Thursday, 6 May 2021

730 things — Day 56 of 365

 I have a feeling that attraction to minimalism has to do with a person's sense of impermanence.

Cory Varga said:

. . . when you know you will leave your flat, all items seem like a silly buy. You know you won't be able to take everything with you so you suddenly don't want to waste money on a new pan which will only serve you for so long.

And you could take that observation written originally about nomadic lifestyle and apply it to the whole of life.

In the same way that we know the Earth is round and we have plenty of evidence to deduce and understand that it's round, but from where we stand and look about us us it doesn't look round — more flat, really — so it can be that although we know we will die one day and that our life in the meantime will be subject to changes we don't expect for predict, even so it all seems to be going on like this for such a long time that it feels as if it could be for ever. (Gosh, that was a long sentence.)

My outlook on life and change has been shaped by two particular things. 

The first was that in my childhood, no one stayed in the same place for very long. My father (who spoke many languages) worked overseas, establishing an export market for Eveready Batteries — in Scandinavia, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Congo, Japan, all sorts of places. He would be away for months at a time, and home only a short while before it was time to go again. He lived poised to leave, everything packed up tidily in plastic bags all ready to put in a suitcase and go. My mother ran our home, and made all the decisions about it. My father had one small single bedroom (allocated by her and the décor chosen by her) in which he kept his few small personal things. My mother, meanwhile, focused on her (and our) home as a career. Our gardens were ambitious and immaculate, growing our fruit and vegetables (and adding in due course sheep and hens) and wonderful displays of flowers. Our houses were most tastefully decorated and furnished. My parents were born near the end of the 1920s, so their adult lives as home-owners coincided with the decades of post-war property boom. My mother gradually inherited smaller and larger lumps of capital, which she invested entirely in property. In every house where we lived she remodelled the building with imaginative reconfigurations and extensions, and we moved house every few years as she worked our way up the property ladder. So my childhood was influenced by the example and experience of constant change, determined by somebody else. I lived in an environment where nothing was chosen by me and everything designed to sell; and my father was always leaving. Even when he came home he was leaving. Our home was much of the time in process of being rebuilt, and our routine was incessantly disrupted by my father being often not there but expecting to be accommodated and influence what happened when he was there. So I grew up with a sense that everything is fluid and impermanent. Nothing is yours and nothing stays the same and nobody stays anywhere long. The connections I made with monks and nuns and Hutterites living in community, as a young adult, tended to reinforce this view — because they own nothing and surrender control over their lives and are moved often.

The second thing that shaped my outlook on life and change is the work I have done. I worked for a few years with nuns who ran a home for people who had epilepsy and multiple profound disabilities. Among them were young children, among whom were several whose mothers had done their darnedest to look after them at home but burned out. Burn-out is resisted and the collapse comes suddenly — all of a sudden you just can't do this any more. So the little kids came into the residential care facility where I worked having lived their 9 years (or whatever age they were) so far in constant close personal proximity to their mother — who suddenly dropped them off with us. Quite often the mother's marriage did not survive the rigours of caring for a child with unusually profound needs, so the relationship of mother and child had been one-to-one. And suddenly it stopped. Several of these children were very autistic and without speech, unable to communicate emotion. In an environment run by nuns who were all required to practice self-effacement, behaviour was the emphasis not feelings. And I remember one little girl who came to us because her parents could no longer manage her at home. Her mother was a very neat and modest woman, and the little girl was impeccably dressed — she looked like Milly Molly Mandy with her pretty dresses and white ankle socks and Mary-Jane shoes. She had been in perfect health and doing very well at school, a bright child conditioned by high expectations of behaviour from her middle-class parents. Then she had a routine vaccination which caused unexpected damage to her central nervous system. Suddenly all she could do was stand, slowly revolving, her eyes vacant, unresponsive to anything said to her though she would go with you if you led her by the hand. She could eat if you fed her, and would sit down or lie down if you required her to. She could no longer speak, at all. She was eight years old. 

Later on in my life I worked in hospice and in nursing homes, and cared for people whose lives were ending. In the nursing homes I looked after people whose lives had been changed forever by catastrophic illness — the family doctor used to calling the shots, who remained imperious and demanding even though he was in pyjamas and confined to his bed by chrome rails; the priest too fat and weak to get out of his chair who consoled himself in his confusion and loneliness by his large stash of sherry kept in his wardrobe; the racing driver who crashed his car forty years ago at the age of 26 and had been in bed ever since; the headmistress who had been running a private school for girls one month and was in a nursing home room with us, for good, the next, after a massive stroke. 

I saw what it was not only to die but also to live with a small allocation of space in a shared room, with no control over your body, and that changed my understanding of the nature and certainties of life.

Then, much later, after my first husband had left me — and I thought marriage meant for ever — I picked myself up and started again, but my second husband (who had been the fittest man I ever personally knew, vigorous and strong) died fifteen months into our marriage.

I guess it is perhaps unusual to have had so much up close and personal experience of impermanence, but even for people who are oblivious, radical unexpected change is still an abiding possibility. 

One of the benefits of minimalism is that it allows a person to absorb and respond to change — it minimises the trauma and disruption of upheaval and loss. Moving house, sharing with others, managing one's own weakness and vulnerability, living on a low income, coping with illness, and then dying — all of it is made easier to manage by minimalism.

A lot of possessions to curate, a heavy schedule to manage, and a complex social framework with all the expectations that entails — these impose requirements of ability and capacity that not all of us have; and sometimes, suddenly the music stops. If that happened to you, are you satisfied with the life conditions you'd have at the point of sudden arrest? Would they leave you free and peaceful to absorb and respond to sudden traumatic change? 

Buddhist teaching about impermanence, and Taoist teaching about responsiveness, adaptability and flow, have helped me immensely in understanding and responding to catastrophic change and endings (whether in my own life or in the lives of others). I have found that minimalism is key to living at peace with impermanence, and to enhancing adaptability to life's constant flow. Put simply, it reduces the problems in life because it reduces everything. And I suppose I have learned a preference for living always ready to go, with not a moment's notice.

Today I am sending on their way some bits and pieces from my altar. I took the labels off the prayer boxes and re-used them (along with the little piece of cord for a cross) in the crafter's kit I made for Freegle. The quotations and pictures and leaflet of the Metta Sutta I put into a ceremonial prayer fire. 

Even though they were not expensive or substantial, these were things I loved and wanted to hang on to, and did for a long time; but I want to dig deep in going through what I choose to take with me, and find my way to the bedrock of what is (for the present moment) essential.


Sandra Ann said...

Such deep words, the publishing world’s loss is your blog reader’s gain. Your story of your youth and onwards really highlights why you are following this path of simplicity. Thank you for sharing xx

Suzan said...

I can see the little girl and the older ladies whose world altered in an instant.

I worked as a teacher of the visually impaired and spent a year working with those who had been deaf and blind since birth. Helen Keller had the advantage of seeing and hearing for a short while. These poor souls had not had that and they were like extremely closed off, often very violent autistic souls. Then I went nursing and the powers that be wanted me to work in head injuries. As an RN I worked in rehab wards. Some were straight forward cases and others were so complex. The saddest was an old Anglican priest who had nothing. Some staff were very scathing about his plight. I knew his son and I know what had happened to the money. I felt I had to quiet about that. I even found my elderly next door neighbour wandering naked and aimlessly around the major hospital in which I worked. That move was met with distain. This lady had no family left and I returned her to her ward. I didn't complain or register a complaint but somehow it was held against me by my superior.

When I left my husband he kept almost everything and lied in court. I lost my home and much more.

However, whatever happens I try to keep going. God bless.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi San — yes, I have a feeling you are one of those who knows all about the need to live simply just to make life work. You and your family have lived with such big health challenges for such a long time. xx

Hi Suzan — these encounters you describe from your nursing work, and your experiences of the ending of your marriage, they make an abiding impact, do they not? They change you. xx

Anonymous said...

Yes, when heart-breaking life events expose the sham of expectations and social norms, we are left with very little that actually matters. For me, kindness and the simple wonders of the natural world are everything. Thank you for sharing in this kindred and quiet space.
Deb x

Pen Wilcock said...

"kindness and the simple wonders of the natural world" ❤️