Following a serious illness, I’ve been recovering- the Covid19 pandemic with its enforced separation, has been a gift although I miss not socialising (as I’m very much an extrovert). But the days of being alone and silent, reading, and resting have been worthwhile. I’ve managed to work, mainly via online platforms but any form of external visits have not happened.
But being at home, doesn’t mean end of creativity. So I’ve been able to do creative things such as writing and crafting. This was a recent creative endeavour during Easter, colouring boiled eggs with natural materials such as turmeric, onion skins, and coffee with layering on bits of leaves, flour paste and skin to create texture and decorations. In times of stress, any bit of creativity will enable healing. I also created a painting out of bits of used ‘Over head transparencies’- remember those? and odds and ends on a bit of discarded empty picture frame (without glass) found on the street. Even frozen water bubbles became an idea for musing about the passage of time. Cooking became a very creative pastime. I realised that anything can be creative if you want to make it so.
Pottering about is an art. Being creative is about being healing yourself- it is a magic!
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.
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.’
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.
Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard
Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
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.
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’.
Remove and hide things seasonally. This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
I have children who always seem to be anxious about something or the other. My older son used to have many anxieties and had counselling. My younger son is now doing his school exams and constantly studying or revising. His only method of relaxing is texting and seeing his friends from time to time. In his anxiety about the exams, he started revising during his school lunch breaks and forgoing eating and meeting his friends in the break or after school. I tried to get him to relax through conversations over dinner and asking him about things other than exams. But he seemed very averse to the whole thing and told me that I didn’t understand ‘modern exams’. I also enrolled him into a service that offers telephone counselling on anxiety issues but he refused to speak to them. I told him he should join some local sports which would help him with anxiety issues.
Talking about this situation with a friend over lunch, it struck me that I was asking my son to do things I didn’t do myself. I was constantly talking about work or working all the time without breaks, I didn’t meet up with friends regularly enough and never did any sports myself. I spent many sleepless nights due to anxiety over various things (last night I slept for about three hours!). My two children were only reflecting the anxiety I felt myself and were modelling themselves over me. But what a terrible role model I was. Social media has made our lives difficult when we see people being successful and earning money, having millions of followers and having public profiles. Although I don’t think anyone tries to become like these lucky people (and they are lucky); we also want to achieve smaller victories in our lives. But what if we just tried to be happy and not ambitious?
I have just started re-reading the ‘One straw revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a scientist turned farmer who started a farming revolution by doing nothing. He was laughed at and ignored for over 25 years until people noticed that he was growing far more crops that way using no insecticide, no fertilisers, tillage and no ‘wasteful effort’. This morning as it turned 5-00am and the skies became light, I started reading the book after having failed to sleep. In the book, Fukuoka says bluntly, ‘There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile, meaningless effort.’ I realised that we overdo everything- work, thoughts, worries, money, relationships- when we could just relax and be happy. In trying to overdo everything, we get anxious. Realising this at dawn today after a night of no sleep was rather ironic but enlightening. Fukuoka’s terse words reminded me of the movie ‘The fault in our stars’ in which the lead character, Hazel Grace, says that in reality as we die, everything we do dies with us. Though again quite a sobering thought, it really means that we are not that important in the scheme of the universe. If we just let go of our own importance, relaxed and became happy without trying to accomplish and over achieve, we would be happier beings.
So this morning, I tried some ‘no or little work’ gardening following the advice of Fukuoka and my son joined in. He then went to a see a friend for lunch and as he left, I joked, ‘I hope you don’t talk about exams!’ He laughed and waved goodbye. In his writing, the Buddhist monk Nichiren advises his follower, a typically hot headed alpha male samurai warrior, Shijo Kingo, ‘Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies. Drink sake only at home with your wife….Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life.’ I had smile as I realise that often I enjoy what is there to suffer and suffer what is there to enjoy! But it is actual so much simpler just to enjoy life.
‘If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present’, Lao Tzu
This is my friend’s five year old. While I was talking to his dad about future projects, our worries and the state of the world, this young man decided to enjoy his surroundings. While the grown-ups’ talk was getting darker and depressive, this child found my Venetian mask and said he would put on a ‘funny face’. As soon as we saw him, we all started to laugh. The present moment was alive again. I realised we were having a dinner party and we weren’t actually enjoying it. We were drawn back to the present, thanks to the intuitive wisdom of a five year old!
This follows on from my musings after helping to clear out my parents’ house. There were many things that I realised and I kept on writing notes to myself as I reached certain milestones or achieved a key goal. Most important was how was I feeling? Did I feel good? Did I feel sad? Did I feel ‘lighter’? Did I feel free? Did I feel guilt? Actually as I moved on through the process, I felt all these emotions. One of the worst moments of hat clear-up was finding cheques worth a lot of money, cheques that had not been cashed and now were worthless. How much my mother had saved and scrimped; and yet so much money that was already there had simply wasted away because we hadn’t found them. And the sadness from seeing her pristine and unread books given to her as marriage gifts now being bitten by rats which also had to be thrown out. So from my notes here are some points-
Fear of deprivation– Some of the stuff my mother was storing, like plastic bags, were not really needed- she had so many of these. Despite feeling angry and frustrated at this, I realised that my mother’s needs to hold on to things stemmed on from her very deprived childhood. I had to be sympathetic and understand where she came from. But there was also a fear that my mother felt that if she let go of these things, she wouldn’t get anymore (again stemming from her childhood). So my solution was to put all the plastic bags in front of her and ask her how many did she really want? Could we get rid of some that were torn or dusty? In the end, slowly, after selecting a few useful ones, my mother let go off most of the bags.
Delayed action– My mother put things away for another time to do-, so one day she was going to sort out her children’s clothes. In the years that followed, her children grew up and moved away from not only her home but also country. Now that my mother is old, she doesn’t have time. I wondered how much clutter accumulates because one day we are going to tackle it- receipts, clothes, etc, etc. As my parents have grown older and less mobile, the growing clutter was actually becoming dangerous to them in their daily lives. After I explained that to her, she realised that she and we were at a stage in our lives where the things she’d saved up were of no use to either us or her and she was able to let go.
Achieved function– Each thing that comes into our lives has a function. So the purpose of the envelope is to bring to your a letter or bill. Once that thing is has done its job, then you have to let it go. I have heard that Thoreau used to look at something once and then chuck it if it was of now use. Now in our current age, we can’t just chuck things like that- we need to sort it out as most of our waste is not biodegradable anymore. So we need time to do that and we should but let it go as you can. It is now possible to recycle everything. Give away unused presents. This was the most useful thing I learnt about getting rid of clutter for others.
I have just come back, having spent a couple of weeks decluttering my elderly and disabled parents’ home. One of the triggers for this was watching a Youtube video where someone was describing house clearing after their parent’s death. Don’t get me wrong- I am not wishing for an early death of my parents but this is was a practical necessity as my parents do not have the time and inclination to declutter now. They were brought up in extreme poverty and have got into the habit of extreme saving. They have kept everything from scraps of rags, my school books to letters, just in case, even though they no longer had any use for these. There was a danger from not only vermin infestation and hygiene issues but also the clutter was in the way of them getting about their lives- my mother often fell down as she hit something. I have often helped other people after their deaths to declutter but with my parents, I wanted to do it now to help them to make their lives easier.
The decluttering was physically and mentally very tiring- I had to stop often and rest. It is also very interesting to see what people collect towards the ends of their lives. In the case of the people I had helped in the past, I remember a man with over 40 mirrors and a lady with a room full of scented soaps! In my parents case, while they used only 20% of the space and contents, the rest was full of books and stuff left by my siblings. They also had huge amounts of kitchen paraphernalia and crockery- mostly not needed now as they only used one or two plates. While I was clearing the stuff, I also went through my own therapy. I saw how what my parents had collected was also reflected in my own home- too many books and crockery! Why did I do this? Even though my parents must have influenced me, I cannot blame my parents as I have had enough time to correct this tendency myself. But I found it very interesting to see how my childhood in a cluttered home had led to my own clutter and disorganised home.
Some people react in different ways to their childhood environments- some children grow up to be very organised as an antidote to their parents’ disorganisation. In my and my siblings cases, we had all become very disorganized and cluttered as we grew up. So when I returned home, I started to take a deep look at what was in my home and where. My mother is especially grateful to me as we managed to sell some of the stuff and make some money. However, I am even more grateful to her for letting me do this and also take the decluttering further and clean up my own environment. For those who want to declutter, it might be a useful thing to examine the place they grew up in- it might offer clues as to why you are what you are now. This decluttering of my own place has had effect on my own children- they have naturally begun to give things away and keep their bedrooms tidy- a small trickle effect. This is much better and more effective solution than nagging at your children to be tidy.
Now the clutter of my parents has a very different origin to my own but the effect is the same. My parents wanted to save every scrap of thing that they had because they were poor while I just have too many things. So regardless of the intention, the effect manifests in similar ways. Some people believe that by treating the cause, you will cure the problem. But I believe that just like how you can change your mental attitude by forcing yourself to smile, in a similar way, this problem can be tackled by just removing the clutter. As soon as I moved her stuff outside to the yard and the rooms began to look clear, my mother began to clear up other areas of the house herself. She needed to experience the clarity of the space to get clarity of her intention. It is said that making people clear up their clutter is impossible but I think through this experience, it can be done. In fact, each person comes to the point when it all gets too much and they want someone to help them. It is at this point that this kind of help can be given, not before. My mother wasn’t ready before. The fear of letting go of things is tied to the fear of dying, as people relate their possession of things to their lives. Letting go is very freeing and empowering- that relates to both possessions and people!
Buddhism says that each of our emotions have two sides- positive and negative. While one can’t anything about having emotions and one has to live with them, one can change our reaction and outcome for each emotion. So for example, tranquility can be seen as a positive thing but taken too far, it can make us seem too complacent to be bothered about anything. So as long as we are happy in our little world, we are not concerned about the rest of the humanity. On the other hand, anger is seen as a negative emotion. But it can be a force for good too. It can be justice, it can be a strong concern to change something in ourselves and others.
I mostly live in the world of tranquility- happy to live and let live. But because of this attitude, I have been taken for a ride, people have cheated me and I have been hurt. It takes me a long time to be angry but I have noticed that when I am angry, I get things done. Recently a second hand shop sold me a radio which was defective. I took it back three times and each time the shopkeeper said that it would work after I tuned in at home. This has turned out to be false. The man also spoke to me in a patronising way. So last week, I got really angry- angry at both the man and at myself. But keeping anger bottled up is also negative, so I used that energy to research and get myself a nice radio. I needed to respect myself. No more going back to that shop and I am now back to my world of tranquility again. But I realised that it is good to get angry (but not destructively) once in awhile and get things done!
This is my friend, whom I have known for 25 years. He is sitting there with his card from the Queen to congratulate him on his 100th birthday and the two cups of tea he made, one for me (he will never allow me to make the tea!). (In case you wondered, when people turn 100 in the UK, the Queen sends them a birthday card) When I met him last week, I asked him what he thought was the secret to being 100. Of course, one must allow that unfortunate accidents and illnesses cut short one’s life, so if those are to be discounted, then he said the secret is to living a long life is being ‘open’ to life. We then talked about what being open to life means.
One meaning of being open is about being grateful for what life brings. David’s wife died more than 40 years ago and he still clearly grieves for her but he is grateful to have seen his great grandchildren and his own children and grandchildren leading happy lives. He was a tiny boy when the Great War broke out and he was a young man who served in the RAF in the WWII. After that he settled into a life of domesticity and peace, working for British Council until his retirement. He is grateful for the chances that life gave him. David has been a Buddhist for more than 30 years.
The other meaning of receptive, he said, was about being kind to people. He often tells me the same story (and I pretend I have not heard it before). This is about his friend who hated ‘doctors, Jews and blacks’. Once this friend collapsed outside a pub with a heart attack and he was helped by two young men who probably saved his life. David visited his friend in hospital and found him to be a much changed man. His friend who now had a different opinion of doctors, said, ‘You know what, one of the men who saved me was black!’ To which David responded, ‘Then the other one must have been a Jew!’ Being receptive and open means being kind to all people and free from prejudice.
Over and over again, most old people who have lived a long life, say similar things to me. I can’t remember even one bitter and angry person who has lived a long life, even with the benefit of modern medical care. David’s friend unfortunately was not able to mend his ways, despite being very rich and died early, always complaining and bitter. So there you are, live a long life by being open and receptive!