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!

Our spirit lives on

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Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death.  Next year will mark another one and the next, the following one; and so on. According to Eastern tradition, one year marks an important point in the grieving process.  It signals the changes in a person after a year of reflection, grieving and changes. So what have I learnt about myself in this year?

First, was that my father’s life is still a positive force, alive and inspiring to me and to those that knew him.  It is said that the dead give the living the gift of their lives.  My father’s life was that of absolute determination in the face of the most daunting obstacles and winning despite them.  I felt ready to move on and become a real adult by trying to emulate my father’s courage, his honesty and earnestness.  These were his real gifts to me. For the first time, I felt truly grateful to have had him as my father.

This morning I wrote a haiku to mark this occasion.

I saw the sunrise today,
Wrote my father in his diary,
Simple, direct and honest- like the man.

 

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!

The power of saying ‘I don’t know’

There is much we don’t know about.  While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about.  It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things.  Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.

The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart.  I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates.  So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything.  Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know?  I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher.  It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid.  There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude.  It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!

It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge.  Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else.  Most people are keen to talk and tell you something.  So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen.  It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues.  Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality.  But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life!  Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.

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.

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?