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!

Losing and gaining

I depend upon a portfolio of small jobs for my income. I like that diversity of work and also I enjoy each of these.  Its like having a tasting menu, or as the French call it, menu dégustation. Dégustation is the delicate tasting of various foods prepared by the chef- a supreme sensory experience.  That is how I like my work too as a creative person.  So when people ask, ‘What do you do?’, I bring out these five or six different things I do, with much pride as a chef would.

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Yesterday, I heard that one of these jobs that I took such pride in, would be longer be mine in nine months time due to end of the contract (which realistically could have been extended as there was more to do but the person in charge was happy with the state of the project!).  In other words, I was sacked!  I reacted in a typical way which was about feeling rejected, hurt, and humiliated.  I know that I have other income streams to depend upon so I wouldn’t suffer financially.  And if I really wanted to, I could go to the Tribunal to contest this.  But Eric Fromm, the philosopher and author of ‘The Art of Being’, advises against such immediate action or rather reaction.  He asks us to reflect and learn from such painful experiences rather than choosing the easy way of confrontation and anger straightway.  Other philosophers ask us to separate ourselves from our ego (which is always the first to get hurt)

First, consider that time heals.  I remember from the past when such things had happened and I had cried for days. Yet today, those things do not bother me and they certainly did not hinder my progress.  Second, what is the lesson from this?  In some ways, it wasn’t my problem that the person in charge was happy to accept an incomplete piece of work.  Or perhaps, even that they didn’t even see it as incomplete in nine months time.  Maybe I would finish it to my satisfaction.  Being a perfectionist, my immediate reaction was that I had failed in some way.  So again, I realised it was my ego that was crying, not the real me.  I realised how much I have let my work define me. Despite losing this work, I was intact- I could always find more work but what did I achieve by needlessly thinking on about the end of contract?  Fromm says, ‘Modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little.  His feeling and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles.  He is afraid of any crucial social change because any disturbance to the social balance to the him spells chaos or death- if not physical death, the death of his identity.’

Many things that we depend upon for social status such as work, money, power, media presence, etc. are but fleeting.  They might go at any point.  They are indicative of relative happiness where we are comparing ourselves to others, not of absolute happiness.  But if we can become grounded enough to see our true self which is unchanging and unaffected, we can become absolutely happy. Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist monk, uses the analogy of wind, i.e. something that may blow hard and cold, but passes in the end.  He said, ‘Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.’  Am I being a worthy person?  Yes, it hurts when work is elevated so much socially but it will pass.  In the meanwhile, I will get stronger and better.

Lesson on survival

Lately as I have been struggling with work, health and having time for myself.  It seems that life throws things at you one after the other without space for a breathe.  Zen like calmness was eluding me while worrying thoughts criss crossed my mind like the way wheat grass stems are thrashed about in the winds.  Then I saw the spider.  The day before I had been admiring the beautiful silky web it had built, its delicate threads coming together in a perfect octagonal shape.  Now after a day of winds, the threads had become tangled up and the perfect shape was gone.

And yet, the spider wasn’t sitting around moaning about that its beautiful home was gone.  I thought about how humans do that all the time.  Yes, we don’t have the skills to built our houses and we have to employ others and pay them good money to do it.  But the tenacity of the spider was what inspired me.  And how much we humans can learn about patience, dealing with disasters and rebuilding our lives from lowly insects.  You can also learn about reuse and zero waste- the little spider hung her new built home from the remnants of the old web.  I don’t think I will ever look down on the so called ‘lower species’ any more- they seem higher than us humans most times.

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A few minutes later, you can see the amazing web back again, hanging from the remnants of the old one!

PS- that book is fantastic if you want to learn about what amazing structures animals, and insects, and even one celled organisms can ‘build’ and how the instinct to create is part of our DNA that we share with all living things.

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.