Monday, July 18, 2016

Finding Inspiration in Women's Work

Around New Year Philip sat down with me to work on a ‘business plan’ for my Merino-silk Apparel. As part of the process we looked at how many hours I wanted to devote to ‘the business’. We also looked at how many hours I actually had offset with my other chores, which included housework, as well as preparing the BnB for guests. My week is busy. Not considering what I did in the studio, my other chores already took up around 36-hours, almost a full time job. No wonder I can’t seem to make it to the studio for ‘other work’.

There are times when I find myself grumbling about chores that keep me from creative work, muttering under my breath, or sometimes aloud, ‘fuck, what a waste of time is ironing sheets!’ and it’s endless. There was one weekend, where I changed three lots of sheets (not to mention clean the bathroom) for three one-night stays in the BnB room. Something had to give; and that happened when I accidentally bumped into a little book on Amazon called The Quotidian Mysteries, Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris (which formed part of a lecture that she gave towards the education and spiritual well-being of women). What gave was my attitude towards menial chores and women’s work. I think for most of my life I’ve resented doing what I associate with servile work. I have always done chores, from when I was a young girl, often before heading to school, more usually on the weekends. Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘serving’ or being in the service to other people’s needs. However, it’s one of those ‘blocks’ for me, connected to being a woman of colour. Perhaps it’s an indication too, of how I have failed at intimate relationships – because they entail showing your love by ‘serving’, looking after the house, doing laundry, cooking, dishes – all part of caring for another, selfless work, which doesn’t suit the self-absorbed temperament of ‘the artist’ or just the self-absorbed period… 

The paradox is – however – that making felt often feels like doing laundry (rub a dub-dub on that rather large washboard of mine) and it comes with dish-pan hands. If I focus on the labouring aspect, and how hard it is to make, I could, in all honesty give up making felt.

Kathleen Norris was introduced by a boyfriend to the Catholic liturgy, and she found it ‘remarkable’ that in a fancy church, after all the pomp and ceremony, ‘homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink’. She had no understandings of the rituals she had witnessed but here was something that she could understand. Norris found comfort in seeing the priest as ‘a daft housewife’. It gave experiencing the Catholic mass an unusual context of meaning, which was housework. Let’s face it the dishes must be done, the floors vacuumed and in my case also mopped, as well as the dirty laundry washed and ironed. As women grow in professional status they’ve usually passed on their chores to other women, who are grateful to have work.

Norris explores the chores, within the context of ‘liturgy’ or ritual/worship, not to view them as a drag, but to suggest that we can find ‘fulfilment, healing [even] ecstasy’, starting from our bodily needs, and in the everyday places. If you find the religious or theological associations discomfiting or irrelevant, you can choose to put them to one side. Unlike the Christian Monastics you don’t have to enjoy doing chores to feel closer to God. You can learn to enjoy doing chores as a devotional to yourself and the life/lot you’ve been given - a practice in gratitude. I feel that a lot of women do find the repetition of simple activities such as walking, baking bread, doing laundry, or the dishes, as inspirational (if you look at the etymology of inspiration – in Middle English, it meant to put the breath, life, spirit back into the body). 

Such mind-numbing work, can also paradoxically turn on the mind to more creative thoughts. And if nothing else, mopping the floor gives me an instant sense of gratification and happiness, even if that experience lasts for half an hour and is fleeting (before Maudie dog walks in with her wet muddy feet). I can look forward to experiencing it again the next time I mop. What a sad person you might exclaim! On the contrary, I choose to celebrate the ordinary business of my life – because let’s face sometimes this is as good as it gets – and I am so like my mother after all, in the sense of being tied to household chores, in spite of my education and a head full of ideas. Not unlike creative work, cleaning is about bringing order out of chaos. Perhaps it can bring me consolation (if consolation is needed) that this is a thought my mother would never have! Although I have heard her say ‘I have to put things in order’… Hmm… 

Norris writes: ‘When confronting a sinkful of dirty dishes—something I do regularly, as my husband is the cook in our house and I am the dishwasher—I admit that I generally lose sight of the fact that God is inviting me to play. But I recall that as a college student I sometimes worked as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten and was interested to note that one of the most popular play areas for both boys and girls was a sink in a corner of the room. After painting, the children washed their brushes there, but at other times, for the sheer joy of it—the tickle of water on the skin and God knows what else—a few children at a time would be allowed what the teacher termed “water play.” The children delighted in filling, emptying and refilling plastic bowls, cups and glasses, watching bubbles form as they pressed objects deeper into the sink or tried to get others to stay afloat. It is difficult for adults to be so at play with daily tasks in the world.’ 

How can the ordinariness of chores be inspirational and spiritually refreshing? 

Norris offers several situations outside the monastery, to do with children and their sense of wonder, and these are – play, repetition, as well as the intense relation with the present moment. I suppose we can all look back to when we were children and recall moments where we wanted to be included in the accomplishment of household chores. For me, when I was very small my maternal grandmother would keep all the hankies for last, so that under her supervision I could do some ironing. So indeed there was a time when in the context of ‘play’, I found ironing fun, even powerful, in the sense of feeling like a grown up. 

‘The comfortable lies we tell ourselves regarding these ‘little things’ that they don’t matter, and that daily chores are of no significance to us spiritually – are exposed as falsehoods when we consider that reluctance to care for the body is one of the first symptoms of extreme melancholia. Shampooing the hair, washing the body, brushing the teeth, drinking enough water, taking a daily vitamin, going for a walk, as simple as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance one’s ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world…’  An interesting aside is that when training as a therapist I was encouraged to 'ground' myself in the ordinary things such as sweeping, when working with depressives.

This is what I choose – to take pleasure in myself and my surroundings, rather than grumble – because I am one of the privileged to have a roof over my head (and in such fabulous surroundings), my ‘daily bread’, and the numerous chores associated with running a household. It will become a daily practice of mindfulness – or you can call it spirituality – to feel gratitude for chores. 

One Friday night after the dinner party guests had left, I was left to clean up the dirty dishes, the crystal glasses and the pans (I am the cook and the dishwasher). No one offers to help, and even if they do, like my mother I usually refuse the help. (This has a lot to do with the control freak in us both.) I don’t put it off for the next morning because I don’t want to wake up to last night’s dishes. Bad enough to wake up to a hangover. So after midnight I set about cleaning up and I wasn’t grumbling, rather I looked forward to finishing and surveying a clean and tidy kitchen and the satisfaction it would give, before going up to bed. Though I wasn’t singing, or praising and feeling closer to God, I did do it with a light heart and before I knew it – it was done, and I was rejoicing in a cup of tea before turning in. Perhaps that’s what is meant by the adage ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.

Next time, when confronted by a sinkful of dishes or an overflowing laundry basket, I’ll simply recall Norris’ statement that God is inviting me to play here, as much as I would in the studio.  And if I start to feel as the launderer in the studio  …

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Reusing Old Silks

Scarves from the 2016 Winter collection

I love breathing life and durability to these threadbare saris that arrive with India’s dust, and sometimes mould. These old silks get washed in the making and wedding to superfine merino or a luxurious blend of merino, alpaca and silk.
Unpacking a shipment of old saris

For the last couple of years, I’ve focused upon using these old silks in my merino-silk apparel wear, and perfecting my technique in achieving a lovely wedded fabric. Not only is the silk fabric much cheaper to buy by the yard, but they also produce more interesting ruching, particularly when used in combinations.

It certainly feels most satisfying to take what someone has thrown away and remake it into something beautiful.

The three different styles from my scarf collection

My scarves can be purchased direct or through select boutiques - contact me for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Paying it forward – the kindness of strangers

Years ago when I was travelling overseas I got myself into trouble and had to rely on the kindness of a stranger – a friend of my father’s, who didn’t know me but took me into his home because of the strength of his friendship with my dad. When I went back to the same place, it was in his home that I stayed again. I’ll never forget, that when I was down, showing me what he was growing in his garden gave me such a lift. Perhaps he reminded me of my own dad who has such green thumbs and has always enjoyed giving life to plants in a garden. I was always welcomed like a daughter by my father's friend, and to this day I remember his whole family with fondness, though I never write or even call. Occasionally I may catch up with him or his wife when I happen to be at my father’s house and they call. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about how I am now paying his kindness forward. Granted, in hosting Workawayers we are exchanging their labour for accommodation and meals. But not all working and living conditions or hosts are the same. We tend to show a spirit of generosity and hospitality towards these young travellers.

We had the privilege of welcoming and hosting a young couple from Montreal on a Workaway stint a couple of weeks ago – coinciding with the Easter weekend. At first I was hesitant when Philip read their email to me. We’d had such a great time with our older Workaway guest that I didn’t think younger travellers could measure up. I'm happy to say I was wrong. I feel travelling particularly when you’re young is character forming. You certainly find out who you are when not among your own kin.

Myriam and Olivier had been in New Zealand when they contacted us, hoping to spend some time in the Dandenongs. Philip was impressed because they’d actually taken the time to read our profile and directed their enquiry to specifics. We get so many general enquiries that have been sent to so many other hosts. We agreed to the stay – the timing was right as we had no paying guests booked in the BnB. They were to catch the Skybus from the airport and Philip would meet them at Southern Cross station. They arrived late one night and we made our introductions over a cuppa and a glass of milk.

Both employed on the bloody big hole

A cleaning task

Olivier proved a steady worker

Making sucre de la creme - a more crumbly fudge, which is a Quebecois specialty

Slowly, as we got to know them, we learned that their Workaway place in New Zealand hadn’t quite gone according to plan. There were working with a dozen others at a self-sufficient ‘rustic’ farm – self-sufficient they told us meant that there was no electricity, and the little internet data bought by the family was not shared with Workawayers. Disappointed, they had left their accommodation, and slept in a van with another friend. I was appalled that a young woman had slept in a van. Putting myself in Myriam’s shoes, I would not have liked the experience at all. Cold and cramped in a van, with no toilet. A long time ago, I did happen to spend one night sleeping (or trying to) in a World War II bunker on an uninhabited island, where there were no amenities; where in the morning sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend (a throat lozenge) sufficed for brushing my teeth. But that was one night cramped with a group of many strangers in a bunker…

I asked Myriam whether travelling together had put a strain on their relationship. On the contrary she replied, it had strengthened it because they were spending so much time together – something they didn’t experience back home. While Myriam had completed her course of study, Olivier had decided to change his field. They were going to be enjoying one long summer, for by the time they returned home for either study or work, the Northern hemisphere would be in Summer.

Enjoying some of that crumbly fudge - of course with a glass of milk

A surrogate family

As Myriam and Olivier settled in, they fell in with the rhythm of our ordinary days. They would usually help themselves to breakfast, while I prepared lunches and dinners. (I love feeding people but sometimes it takes up too much of my day.) They cleaned and tidied after themselves, contributing to household chores such as loading and unloading the dishwasher, even without being asked. I felt rather spoiled…In between their chores for Philip, they had time to visit the sights of the neighbourhood, and one evening we took them to see a French film (as the French Film Festival was in town) and treated them to dinner afterwards at a family restaurant. To our surprise they expressed enjoyment in spending time ‘en famille’. Philip also made time to take them to see the native animals at Healesville Sanctuary (every foreigner wants to see a kangaroo); and as well, Olivier accompanied him to watch his local football team play at AAMI stadium, while Myriam and I were happy to hang together, not-together, at home.

I’ve taken the attitude (and I know Philip shares it) that had they been my kids overseas I’d want them safe and happy, enjoying themselves among strangers. We’re not strange to each other now. But it is the differences, the ‘strange’ that help us to bond in the beginning, as we talk about how you live compared to what you are experiencing now. Or even as you try and master the nuances of language in translation. These bright young adults are bi-lingual in French and English, and so down to earth. It may sound trite but they are such good upstanding young adults. Any parent would be proud. I feel so full of optimism and enthusiasm having had the pleasure of their company for those few days.

Myriam and Olivier have moved on and at the moment we’re hosting two young men who were born in Germany and live in a little village outside Frankfurt. Sharif’s ancestors are from Palestine, while Tariq’s originate from Turkey. They have been close friends since the fifth grade and tell me there’s another friend whose parents are from Afghanistan, who will join them later during the year on their big adventure around Australia.

Doesn’t the world contract to hear about these three friends? You don’t need Facebook – migration brings different communities together and they are held by a language and customs foreign to their ancestors. The boys consider themselves as in-between cultures (neither German nor Middle Eastern). Much like me - I'm also in the liminal. Over meals we become better acquainted. I had an interesting first hand account of Ramadan over lunch one day. It makes you think deeply about the person growing his spirituality, rather than being confronted by a foreign incomprehensible religion.

Sharif and Tariq will travel north, working when they can, and by next New Year’s eve plan to be in Sydney – because after all that is where it all happens New Year’s Eve. They have only been in Melbourne for a few days – are at the very beginning of their journey, which they are documenting on video, so family members can enjoy vicariously, but also as a kind of memoir to look back on when they’re older.

The boys ended up spending 9 days and 10 nights with us and probably worked for about three full days and a couple of half days. On their 'off' days they were left to their own distractions. Tariq tells me that he applied to come to Ferny Creek because of the lush verdure of our garden, and for someone who lives in a flat it's been a welcome change. The work has been tough on both. They had never used garden tools, or dug a hole. They have also marveled at Philip's ingenuity. According to Sharif he has a solution for all the problems that come along, whereas kids of his generation rely on Google.(Older people too rely on Google these days, I piped in.) I'm uncertain what they will take away, destined as they are for white collar work. They may decide on account of their stay with us that garden work, particularly digging holes, is not something they want to make a habit - even while on holiday. 

The hole keeps getting bigger

Sharif and Tariq enjoying some of the familiar tastes of home, such as hummus and a favourite, olive oil

Sharif recording on his Go-Pro

Ingenuity to get the digger on a higher ground - and congratulating themselves that the two planks worked

Papa bear on his lonesome contemplating the work ahead without his Workawayers

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sharing our home with a not so weary traveller

Putting our ‘guest’ room on AirBnB seemed like a good idea last year – to meet the rising costs of Philip’s medical bills.  We had offered the bedroom to my ageing parents who had declined with ‘when one of us goes’, as well as a resounding, ‘it’s not the same when you give up your independence.’ 

We pfaffed about and it took us almost five months to get the room ready; then we had Bayview Ferny Creek listed for a month before renovations in the ensuite bathroom forced us to deactivate the listing, as we needed the bed and bathroom for ourselves.  The room was back on-line by September last year and we’ve had a steady stream of guests since – even expanding the guest space to include sharing our living room downstairs. What Philip hadn’t expected was that he would enjoy being a cordial, even charming ‘host’. 

Philip hadn’t broke even getting the room ‘just right’ and the gardening and house maintenance seemed like a Sisyphean battle, which challenged us both because of our health issues, when I recalled seeing a post on Facebook regarding HelpX.  I posted in the Hills and The Dandenongs Group to clarify details and discovered another source of ‘volunteer’ labour for free board and meals.  This was Workaway. 

Philip created profiles on both sites and got some interest from young European travellers (three French couples within the space of a couple of days – all landing in Melbourne on the day, or next, and all available without prior notice). Somehow these youthful travellers never came to stay after initial enquires.  We soon formed the impression that they must contact hundreds of ‘hosts’ in the hope of some reply and inevitably had their pick, probably choosing closer to the city where young people may prefer the experiences of the clubs and pubs; and Philip had written quite extensively regarding the ‘help’ he required. Maybe they just didn’t want to ‘work’ for their board and meals.  

Just before Christmas when Philip had reached the stage of wanting to cancel his profile on these sites as it was so time consuming responding to enquiries when they never fructified, he was contacted by Lieve originally from Belgium, who was at the time unhappily at a Workaway connection on French Island. We were sitting next to each other on the sofa and Philip read out her profile description and her email to me.  She was a more mature traveller, like us heading towards the Autumn rather than the Spring of life.  What did I think, he asked?  Why not! I responded.

It was serendipitous, as we had a window of no bookings starting just before the New Year and we agreed that she could stay for 7 nights, then she’d have to leave as we had a paying guest due.  Philip was feeling rather in the Christmas spirit and magnanimous, ‘she can stay for free and have a holiday’, he announced.  Much to his surprise Lieve wrote back that she preferred to have her days busy. She wanted to work.

Philip picked Lieve up from Upper Ferntree Gully station one afternoon after a paying guest checked out and she stayed with us, weeding the ‘jungle’ garden out the back and helping Philip with his woodpile, and any other chores he needed doing (he had drawn up a rather considerable list of 50 possible projects and at the end of Lieve’s stay I think he’d crossed off 7).

Lieve had the pattern of early to bed with a book, and waking early, ‘clocking’ on even before Philip and I were out of bed. She would usually work until lunch, then spend the afternoon to her own devices.  

Lieve surveying her great work in our fern garden

Over the week, we also managed to sneak in several walks around William Ricketts Sanctuary, the Rhododendron Gardens and Alfred Nichols Gardens. On the day of her departure Lieve was planning a trip on Puffing Billy, even though it was a very ‘tourist’ thing to do.

We had been invited up the Lane for New Year’s Eve and Lieve also went with us, along with her 'contribution' of Chandon, and got to experience a laid back hot Aussie NYE on the verandah, replete with Aerogard, sipping champers and eating cheese - including one incredibly soft melt on your tongue unusual cheddar.  Nothing terribly exciting occurred.  We were without fireworks as there was a total fire ban due to severe weather conditions, though if you switched the telly on there were pyrotechnics galore.  However, the conversations were more than amiable and stimulating, particularly when one had had one glass too many of champers. I missed the new year gong, as I was in the bathroom, which was quite large, offered magazines and the vibes were so good, I lingered.

Lieve's normal culinary activities back in Belgium, included baking bread. So on the Sunday morning she showed me how to make olive and rosemary bread, and semidried tomato bread (dried in my oven the previous Summer and rather too gooey with oil but it didn't seem to faze Lieve).  Then we sat down after they were baked and enjoyed these lovely breads with cheese, cold meats and salad.  But my favourite way of eating in particular the olive and rosemary bread is drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled generously with salt and pepper – just as Lieve showed me. 

olive & rosemary bread

a slice drizzled with  olive oil and sprinkled 
with a generous amount of salt & pepper

This cultural exchange was mainly quiet, laid back just like hills life when not on severe or extreme weather alert, but there were lots of hearty conversations over meals accompanied by a glass of wine. We talked about books we'd read, as well as the idea of travel (I dropped in Bruce Chatwin though out-dated, as a favourite writer on travel, whereas Philip nominated Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel). I’m at the stage where I’m happy being in the armchair listening to a good yarn on travelling or reading about travel, rather like the character Xavier de Mestre whom de Botton mentions, who took a journey around his bedroom - then had the audacity to write about the journey. Philip still has his hankerings and plans for overseas travel.  More than likely I will be staying at home with our dog Maudie when he takes off.  Lieve had taken a sabbatical from her regular job and had been travelling for the past 12 months; and had plans to go onto Tasmania (for a Workaway stint in a ‘resort’), then onto Borneo.

I thought Lieve brave, not only for pursuing her passion for travel, often subsidizing it through Workaway periods but for not allowing age to be a barrier to her dreams. Lieve proved to be the perfect first Workaway guest albeit she could very well be the last, unless they are of the same calibre as Lieve, as she has set the bar so high with her great work ethic and her company.  Lieve, however, would always be welcomed back. 

I was missing her presence the other morning, so decided to bake some olive and rosemary bread to enjoy the scent and flavour that she had brought with her visit to our home. I'm enjoying it just as Lieve showed me, with drizzled olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper.  Bon Appetit to cultural exchange.