Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The secret of effective living - maintain and progress.

My life is blessed. I am in the happy position not only of being married to the nicest man in the world, but in having two extraordinarily nice men as our lodgers.

They are kind and thoughtful, quiet and friendly, responsible and pleasant. What a fab household.

But there is a secret to house-calming nobody has taught them, my mother’s powerful secret of a successful life: ‘The trick is to both maintain and progress; if you can do that, you’ve got it sussed’.

Living simply feels like total luxury. Buying very little and mostly second-hand on ebay, living small and frugal, occupying a small footprint, with almost nothing to lug about, trip over, lose, dust, or put away, is more peaceful and liberating than I can describe. The less you have and the less you need, the easier and cheaper everything gets; and the more time there is to read books in the sunshine, write your own, or even (if feeling virtuous) do something helpful for somebody else.

But knowing how to maintain and progress is very important for living simply. You have to keep an eye on things, because the norms of society have a momentum that amount to an initiative. Before you know it, your life gets hi-jacked by the agendas of others, your house fills up with things people give you or ask you to store for them, and your time is absorbed by supporting events it seemed mean to refuse. Life is a bush that grows, and the small tool-bag of simplicity ought to contain a pruning knife.

Part of maintaining and progressing is keeping things clean. This is how simplicity stays simple – by keeping up-to-date, doing things as you go along, not letting stuff build up.

I am not a house-proud person. There is a wad of grey fluff on the carpet around the place where the pipe of the landing radiator goes into the floor and hey, I let it sit there. I’m not sure what to do about it. I clean our windows once every year or two.

But the main bits of the floor, the table we eat from, the bathroom and the sink – these should be clean, because they get grungy very quick and make the place disgusting and give us germs. And the way to get all this done is by maintaining and progressing. The maintaining bit is keeping the work surfaces clean and free of clutter, shining the sink several times a week, vacuuming the carpets regularly. The progressing bit is that because then the place is basically clean, every now and then something can happen like the filthy old sitting room curtains get taken down and sent to the cleaners, or the houseplants that have outgrown their containers get potted on. The enemies of maintaining and progressing are a) clutter and b) Do-it-later.

Clutter makes you not feel like doing a task. If the counter is clear, it’s no hassle when you run a bowl of washing up water to take a wet cloth and give the work surface a wipe down. If you glance across the room and there is the toaster sitting in its pretty scattering of crumbs, and the breadboard also liberally scattered with crumbs and supporting the breadknife and a knife with butter and jam on it, and a used teabag sitting on a teaspoon and some kitchen roll and several bottles of oil that you know will have dripped and the butter dish and an assortment of drink bottles – what do you do? Nothing. Think: ‘Er…maybe not…’ Look away. Decide to do it later. And that’s how things don’t get done.

Our lovely lodgers are very tidy, clean men. I come downstairs in the morning and they will have washed up their breakfast things and left them to drain by the sink. When I put the now dry things away, I always check the spoons. We have a pot for used teabags by the kettle, and the teaspoons involved with that always get very tea-stained. I would like to give a small tutorial (I don’t propose to do this – something tells me it would not go down well) to my lovely men. I would like to say to them: ‘Look. This is a teaspoon. As you see, it is dirty. Here is the nice, clean washing up water. Here is the green scouring pad. Here I am, scouring the teaspoon, for about – ooh, ten seconds? Look. Now the teaspoon is clean. That is how you clean a teaspoon’.

Then I would lead my enthralled audience across to the work surface. I would say: ‘This is a work surface. Last night it was all clean: but oh, look! The Weetabix Fairy has been in the night, and now there are lots of little crumbs scattered on it. The Sugar Plum Fairy has been here too – can you see? There is a light dusting of granulated sugar all along the floor alongside the unit supporting the work surface. But, look! I wring out the dishcloth from the nice, clean washing up water that is still hot. I wipe down the counter (ten seconds), I wash out the cloth and wring it out again (ten seconds), I wipe the floor adjacent to the unit (ten seconds) and I wash out the cloth again and hang it up on the tap to dry (ten seconds). In less than one minute, while the kettle is boiling for my cup of tea, the work of the Weetabix Fairy and the Sugar Plum Fairy have been eradicated. Wasn’t that easy? Look – now everything is clean again: just like you found it when you came down for breakfast. This is very easy! You can do this too!’

I shall not offer this short tutorial, because I have a feeling it would provoke guilt, rage and resentment – and in my view the world is prettier without these things.

But those who choose to walk in the way of simplicity, and spend their days chilling out and having a groovy time, need to absorb the teaching of that tutorial: the way to freedom and effective living lies in learning how to maintain and progress.

About ten years ago it dawned on me that not only is life nicer and your home a more attractive place to be, but also less time is spent on washing up, if you do it as soon as you have cooked/eaten, rather than when there are no clean pots or cutlery left in the house, every surface is covered with crocks covered in dried-on food and you have nothing from which to eat your lunch. That was the beginning of a revolution. Since then I have enjoyed a calm, clean kitchen and actually spent less time on washing up.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetheart): see it, think about it; and do it now.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Will this bring me peace?

In the 1990s, when I was dipping into the writings and recorded teaching of Wayne Dyer, my attention was caught by a question he recommended whenever we were stuck in the process of making a decision.

He said a way to find clarity was to look at the possible options available, asking in each case, ‘Will this bring me peace?’

To my surprise, friends to whom I passed on this helpful strategy were not smitten with it. In the main, they said they found it selfish.

I think the reason was that they misunderstood the level at which Wayne Dyer was envisaging peace. My friends (I think) took him to be applying a principle that could be described as ‘anything for a quiet life’, evading the courageous choices of conscience and risk in favour of a lazier preference for tranquillity and comfort.

I don’t think that’s what Wayne Dyer meant. I think he was saying, ‘Regardless of how I may feel at this moment, and setting aside how much money or popularity this will make or cost me, discounting what is expected of me by others or how far out of my tradition I may be stepping: when I look back in five years time on what I chose today, shall I be able to live with myself? Will my conscience be at rest? Will I have taken the road that is in accord with what I came here to do? Will I have followed the drum that beats to the same rhythm as my own heart?’

Something like that.

It’s a deep peace, not a shallow laziness, that he means.

I don’t always remember Wayne Dyer’s question, ‘Will this bring me peace?’ when I have a decision to make, but I have absorbed the principle to a significant level. The question is there lodged in my soul even if it is not leaping up and down at the front of my consciousness every time I come to a crossroads.

One of the largest areas of regular decision-making in my life is that of finance. Exactly because I don’t have a lot of money, the decisions are big. Suppose I have one thousand pounds, and three adult children: my son cannot pay his rent; my daughter is getting married next month and payments are due for the booked caterer, the ordered wedding dress and the church; my other daughter’s dog has been in a traffic accident and we have word from the vet that an operation to save him will run up bills of hundreds of pounds, total not able to be specified. If I were rich I would help them all: having some money, but only enough to settle the bill for one child or a third of the bills for all three, the decision is a big one, hard to make. In some ways (not all) the smaller your capital and income, the bigger the significance to you of even small daily decisions.

I know that, torn three ways as described above, I would find it very hard to decide which course of action would bring me peace.

When a family is not wealthy, such dilemmas may occur fairly regularly.

I felt that the question: ‘Will this bring me peace?’ therefore needs to be asked at an earlier stage in financial planning.

Instead of waiting for a decision to be forced by a presenting dilemma, it is possible to be proactive rather than reactive. Anticipating that crises will arise, the smaller one’s income the more crucial it becomes to find, by one means or another, a way to create a fund for a rainy day.

That is the decision that will bring me peace (with regard to the unforeseen dilemmas that assail all of us, most especially those with a modest or small income).

An obsessive personality, falling prey easily to anxiety, terror and despair, it is important to me to make an emphatic option for the choices that will bring me peace. Once I have lost my equilibrium it takes many days/weeks/months of solitude and carbohydrate to re-stabilise me: it’s better if I don’t lose my balance in the first place; if I stay within not exactly my comfort zone, but within the practice of the discipline that tends towards peace.

In the intercessory prayer in the old Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion, there is a paragraph in which the faithful offer intercession for their Queen, asking ‘that under her we may be godly and quietly governed’.

The daily decisions in my ordinary life I am thinking of, are those that tend towards ‘godly and quiet governance’ on the private and individual scale – following a wise and increasingly confident discipline of making the choices that will bring me peace.

In the family finances overseen by me, there are four bank accounts.
There is the housekeeping account for the payment of household bills (utilities, property insurance, council tax, broadband and telephone, television license, and health insurance), groceries, and savings for one-off payments and purchases – such as Christmas food, salt for the water softener, or logs for the woodstove.

There is my personal account, for travel to visit my family; clothes and cosmetics; presents; books, music and hobbies; plants, seeds and compost; charity gifts; helping my family.

There is my savings account, for building up capital for larger projects or times of need.

There is a designated account for the rents and expenses associated with a house that came under our wing from an earlier failed family project.

In each case, in response to the question: ‘Will this bring me peace?’ I follow a practice of what I call ‘lining the bank account’; much as a bird making her nest will line the inside of it with moss and feathers, softening the interior against the scratchy twigs that make up the basic structure.
My savings account I aim to line with £1,000. It is the basis for further savings, but if anyone has a disaster, I can dip into it.

My current account I aim to line with £100. I also have an agreed overdraft, but I never actually need to use the overdraft because the lining of £100 acts as an overdraft lent by me to myself. If I have made a number of purchases on ebay and Amazon without paying proper attention to the exact amounts, I may go over my budget – but the £100 will absorb the extravagance, and I build it up again as I go until the £100 is once more in place.

The housekeeping account is lined with £500. The income for this account is a monthly bank transfer from my husband’s personal account, made on the first of the month when his salary is in. As the transfer travels between two different banks it is about five days in transit. Several of the bills on direct debit leave the housekeeping account before his transfer arrives in, therefore: and if we start the month on the 1st, the first week of groceries money is drawn before the salary transfer comes in. But we never run the risk of going overdrawn because the account is lined with this buffer zone of £500.

The rented house account receives rents, pays all the bills on the rental house (utilities, insurances etc, repairs and maintenance), and accrues little by little each month a surplus that enables us once in a while to renovate a bathroom or replace furniture and white goods. And it also creates, while gathering ready to be used for one of these larger projects, an emergency pot to be dipped into if family disasters exceeding the remit of the savings account should occur.

Putting the linings of the accounts in place requires focus, discipline and a certain level of self-denial and extra work. Once they are in place, however, they serve the purposes of freedom and contentment. If I ask of this strategy, ‘Will this bring me peace?’, the answer has to be a resounding and unequivocal ‘YES!’ It also sets me free to help others, and liberates me from having to pay close daily attention to my bank balances for fear of going overdrawn.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Faith in the summer

In these March days when despite the bright sunshine it is so bitter cold, I wanted to post here a reminder of summer, and hold out for warmer times coming.