The satisfaction of small things

Odd jobs are strange things. They’re always small, and they hang around for a long time because they are inconsequential. Nothing bad happens if you don’t do them, and the benefit of doing isn’t great enough to drive action. So they hang around, on the margins of consciousness.

Occasionally I get all David Allan (he of Getting Things Done fame) on myself and empty my mental list of odd jobs onto paper. This is both a relief and completely disheartening because the list is so long, and so full of trivial things that I should have taken care of.

I look at these incidental things and think, that’s a 1 minute job, why on earth haven’t I done that? But instead of just doing it, I either ruminate on what has led me to not do this job for so long (answer? Ruminating on why I haven’t done it) or I realise I’m missing some vital bit for the job and put it off until next time I am at the appropriate store.

Today I knocked off one of the jobs on my mental list of minor repairs needed around home: my letterbox. Ever since I moved in (and Facebook tells me it was 6 -six! – years ago), the letterbox has lacked a latch. I have at various times used a twig or a wodged-up bit of paper to wedge it shut but clearly this has been a low-rent solution.

So yesterday I decided I would do the job. I put the drill on the charger and by morning it was charged. It takes 5 hours according to the sticker on the charging unit. Next, I drive to the hardware store, a 5km round trip, to get a single nail. I suspect this reinforced every stereotype they hold of women and DIY (men would probably buy a box of nails even if they only needed one) but God love them, they gave it to me for free.

I returned home and got the right size drill bit, measured the relevant distance and drilled the requisite hole. This took maybe 10 seconds. I inserted the nail and the letterbox is now latched shut.

This is typical of odd jobs and explains why they never get done: it required a car journey and charging the drill for 5 hours to do a job that took 10 seconds to complete. And what is the benefit? My bills no longer fall out of the box and blow away. Which they didn’t do when the paper or twig wedged it shut either. So really, it’s just a more permanent solution if a completely inelegant one (a nail through the side of the box into the flap, which I simply pull out to open).

But for all of that, I feel like I’ve Done Something this weekend, and when people at work ask what I did over the weekend I’m going to say proudly that I repaired my letterbox.

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Lifelong eating habits

I come from a family where sitting down to eat together was simply the way things were done. We sat together at the dining table for breakfast every day: home made muesli or porridge, toast with marmalade or marmite (jam was a treat), and milk or coffee.

Lunch was of course at school or work during the week, so we carried lunch boxes packed with wholemeal bread sandwiches, usually cheese and lettuce, always a piece of fruit. We made and packed our own each morning. I don't recall morning or afternoon snacks at school except at primary school where it was usually a small box of raisins. We never had bottled drinks, juice or otherwise, and we only ever had fizzy drink like Fanta (never Coke on account of the caffeine) on birthdays. Schools had water fountains.

Dinner was home cooked and always eaten at the table. Always. I recall going out to a restaurant three times in my childhood. Meat was a small component of the plate (a single drumstick or wing each for us kids) and there was a minimum of three vegetables. Dessert was usually stewed fruit, occasionally a small scoop of ice cream with it. After-dinner coffee for my parents was accompanied by a single square each of dark chocolate for all of us. I learned to savour that square and to this day I can eat just one square without craving more.

Looking back on it, this seems remarkable when compared with current practice. Two things stand out: the home made nature of the food, and the small portions. I don't recall ever being hungry but I know that the quantity of food we ate was about half or less what a current serving is. No one in my family was overweight. I've been the same weight my entire adult life.

The lessons of childhood have stuck with me. I still have porridge for breakfast, or toast with marmalade. I sit at the dining table to eat it. Most nights I cook, and lately I've been very vegetarian in my recipe choices. I usually make enough for two so I can have leftovers the next night. Where I fall down is lunch, which I have got into the habit of buying at work. I would like to break this habit as it's expensive and I could use the money for my house ventures.

By and large, these lifelong habits have served me well. I'm not prone to orthorexia or adopting fad diets. I still love dark chocolate but stop at two squares.

A lifetime of eating en famille has, somewhat counterintuitively, set me up well for a life of eating alone. I recreate the plates I've been eating from all my life. Habits carry me through.

Am I losing my marbles?

I lost one of my good kitchen knives the other day. It's about a 25cm long chef's knife so we're not talking small paring knife size: fairly hard to lose.

At first I thought my Monday guest might have used it and put it away in a drawer instead of in the knife block. I searched every drawer: no sign.

I checked the dishwasher in case it was there or had fallen through the racks. No sign.

In desperation I decided to systematically go through every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. Including the trash, which is where I found it.

I am completely baffled by how it got there. I have no memory of putting it there, and can't think how I could have accidentally swept it up along with vegetable scraps without noticing and dumped it in there.

Look, I realise this is a completely trivial event in the scheme of things. I didn't even have to buy a new knife. But what really bothers me about it is that I have no memory of doing this.

Other worrying things in the past few weeks: I left the oven on for hours after removing the baking; and I left a gas burner on for about 45mins after taking the pan off it.

This is the stuff of old age. It's my nightmare of becoming That (Old) Person who does weird random stuff, hiding keys in the fridge and getting paranoid that people are breaking into my house and stealing my socks just because I can't find them.

And of course, fear of Alzheimer's.

Realistically what I think happened was that I was talking to my Monday guest and absent mindedly tossed it away without paying any attention to what I was doing. At least I hope that's what it was.

It's more proof that I just cannot talk and cook, or do any two things at once. I'm thinking I might just need to pay attention to what I'm doing. The stove and oven events were the same problem, thinking about something else altogether and not paying attention to what I was doing.

More evidence that mindfulness matters. If only to stop me from burning down the house.

Silence and mindfulness

edith-sitwell
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.” ― Edith Sitwell

I’m re-reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, a book I return to when my need for silence is weighing on me and for whatever reason I can’t get any.

What I like so much about this book is that Maitland treats silence as a positive. Her focus isn’t  on silence as the absence of sound or conversation so much as on silence as a quality to seek out and to cultivate.

Maitland describes herself as having had an “unusually noisy” childhood. Thus she establishes her credentials, proving she is talkative as the next person and can function perfectly well in the noisy social world, therefore her interest in silence is not pathological or a symptom of her failure to ‘fit’ into ‘normal’ society.

I have no such credentials. I grew up in a very quiet house. We were not a radio-listening, television-watching, music-playing household. My parents sometimes played records from a small collection of classical music, but evenings were often silent with only the sound of the clock ticking and pages being turned. We were a reading house, and reading is a solitary and silent activity.

Perhaps this is why silence doesn’t distress me. Silence represents engagement with an inner life, be it a book or one’s own imagination. My father drew and painted, my mother knitted, read and wrote, and these activities were carried out without conversation. Silence was productive. it was the sign of someone being fully absorbed in an activity of great personal value.

It wasn’t a lack of anything. It was, on the contrary, total presence. Mindfulness by another name.

A mid winter trip 

I booked in a few days’ leave to travel with a friend visiting from Australia. It’s not the time of year that I’d pick for a trip but she announced she was coming and that was that. 

Naturally, visiting my estate was on the list of places to go. (I’m rather pretentiously referring to it these days as “my estate”, mainly because I can and it makes me laugh to say it). It’s a four hour drive so I thought we could go a bit further over the next few days, visit a few tourist spots and drive home the scenic route. 

All of which seemed like a not unreasonable plan, except that I didn’t actually want to go on holiday at this time of year, I had to do all the driving and all the bookings and planning, and I went down with the flu the week before. She used to live here, so it wasn’t as if it was a once in a lifetime trip either. 

I knew what I was in for on this trip, which meant I could mentally prepare for 5 days of company. I knew I’d be doing the listening: knowing I wasn’t going to be listened to meant I didn’t expect the conversation to go two ways. I mentally noted one day that during a 2.5h stretch of uninterrupted driving, I made one substantive contribution to the conversation, which wasn’t followed up on, and the rest was all her. I wasn’t passive: I was expected to, and did, ask questions, probe complicated situations and react appropriately to scandals and outrages. I didnt tune out. But it was tiring and my resentment did build.  

It wasn’t until I’d dropped her at another friend’s house for the remainder of her stay, that it suddenly dawned on me I’d volunteered for this. I was under absolutely no obligation to take time off just because she came to visit. I’d fallen into the social trap of doing what I thought was the socially expected thing rather than sticking to what I wanted, enjoyed, and was willing to give. I resented it more because I’d felt pushed into it than because of the near-complete lack of reciprocity (although that didn’t help). In short, I felt used. 

But it’s my own fault. There’s nothing malicious in what she did, she’s just self absorbed. I’m the one who first ignored what I needed and wanted. She just walked through a door I’d already opened. 

I’ve been sick most of this past week. No doubt the recent emotional stresses have contributed: although mentally I have got much better at dealing with stress, my body has little resilience and it doesn’t take much to tip me over the limit. I’m a lightweight. 

Lying in bed gives you a lot of time to think. A curious realisation came to light on day 4: I was starting to feel “left behind” by work. Things move at a hectic pace normally, and it’s particularly busy at the moment.  I was fearing that I was becoming more irrelevant by the day. 

What surprised me about feeling this was that I thought I didn’t care about it so much any more. With my Grand Plan to build on my land and retire there, I thought work had taken a back seat. And yet that fear of being sidelined reared its head just when I most needed to rest and not stress about work. 

I had a boss for several years who was very driven. He had a clear idea of where he wanted to get to, and drove all of us hard in that direction. He valued those who could get him to where he wanted to go, and being a people pleaser, I made myself into a Very Useful Person. 

Naturally I burned out. He moved on to others. He’s not cruel, or a bully, he just believes reaching the goal is the most important thing. Another approach would be to believe people’s job satisfaction is the most important thing and reaching the goal is secondary to that. I’m a better fit for the latter type of manager, although I did learn a lot from him and a lot about myself from the whole experience.

The trap that I fell into was understanding my worth in his terms. I was only worthy if I was able to deliver what he wanted. Once I was no longer able, I wasn’t as useful. I wasn’t as valued. 

I was primed for this of course. We relive our childhood relationships over and over. My mother had a very utilitarian view of her children: be useful or you are useless to her. 

As this fear of uselessness reemerges, it’s helpful to reflect on where it’s come from and remind myself what it’s really about. And not about. I’m not useless. I know that. I’m not going to be fired because I’m home sick for a few days. Sure it might inconvenience some people, but that’s life.

At times like this it’s good to remind myself  that a utilitarian view of people is not the only way to view people or to be viewed. And that it’s not the way I want to view or be viewed. 

When all you’re doing is waiting

My aunt died on Wednesday. Death is a mystifying thing, to move so quickly and irrevocably from being to not being. I spoke to her on the phone last weekend and she sounded bright although tired. It unravelled very quickly.

The chaos that surrounded her last weeks was nothing unusual – she thrived on drama and created it if none existed. She’d grown up in a very unhappy home with an alcoholic father and a violent mother, and escaped as soon as she was able. I expect that the instability and chaos of her young life was a state that she recreated as an adult in order to feel comfortable, in the way we do with things from our childhood. Even when the familiar is completely dysfunctional. My cousins are now left to sort through the wreckage and resolve things as best they can. It seems a heavy burden to lay on loved ones.

It’s been a pretty exhausting few weeks for them, and while nowhere near as close to it as them it’s taken its toll on me too. I’ve also been dealing with some health issues my father has been facing, and wondering where all that is headed while I ferry him to the doctor and the hospital for tests. The results are no different from what was expected, so there is relief in that – at least it’s no worse. It’s just the almost unavoidable consequence of getting older. But there is a lot that goes along with that.

Looking back on it, these past few weeks have been about waiting. Waiting to see when my aunt would die, what my father’s results would show, and what might or might not come next.

Waiting is a terrible way to spend a life. It’s possible to completely avoid living if we dedicate ourselves to waiting instead. We wait until we’re done with school, with university, until we get our first job, until we get a promotion, for our annual holiday, for the weekend, for a Sunday morning lie-in, for that text, that call. There is no limit to what we can wait for, and seemingly nothing is too trivial to hold the promise of ‘better’ once the waiting is over. I’ll be happy when… I’ll take up running when… I’ll eat better when…

The other week, I wrote about not optimising waiting time. I said then that attempting to ‘productivise’ (ergh) every waking moment was a terrible idea and we should spend our waiting time day dreaming. I still think daydreaming is a far better way to spend time standing in line than checking email is, but it’s not a good way to spend a life. If our entire life consists of waiting, we probably need to get on and do something.

And there you have my philosophy: when waiting, wait. When you’ve done too much waiting, do. Got that?!