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).

Cluttered_writer's_table.jpeg
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.

Cluttered_desk_at_the_historic_Harrison_Brothers_Hardware_in_Huntsville,_Alabama,_whose_shelves,_resembling_an_old-time_general_store,_are_equally_crammed_with_an_assortment_of_vintage_as_well_as_LCCN2011634695.tif.jpg
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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_1180.JPG
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.

IMG_1187.JPG
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.

 

Why I don’t need apps to reduce food waste

Recently many apps have been in the news for reducing food waste- it seems in the digital age, we need our smartphones to tell not not waste food and share food.  But food waste is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the past, nothing really went to waste, despite not having fridges or freezers.  In my village, food was cooked fresh and as there were no fridges, it was stored for a few hours. Usually most of it got eaten, if not by us, it was distributed to the rest of the village.  Anything leftover after that was given to the cows, dogs, chickens, ducks and compost heap. I never saw any rotting mounds of food anywhere and generally everyone looked happy and healthy.  Even when we went there for our summer holidays of two months, we put on weight as we were generally malnourished in the city. I have also lived in communes and villages in the UK and have not seen wasted food.

So it seems food waste is an urban problem, which is where these apps come in. I also see many homeless and hungry people in the cities all over the world.  So there are people wasting food while there are people wanting food, similar to how I see there are people with second homes while some have none.  It isn’t an equitable world.

IMG_5190.JPG
We’ve had people sleeping here and foraging food from these rubbish bins

I’ve given to food banks and donated to charities which distribute food to the poor, and helped at soup kitchens which I think is a better way to do things.  Apps don’t really solve the problem of poor people going hungry, they are for the rich. So I think for those of us who have more than enough, there could be ways of reducing our waste.  This could not only help our bank balances but also the environment.  Here are some ways that I have done so-

  1. Using up all bits, i.e. roots to shoots cooking-  Some of my recipes use the broccoli stems, carrot leaves, beetroot leaves, potato skins and stems of greens such as summer greens, cabbage, etc.
  2. Using water left over from boiling pasta and vegetables- these make useful and healthy soup stocks and the pasta water is also very useful for mixing flours for bread and chapati making.
  3. Many preserves and pickles come in olive oil or salted water and these can be re-used.  The sardine or anchovy olive oil can be used with pasta or bread- it makes lovely base for bruschetta.  The salted water or brine can be used in the preparation. I’ve also used up the lemony mixture in the preserved lemons bottle in a chicken bake that had a Moroccan twist.  The vinegar that comes with olives has been used for ‘washing’ lamb that makes the strong smell disappear.
  4. I’ve saved up the fat from cooking bacon and burgers and used those for further cooking.  Sometimes I’ve added the pasta water to the hot pan with the lovely bacon fat and then put that away for freezing. The beauty of this is that the starch in the water soaks the fat away and it makes it quicker to clean.
  5. I use bits of bread to make croutons for soups and spicy mixes to sprinkle over baked potato, cabbage and spinach.  Birds can also have leftover stale bread
  6. Seeds and lentils can be used to make bird feed if you don’t want those.
  7. IMG_2892.jpg
    Spicy Indian preparation with carrot and beetroot leaves, along with bits of broccoli stems and carrots

    IMG_4358.JPG
    Even the stems of the lettuce can be used to grow more!
IMG_4876.JPG
Pasta and vegetable water are always in my fridge and freezer to make soups and bread

Sometimes I’ve used a tiered cooking arrangement that soaks away the fat and cooks food with it.  You see, my way is the lazy way to cook and clean!

IMG_4513.JPG
The fat from the sausage cooks the green below and saves them from being scorched.

I also carry ‘doggy bags’ for uneaten foods at restaurants and events- I’ve been told that much of the food at events gets thrown away after four hours because apparently that is when the food goes off.

Remember the best way to stop food waste is not to have food waste in the first place.

 

 

 

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.

SS and Ma
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.

 

SAR1
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!

SS painting
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!

Living an ecological life with long term illness- part I

I suffer from an incurable debilitating illness which can suddenly cause blood clotting. It has given me five miscarriages and a stroke while also causing tiredness and pain on a daily basis.  You may find I don’t post regularly- this is why.  So I work flexibly from my home and go out only when there are meetings with other colleagues.  While restricting my income and ambitions considerably, in some ways, it has also been a gift.  I’ve had to learn to save money, find ‘easy’ ways of going about daily life and while doing so, I found that I could also be ecological.

For one, before I start, I can’t live a ‘zero waste’ life style- I have waste that can’t be recycled or re-used easily for contamination reasons, for example plastic blister packs with foil backs, bandaging, wipes, etc.  I also need to regularly clean areas such as the bathroom and toilet and throw the wipes.  So here is a photo of a small bag of such items- for scale, I have put the fork next to the bag. This is rubbish that is non organic and can’t be composted that I have collected in one month that will need to be thrown ( I will save the bag for another use once I have thrown the contents).

IMG_4397.JPGBut you might agree that this is a very small amount for a month, right?

Being ill and being ecological are not mutually exclusive- there are many things one can do.  For those who are lucky to be perfectly healthy, these will work even better.  So here are the ideas that I have been using for many years.

  1. Keep your horizontal surfaces clean and clear and get rid of (or store) small items that need constant dusting. This is the quickest way to appear tidy!  I have used a sheep skin duster which I’ve had for about 25 years for this. This duster can be washed using the dishwasher liquid (see below). Some linen scraps are also good for dusting but not for wiping.
  2. I have found that cotton cloths from old clothes, particularly underwear, can be cut up and used for wiping.  Old clean socks are also good for cleaning and you can put your hand inside the sock to get to difficult areas such as window blinds and corners. I never buy kitchen paper, dish cloths or any other kind of cleaning cloths or wipes.
  3. I don’t use wipes for cleaning toilets- I spray tap water using an old spray bottle and then wipe clean with toilet paper which can be flushed away.  Wipes have been known to clog up sewerage systems in London and should not be used. Spray bottles containing water and perhaps a few drops of tea tree oil and lavender are lovely to use and help to combat infection while keeping the area smelling beautifully.
  4. I make my own dish cleaning liquid the lazy way.IMG_4277.JPGThis made by soaking orange or lemon peels in vinegar for about 4-6 weeks and then adding half measure of washing up liquid. This is less expensive than using pure washing up liquid and also smells lovely apart being very effective.  The peels can be used to clean the sink or oven surface and then either composted or thrown- they are quite reduced in mass after all this.
  5. You can tidy up a small areas daily as and when needed– the most used areas get untidier faster.  I tidy up the living/dining areas and kitchen as they are used the most and also tend to hoover the stairs. Then there isn’t a huge big tidy up needed if people turn up. If I see a place that is dusty or untidy, then I dust or tidy it- I don’t have a regular schedule. I find that most of the time, visitors don’t notice anything!
  6. I use an Indian grass broom, Jharu, to clean the floor.  Unless the there are difficult to reach places which necessitate the use of the vacuum cleaner which can be difficult for me to manoeuvre, I use the Jharu.  These can be found in Indian shops (there are ‘Western equivalents’ but not as effective).  IMG_4402.JPG
  7. I haven’t bought bin bags for years, I simply use the bags/packets I get from my grocery shopping to put rubbish as these would have to be thrown anyway.  So, for example, the frozen fish comes in plastic bags which can’t be recycled, so I use them as bin bags.  (For those who ask why I don’t take my own container to the fishmonger, I don’t buy ‘fresh’ fish anymore because they are least fresh. Unless you’ve caught them yourself, most of these so called fresh fish are actually defrosted fish and they start to decompose when displayed at the fishmonger’s shop window. These fresh fish are also more expensive.)  My recycled toilet paper also comes in plastic packaging but I use that plastic as a larger bin bag.
  8. As another example of ‘secondary use‘, I use water left from cleaning other things to use for more cleaning before throwing it.  So if I clean out my dishwashing liquid bottle, then the water from that can be used to clean the sink or washbasin.  Shampoo bottles can be rinsed before recycling and that water used to clean the bathtub.  Rice or lentil water, i.e. water used for cleaning these, can be used to clean low grease items such as the sink or plates.
  9. Don’t be afraid of using the dishwasher- the modern dishwashers are energy and water efficient and can be quicker and better than hand washing.  Some of my utensils that are cast iron or brass hand me downs from my maternal grandmother need to be hand washed and I use the left over hot water from making tea or coffee to wash them.
  10. I buy clothes that don’t need dry-cleaning and even if the label says ‘Dry cleaning’ I will try to use the washing machine on it.  I have spoilt a few clothes, I admit, but by not using the dry cleaners, I have made much of a saving!
  11. I generally use the washing machines at the lowest possible setting for the shortest time– usually about 53 minutes at 30C for clothes and 27 minutes for the dishwasher. Once in awhile, I will put a cup of vinegar and turn on the dishwasher for the highest temperature setting- this gives it a good clean.  You can also do this for the clothes washing machine using a three table spoons of bicarb.
  12. I have a steam cleaner that I use for deep cleaning the bathroom.  This doesn’t need any chemicals and while doing the cleaning, I get the benefit of steaming my face and nose too along with some exercise.
  13. My cleaning equipment is very basic as I can’t lift much and my supplies are limited to Sodium bicarbonate, soda crystals, vinegar, eco-friendly laundry liquid and dish washing liquid.  I do use a small amount of bleach from time to time to disinfect and to clear stains.  To keep the sink pipes clean, put down some bicarbonate and then some vinegar (it will fizz) and then pour down a kettle of hot water.
  14. I don’t follow the advice, ‘If it is brown, flush it down; if it yellow, let it mellow.’ I found that my toilet bowls get stained if pee is left around too long and so I do flush- it is better than having to use bleach later to remove stains.  Dental tablets are excellent for removing limescale from toilets- I chuck couple of these and after half an hour or so, the toilet is free from lime scale.
  15. Finally, remembering that fresh air and sunlight are one of the best germ and insect killers and deodorisers.  Strong can also bleach away stains. Even in winter, I try to ‘air’ and sun the rooms when it is not raining.  Airing also helps to get rid of dust mites on the bed before it is remade.

As a quote attributed to Albert Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made simple, but not any simpler.’  My home is not minimalist– there are things that bring me joy and I keep them. So the tidying and cleaning is made simple but not any simpler so that the joys of seeing and remembering is lost in extreme minimalism.

Too much cleaning can be bad for health too- and not just from the work.  As a BBC report tells us, ‘being too clean is also wrong, because it might help cause asthma and allergies. So is there a balance between keeping obsessively clean and learning to live with the bacteria all around us?’  Quite so, that is the middle way which we can discover for ourselves, for our particular life styles.