Living Remnants: or why I’m not (really) blogging about de-cluttering

Feb Break Sat 2015 073In my teenage years I used to retort “I’m not really reading” when my disciplined and cultured mother would say “Either light a lamp or get out of that dark corner with that book.” And now, confronting the reality of usable space in the house, of my aging joints,  of my available time, etc. etc. I’ve embarked on downsizing my decades-old pile of papers, fabric, toys and clothes. Naturally, a perky cartoon figure of the mind pipes up and inquires “Why don’t you blog about it?” The following are my retorts to it:

1. The temptation to fib is enormous.

2. My house will still look cluttered by anyone else’s standard when I am through. It is a workshop and library, not just a place to park myself at the end of the day-job day.

3. My job as a teacher, and the rest of life, will not allow me to work continuously on the project, though I do chip away at it daily.

4. What I keep and what I let go of may make no sense to anyone else–here is where the writing comes in, little scribbles of conjecture and command to keep myself going. Notes and hand-drawn charts are my handrail up this slippery slope.  I’ve lived in a dozen places–my things, my insensible things, are my roots.  (Sorry explanation, of course.) My books I won’t even explain past saying that I’d have to be near one of a limited number of large university libraries to have access to similar things. I’ve given up my old plan to make patchwork quilts or collages out of every scrap (what can I say?– I was a stay-at-home parent/ artist), but the principle of eking the story out of what’s left remains.

A winter-break (our strange February holiday, for non-New-Englanders) exchange with teenager is to the point here:

Young Person: These night gowns are really gross. The front of this one is all gray. And this one is just a rag.
Me: The color supposed to be lavender. Knit fabrics don’t keep very well. Those are nightgowns from when you were born. I cut off that one because it was comfortable but I wanted to wear pajamas with it. We used the bottom half for cleaning rags.
Young Person: Well, maybe you should keep one then–if they’re historic.
Me: Nah. They really need to go.
Young Person: Then go write 500 words about them.
Me: OK. This is very appropriate use of your innate bossiness.

And really, folks,the textile me says:  cotton knits are comfy because they are light and stretchy like skin. Ironing them to interfacing and making quilts out of them is the most perverse craft idea I ever heard of! Do you preserve the skins of every chicken or fish you’ve eaten? No matter how clean your t-shirts and knit gowns are when you put them away, they get to smelling like dirty socks when they are stored in boxes.  I think they preserve some essence of your life and activities–and why not? They are the last step before nudity for most of us. You can bleach them and sun them, but then they fall apart even faster.  Think of knit cottons as clean bandages and not clothing, a daily bit of textile life that will not get woven into the tapestry of the ages except as a scent or an idea. And that leaves me here:  I have to take the wild chance that I will remember my strapping young roommate as a bald-headed wriggling baby in my arms in that wee rented house of yore, or I won’t. (She had her own knit cottons, of course, but she grew out of them in such record time that those tiny shirts and onesies were worn by several other babies afterwards.) I will remember my mother indulging me with nightgowns in my favorite colors, or I won’t.  I will remember my father–the grandfather of big-headed newborn–ordering me and baby off the thick futon on the floor so it could go on the wooden frame, or I won’t. My memories themselves, written or pictured, will become someone else’s clutter.  Digitizing them to get them off the floor is not good enough, as it turns out.  (See http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/13/google-boss-warns-forgotten-century-email-photos-vint-cerf).

I also just ripped up into dust rags the handwoven purple striped tablecloth that faded in the Banaras sun on my little study table; I took notes on the arcane poetry that was the subject of my doctoral dissertation while sweating into it. All that truly feels like another life, but of course those times made me a different person for the rest of my life. The strictness and chaos of that ancient pilgrim town layered with squawkingly aggressive commercialism, the unknown sea of “dissertation” that I had innocently waded into, both colored and hardened me, the me that is now sitting in this chair typing in a break between the snowstorms of this winter in Maine. The light lines through the deep, muddy purple of my tablecloth were like lines in a notebook.  The fabric is so weakened now that even gripping one edge in my teeth ripped out tiny patches.  The tougher red border tore off as one long piece which I’ve offered to my spouse as a rag for trombone neti. Relatives still living in South Asia are so pragmatically used to this process that instead of trying to save old curtains and spreads “for the memories”, they give them away or rip them up with alacrity. Only fancy clothes are sometimes saved for future generations.

4. I no longer WANT anyone’s opinion on what to keep and what to give away. Even my friends have been frequently in the wrong on this score. My mother possibly understands my immigrant’s aesthetic ties to Indian fabric, and but what about the *American* things? Having been through historical and geographical upheavals herself, she understands the need to preserve, but maybe she doesn’t even know what’s in my college notebook boxes…although I think she has a trunkful of wonder-struck and sophomoric letters I sent her back then, written in immaturely slanting longhand on lined paper.

5. The word “chuck” indicates waste to me. I certainly take part in our insane consumption, but it’s always made me nervous. Recycle, repurpose, donate to the right group: that’s where I want to be active. “Trade” and “sell” have not worked out very well since we seem to live on an elliptically looping minor planet at the edge of the universe. Give, give, give–that really is the cure for “keep, keep, keep”. “I kept it for you” is a good silent explanation when I hand someone something I’ve kept for years–the words often turn out to be genuine in an unexpected way. Why else would I have sewing patterns in sizes that don’t fit me (or now) anyone else in the immediate family? Heart-shaped plastic beads? Needlepoint needles with deliberately flattened tips?

Coconut Oil Thermometer

The original name of this blog, Waterchili, came from the frozen green chilis we keep on ice to add to our cooking.  To keep with the transported-tropical-produce theme, let me note how a jar of coconut oil in our kitchen serves as a sharply accurate marker for the seasons.  I am surprised that the appropriate technology people haven’t made an actual oil thermometer–but perhaps they don’t need to.  People who keep jars or bottles or cans of coconut oil in their house as a regular thing would notice on their own how attuned it is to the temperature.

Even up here in the North of the Northern USA, our household uses coconut oil as a hair and head conditioner (though some people cook with it too) the way that traditional South Asians do.  You get it into a liquid state and rub it through your scalp and thirsty remnants of a mane before you bathe.  Shampoo and hot water wash out the excess, leaving your hair soft and your scalp more soothed than it might be otherwise.  Never mind that for a while my provocatively original 13 year old was applying it to her dripping locks AFTER taking a shower–one of the several notable instances of members of my extended family applying printed advice in unprecedented and impractical ways.  For South Asians, hair oil also has all kinds of mental health connotations, and is supposed to help preserve your hair as you age.  Coconut oil is mixed into fancier hair condiments in South Asia–ones with fragrance and color and poetic names–which will register the cooling of the season with their own uncooperative partial solidification, but these patent mixtures do not (perhaps deliberately) have the spot-on temperature honesty of pure coconut oil. Around here, we need to melt out the little bit we use each time; that is why we keep it in the kitchen.  Besides, my nervous sandwich-generation imagination can too easily see the glass jar slipping from young or elderly hands and smashing to bits on the hard tile floor of the bathroom; shards of glass lined with white fat just wouldn’t have the charm of the broken coconut fragments, white fruit lining the hairy and hard brown shell pieces, that were childhood treats on our West Bengal veranda.

This little story of the coconut oil thermometer really began one morning in June,  when we noticed a jar of straw-yellow liquid on the kitchen counter.  Around our devil’s workshop of a house, I keep everything from colored glass bangles to dried chrysanthemum flowers in old spaghetti sauce jars.  These jars are so handy, in their wide-mouthed, measured-capacity ways.  Nevertheless, I, who can sniff the difference between two year old ground cumin and coriander–when to most other people both resemble aged sawdust– jumped in slight alarm at the pale translucency in the clean jar and asked my husband What’s that?  Leftover wine? Kerosene? Less pleasant substances had also streaked through my mind just then.  He didn’t know either, but after our tea and coffee we finally realized that the intractable white solid that we occasionally dug at, and had to microwave or heat in a saucepan to thaw during most of the year, had liquefied completely overnight due to the short and furious Maine summer finally arriving at our typically un-air-conditioned house.

All summer my daughter (the hair-aficionado, or -nada) and I poured spoonfuls on our head directly from the jar, reveling in the ease of application after the jabbing and scraping that just about made us give up the stuff in colder months.  Friends as we are with the people who cut our hair, we could only get them to nod sympathetically, as if at two permanently confused and inarticulate people, when we described our own hot-oil treatment to them while they worked on our respectively salt-and-pepper and richly auburn-brown heads.

Suddenly, two days ago, the first cool breeze of September blew back to front through our cluttered house, and the next morning part of the coconut oil was white again.  I said, We could use this as a thermometer.  Panting in the car on the way home from work in late afternoon Portland traffic, I could not imagine my kitchen as a cool place, but I guess it had been all day:  this afternoon even more of it was white and solid, leaving just a sneaky smile of liquid yellowish oil in the middle layer.  Not just a thermometer–this jar could serve as a calendar too!  I called my spouse and he said It’s supposed to go up into the 80’s again; let’s see what it’s going to do.

If the stuff melts, which it might not for a brief quirk of weather, I’ll get my paint-splattered shorts out again (the pair that got left on the deck railing for a week one summer and was thus three shades lighter on the outside than inside) and go for a walk around the neighborhood in my flip flops, denying the inevitable even as my bag of schoolwork to grade gets heavier by the day.  The coconut fat did partially become oil again, but only on one side of the jar, as if to keep its slippery feet firmly planted in seasonal reality.

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I am finally posting this on an early October day when sweaters have begun to come out of their shady summer hiding places and it is out of the question for even the teenager to go out in flip flops.  In fact, gathering cold-season supplies from various malls this weekend, we noticed a bizarre wall hanging on sale:  painted tin flip flops nailed to a rectangular panel, an object that I’m willing to bet no full-time tropical person would actually decorate their wall with. Meanwhile, our coconut oil pet is sitting tight in its jar, creamy white and stubborn.  The heat coming on in the house might make it manageable for cosmetological purposes, but liquid oil? It won’t be that until the awe-inspiring movements of the solar system bring us around to June again.

Sitting in the Dark

One evening in July somewhere in Maine, my spouse wouldn’t wait until morning to look at the creaking, shuddering, fan/light assembly hanging over the dining room table and he turned off the electricity.  Now our dining room was too hot to sit in, and our aging brown wicker-patterned friend–its perpetual summer circling arrested–needed some tinkering with. Actually, I got my valiant spouseto turn the whole house’s electricity off so he wouldn’t hurt himself; he often rushes into the home maintenance jobs he loves because he has so little time after commuting and working.  Not endowed with feline vision, I decided to stay out of the way and seize the opportunity for a bit of rest.  Lying on the sofa during our own little load-shedding (the term used in India for when the electricity goes off for a while because the supply cannot keep up with the demand) with my head towards the big living room window framing the fluttery tree, I noticed the pink edge of the sky you don’t see in our tree-laden suburban neighborhood unless you’re outside walking.  It came back to me that during my childhood in the arid little town of Hijli, in West Bengal not far from the Bihar border, my parents would let twilight grow through the house most evenings.  They wouldn’t turn the lights on right away, just to enjoy the gradual fading and displacement of the harsh sunlight of the day.  We would sit on the veranda or in the living room and just let it get darker and darker, chatting or playing.  Our street of small university houses was still surrounded by grazing fields for cows and goats and a palpable stock of uncanny quiet.  A car or jeep might go by once a week, and most movement was by foot, bicycle or cycle-rickshaw.  In the evening, the voices of passersby–families strolling together, or friends in ones and twos hailing us from the front gate–carried into the veranda of our little cement house with the smooth floors, or through the wide open living room windows, long before we could see them clearly.

This sitting around in the twilight was a less self-conscious form of relaxation than the fun activities we pitch ourselves into these days—bike rides, bookstore browses, and so on—because we are so aware of needing them.  When the lights finally came on in our Hijli house, it would have been for a 9 o clock supper, and it was always a blazing shock after the softening into the dark our eyes had enjoyed.  The idea then was to stay awake until the rice of our late meal was eaten, but I was a slow child, and mine would always get cold.

(July 2011/September 2012)

Hall Pass

I’m a substitute teacher these days, and usually my students are taller than me.  But yesterday I was at the elementary school, and a second grader with shiny brown eyes took a little something out of his pocket during morning round-up, and excitedly declared “I found a coconut on my way to school today!” In his small, sweaty, palm was a triangular piece of dark coconut shell. I agreed that it was a wonderful find indeed, for a humid September morning. Then, I remembered “curriculum”–“Do you think that grew around here, in Maine?” Several kids articulated their more or less completed thoughts– no, coconuts grow far away, in warm places. I joked with the boy who brought it, that since *I* was born far away in a warm place, that this bit of coconut shell could be used as a hall pass if anyone needed to leave the classroom I was supervising.

Then we launched into the day’s lessons and activities–sitting around the story-mat (which turns out to be the math-mat as well), or sitting at our small tables in small colorful chairs:  listening to Jack Prelutsky’s poetry, opening apple juice boxes, chasing and then (finally, because they were so excited and upset and carrying it out on a piece of paper did not work at ALL) sending a rather large spider on to its next reincarnation with a dainty pink plastic clog; also handling and washing little rocks of three different colors, giving pep talks to our little blue math calculators, and so on. The day did indeed fly by, as the notes from the classroom teacher promised it would. Most of the kids took the time to give me high fives when they left in batches to catch their well-spaced out buses.

A day later, emptying out my pockets, I found the little triangle of coconut shell.  The boy with the shining brown eyes– the same little guy, who during morning Science Time, had demonstrated a “tough” stance with one hand on a hip and helped me to explain the difference between /tuff/ the volcanic rock and being tough–had given me my “hall-pass”, to keep, at the end of the day.  In the flurry of goodbyes after the bell rang, I hadn’t taken much note of it.  At home, nursing my aching feet (a second-grade teacher doesn’t sit much), I had forgotten about it altogether, until this morning when I went flouncing about the house picking up laundry.