I hit peak hippie.

Last week, I hit peak hippie. Actually, that’s probably a lie. I suspect there’s a lot worse more to come. It all started a few weeks ago. As I stood in the shower, mindlessly reaching my hand into the soap dish that usually holds my shampoo bar, I froze. My fingers, instead of wrapping themselves around said shampoo bar in all its creamy goodness, floated mid-air for a moment, before reaching the cold ceramic sign of emptiness. Uh-oh. I suddenly remembered I used up the very last slimy shreds of shampoo the previous day and forgot to buy a new bar. After a few moments of horrifying panic and difficulty breathing – I mean, I was wet and naked and deprived, is there a place where we are more vulnerable than in the shower? – my crisis management skills, acquired through years of dysfunctional family childhood trauma, kicked in. It was as if the gods themselves replaced brain fog with clarity, and I confidently decided upon a new course of action: I’d wash my hair with a regular soap bar. Living on the edge, baby! Oh yeah.

Let me tell you, this was a life-changing experience. Truly. In case the sarcasm isn’t obvious, it wasn’t. But it did make me wonder. Why do we using shampoo for our hair and soap for our bodies? Did my grandparents use shampoo when they were growing up, or was there a multi-purpose product? Why is it that for house cleaning, I make do with a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, white vinegar, and baking soda, but that I need a different product for each of my bodily cleaning needs? I’ve long sworn off shaving cream and I loathe conditioner – I cannot stand how it makes my hair feel, and I’d much rather dryness than conditioned hair – but I’d never questioned shampoo.

That’s not to say I haven’t thought about shampoo before. I stopped buying shampoo in plastic bottles ages ago. There’s a wide selection of shampoo bars out there and they’re just as good as the bottled variety, so it simply doesn’t make sense to stick with single use plastic bottles. And why would we want to use chemical-laden products if there are plenty of other alternatives? I’m not a purist – frankly, I’m not disciplined enough to be one, and I’m pretty sure that if it weren’t for chemicals, most of us would be dead. The question for me is one of necessity and of consequences. The products we wash down the drain don’t disappear into thin air. They end up in local waterways, in the soil we grow our food in, and in our food and water. Not to mention the plastic that ends up in our fish and tapwater. I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about how this works – and because this is a blog and not a piece of academic writing I don’t have to! hah! – but there’s a certain logic here. 

Anyway. I decided to try washing my hair with the Dr. Bronner’s soap I use for body and house cleaning. People rave about how it works for everything and since it’s a gentle castille soap, what harm could it do? It’s recommended that you dilute it, and that you rinse your hair with diluted apple cider vinegar afterwards. After a ten day experiment, let me save you the trouble of trying this for yourself: it does not work. Do not try this at home. It makes your hair absolutely disgusting. The ‘council-shut-off-the-water-on-our-street-for-three-weeks-without-telling-us’ kind of disgusting. The internet is a big, fat liar.

Back to the drawing board, it was. I read something about the ‘no poo’ movement, where people swear off shampoo altogether and wash their hair with plain water and a lot less often. It is true, most of us wash our hair too (too judgemental?) very often. As a child I washed mine once a week. As a teenager, mostly through peer pressure, I upgraded to twice a week. These days, I do it every day or every other day, depending on how lazy I am or if I have to leave the house. We all know that the more we wash our hair, the more oil it produces and the dirtier it looks. But how do we get back from that…

As with everything, there are the die-hards, and there are those who have no self-discipline take a more moderate approach. I discovered that washing your hair with baking soda and rinsing with apple cider vinegar is a thing, so I gave that a try. The big, fat internet liar showed me some horror stories, but there are horror stories about every single thing (apart from using Dr. Bronner’s soap as shampoo, of course) if you search for them, so I chose to ignore them. And, you know, it’s hair. It’s not my liver or my heart I’m playing with. It’ll survive. And if it doesn’t, it’ll grow back. 1 part of baking soda to 3 or 4 parts of water, same thing for the apple cider vinegar. Pour some of the baking soda mixture onto the roots of your hair, not the ends, and massage your scalp. It doesn’t foam, but you get to used to that. Leave it in for 30 seconds while you do something else – shave your armpits, give a rendition of My Heart Will Go On – and rinse. Gently pour the apple cider vinegar mixture over your head, briefly massage your scalp, leave it in for 30 seconds – you might like to switch to Total Eclipse of the Heart here – and rinse.

I’ve been doing this for a little over two weeks now, and I must say that I like how my hair feels. I think it also looks decent – you may disagree but, honestly, I don’t care. I’ve also been trying to wash it less often, which means that I’m learning to sit with the dirt. Then again, the Dr. Bronner’s debacle trained me for this – everything happens for a reason…

Have I completely lost my mind? Quite possibly. This may not be your thing, but it works for me. It’s part of the process of reflecting on the little things I do every day, and of asking questions: Why do I do this? Is it what I want to do? Can it be done differently, in more simple ways? What it comes down to, to end on a cliché, is that there are some types of dirt I’m not willing to sit with.

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When things don’t go as planned.

I planned an entirely different post this week. I wrote it this morning and was going to proofread it tonight before publishing it. But then something happened. Don’t get too excited, it wasn’t anything big – this blog is called Little Matters after all. Or maybe it was.

This afternoon, I went to Sip My Ocean, a new exhibition by Pipilotti Rist at the MCA in Sydney with a friend. The installations were beautiful and inspiring, and so was the company. I’d had a wonderful afternoon, and planned to go to a BodyBalance class at the gym straight afterwards. Only, the gym I go to is a 40 minute train ride away (it’s my uni’s gym and it’s cheap and great). As I was on my way to the station, I realised there was trackwork on my line, which meant I had to run to the bus stop. The replacement buses were badly organised, and as I got to the bus stop, lungs hurting, I realised I was never going to get to the gym in time.

Bye bye BodyBalance. Bye bye wonderful end to a wonderful afternoon. I was sad and annoyed. This sucked. Yes, I know there are people out there who have real problems and that mine pale in comparison. But I had really looked forward to this class, especially since I’d already missed my usual Thursday class this week because I got stuck working that day, trying to rewrite the hundreds and hundreds of words I’d written the previous day that Word decided to destroy. I’d also lugged around my gym clothes and my laptop (to work on the train) all afternoon.  So yes, everything about this sucked, and I wasn’t happy.

As I sat at the bus stop, I contemplated my options. Walk back to the station and take a train home, or walk home, which would take an extra 10 minutes. I decided to walk, and childishly stomped my way through the streets.

Until it hit me. I could enjoy this walk. I could slow down instead of rushing like I had some place to be, I could notice what was happening all around me, breathe in the air that had that ‘it’s just rained’ kind of freshness, feel the tiny rain drops gently touch my skin.

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And just like that, my mood lifted. It really was that simple. I didn’t even take the shortest way home. I let myself get lost and discover new backstreets and alleys, new nooks and crannies. I walked in the grass and in the mud, and stopped to study the shapes in the bark of the trees. I looked up at the sky and the leaves overhead, and tried to shift my perspective not to see the leaves but the spaces in-between.

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After about 40 minutes, I started listening to a podcast, Liberated Body, I’d been meaning to listen to for ages but never got around to. I got home, put down my bag and nestled into the couch, and continued listening. I sat there without doing much else until I reached the end of the episode. Isn’t that great?

This was a wonderful end to my afternoon. I had really wanted to go to that BodyBalance class, and I’m still a little sad that I didn’t make it. But letting trackwork that I had no control over ruin what had up to that point been a great day would have sucked more. And I almost let it.

Rituals and routines

I have two pairs of grandparents. Every afternoon, each pair drinks tea.

The first pair has been doing this ever since I was a child. After their afternoon nap, one of them fills up the kettle, and while the water is coming to a boil, the other one sets the table. But not just any table. There’s a beautiful smallish round table in their living room that is used specifically for afternoon tea and for dinner. Not for breakfast or for lunch. Breakfast and lunch take place at the kitchen table. And they don’t drink tea out of just any mugs. They have these little white cups and saucers, stored away in a living room cabinet, not in the kitchen with the other crockery. These cups and saucers cannot be used at any other time of day nor for different activities or drinks. Back in the kitchen, the one in charge of tea making swishes hot water around the tea pot to heat it up, fills a strainer with tea leaves from a little tin, and pours the boiling water on top. The tea pot gets covered with a tea cosy and placed on a tray. Biscuits, sugar bowl and milk jug get their own tray. Both trays are carried to the living room table, where my grandparents will spend the next hour or two talking and drinking tea. Everyone in our family knows that if you drop by around 3pm (although often a little later now they’re older), there’ll be a beautiful cup of tea waiting for you.

The other pair of grandparents takes a slightly different approach. They boil the kettle, get two mugs out of the kitchen cabinet where they store all their crockery, plunk a tea bag straight from the cardboard box they came in in each mug, and pour the boiling water on top. The mugs are carried to the kitchen table, a packet of biscuits makes its way onto the table, and milk gets poured into the tea, straight from the bottle. If the tea’s too hot, they’ll add some cold water from the plastic bottle on the bench top behind my grandmother’s chair.

I have two pairs of grandparents, and every afternoon, each pair drinks tea. But the way they do this couldn’t be more different.

The difference is the difference between routine and ritual.

Routines are habits. They’re the things we do every day. For instance, every morning, you might get out of bed, sleepwalk into the kitchen where you flick the radio and the kettle on, open the door to let the dog out, make your way into the bathroom to get dressed while the kettle is boiling, have the same breakfast you had yesterday, take your keys and wallet from the shelf next to the front door, and make your way into work.

Once we’ve established routines, we stop thinking about them, we simply ‘do’. Rather than being oppressive, I find them liberating. They help us to control and contain the vastness of time, of emotions, of noise and chaos in the everyday. Routines are the things we do over and over again. Until they stop working for us. We get bored, or something just feels ‘off’. We can’t seem to stick to our routines anymore, and life feels like it’s slipping away. We lose our footing. It often takes a little while before we realise our routines – or lack thereof – are the issue. And when we do, we either automatically fall into new ones, or we have to sit down and think carefully about which new routines we might implement so that we stop feeling like the balloon our childhood self let go of, drifting mid-air, the wind pulling us in all directions, and can once again feel in control of our days and lives.

Rituals are similar, but they’re not quite the same. Rituals add ceremony to certain routines. A special mug for instance, filled with tea from a tea pot covered by a beautiful tea cosy, at the same table, at the same time. Every day or once a week. With someone you love while you reminisce about the good old times or discuss how your day’s been. Alone with a book, or simply staring outside, letting your eye gaze follow the birds or make out the shapes of the leaves on the tree next to the window. A ritual is watching the same movie every year on Christmas day. It’s taking the time to wash the dishes after dinner instead of rushing the process, actively watching your hands, feeling the different touch of foam, hot water, stoneware, and metal on your skin.

Rituals are carefully curated. They bring beauty and magic to the everyday. They require thought. Rituals involve a set of steps, where each step is performed with intention, in the moment. They don’t just ‘happen’, we don’t just ‘do’.

Intention and beauty in the everyday. I think we could all use a little more of that.

Questions about fidget spinners, making, and wellbeing

Yesterday marked the start of Sydney Craft Week, a new festival that celebrates the local craft community in Sydney, and a few weeks ago I attended a workshop called ‘Neural Knitworks’ as part of The Big Anxiety Festival,  where we knitted and crocheted neurons while a neuroscientist talked to us about the human brain. I figured this would be a good time to post something about some thoughts I’ve had about crafts this week. – And they’re exactly that, thoughts. I haven’t done any proper research, other than reading bits and pieces here and there. The perfectionist in me doesn’t want to send this post out into the world yet. But, it’s Saturday, and the deal is that I write in the morning, and publish by midday. I guess I mainly want to ask some questions about what we do and don’t do, what that might say about the culture we live in, and the effects of it on our lives and our wellbeing. (To be continued, I’m sure.)

The other day, a friend and I were talking fantasising about the future and the kind of work we’d like to do. I told her that I want to be more than a brain in front of a computer, that I want to use my hands, my senses, that I want to make things. In the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between craft and wellbeing. I want to learn more about it, and perhaps at some point teach others what I’ve learnt. I then took off on a long rant about the importance of crafts and making.

Without wanting to sound too negative, it seems to me that we’re not makers anymore. We’re buyers and consumers. Not everyone, of course, and not in all aspects of our lives. But how many people have ever made a piece of clothing, grown their own beans, sculpted their own tea mug, sewn a hanky? How many young people know how to darn a sock or even to sew on a button, or to bake a cake? There’s just no need for us to make anymore. Everything’s available right at our fingertips. Going to the shops (or filling online shopping baskets) is much faster and easier – and, to a lot of people with busy lives, simply makes a lot more sense.

But does it make more sense? And is there really no need for making anymore? Everywhere you look, there are news stories about increasing numbers of people suffering from some mental illness or other, we all know people (including ourselves) who struggle with constant high levels of anxiety and regularly have panic attacks, people are unsatisfied with their lives – “Is this really it?”, “Is this all there is?” – and feel disconnected. It’s quite likely that the development of fields such as (pop) psychology and psychiatry, the identification and our internalisation of symptoms of some ‘popular’ mental illnesses, the mantra that we have to be happy all the time and that if we aren’t we are inherently deficient/pathological, the push to always achieve more and better, have something to do with this. But there has to be more.

On the train home, I got a message from my friend. She’d been thinking about what I said about people needing to use their hands more often, and wondered if people would still need fidget spinners if they did more crafts. Interesting!

Fidget spinners became all the rage earlier this year. Offices, schools, CEOs, uni students, none were immune to them. A quick google search tells me that fidget spinners help alleviate not only nervous energy but also anxiety. They increase attention span and focus, and cure lifelong nail biting habits. Some schools, however, have banned them. Kids were apparently having competitions amongst themselves in class or were not focussing on the teacher. Proponents argue that schools simply need to have a conversation with their students about proper use, because the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

I think both sides are missing the point. Why is it that adults and kids alike need to spin a piece of plastic (because we really do need more plastic gadgets in this world, right!) on their finger/tongue/toe nail to be able to function these days? Why are so many people engaging in this largely unproductive activity to feel better?

Could there be a link between mental wellbeing, fidget spinners, and making things? When I wrote that fidget spinning is unproductive, I wasn’t referring to productivity in the traditional, instrumental sense. Productivity is not, “I do this activity which will result in this physical object or that measurable outcome in the shortest amount of time.” Fidget spinners are instantly efficient, which is quite similar to why we’re not making: making is not the fastest way from A to B. Making is not instant. Crafts take time to master, and there’s always more to learn, they’re always in process. At the same time, ask any crocheter what happens to them as soon as they pick up their crochet, and they’ll tell you that an instant sense of calm comes over them and that they’re able to concentrate better on what is happening around them if they’re working on an easy project. But I would argue that making things is productive in a lot of other ways, too, that we can’t get from playing with a plastic piece of tornado. There’s the touching of materials or ingredients as a sensory experience, discovering our connection with our environment through the materials we use, using and developing motor and intellectual skills, fostering creativity and experimentation, learning something new and slowly but surely noticing ourselves getting better at it, the feeling of having made something and the sense of accomplishment, the sharing of ideas with others, the calming effect of repetitive acts, the being and staying with and in a project.

Perhaps, instead of ‘wake up – check phone at breakfast and on train – sit at computer at work – check phone on train and at dinner – go to gym – watch TV while checking phone – go to bed,’ we should include some making in our days. Buy a paint by numbers kit, learn to crochet, plant some seeds, bake a tray of biscuits, build a castle from toilet paper rolls, darn your socks, get a block of clay, carve a pointy end to a stick you found in the park. Touch materials, play with them, craft them into something. The end goal is not creating art or useful things, even though beauty and use are great. The doing regularly is more important, and can have lasting effects on our wellbeing. We can make things, we are makers, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Other stuff:

  • Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. I loved everything about this novel. In my reading, it plays with the boundaries between friendship and love and whether that’s a tenable distinction, and about how to negotiate the pull of home and a yearning for adventure.
  • Some interesting thoughts on deleting Instagram.
  • This beautiful post by Kate from Foxs Lane, on a simple life and not wanting bigger things. It resonates so much with where I’m at right now.
  • I took myself to the movies last week and watched Battle of the Sexes. What a great film! It was happy and sad and hurtful and inspiring and uplifting and depressing and exciting and so much more. I was shocked that I’d never heard of these events before – I teach gender studies, so that’s not ok! I guess it’s telling of the kinds of stories and history that are told, taught, and valued…

Are you planning to do some crafts/making this weekend? Have you used a fidget spinner? Have you read any great novels or opinion pieces lately? I’d love to hear about what’s happening in your world!

Ten things about now

Another Saturday, another blog post. This week has flown by but it also feels very long when I think about everything I’ve done. No big questions or philosophising this time, just ten things, as they pop up in my mind. Little things, which is what this blog was meant for in the first place.

ONE
I still haven’t been on Facebook, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I have no interest in going back. My anxiety levels are lower, I am calmer, and it feels like I have so much more time in my days.

TWO
Now that I have so much more time I’ve been reading a lot. I read two novels in the last week and a half  – I haven’t done that since I was a child!  They weren’t high literature, just nice, easy stories: The Rejected Writers’ Book Club and Rejected Writers Take the Stage. These novels follow the adventures of a group of women who live on a small island. They love writing but suck at it and take pride in that fact, so they started a “rejected writers’ book club.” They have regular meetings to celebrate the rejection letters they get from publishers. Until the founder of the club gets a book deal… To avoid having to dismantle the book club, they leave on a  road trip to San Francisco to demand a rejection letter. The stories are unrealistic but they’re funny. It’s pretty over the top at times but in a subdued way. I’m not sure if that makes any sense? It represents a range  of women in a variety of ways – quite cleverly so, if you ask me – and provides interesting and recognisable insight in human relationships and in what makes a home. If you did want to give them a try, the first novel in the series is definitely better than the second one.

THREE
I’m considering buying a Kindle. I’ve always LOVED paper books and generally dislike reading on screens, but I’ve been using the Kindle app on my iPad with a free first month of Kindle Unlimited, and it’s been a very enjoyable experience. Stranger things have happened, I guess… If anyone has any suggestions about which Kindle I should get, I’d love to hear them.

FOUR
The other day, I was working through a particularly difficult bit of critical theory for the PhD (Butler and Foucault on critique, ethics, and subject formation, for those who know what I’m talking about) and I got really emotional about it. I pretty much teared up. Not because I was freaking out, but because the ideas were absolutely brilliant and it was just beautiful.

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FIVE
Sydney’s heating up, and I absolutely love it. Every year since I’ve moved here I’ve struggled with the transition from a winter wardrobe to summer clothes. I feel like part of me is missing when I’m not being hugged/compressed by layers and layers of clothes, so it’s usually a very slow process. This year, though, I packed up all of my winter clothes as soon as I could, and practically jumped into oversized dresses. I love the way the wind touches my legs, how the fabric moves across my skin, how my body just feels free. I realised that spending time outside makes me feel good, so I’ve been trying to sneak in little moments outside whenever I can.

SIX
Now that I’m Facebook-less, I’m making a conscious effort to connect with people. Not because I feel like I have to out of fear of becoming a recluse (which could happen!), but because I want to. I don’t want my relationships with people to consist of liking status updates and photos and memes. What I want is meaningful conversation with access to someone’s face and/or voice, to show people that I care about how they’re doing and what they’ve been up to. I want to know what makes people happy and sad, what they’re passionate about, and what helps them get up in the morning. I want connection. By all means, send me memes and photos, but talk to me as well. Connect with me. Be here. With me.

SEVEN
I think I’ve finally developed some routines that work for me. Who would’ve thought it was possible… I’m switching off my internet modem every night and don’t switch it back on until mid-morning the next day. I’ve been sleeping so well and feel refreshed in the morning. I was able to identify when getting work done gets hard, and now take myself to the uni gym for a BodyBalance class at those times every day. I stick around for a couple of hours afterwards to work from the library. Result: improved productivity, renewed excitement about and confidence in my research, and less of the aches and pains I’ve been having for the last year.

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EIGHT
I’m crocheting a blanket for a soon-to-be new addition to our family. It’s a very, very slow process, and I’m not sure I like what it looks like. I felt this way as soon as I was a couple of rows in but kept going anyway. Should I forget about the hours and hours that have gone into this already, toss it aside and start something new? Something that’s not as painfully slow and that I will love? (It’s more blue-ish in real life, and will need to be blocked once its finished so the cut-outs are more even.)

NINE
I realised I don’t know people’s birthdays! I mean, I know those of my closest friends I’ve known for ages, but there are other, newer, people I care about, and I just have no idea! I’m going to have to plan a Facebook session at some point to write them all down. Which makes me wonder, do people still use birthday calendars and address books these days? Do kids still have these friendship books they pass around to their classmates who have to answer questions like “What’s your address and your phone number?”, “What’s your favourite colour?”,  “When’s your birthday?”, “What are your hobbies?”, “What’s your favourite food?”. I think we need those for adults!

TEN
All week I’ve been stuck trying to find the right music to suit my mood. I have my favourite artists and music genres, but somehow nothing worked. Until Spotify suggested this song by Josh Ritter this morning. I hadn’t listened to his music in ages! But it’s exactly the right thing for now. It makes me want to go on long road trips through the desert, windows open, heat and wind on my face. Who’s coming with me?

Ten things. A pretty accurate snapshot of my mood and my week. Did you have a good week? Or are you just happy you made it through?

See you next week, friends!