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!

De-cluttering: part 1

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!

When children grow up

My younger son is now at a stage when babyish words, songs, cuddles, etc are an embarrassment.  He has his smartphone which he uses to organise get togethers with his friends and his own time.  He doesn’t need me to wake him up or remind him to do his school work. I don’t have to pick him up from school or take him there.  He was the last of my babies- who has grown up.

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Needless to say, it is sad for me.  Although there is much more time I have for myself, there were many days, when I felt unwanted and abandoned.  It took me many weeks to dissociate my feelings for myself from that of what was happening to my son.  He had to grow up, of course and I knew that.  Gradually I have learnt to be grateful for this time that has suddenly been released to me and be grateful for that independent young man he has become.  Life is a series of losses- as we age, we lose people, we lose things and ultimately face the biggest loss of all, life itself.  However, that is what life is and if we can accept that and learn to be grateful for everything, then all our love and humanity will be revealed in what we do.

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.”