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.

 

Advertisements

How to get ‘new’ shoes

Before the Black Friday deals, I had been toying with the idea of buying new shoes.  I justified the purchases by thinking that I hadn’t bought shoes for a few years!  I did try a pair of shoes at the store, and then realised that I had a similar pair at home, albeit in a different colour. I think this is what commonly happens- you end up buying the most comfortable type of shoe in several colours.  As I have a flat foot with an injury sustained as a baby, it is very important for me to have a comfortable pair of shoes.  I also have very small feet so it is difficult to find shoes that fit me, so I tend to hold on to ones I have.  I hardly ever wear heels- after having children, I found that my feet had changed.  So this is what I did. I changed the colour of the shoes I already had. One was a florescent yellow, still fine but a bit worn and going grey inside and outside. These shoes are seven years old.

IMG_0345

I dyed it blue and left the inside yellow as before. I think it looks good, perhaps even more expensive with the yellow lining inside.IMG_0347

I cleaned it first as best as I could and used Dylon blue dye for shoes.  Why blue? Because most of my clothes are blue so this works very well.

IMG_0348

Next with my tan brogues which were looking a bit tired (they are six years old), I tried a different technique using what I already had at home instead of buying.  I had seen this technique used in a Youtube video but I added my own twist to it.  This is the ‘Doc Marten’ technique where black shoe polish is used to make lighter shoes look more expensive.  Step one involved cleaning the shoe thoroughly.

IMG_0494

Next I covered them in black cream polish- I used Ecco cream polish.

IMG_0497

The next step was about removing the black polish after giving it a good ‘soak’ for 10 minutes.

 

IMG_0499

Buffing and buffing until I got this!

IMG_0502

I think both efforts look good! And so much better than either throwing them away or buying new shoes.  I know you can donate shoes but because these are so old and my feet are tiny (size 2.5 UK), they would have been more likely not used by others.

 

On taking other people’s junk

Let me say this straightaway, ‘Don’t ever do it!’  

It seems a bit strange to discuss the cons of taking what others have thrown out- in fact, there’s a saying to the effect that someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure. For many years, I took in stuff given by people and also those I found lying in the street.  I believed that it was good manners to not only accept other people’s gifts but also use them, whether they proved to a hindrance to my daily life or not.  I believed that picking what other people had left out on the street, not only could help me (just in case I needed those items suddenly!) but also helped to clean the streets and the environment, giving things a second life.  My way of thinking also came from having been brought up in great poverty and having too little.

For years, these objects lay in my home, in boxes when I moved, and in my new home.  Even if they were difficult to use, I had to use them.  The turning point came when I realised that I had become so tired of taking care of these things, storing them and cleaning them when they are so patently useless.  Of my gifts, I noticed that one of my friends had a knack of giving me stuff that cannot be washed in the dishwasher.  Hand washing is one of thing I hate, having done it from childhood and I love my eco-friendly dishwasher.  Dishwashing is one chore I would be gladly free off.  One gave me flowers and bowls which although very pretty did not last.  So I would be left with utensils (or broken crockery that I thought I would use for arts projects!) that I could not use and empty flower pots. I picked up stuff from the street, stuff I haven’t used at all- books, cutlery, glassware, etc.  Of the things I have picked up, furniture has been my most used item and I have even sold some antique stuff for profit.  But the money made is really negligible.  But the most despicable thing I have done is, giving my own unused stuff to my parents.  Perhaps out of love, they did not say they couldn’t use it and at times, they even tried to, but gave up.  These items have been languishing in their homes for years.

Now my eldest son having left home, and my father having died, I am now finding stuff stored in all corner of my own house and that of my parents. My mother is going to move to a smaller place.  I’ve spent more than two months trying to declutter and stuff keeps coming out of everywhere. I tried selling them on eBay and no one would have them (although they are either brand new, unusual or antique items).  It is also an effort of put items on the website and then keep checking and then having to post them.  I’ve had people who bought the stuff without reading t&c’s and told me that they thought I was going to deliver the item to their home!  Really!  I tried selling them at antique shops- they were interested but always told me to come back when their shop had a little more space. In the end I got tired of ringing them and waiting for them.  They also would give me very little money, which really wasn’t worth the effort.  Then I tried giving them to the charity shops which are also filled to the brim with other people’s junk.  But taking them on public transport to various charities, really tires me- I’ve got an incurable blood disorder which is debilitating.  So I’m now ‘freegling’ stuff which means people can take it away.  Bu that has been a great pain as well.  People promising to turn up at an agreed time and then not doing so.  One person even kept me waiting for two days giving all sorts of improbable excuses.

I now look back at my time over the years, collecting all this stuff (dragging some huge pots or furniture from the street), looking after it, moving it, trying all sorts of creative ways of re-using or up-cycling it, trying to give it to others, selling it, donating it and having failed in all these ways, then storing it.  What a waste of time (and space) that could have been spent more creatively and usefully!  But I still will not litter the streets with my junk, even though I might have picked the junk off the street.  But perhaps something in me has changed. Today, my younger son, who is a hoarder, has given away two boxes of children’s books to someone who was very happy to have them.  He even hoovered and cleaned his room- a teenager doing this is very rare!  I am slowly decluttering- things that have been collected for years will take some time leave.  In Buddhism, the word ‘karma’ means action and also denotes the effects of the action. So I think I may have changed my karma. I have thanked all the junk that came my way for the lesson it taught me and how it has helped changed my ‘poverty karma’. I feel rich and full, without all the junk in my life. I will leave up-cycling, selling, organising and re-using to all those people who get paid for it, have time for it, and do it well.  My life’s work is different although it is still very creative. Also, I’ve made many friends by giving away stuff but disposing of junk does take a lot of time from my work.

As for picking other’s people’s trash, I will never do it again!  So here are some lessons I’ve learnt-

  1. Do not have a junk mentality- do not let junk enter your body and environment in any way- junk food, junk mail or junk stuff.
  2. Do not even consider a junk drawer- if you have stuff that you are unsure about, put it where you and your family will see it everyday.  If the sight irritates you or you haven’t used it for a month, give it away.
  3. Do not give junk to others, especially your family and friends. If you receive what you know is junk, accept it gracefully and then give it away. No one will care or ask about it!
  4. If you have no skills in up-cycling, re-purposing, or DIY, do not ever pick up junk that you think might be useful.
  5. Do not clear other people’s junk- their karma is theirs, they don’t need your meddling.

What are your lessons? Do you agree with me?

Making a good gift for your child leaving for university

The main premise of this blog post is about creating value using beauty, goodness and benefit.  So I was wondering how to make a suitable gift for my son who is leaving home for University.  In the UK, this is the time of departures for Universities, of leaving the nest and so emotionally this will be a sea change for us and him.  I wanted him to have something that was homemade and practical.  It was his birthday as well this month.  So I made him a cook book and a ‘cooking tool kit’.  It was in the form of two things- a cookbook (the software as I call it) and the toolkit (the hardware!)- plates, utensils, tools, etc.  It took me almost a year of planning and making, so here are the steps-

  1. The cookbook– This is actually a photo album that I found in a charity shop.  In it are my cooking, healthy living, and money saving tips, his favourite recipes and photos of him cooking as a baby and child.  I did a cull of photographs which was something I had to do anyway and found a treasure trove of photos that reminded me of the recipes that he has always loved. Of course, coming from mum, the tips and recipes have corny titles! So the making the recipe book also served many other purposes.
  2. The toolkit– Over the year, I ‘retired’ several items from the kitchen and cooked without them, just to get used to not having them.  These included cooking and serving spoons, bowls, pans, etc.  I rang up my son’s University and asked them what facilities he was going to have in his kitchen and based on what he liked to cook, I added some new items- either from charity shops or bought at sales.  Some items had even been picked up from the street!  Some items were repurposed from ready meals such as the china bowls from an environmentally responsible brand that makes chilled food and glass shot glasses from a French yoghurt brand.  These ready made food items were also reduced so this made for a double reduction!  Some items are also ones that came from my University days thirty years ago.  Most items can be used in at least two different ways, for example the wooden tray can be used as a serving tray, a rolling board and a chopping board.  Obviously this took a lot of planning and thought.

IMG_9679These items were then packed into his dad’s old rock n’roll box.  The final toolkit looked like this when packed.  All neatly tidied up into boxes and bags, using tissue and paper and strong bags I had saved up.

IMG_9683.JPG

I know that some items might not come back and I am happy with that. Life is about loss.  There are items I haven’t put in, deliberately- I need him to make some effort too which I I know he will.  At least I know I have set him up, food wise!

Let me know if you’ve done similar things for your child when they headed off to University.

Making your own cosmetics

Recently with the squeeze on my finances, I have been looking at how much I spend on cosmetics. I don’t mean make-up which I hardly use but creams- face, body and hands. I tend to buy the best I can- organic, locally made and without any additives.  The results are good- for many years worth of buying such products has been good for my skin as the skin is your largest organ and benefits from the best products used on it.  However, now with the financial imperative, I began to wonder if I could replicate that quality at home using organic ingredients and save money and time.

So here is my first attempt-

IMG_4827.JPG

I was out of face cream and looked around for what I had lying around. So here is what I found, all of which went to make this face cream-

One teaspoon of Neal’s yard Wild Rose beauty balm (you can substitute this with coconut butter and drops of your favourite essential oil)

40 grams of Shea butter (I have to admit this was 17 years old! and lying in a drawer)

One table spoon of organic aloe and rose gel (or use plain aloe gel as I did below)

I used a fork to whip these inside an old Neal’s yard jar and voila! I had my lovely soft nourishing face cream which smells of roses.

Then I used some of the Neal’s yard balm and added some scraps of lipstick and again, I have a tinted lip balm that gives me winter protection for my lips and cheeks.

IMG_4859.JPGIip balm.jpg

For this year’s Mother’s day, I again replicated this formula to make face creams for my mother and friends. I have photos of the ingredients in this one (you can use your own), along with the empty jars I’ve used.  This time the shea butter was not 17 years old!

IMG_5170

IMG_5171

This what one of the jars looks like now- I placed the jars on the radiators so that the shea butter would melt slowly (as per my philosophy of least work, maximum value!)

IMG_5191.JPG

 

 

 

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!

Mindful cooking and happy eating

I love cooking and even though I have a chronic illness and suffer from tiredness and pain, I feel it is something I can do and actually enjoy it!  So over the years, I have devised ways to cook well, easily and cheaply.  The money saving is essential because the ingredients I use are organic and fresh, and cost much more than conventional stuff. Also, obviously it has to be healthy cooking too.  So money has to be saved in other ways. So here are my top 20 tips. You may not agree with all of them and some of these go against ‘conventional wisdom’, so please feel free to comment below.

  1. Eat between the hours of 8-00 am and 8-00pm.  Apparently this the optimum time for food to be digested properly as the body clock starts slowing down. In fact, it starts to do that by 6-00pm but as I usually don’t finish work by then and have to cook from fresh, the food is not ready until about 7-30pm.  Try to make your first meal the biggest and the last one the smallest and don’t snack in between.
  2. Oil is one of the most expensive ingredients, so use it sparingly. It is also healthier to use less oil. On the other hand, I use butter and ghee for cooking too. I have found that these ingredients add a richness to bland starchy foods such as pasta, potato, breads and rice so that you end up eating less of such foods. A dollop of butter in pasta sauce adds amazing flavour.
  3. Put a lid in the food that is cooking- it makes it cook faster, save energy and therefore cheaper, and the flavours get locked into the food by doing so.
  4. Eat seasonally and fresh- so that the ingredients will be cheaper and have more flavour.  More flavour also mean that less salt and other condiments will be needed to make the food more tasty.
  5. I don’t agree with the concept of mise en place, i.e. getting all the ingredients ready and then cooking, for all types of cooking.  Stir frying is one example where this technique would be useful.  But the leaving the chopping until you are ready to cook is better as the ingredients are fresher.  I often let the oven or pan warm up while I am preparing the vegetables.
  6. We don’t eat ready prepared desserts anymore. Not only are they expensive, wrapped in plastic but also do not taste nice.  We might have healthier desserts such as fruits or my homemade yoghurt or even a piece of dark chocolate.
  7. This trick I learnt from my grandmother- no more than three flavours together.  This gives such a clean but tasty flavour.
  8. We have at least one component of the meal that helps with digestion as I have real problems. So we can have yoghurt or fermented vegetables (kimchi) or sauerkraut along with the main course.
  9. The bulk of the food is vegetables, with about 30% meat or other protein.
  10. Clean up as you go along, putting away items in the dishwasher/sink for washing and removing peels and other waste from the work surface. It makes tidying up later much easier.  One pot cooking is marvellous- so much less to wash up and also saves money.
  11. I cook in steps. So I might marinade something a day earlier or defrost something couple of day earlier and so on. Some of the cooking such as gravy or fried vegetables might have been made earlier.
  12. Always have something in the freezer that can be defrosted the day before so that you can eat as soon as you can, instead of rushing to get a chilled meal from the supermarket.  It has been many years since I’ve had a supermarket meal and now if I have a small mouthful, I realise how ghastly they taste.  I suppose our tastebuds get used to such food and only until you’ve had a good long break, that you realise that these foods have no flavour at all- mostly salt and sugar to give it some.
  13. Find ways to reduce food waste.  So I use the potato skins, broccoli stems, bottoms of lettuce, carrot or radish leaves, etc. (I will put some recipes later on).IMG_4358.JPG Even with meat, there is hardly any waste- only after using the bones to make broth, I throw them away.  I don’t have a big composter (I have a home made composter which can only handle a small amount each time) or a garden, but our bodies are the best composters.  Avoiding buying foods that have parts that need to be thrown away is also good.  But some are inevitable such as lemons and bananas. So I will use the skins of the lemons for making washing up liquid or lemon zest. Banana skins can be used for polishing shoes and wood but I don’t like the smell and these skins tend to be my biggest throw aways. If you have a garden composter, then you can be a bit more wasteful.
  14. You can wash out ketchup, jam and sauce bottles with water and add that flavoured water to soups or curries. Then your bottle is also ready for recycling. Soups are nourishing and filling- you tend to eat less if you have the liquid and solid together as with soup.
  15. Many bloggers advise buying in bulk. I live in a flat and there is little space to store sacks of grains or pasta. Also I have found that spices lose their flavour if kept for too long. So buy little and often. It might be more expensive but it is better value.
  16. I have problems cutting hard vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. So I bake them whole and make soups or mashes out of those.  The seeds can be dried and eaten.
  17. This is a great trick I learnt- if some of the ingredients have been in the fridge and freezer, take them out so that they are at room temperature before you cook them. Not only does it save energy but also improves flavour.
  18. I get my vegetables and meat delivered from the farm- local, seasonal and fresh. This saves me trudging from the supermarket carrying bags of shopping which I can’t really do.  It is also expensive. I can plan out the meal for the week depending on what I receive- so it also saves time and money.  Also there is less packaging to deal with as these come with hardly any and if they do, they are taken away by the delivery company. One less thing to do!
  19. I try not to have drinks with food. I keep them separate.  Juices can be expensive. Water is good enough!
  20. Finally, try to eat mindfully with those you love. My uncle used to say that food eaten in good company always tastes better!