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.

 

Our spirit lives on

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Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death.  Next year will mark another one and the next, the following one; and so on. According to Eastern tradition, one year marks an important point in the grieving process.  It signals the changes in a person after a year of reflection, grieving and changes. So what have I learnt about myself in this year?

First, was that my father’s life is still a positive force, alive and inspiring to me and to those that knew him.  It is said that the dead give the living the gift of their lives.  My father’s life was that of absolute determination in the face of the most daunting obstacles and winning despite them.  I felt ready to move on and become a real adult by trying to emulate my father’s courage, his honesty and earnestness.  These were his real gifts to me. For the first time, I felt truly grateful to have had him as my father.

This morning I wrote a haiku to mark this occasion.

I saw the sunrise today,
Wrote my father in his diary,
Simple, direct and honest- like the man.

 

The power of saying ‘I don’t know’

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’.

New beginning with new food

I’ve got an autoimmune condition which causes blood clots for many years.  I’ve had a stroke and several miscarriages.  Since then, I’ve been either on self injected medication or on tablets.  I need to have a blood test every week or so, depending upon the result to make sure my blood is at required level of ‘thinness’ or INR.  I also go for other medical tests every six months as well as eye tests.  Now all this takes up an awful lot of my time and attention- I’ve only forgotten one appointment in almost ten years (for which I apologised profusely). I’m also fed up of having so many medications, of not being able to  travel as much as I’d like to, unable to do some kinds of sports, and of constantly watching my diet because I’m not allowed certain foods.  Although I’ve made the most of it, it is a very restrictive life.  Last year, I had a setback when some medication I was given with another issue reacted with the warfarin and I was back on an increased dosage.  There have been two occasions when certain medications reacted so badly that I was back in the A&E on various drips with a BP of 35.  And another thing- the warfarin also leaches bones so I’ve developed osteoporosis in my spine which gives me terrible pain but I’m not allowed painkillers due to reaction with the warfarin.  It is an endless cycle of medication against medication!

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My cupboards are full of medications!

This year, I made a New Year resolution of being medication free by the end of the year. As it has been said time and time again, ‘Let food be your medicine’, I am trying a new diet which I have called my #cleancurecooking.  The idea is to use organic foods in season, cook using the least amount of oils, spices and salt, and thereby save money and time. I’ve watched many food programmes and read a lot of research on using food.  There are many spices and herbs which are reputed to thin the blood- turmeric, garlic, ginger, etc.  But one of the reasons that warfarin is used instead of traditional herbs or foods to thin the blood is because the dose can be controlled and managed.  As I’m being tested each week and every six months anyway, I wondered if I can use food to reduce and ultimately get rid of my medication.  The risk is minimal and if there are problems, the warfarin can be topped up.  I also eat more starchy carbohydrates than really needed and consequently feel hungry while putting on weight (although I’m small 5’4”, I am tending towards overweight on the BMI chart). I’m not a huge meat eater but if I don’t eat meat at all, I will need to have some more medications to increase iron and Vitamin B12.  So the recipes and ideas I’ve devised are not vegetarian or vegan.

Another thing I’ve done to reduce portion sizes is to serve food on plates with dividers.  I found that I’m not conscious of how much I’m eating if eating on a plain plate.  I’ve stopped having sugar, instead I’ve fruits in season. I have two cups of black, unseated tea with some cloves which gives it some sweetness (think mulled tea!)  Apart from cranberry juice mixed with some apple and pear juice, I don’t have any fruit juice or carbonated drinks.  My treat is dark chocolate which again is supposed to help with thinning blood.  I generally don’t drink although this Christmas I’ve had a few glasses of wine.  A few tricks from reading up and experimenting-

  1. Having lemon juice with protein increases absorption of iron and allows you decrease amount of salt without losing taste
  2. Keeping your room slightly colder than usual, helps to lose weight as well as be eco-friendly (from Science Magazine)
  3. Lentils help with gut biome which help with losing weight- they are also a good source of protein, especially combined with meat. Lentils with meat dishes are good because you can reduce the amount of meat used.
  4. Many spices such as cinnamon, turmeric and red chillies help with blood thinning as well as the immune system.  Think how the warming and spicy mulled wine is used in the winter. I like the taste and smell of fresh turmeric which although is expensive, is a luxury worth having. If you can’t find any, powdered will do.
  5. Herbs and foods such as corianders, onions, fresh chillies, and garlic are also good for boosting the immune system, so I often use chopped up coriander, spring onions and chillies to garnish my foods.  These foods also bring up saliva which is good for digestion.
  6. Drinking water is often good- sometimes when you are thirsty, you think you are hungry, so try the water first.
  7. Use distraction as a way of warding off snacks. I often make calls or do some engaging work and I find I’m thinking less about food!
  8. Chew your food more, that way you will feel satiated with less.
  9. Foods in season taste better and cost less. For example, I’ve now given up buying expensive tomatoes in winter- they taste like boiled potatoes. In summer, I buy less of lemons and oranges but use tamarind to provide sour taste.
  10. Use foods to provide sweet or salty taste instead of adding actual salt or sugar- so for example, raisins can make food taste sweeter and celery can make it salty.  Using more herbs can make the food more tasty than adding more salt.
  11. Dry frying onions and adding oil once the onions have turned translucent uses much less oil than normal frying.

Here is one dinner-

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mashed potatoes, with brown rice and okra. I’ve reduced the carbohydrate somewhat but it is still too ‘starchy’

Next I tried this one which seems to have worked better as it the portions of protein and carbohydrate appear to be better.

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Brown rice, leftover mashed potato and lentil and lamb mince- this appears to have been more of a success

I’m due for a blood test on Tuesday, so I will see if this diet is working or not!

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

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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!

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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!