Following your dreams

I found this piece of paper while clearing out my parents’ home. I had written it more than thirty years ago. I had no money, we barely had enough to eat and no proper clothes and I lived in one bedroom with my parents and sisters in India.  This was an excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

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This was the best selling novella by Thornton Wilder, published in 1927 that won the Pulitzer Prize. It recounts a fictional event when an Inca rope bridge collapses between Cusco and Lima, Peru; and takes down five people with it.  A friar who witnesses the tragedy reflects on why these people were there on that day and time on that bridge; and whether their fates were connected in some way, and seeks a cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die in that way at that spot and time.

The same year that I copied this paragraph was the year I took up Buddhism and by strange chance, was asked to design a mural which was then later inaugurated by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.  Four years later, competing against thousands of applicants, I won a scholarship to do my post graduate degree at UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.  This year I was able to go to Peru and see the Inca bridge at Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the same bridge but for me it was the bridge between my young teenage hopes and dreams and where I have got to.

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I often think that life is really connected- there are events and things happening that you may think are unconnected but years later, you will see a pattern.  That scrap of paper was my connection, my bridge to the past which inspired me to take an action to visit a place where I thought I’d never go. It is never too late to dream and somehow life will turn out to make that dream come true.

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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!

Living an ecological life with long term illness- part I

I suffer from an incurable debilitating illness which can suddenly cause blood clotting. It has given me five miscarriages and a stroke while also causing tiredness and pain on a daily basis.  You may find I don’t post regularly- this is why.  So I work flexibly from my home and go out only when there are meetings with other colleagues.  While restricting my income and ambitions considerably, in some ways, it has also been a gift.  I’ve had to learn to save money, find ‘easy’ ways of going about daily life and while doing so, I found that I could also be ecological.

For one, before I start, I can’t live a ‘zero waste’ life style- I have waste that can’t be recycled or re-used easily for contamination reasons, for example plastic blister packs with foil backs, bandaging, wipes, etc.  I also need to regularly clean areas such as the bathroom and toilet and throw the wipes.  So here is a photo of a small bag of such items- for scale, I have put the fork next to the bag. This is rubbish that is non organic and can’t be composted that I have collected in one month that will need to be thrown ( I will save the bag for another use once I have thrown the contents).

IMG_4397.JPGBut you might agree that this is a very small amount for a month, right?

Being ill and being ecological are not mutually exclusive- there are many things one can do.  For those who are lucky to be perfectly healthy, these will work even better.  So here are the ideas that I have been using for many years.

  1. Keep your horizontal surfaces clean and clear and get rid of (or store) small items that need constant dusting. This is the quickest way to appear tidy!  I have used a sheep skin duster which I’ve had for about 25 years for this. This duster can be washed using the dishwasher liquid (see below). Some linen scraps are also good for dusting but not for wiping.
  2. I have found that cotton cloths from old clothes, particularly underwear, can be cut up and used for wiping.  Old clean socks are also good for cleaning and you can put your hand inside the sock to get to difficult areas such as window blinds and corners. I never buy kitchen paper, dish cloths or any other kind of cleaning cloths or wipes.
  3. I don’t use wipes for cleaning toilets- I spray tap water using an old spray bottle and then wipe clean with toilet paper which can be flushed away.  Wipes have been known to clog up sewerage systems in London and should not be used. Spray bottles containing water and perhaps a few drops of tea tree oil and lavender are lovely to use and help to combat infection while keeping the area smelling beautifully.
  4. I make my own dish cleaning liquid the lazy way.IMG_4277.JPGThis made by soaking orange or lemon peels in vinegar for about 4-6 weeks and then adding half measure of washing up liquid. This is less expensive than using pure washing up liquid and also smells lovely apart being very effective.  The peels can be used to clean the sink or oven surface and then either composted or thrown- they are quite reduced in mass after all this.
  5. You can tidy up a small areas daily as and when needed– the most used areas get untidier faster.  I tidy up the living/dining areas and kitchen as they are used the most and also tend to hoover the stairs. Then there isn’t a huge big tidy up needed if people turn up. If I see a place that is dusty or untidy, then I dust or tidy it- I don’t have a regular schedule. I find that most of the time, visitors don’t notice anything!
  6. I use an Indian grass broom, Jharu, to clean the floor.  Unless the there are difficult to reach places which necessitate the use of the vacuum cleaner which can be difficult for me to manoeuvre, I use the Jharu.  These can be found in Indian shops (there are ‘Western equivalents’ but not as effective).  IMG_4402.JPG
  7. I haven’t bought bin bags for years, I simply use the bags/packets I get from my grocery shopping to put rubbish as these would have to be thrown anyway.  So, for example, the frozen fish comes in plastic bags which can’t be recycled, so I use them as bin bags.  (For those who ask why I don’t take my own container to the fishmonger, I don’t buy ‘fresh’ fish anymore because they are least fresh. Unless you’ve caught them yourself, most of these so called fresh fish are actually defrosted fish and they start to decompose when displayed at the fishmonger’s shop window. These fresh fish are also more expensive.)  My recycled toilet paper also comes in plastic packaging but I use that plastic as a larger bin bag.
  8. As another example of ‘secondary use‘, I use water left from cleaning other things to use for more cleaning before throwing it.  So if I clean out my dishwashing liquid bottle, then the water from that can be used to clean the sink or washbasin.  Shampoo bottles can be rinsed before recycling and that water used to clean the bathtub.  Rice or lentil water, i.e. water used for cleaning these, can be used to clean low grease items such as the sink or plates.
  9. Don’t be afraid of using the dishwasher- the modern dishwashers are energy and water efficient and can be quicker and better than hand washing.  Some of my utensils that are cast iron or brass hand me downs from my maternal grandmother need to be hand washed and I use the left over hot water from making tea or coffee to wash them.
  10. I buy clothes that don’t need dry-cleaning and even if the label says ‘Dry cleaning’ I will try to use the washing machine on it.  I have spoilt a few clothes, I admit, but by not using the dry cleaners, I have made much of a saving!
  11. I generally use the washing machines at the lowest possible setting for the shortest time– usually about 53 minutes at 30C for clothes and 27 minutes for the dishwasher. Once in awhile, I will put a cup of vinegar and turn on the dishwasher for the highest temperature setting- this gives it a good clean.  You can also do this for the clothes washing machine using a three table spoons of bicarb.
  12. I have a steam cleaner that I use for deep cleaning the bathroom.  This doesn’t need any chemicals and while doing the cleaning, I get the benefit of steaming my face and nose too along with some exercise.
  13. My cleaning equipment is very basic as I can’t lift much and my supplies are limited to Sodium bicarbonate, soda crystals, vinegar, eco-friendly laundry liquid and dish washing liquid.  I do use a small amount of bleach from time to time to disinfect and to clear stains.  To keep the sink pipes clean, put down some bicarbonate and then some vinegar (it will fizz) and then pour down a kettle of hot water.
  14. I don’t follow the advice, ‘If it is brown, flush it down; if it yellow, let it mellow.’ I found that my toilet bowls get stained if pee is left around too long and so I do flush- it is better than having to use bleach later to remove stains.  Dental tablets are excellent for removing limescale from toilets- I chuck couple of these and after half an hour or so, the toilet is free from lime scale.
  15. Finally, remembering that fresh air and sunlight are one of the best germ and insect killers and deodorisers.  Strong can also bleach away stains. Even in winter, I try to ‘air’ and sun the rooms when it is not raining.  Airing also helps to get rid of dust mites on the bed before it is remade.

As a quote attributed to Albert Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made simple, but not any simpler.’  My home is not minimalist– there are things that bring me joy and I keep them. So the tidying and cleaning is made simple but not any simpler so that the joys of seeing and remembering is lost in extreme minimalism.

Too much cleaning can be bad for health too- and not just from the work.  As a BBC report tells us, ‘being too clean is also wrong, because it might help cause asthma and allergies. So is there a balance between keeping obsessively clean and learning to live with the bacteria all around us?’  Quite so, that is the middle way which we can discover for ourselves, for our particular life styles.

Choices, checks and balances

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I have been asked to give a talk later on this month about ethical supply chains in the construction industry. This got me thinking about such issues with many other areas of everyday life, for instance buying food and clothes- it doesn’t have to be with just big industries, small actions count too.  But it is so difficult to make ethical choices these days with so many categories- organic, fairly traded, locally produced, low food miles, low carbon, etc., etc.  It is a minefield.  Plus choices based on values are always more difficult than ones based on some measurable or visible quality.  So how does one choose?

Recently I have stopped buying organic bananas from my local superstore, opting instead for their ‘Rainforest Alliance certified’ bananas.  My reason?  These bananas come without any packaging apart from the paper stickers that can be recycled easily.  The Rainforest Alliance encourages environmentally and socially responsible management of forests, tree farms, and forest resources in many poor countries. But their production is not as rigorous as organically produced bananas- organic agriculture has a slightly different angle.  Of course on another note, usually bananas are flown in thereby contributing to food miles, whether they are organic or not.  The organic bananas that I can order from my vegetable delivery service costs 50% more and I have to wait for the once a week delivery.  But then if we stop eating them, are we depriving the people who grow them of economic and social benefits such as basic livelihood, education, etc.?  What should be our priorities based on the beauty, goodness and benefit values along with the Middle way that I have written about?

I thought of different steps to follow through in our everyday buying process that could encourage ‘ethical supply chains’ in our everyday life.  A ‘no’ response to each question should make you think twice about buying that product! I have used this for my banana buying as an example.

Step One– Do you really need to buy this item? Distinguish between wants and needs.  Does this item satisfy your needs and suit your lifestyle (especially with clothes)?  Does it appeal to most of your senses– touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste? Apparently 80% of a woman’s wardrobe lies unused- think about how much money is being wasted in the wardrobes of people all over the world! [Answer- I really love bananas- they are packed with minerals and are a low carb snack between meal or after exercise]

Step Two- Can you afford it? If not, can you wait for it- perhaps the price might come down in a sale?  Buying on credit can be an option only if you are savvy with money issues (and able to juggle credit cards without paying fees) but for most people, if you haven’t got the money, don’t buy it!

Is it durable if you are thinking about any non food item?  Sometimes it is better to opt for durability over sustainability.  The planned obsolescence, especially in electronic goods, is one thing to think about- I once costed out the true price of an iPhone which worked out to be £75 per hour if you keep getting a new one every year.  My hardy little Nokia is still going strong, showing no signs of low battery life even after seven years of use but the iPhone, which I regrettably bought last year, has already started showing problems. And I am not going to buy another one again.  Again my Braun electrical toothbrush has been going for more than ten years while the Colgate and Phillips toothbrushes bought couple of years ago are showing signs of the battery running out.  While I will dispose of all these electronic items responsibly, they haven’t provided the value for money or the environment that works for me.  (PS- I am not being paid by Nokia or Braun to write this!) It seems companies are making us throw things out earlier and earlier. [Answer- yes, I can afford to buy the bananas, it is cheaper than the organic ones and I can choose how many I want unlike the packaged organic ones, so that there is no waste]

Step ThreeIs it produced with minimal harm either to any life form or the environment? This is about goodness.  There is no production that is zero carbon but we can all learn to buy good produced with minimal harm such as organic and or fair-traded (or Rainforest certified).  Similarly locally produced goods will have low air miles but then you won’t be supporting a women’s coop in Tanzania- only you can decide what your choice must be at that time. Companies that support their workers by giving them adequate salaries and other amenities are a good choice.  In  London, another issue that has come up with home deliveries is the pollution and traffic problems being caused by van drivers, so if you can walk and get it- best!

Finally this is the packaging issue that really bugs me- it is also related with doing minimum harm and responsible disposal.  Buy stuff with no or easily recyclable packagingit is no point getting something in a polystyrene packaging with the recycling logo on it if there is nowhere you can recycle it!  I once had pen delivered with miles of bubble wrap- see below- and then the same company delivered china plates with hardly any packaging so that most of the plates were smashed up!

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But I do take umbrage with excessive packaging- whether the item is organic or not.  Some companies have managed to reduce their packaging after complaints. I have stopped buying from one company that supports local farmers because of the amount of packaging they use. [Answer- yes, I can walk to get these bananas and they don’t come with any annoying packaging]

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.

 

A cluttered mind

I have recently been revisiting videos and writings on decluttering.  Why?  Because I forget to clear up and then I find more clutter when I am busy with other things but why is clutter collecting anyway?  Here are some things I have found out about reasons for clutter collection with some useful tips.  According to Oxford psychologist Stelios Kiosses, ‘There’s a bit of the hoarder in all of us … it’s when it gets out of hand, there’s a problem.’  My thing is once I have cleared up, it builds up again and then it gets out of hand.  I don’t have a cleaner, manager or organiser.  How can I stop cluttering?  I have tried so many methods.  As someone who is actively working in the environmental and ecological fields, I feel ashamed that I have so much stuff in my own house and office.

I have tried the Marie Kondo approach but you have to be very careful with that as you might end of throwing away useful things and also that approach doesn’t go far into why one creates clutter in the first place.  You have to know yourself in order to find out why you create clutter or collect.  So here is what I have learnt-

  1. Look around to see what it is that is cluttering up your environment.  In my case, it is definitely paper in some form- books, documents, paper, cuttings, etc. I spent more than £5000 on headed paper and have hardly used those and they clutter up my office storage.  Then there is also stationery that I have never used- dried up pens, rubber bands that have crumbled away, tags that don’t fit and so many items that don’t work. Kiosses also believes that hoarding comes from suffering owing to a loss of some kind.  But then we all have had loss of some kind and yet some of us hoard more than others.

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  1. Hence you need to think about why you hoard that particular thing– again in my case, it was always ‘just in case’. I write a lot so there are books and cuttings.  But there is also my fear of appearing ignorant, so I keep the backing for ‘ my proposition or thoughts to prop me up intellectually.  In other words, I need these bits of paper to help me because I can’t be bothered to think for myself or challenge an argument.  It is also a habit that is built up through our education system, with constant referencing that is required for any essay or paper you write.  But there is no need to store references- most are available on the Internet.  My headed paper also reflects an insecurity and an allusion to scarcity- I kept those sheets for the future.  Then the future arrived and everyone is using the internet and so paper sent by post is getting scarcer in every discipline.
  2. Be kind to yourself as you decide to change- I realised I had to treat myself gently in order to draw me away from drowning in my clutter.  The more harsh you are, the less workable decluttering is; which is why many give up on the Kondo method.  Rome wasn’t built in one day and the clutter wasn’t created in one day.  Clearing up one small area that is bothering you works best as the clearing ripple spreads. I am also now less harsh towards others- I recognise the hoarder that Kiosses talks about exists in me and others too.  There is no need to look down on others.  Also, I recognise that it is precisely because of this reason that you can’t clear someone else’s clutter.  That is why you can’t have decluttering theories that apply to everyone and follow ‘how to declutter’ books by someone else.  It is all in your mind.  Just as you are unique, your style and method of decluttering will be unique.

As one website says, “When you get rid of the vast majority of your possessions, you’re forced to confront your darker side:

  • When did I give so much meaning to possessions?
  • What is truly important in life?
  • Why am I discontent?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How will I define my own success?”

The aim of decluttering, should not in fact be to purge your belongings but to enjoy the objects and environment you’ve chosen to live with.  That knowledge comes with knowing yourself deeply and well.

How to deal with bullies

I am dealing with my 12 year old son’s bullies right now.  For many weeks, I have not seen him smile and he looked tired all the time.  He was being bullied with physical, racist and homophobic (yes, even that age, bullies use all sorts of excuses) abuse in school.  Initially I told him to ignore it and deal with it with humour.  After he was set upon by the gang of boys last week, I was livid and complained to the school.  I also found out that my son hadn’t told me about the attack because he was ashamed.  Here is what I have learnt in the last ten days-

  1. Bullies, like other people, change when they want to.  They won’t change because you want them to.  Don’t stay with a bully thinking that they will change.
  2. Bullies cannot be appeased by good humour and manners.  This brings out more of their ugliness. Do not associate with bullies- get away from them and leave them to deal with the emptiness of their lives.
  3. Bullies only listen to fear, so put fear into them by reporting it.  Transmit it widely because the only thing the bullies care about is their image and their power.  Bullies do not like reciprocal or equal relationships.
  4. Let children and all vulnerable people know that bullying is never okay and never to sit in silence.  Bullies love it when people take it without complaining. Never be ashamed of reporting bullying.
  5. Build up the broken self esteem of the bullied person with love and support.  Find other people who can support the bullied person. Build a fortress of love and teach that person to always respect themselves.