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!

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.

 

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.

The most powerful life tool you have

Every lesson you have learnt about time management, decluttering, managing your work, dealing with people, healthy living and finding happiness boils down to one thing- the choices you make.  Whether you decide to spend some time reading, keep a piece of paper, do a particular type of work, the friends you have, your weight and the fun you are having is down to the choices you have made in the past.  Buddhism says that if you want to know the future, look at the choices you are making today.  And that if you want to change your future, you need to change the choices you are making today- it is as simple as that.  However, despite being simple, this can be a daunting and not everyone is ready to throw something away- whether a piece of paper or a friend.  But as I have grown older, I think it is getting easier to let go.  But if you can do, you have the most powerful tool for living your life as you want- your choices.

This powerful talk by Caroline Myss is worth listening to if you have any doubts or are feeling you need some support in this area.  It really helped me.

 

Decluttering lessons: part 2

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-

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Happy clearing!

Happy and perfect

‘Just do it’ is the phrase used by a well known sports brand but I am using it in a different way.  I am using to mean a determination to be happy- to be just happy.  I was recently watching a programme about advertising and how advertising creates a gap between yourself, the reality and the image presented (the illusion).  We try to buy stuff to try to close this gap.  Often we get ourselves into trouble of various sorts, such as financial difficulties or unhealthy mental states.  In particular women are more prone to compare themselves to others and make themselves unhappy.  So many of the ‘happiness or beauty products’ are aimed at women because it creates a compulsive and everlasting consumer.

I have also been cleaning my house, using the ‘Konmari method‘ which is basically a method of editing your stuff (keeping only stuff that ‘sparks joy’) and keeping them tidily.  Out of my dark cupboards, hidden for years, have come out piles  of self help books, mountains of clothes, cosmetics, and many things I bought for ‘just in case’ occasions. Looking at them and adding up the costs of buying them, not using them and now having to dispose of them in a responsible way, is costing me more time and money.  Why oh why did I buy these things?  Perhaps I could have saved some money to pay off the mortgage, perhaps saved some time looking after myself instead of shopping for that perfect thing that would make me happy?  Perhaps.  Anyway, the feeling was first of disgust at myself and then forgiveness.  Perhaps, it was convoluted path I took to get here and some people don’t get here easily.  So I have decided not to buy anything more unless it really nourishes my life, not to watch any thing that doesn’t inspire me to do good and not to feel bad about the past.  I decided, I am happy as I am- that is it.  No more reading about happiness or perfection- I doing it, I am already happy and perfect as I am.

What love is

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Love is in the air, especially today. But what is love really? A test of love is longevity. There are many who say they are in love- but a few months or years later, it is gone. That is not love. Love stands the test of time and age- if we can love someone’s wrinkles that is true love. True love is about loving someone’s warts and wrinkles.  That could be anyone from your granny to your partner. Love is about giving some time to another person.

Two sides of each emotion

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!

A beautiful mind- rediscovering my father

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition. Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life. He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.

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I have to confess I didn’t know my father until last month.  He was always working when my sisters and I were young and seemed very strict (he did not like noise).  I did know that he was brilliant a maths teacher and he could do huge sums faster than a calculator.  Now he is blind and disabled and unable to look after himself.  He suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well.  I went home for about a month to sort out his financial matters and get my mother’s eyes operated because she is the sole carer for my father. Working my way through my father’s papers over a few weeks, I uncovered many beautiful and terrible secrets that he had kept quiet about.

Apart from the incongruous materials in the 21 plastic bags that I sifted through (for example, two pairs of shaving sets, someone’s cheque book, x-ray sheets, medical reports and other things), my mother handed me two ‘special’ bags, which she said, he always carried with him. But in those two bags, I found many diaries ( and our school reports of which he was proud). I was trying to find out why there were 24 bank accounts but I discovered other things.  My father kept meticulous short notes in the diaries- ‘X delivered papers to me at 7-30 pm’.  But amongst those mundane observations were also one liners, ‘Watched sunset’ or ‘Looked at the stars tonight’.  I remembered how we used to discuss the clouds, stars and skies- those were lovely memories. He also liked to take photos and draw with water colours.  He had a great interest in rural technology and always helped anyone who came from the village to the city- although as a child, I resented anyone sharing our tiny one bed roomed home. I found a notebook with his lovely flowing handwriting about his teacher’s training- ‘The aim of teaching mathematics is to increase the thinking power and reasoning abilities of the student.’

But there were also letters that spelt out how he had been bullied at work, his pay withheld and once even assaulted.  As a child, I remembered these incidents but had not understood them- like my father coming back from his school in not a very good mood, not having enough money (I found the well-thumbed ‘ration card’ which listed the broken rice riddled with weavils in particular that we used to eat). I remembered one incident when someone had come to apologise for something.  All those memories suddenly made sense to me.  My father was a proud and honest man, who had worked his way into the big city from an impoverished background in the village.  But to some bullies who were already established, this good looking and clever man was a threat.  So not only did they make fun of him but also got students to do this for them.  His family also inadvertently became victims of bullying. I remember hearing about a student coming with a knife to threaten him because my father had prevented him from cheating at the exams.  I remember us walking back after an evening celebration and being followed by some students from his school and my mother saying to us, ‘Don’t look back or answer’.  I didn’t know why she was saying this and I was petrified.

Now my mother tells me that the students were making fun of my father because he had bought a big piece of cloth, enough for two shirts (to save money) and they called him a miser for having two shirts made of the same cloth. I found counterfeit bank notes folded up in his diary that had been given to him as payment. I don’t know how we must have managed without as we were already so poor.  No wonder he was working so hard.  He kept quiet about this. I found some newspaper cuttings where his plight at not being paid had been highlighted in the press.

All this followed me when I went to the University. I was happy when I saw ex-students from that school had joined the same course but they gave me strange looks when I proudly mentioned that my father was that famous maths teacher from their school.  One of them was distinctly cold to me and I often wondered what I had done (and in fact, I was shamed that he did not think I was good enough to be his friend).  I tried so hard.  Now I know that their behaviour had nothing to do with me.  I don’t know when my father’s mental health deteriorated beyond repair and therapy.  He was a very sensitive man and the many years of abuse simply overwhelmed him.  There is only so much a person can take. I feel sad that I did not understand all this was happening and that my father, protected us by simply keeping quiet and venting his feelings in his diaries.  No wonder he carried his diaries with him all the time- he was ashamed and did not want anyone to know about his humiliation.

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition.  Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life.  He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.  If I should meet these people again, I have the confidence and self esteem to no longer want to be friends with them.  They may not understand my father or me yet but I hope one day they will have enough compassion and wisdom to recognise the beautiful mind which taught them and gave them the means to that wealth and power. I hope they will be able to express their gratitude to their teacher someday.  For me, I feel I have paid that debt of gratitude to my father now.  As Nichiren says, “The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born; the white turtle repaid the kindness he had received from Mao Pao. If even lowly creatures know enough to do this, then how much more should human beings! …Surely they should not forget the debts of gratitude they owe to their parents, their teachers, and their country.”