal.  When I was 22, we got a fridge and then later, a television- both were welcomed with great joy.  But it was too late to wipe off the humiliation we had suffered at the hands of various children who had visited our home and the relatives who wondered if we would even live to tell the tale, so great was our poverty. My father valued education, so via scholarship and scrapping money together, we went to a Christian school, which had a much better standard of education than the government schools.  My school mates were rich, some even turned up in a car- a rarity in Delhi in the 70’s, so we were the target of many jokes.

 

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I am aged about 9 years old here, with my two sisters- I was the eldest.  We were lucky to have one uncle who worked at Kodak and he would come and test films and cameras on us. Note the clothes made of bits of leftover cloth- my mother was an creative expert in using up all bits. The pyjamas I am wearing got made into a blouse which I still have

The onset of teenage years brought on further humiliation due to poverty.  Not only could we could not afford to buy bras, but also sanitary napkins.  So we used my father’s old dhoti’s which were soft and I fashioned them to be like sanitary napkins that I saw on the packs in the shops.  But my mother made us wash these rags out and re-use them which I found an terrible and embarrassing task, especially if men were around. Further, these home made pads would sometimes pop out of my homemade underwear when playing at the school.  After much pleading, my mother bought us bras when I turned 13 years old.  And when I got into architecture school, I had some money to buy sanitary pads.  But the humiliations continued throughout.  Even richer members of our family did not hold back.  One of my uncles taunted my father, ‘You can’t even feed these girls, how will you pay for their dowries?’ Another rich cousin sexually abused me and my sister- it seemed we were the butt of every humiliation going. My father used a bicycle to get to his school where he taught. Although in the West, cycling is seen as a middle class pursuit, in Delhi where materialism is worshipped, he was taunted by not only his colleagues but also his students.  Recently while cleaning, I found a report that he had been physically assaulted by a colleague in an unprovoked attack. I also clearly remember walking with him with some school boys hurling insults at us. I did not know why they were doing so, but I was afraid. When I grew up, I learnt that these boys were making fun of him because he seemed to have two of each shirt- he bought extra cloth to get two of each items made, thus saving money.  So in those boys’ minds, he was a cheapskate.  How angry I feel now!

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Here I am painting what looks like a queen, using my PVA paints made by my Uncle. My sister and my grand aunt are behind.

But in midst of these dire times, there were also times of joy.  My beloved Uncle, Meshai, who nursed me back to health after my attack of jaundice, encouraged us to paint.  He also took us to see exhibitions of modern art, much of which we couldn’t understand but perhaps absorbed something by osmosis. So each weekend was spent in creative pursuit, using PVA paints made from turmeric (yellow), sindoor (red) and the blue dye used as a whitening agent.  We made secondary colours out of these basic ones- green, purple and orange.  But there was no black paint, which might explain why even today, I don’t use black!  We had old calendars, on the backs of which we painted scenes from imagination and also copied pictures from our school books. He also bought us glitter, glue, cellophane, and shiny paper for our birthdays- again, I love these today as they remind me of my childhood joys. I used to steal the foil from his cigarette packs, smelly though they were, and used them. Waste seeds, lentils, scraps of cloth, paper-everything seemed imbued with the possibility of a rich new creation.  My tendency to layer waste and found materials in my art today, is probably a nod to my past.  The day my Uncle gave us a pair of scissors was a memorable day, but stupidly while playing doctors and nurses, I cut my sister (and deservedly got a good spanking for it!)

I know I have a tendency to hoard which comes from having so little as a child, and so doing ‘Konmari’ or even the ‘Swedish death cleaning’ has been a ritual to exorcise the past.  I also used to store things to give to other people, and it took me many decades to realise that people neither appreciated these gifts nor reciprocated them. So now I give donations straight to the charities that I support. For me, this was personally a big lesson.  To be messy may be my particular tendency but again, some of that comes from having too many bits to deal with.  I used to have a cardboard box in which I stored many images from magazines and old calendars that I got from my Uncle- the foreign magazines were of good quality paper and so, were much desired.  When I grew up, I stored a lot of images- pictures cut out from magazines, photographs and even digital photos. I am now getting rid of much of these photographs that Konmari called ‘Komono’ as a way of getting rid of my inclination to store things that I don’t use.  The box is long gone but instead, I am slowly going through the images in my mind and visiting these places that I saw in some far away moment in time, in a calendar or a diary.  It seems such a miracle to be alive and to be where I am today. My older son suggested I should tell my story, he said, ‘Mum, no one can imagine where you’ve come from when they see you today’.  That is why I wrote this piece. Hope you liked it!