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.

reaching out

My neighbour accepted a delivery for me when I was out.  When I went to collect it, I was shocked at her appearance- she had lost a lot of weight and looked very gaunt. Not sure of anything, I mumbled thanks and left.  But it bothered me that I hadn’t asked.  She was a bubbly young French lady, with two small children and her appearance and behaviour were totally out of character.

Then a week later, while shopping, I met another neighbour and asked her if she knew anything.  This lady told me that the French lady had cancer which had spread.  It all made sense to me now- why I always saw her mother ferrying the children to school, not her; and her appearance.  I felt deeply ashamed that I hadn’t said anything to her, offered to help even.   But even then, I did not do anything.  But my lack of action kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

Couple of days ago, I put a book for her and one for her children and a card through her letter box.  The book I sent was a book that I read when I was ill with a stroke.  That very evening, I received an email from her-

Thank you very much for your kind words and your prayers, it means a lot to me.

Ella was delighted with the book and I will read the other one with great care.

As you know, when sickness takes over your life, you see it differently and dream of normal things and I can’t wait to put this ordeal behind me. I am so lucky to have a supportive family who take good care of me and the children.

My treatment is going well but I spend most of the time in bed as I go through chimio every 2 weeks for 3 days… 14 done, 9 to go ! My kids keep me strong.

Thank you again for your kindness and I trust all is well.

I was touched that she had taken the time to thank me despite everything- a sign of a great person.  I write this post not to proclaim how great I am but perhaps to say that how stupid I had been.  As my other neighbour said me, ‘You don’t need to know the technicalities of someone’s illness but reaching out is enough- it shows you care.’  Secondly, I learnt that you need to reach out as soon as you can.  Life can go by too soon and you miss opportunities to show kindness and experience it.  You miss chances to be part of the human family.

Inspirational words from a terminally ill architect

After watching this, as an architect who has suffered from stroke, it reinforced my desire never to miss a single opportunity to express gratitude, help others and be happy in every way that I can.  Also, very importantly it has taught me to follow my heart.

The mirror

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How we see ourselves is very different from how others see us- this continually surprises me.  Do we really see ourselves as we are or see ourselves as powerless, ugly or even useless?  Or, do we see ourselves as powerful, beautiful and creative?

This week I have been down with several health problems to add to my chronic illness.  I have felt let down by the medical system which prescribes drugs without checking the effect on a patient with long term conditions.  And I have been angry and felt useless- unable to work.   I felt ugly too.  At times I sat and stared at the screen, or at a piece of paper without as much as typing or writing a single word.  To inspire myself, I wrote to a colleague who is struggling with cancer which seems to come back again and again.  She has to wear a ‘bag’ to drain liquids and go for chemotherapy at least once a week.  Yet to me, she looks lovely and elegant.  I asked to interview her about how she balances work and health and looks so fabulous. I thought this might inspire ( or even kick) me back into work.

My jaw dropped when she wrote back to me, ‘One of the things that I would love to talk to you about is how you balance being a high-achieving woman with your health issues.’ What, me?!  Was she really talking about me?  It took me some time for this to sink in.  I wanted to protest- ‘No that is not me, you’ve got it all wrong!’  Then it occurred to me that perhaps she might have thought the same way about herself when she got my email.  That she looked at me very differently from how I saw myself.  That we might be seeing mirror images of each other- each person thinking that the other was somehow better or more fortunate.  Yet we are both powerful, beautiful and creative.  That I had done for her what she had done for me.

So this is what I now do.  I keep a small pocket mirror near me and whenever I feel down, I look at my reflection say,  ‘You are powerful, beautiful and creative!’  This is very powerful and magical!  As Nichiren says, “When you bow to a mirror, the reflected image bows back”.

Baby steps

I have been quite ill recently- seems like I have spent most of my days and weeks in hospital and it seems like there is more to come.  I felt quite despondent about this and following my heart seemed to be about having enough rest to get some strength to get back to more hospitals.  Is this what a creative life is about, I wondered- Just trying to have just enough energy to do my daily chores?  I looked at some of my colleagues and thought how wonderful it would if I had their good health, then only I could so much more.  Then it came to me.  I did not have to compare myself to others.  If my day could be even one bit better than the previous day, I had succeeded.  Life was about baby steps. The creative life is about taking baby steps towards your goals every day.  Yes, every day has been a struggle but if in the morning, I could determine that one that day i could feel even one bit better and do one creative thing (whether that was in the kitchen or anywhere else), then I had won!  As Daisaku Ikeda says,”It is not how you compare to others that is important, but rather how you compare to who you were yesterday. If you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved something great.”

I came across an inspirational video about Jadav Payeng. Singlehandedly, he has created a forest out of barren land with no money or help.  He has been working since 1979, with no social media or press congratulating him on his achievements until recently when he was ‘found’ by chance.  By planting one seed or sapling daily, he has created a forest bigger than Central Park in New York- a park which will prevent erosion and save wildlife.  Learning to take baby steps towards our goals without external validation is the most important thing we can do each day.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/short-film-showcase/india-man-plants-forest-bigger-than-central-park-to-save-his-island?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20141018video-indiaforestvod&utm_campaign=Content&sf5288740=1

The wrong choice for creativity

La Bombilla

Life happens, stuff happens- sometimes good, sometimes bad.  How does one keep being creative all the time?  When I am happy, I actually don’t feel like doing anything creative.  Surprisingly it is when I have been sad or ill, that is when I have been most creative.  I had a stroke about four years ago, just after receiving a contract to write a 320 page-book.  I had 71 blood tests, 5 scans and one operation.  I also had to deal with a terrible situation at work during that time.  The photo above shows the painting I did when I could not write and then after being able to sit up, I finished the book in nine months.  That painting became the book cover.

Henri Matisse’s works are testament to the incredible vitality of the artist at a time when his body was increasingly frail after life-saving surgery for duodenal cancer in 1941. Overcoming the physical limitations being wheelchair bound, Matisse reinvented himself as an artist,  from working with paint to collage.  Calling this period “ma seconde vie”, he used scissors and water-based gouache painted paper to create vivid cut out collages.  He called it ‘painting with scissors’.  He said of that time, “Every day that dawns is a gift to me and I take it in that way. I accept it gratefully without looking beyond it. I completely forget my physical suffering and all the unpleasantness of my present condition and I think only of the joy of seeing the sun rise once more and of being able to work a little bit”.

The author of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is a memoir by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Pre-stroke, Bauby had a great life being the editor of the Elle fashion magazine. However, his greatest creative act came after suffering a massive stroke in 1995 that left him with locked-in syndrome in which the only movement he could do was blinking his eyes.  The memoir was written by him blinking his left eyelid, which took ten months (four hours a day). Using partner assisted scanning, a transcriber repeatedly recited a frequency-ordered alphabet, until Bauby blinked to choose a letter. The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and an average word took approximately two minutes.

In an interview with the BBC, Judith Palmer, the director of the Poetry Society said that ‘There is no reason why rich poets can’t feel the hope, love, loss and wonderment they need to create their work. Money solves a lot of problems but it doesn’t stop you going through emotional trauma or suffering bereavement.’ But many artists and creative people have actually chosen ‘voluntary poverty’ in order to be more creative.  In the mid-19th Century, visitors flocked to the cottage of John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’ who lived and worked in grinding poverty. Charles Baudelaire who squandered his inheritance and sank into debt, said: “Any healthy man can go without food for two days – but not without poetry.” Even today, we imagine that life has to be hard in order to be creative and unconsciously set about making our lives hard or give ourselves a hard time, even!

However, I feel that choosing this kind of life of ‘bohemian or voluntary’ poverty or to subject one’s body extreme conditions, in order to be creative, is not really true creativity.  It is the opposite. True creativity is when one can use any life circumstance to be creative as Bauby, Matisse and others have done.  Polly Stenham, who wrote her first play aged 19, and went on to have it performed at the Royal Court theatre in London, talks about illness in her family, ‘..I think having an ill parent..can be a gift.  And you have to look at it like that. I wouldn’t have been a playwright had I not had to deal with it”.  Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja says that he no longer has such a narrow conception of the art-form, and thinks poems can come out of all kinds of life experiences. “There’s poetry everywhere,” he says. Yes, indeed- life is our true master; life is the one place where we can find all creativity.

 

 

Finding our purpose

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(photo credit: Sumita Sinha)

I have been listening to many inspirational speakers as the grey skies of winter, tiredness and a series of strange incidents try to put a depressing shade to my life.  I have been calm, reflective and quietly bemused.  Listening to the these speakers helped to put things in perspective, find a balance and be inspired.  One of the things I heard from Marianne Williamson (she, whose quote about not hiding yourself is of often attributed to Nelson Mandela) was about life purpose.

I heard this sentence, “If you have life, you have a purpose.”  True and so profound. How often do we think about our failings and compare ourselves to others?  Yet our own unique life is waiting within- all full of purpose.  We don’t have to be young, beautiful or thin or rich to be of purpose.  The Universe does not create without purpose.  Even if we are old, disabled, ill, or whatever- as long we are alive, we have a purpose.  What is that purpose?  That is something we have to find ourselves.  And if we are willing to look, we can surely find it.  To waste our valuable life hours, comparing ourselves to others or envying others, is a slander of our own beautiful and unique selves.  But remember purpose is NOT one’s career.  Purpose is about our calling, our passion and our special talents whatever those may be- baking a cake, putting up a beautiful Christmas tree, writing a research thesis, singing, dancing, making others smile- and being ourselves.  No one can give us our purpose.  We have to find it ourselves.  Thanks to the person who wrote, “we are here to create a purpose for life” on that window of a boarded up building which I can see from where I work.

Soul food

Today I visited a hospital as part of my work.  I went around the whole building from outpatients to operating theatres, clinics to wards  (by the way, thinking about it, what strange names form part of a hospital!)  Health is one of our greatest gifts, even our greatest gift- something we do not realise until we fall ill.  Physical and mental health are part of ourselves that may be treated by doctors.  But what about our spiritual health which rules both our physical and mental health?

Our spiritual health can only be treated by ourselves.  It is the most difficult to treat.  Some people say that they have no religion.  Where they have religion or not,  everyone has their own philosophy of life that is part of their spiritual make-up.  I was reading about ‘Soul food‘, which is separate from kind of food we eat that nourishes our bodies and minds. Soul food is for the spirit.  The soul or spirit needs food and exercise to be healthy just like our physical and mental selves.  ‘Soul exercises’ are the troubles and tribulations we go through in life that expand our life states and make us more capable.  Soul food can be many things that nourish us-

1. Love and support from your loved ones- like heart warming conversation or soul stirring advice.

2. Love and support that you give yourself- like a gentle best friend who encourages you.

3. Inspirational books, music, art or films that you see- here someone else’s soul touches your soul.

4. Cutting out negative influences- leaving toxic relationships, disregarding critical messages from your childhood and from others; and any other negative external influences.

5. Soul exercise- it could be your hobbies, some great food you cooked, some work you enjoyed, the child you soothed with calming words or songs, the kind words you said to a friend, a challenge you solved, a serious illness you overcame with cheerfulness and joy- anything that you give from your soul!

If we don’t feed and exercise our souls, we cannot live a full life.  We know this from meeting people who are are physically ill and yet, we find, they could be the ‘life and soul of a party’.  It is not the mere absence of illness that makes us healthy, it is the absence of a spirit to live that makes us unhealthy.  As Nichiren wrote:

“Life is the most precious of all treasures. Even one extra day of life is worth more than ten million ryo of gold.”

(If you are ill and struggling, I recommend the book, Love, medicine and miracles by Bernie Siegel, M D which has real examples where people overcame many health problems with a strong spirit supported by proper medication and health professionals)

 

s[low]

I practice architectural design that is based on low energy principles- materials that use little energy to manufacture, materials that are from recycled sources and can be recycled and buildings that are low maintenance and need little energy to run.  Low energy appears to be something that gives the building long life.

Hearing about an Indian actor, Abir Goswami, who sadly died today aged 33 after having a massive heart attack on an exercise machine in the gym, I think low energy works for human beings too.  My Uncle, whose first death anniversary falls today, was a ‘low energy’ person- he practised yoga, not the gym, he ate and spoke slowly and calmly, living and enjoying every moment.  He lived up to an age of 96, looked no more than 60 years old and died peacefully in his sleep.  He used to say, “Hurry and worry are the worst things in life.”  There is a theory that we have certain amount of life energy and if we use it too quickly, then we fall ill or our bodies fail in some way.  That is why we have to rest when we are ill and often feel rejuvenated after such a forced rest.  Indian yogis who are reputed to live for around 100 years, practice meditation and yoga- both of which are low energy activities.  “Hurry too much and you will miss the boat”- so goes the saying.

With all the slow movements such as slow food, idleness, tai-chi, etc getting very popular today and even medical research supporting the view of slowness, I am convinced that going slow helps us all.  No matter how much faster your latest computer or telephone may work, the ultimate processor, i.e. your brain, will always work at a certain peak speed and will often slow down in moments of concentration.  Being slow is not the same as being lazy- my Uncle was always busy doing things that mattered to him, i.e. using his life energy purposefully.  Slow induces calmness and tranquility that I associate with water, so I made up with my son’s help this haiku to help me remember to slow down and enjoy the moment-

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Still, Life, Open Water- slow

Your tranquil head

Flows down to follow your heart