Simplify and Spark Joy

Marie Kondo introduced to the world the idea that when it comes to decluttering, a positive attitude will serve you well. Keep only the things that bring you joy, she says, and you will be able to successfully simplify and organise your home, and thereby, your life.

She advises all of us messy, disorganised hoarders to focus on the physical items that we love, and it will naturally follow that the items we don’t love should be discarded (after thanking them respectfully). This positive spin on decluttering means we are not looking for things to throw out. We’re looking for things to keep. So our focus, and our energy, shifts to the happiness-generators and therefore creates more happiness in our lives. Good vibes only.

The art of simplifying is beneficial not just for our kitchen drawers or our linen closets. There are parallels to be drawn (so I will try….) in other aspects of our world, such as in writing, in art, and in life.

Simplifying writing
During a wonderful Creative Writing course I took last year, we were taught to simplify our writing by removing excessive adjectives and adverbs. This was not an easy lesson to learn, and I still struggle with (and sometimes ignore) it. We were also guided towards making our writing tight and compact, so that what’s left on the page holds more impact.

“Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter, defines the ability to simplify in terms of removing the non-essentials to allow the essentials to shine.

But to do this, first we need to know what exactly is essential. In writing, what is your message, what is your tone, where is your impact? Keep the powerful words; keep the slam-dunk sentences; keep the necessary frills. And then, perhaps, most of what is left is excess and can be eliminated.

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Hans Hofmann, 1963

Simplifying art
Hofmann painted this piece titled Enigma in 1963, and it was sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a cool 2.4 million USD. Maybe Hofmann had five more colours on his artist’s palette that he could have used. Perhaps he almost used circles as well as rectangles. But he didn’t. He chose the thing he deemed necessary and allowed it to speak. And it spoke to someone who thought it was worth that much money. Hofmann believed that abstract art was a path to discovering reality. He found truth not despite the chaos, but through it.

Simplifying life in the 19th century
Mindfulness has now become a buzzword but it is not a new concept. The poet Henry David Thoreau famously undertook an experiment in simple living in 1845, because he wanted to ‘live deliberately’ and to encounter ‘only the essential facts of life.’ Thoreau lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts for two years, to experience a simple, purposeful life. During this time, he wrote a book on life in the woods, in which he says:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” – H.D. Thoreau

Thoreau wished for people to be more self-aware and to value personal growth over material wealth. He explained that outward progress did not necessarily mean inner contentment, and criticised the ‘busy’ mentality of society, advising instead to: “let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

In simple words: cut down, cut back, cut loose. Thoreau found his joy in nature and made that his ‘necessary’ – thereby eliminating the aspects of society he did not like, such as materialism and consumerism.

Simplifying life today
So how do we adopt the advice of a decluttering expert, an artist and a writer in our lives today? To do it Kondo-style, focus on the positive, identify the essential parts of our lives that bring us joy, and respectfully remove the excess. To be an Enigma like Hof, decide on what is necessary, eliminate everything else, and continue your quest to search for what is real. And finally, like Thoreau, make deliberate choices to keep things simple, dig deep through the layers of unnecessary detail to find inner joy, and focus on the things that matter.

Simplify, simplify. Then what is left will be the powerful stuff that’s worth holding on to.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Furious Fiction: Brilliant Disguise

This time last year, a short story I wrote was one of six shortlisted entries in the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction competition. Each month you are given a different set of story prompts and just 55 hours to submit your 500-word story. Since then, I have entered the competition every single month. This sometimes meant hitting the submit button at 11.55 on a Sunday night, 5 minutes before the deadline. Most of my stories would have benefited from another day of editing, and some of them would have remained average even with another month of re-writing, but I submitted them anyway. The challenge makes me focus my writing, forces me to be creative, gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment at the start of every month, and then nervous anticipation for the announcement about 3 weeks later. (Living on the edge stuff, right here.)

So, 11 submitted short stories later, we got to May 2019. This was the criteria:

  • The story had to include the words MAYBE, MAYHEM, DISMAY, MAYOR and MAYONNAISE.
  • The story’s first word had to be an 11-letter word.
  • The story, at some point, had to include someone or something RUNNING.

The force must have been with me, this May as well, because my Bruce Springsteen-inspired story made it to the shortlist! Here it is….

boss

“Springsteen? Yeah, I know his music.” He took a sip of water and glanced around the restaurant.

She was relieved. A good start. She raised her wine glass to her lips and tasted the Pinot Noir. It was smooth, like Springsteen’s voice in I’m on Fire.

“He is a bit miserable though, isn’t he?” He shot her a quick look. “All those songs about struggle and loss?”

The Pinot caught in her throat and she coughed. He looked up from his menu with raised eyebrows.

“You disagree?”

She did not like his tone. It was too nonchalant. This was a highly important topic. A non-negotiable.

“Well,” she began, carefully. “He sings about the hardships of everyday life. And about his dismay at the contrast between dreams and reality. But he…”

“Like I said. Miserable.”

She bit her lip. This was not going well. Still, she would persevere. After all, Bruce had been telling her for years to look for that human touch, that two hearts are better than one, and most importantly, that faith will be rewarded. She would have faith. This one even looked like him. In the dim lighting of the restaurant. If she squinted.

The waiter arrived. They ordered the seafood platter for two.

“Hold the garlic mayonnaise though,” he said, with a wink that she deliberately ignored.

“I don’t think you understand,” she frowned. “Springsteen…his music helps us escape the misery and the mayhem of this complex world we live in. He believes in a better future, in the real possibility of happiness!”

He looked at her, bemused. “You’re a proper fan then?”

“I am his biggest fan,” she emphasised, realising with every passing moment that, once again, her suitor was unsuitable.

This one was also oblivious. “I know they bestowed upon him a title of some sort. What was it? The King?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “That was Elvis.”

“Oh, right. Was he a Sir, then?” He seemed to be chuckling to himself and she wondered how someone so ignorant could also be so arrogant.

“You’re thinking of Elton John.” You idiot, she wanted to add.

“Mayor, perhaps?” He would not give up. She was running out of patience. Time to put herself out of this misery.

“Boss. He was The Boss.”

“Ah, right. Silly name.”

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she thought. The rest of their dinner was peppered with small talk. She was already planning her escape. As they stepped outside into the cool autumn air, she held out her hand to avoid any human touch beyond a handshake.

“Thank you for tonight,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”

“That’s cool,” he said, squeezing her palm. “If there’s no spark, there’s not much you can do.”

She was about to nod in agreement when she caught the glint in his eye as he continued.

“My dad always said you can’t start a fire without it.”

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:

This was a fun first date scene that manages to do what many fail at – find a good balance between the external action and internal dialogue. Well-paced and sprinkled with humour, it saves a little in the tank for an ending that delivers a dose of intrigue. Simple storytelling, effective in bringing this tale of hungry hearts to life.

Muthashi

mutchI recently made two short trips to Malaysia in the space of about six weeks. The first, in March, to spend a few days with my grandmother, who had not been well.

The flight out was delayed due to a thunderstorm in Sydney. So the four-day trip would be cut short to three. Waiting at the airport for information, frustrated at the thought of one less day with my grandmother, I contemplated cancelling the trip and rebooking for another weekend.

I’m glad I didn’t. Because the second trip I made to Malaysia, in April, was for the religious ceremony that would mark her passing. Those three days in March ended up being my last moments with someone whose impact and influence on my life cannot be measured.

To help with the healing, I wrote an article about my grandmother. As I typed, in Microsoft Word, the spell-check decided to call out the word Muthashi, as it did not recognise the Malayalam word for grandmother. One of the options it suggested was Mothership.

Mothership, noun.
– A spacecraft or ship from which smaller craft are launched or maintained.
– A place regarded as a base, source, or headquarters.

I usually get annoyed at the ridiculous suggestions offered by spell-check.

But this time, I had to agree.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Let’s talk about Love.

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I meant to write this post for Valentine’s Day. But life, like love, is unpredictable. So on the last day of February, I tell myself it is still Valentine’s Month and therefore this post is still highly topical, suitably timely and massively interesting. My blog, my rules, my denial. Especially as it’s now the 1st of March.

Psychologist Robert Johnson thinks we don’t have enough words to describe our feelings of love. He wrote about the lack of ‘awareness and emphasis that we give to the realm of feeling’, and says the English language is partly to blame. His analysis is intriguing – “Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three and English only one.”

Johnson draws a clever comparison between our “poverty-stricken vocabulary” and the fact that Eskimos have 30 words for snow because it is so important to them. Each ‘snow’ word has a different nuance, a precision of description. I researched (Googled) this fact and it seems there are actually over 50 words for snow in the various Eskimo languages (including Inuit and Yupik dialects). They have different words for the snow that is safe to walk across, the snow that is like powder, wet snow, softly falling snow, the snow that is good for driving a sled over.

This is important because snow is all around them, is intrinsically linked to everything they do, and is fundamental to their existence. And we have only one word for love.

We use the same word (love) in all situations: for family, a lover, a hobby, a coffee. I love you. I love that idea! I love dancing. I’d love a coffee. Yet, we have so many different words for coffee: cappuccino, latte, flat white, piccolo, espresso. So many words for getting drunk: wasted, bladdered, sozzled, plastered, sloshed, legless. So many words for being angry: pissed off, livid, mad, raging, fuming. But just one word for love.

So. What is love? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Since the internet was somewhat disappointing, I asked a few young and innocent (and non-jaded) children what they thought about love. Here’s what they told me:

How can you tell that two people are married?
♥ “You could see their ring if you were close-up. They would probably be talking about their kids.” (C, aged 7)
♥ “If you’ve been to their wedding.” (N, aged 10)

How would you choose a boyfriend or girlfriend?
♥ “I would write down some cateristiks that I want and then see if they have those cateristiks. If they don’t then I would move on to the next person.” (C, aged 7)
♥ “Someone who is smart and doesn’t eat that much candy.” (R, aged 6)
♥ “I’d want him to be honest and not act differently to me than he normally would. I’d want him to be like daddy.” (M, aged 10)
♥ “I already have one. She tells me funny jokes.” (D, aged 5, I repeat, aged 5)

How would you show love?
By going to a movie with them even if you’ve already seen it.” (M, aged 10)
♥ “Don’t take anything out of her lunchbox. And definitely don’t wrestle her.” (D, aged 5)
♥ “When my brother is scared at night, I tell him there are no monsters, even if I’m a bit scared too.” (J, aged 8)
♥ “Not go to a football match on their birthday.” (J, aged 8)
♥ “Make sacrifices to show the other person they are more important than what you really, really want.” (N, aged 10)

And just when I thought I would finish on that deep and profound note, I received a message from my sister that couldn’t not be included in a post about Love:

vladislav-baby-dont-hurt-me-dont-hurt-me-no-more-9kEbW

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Three Sighs

My favourite photo of us is over 30 years old. Something about this watercolour edit reminds me of timelessness – with colours, people, feelings blending into each other.

And in the end, we find there was, there is, always love.

For you, Papa, on what would have been your 77th birthday. 

papa and i watercolour

A bed on wheels is set up in the living room
because he hates hospitals, loves sports on television and there is nothing more we can do.

A saline drip trickles into his veins (Cancer must be thirsty work)
but I know he would much prefer a nice cold one.

An owl comes to visit in the middle of the night.
My father exhales three times as life leaves his body.

One –
A sigh of exhaustion, I imagine,
from hosting the unwanted guest who stole his strength, his freedom, his laugh.

Two –
A sigh of sadness, I know,
for all that is left behind: conversations with grandchildren, my mother navigating life without him, an unopened single malt from overseas.

Three –
A sigh of relief, I hope,
for the end of holding on to a rope that frays a little more every day,
for the end of suffering, the end of sympathy.

We move the bed out of the living room, now The Room Where My Father Died.
At least he’s not in pain anymore, they say.
We nod with heavy hearts because it is selfish to say But we are.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

A Wilde Weekend – Act III

The Wilde Weekend was 72 hours long. If you thought I had forgotten about Sunday, the final 24 hours of debauchery well-earned indulgence, I don’t blame you. This weekend took place in June 2018 and we are already at the end of January, with no sign of Act III until now. There is a limit on how long one can draw out a single weekend as blog fodder. But one will do one’s best.

(If you missed it, or need a refresher, this was Friday and this was Saturday)

Sunday
After all that delicious dancing, we have an even more delicious lie-in which is necessary to replenish depleted energy and aid muscle recovery. It was not just dancing, after all. It was a full-blown workout of cardio+strength+style. So we sleep.

“In England people actually try to be brilliant at breakfast. That is so dreadful of them! Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”
Upon waking, we whip up and devour scrambled eggs and avocado. As we are now well-fed and more likely to partake in brilliant conversation, we head to the Putney Tavern to watch the football, the sport that launches many a brilliant conversation.

“Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys.”
It is England vs Panama in the Group stages of the World Cup. Some interesting manoeuvres to get a G&T safely from the bar to our prime vantage point, some rowdy fans, and thank God for an English win. It is a 6-1 thrashing and (most) people cheer Panama’s lone goal with the generosity of those who know they are still comfortably superior.

Time for refuelling at Wagamama, then a spot of shopping in Putney. We head home and make a decision to end this weekend in the manner to which we have become accustomed: in style. My sister has found the perfect activity to close this weekend – Gatsby Immersive Theatre.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
We dress to theme and step into the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world of decadence, champagne and sparkle is brought to life by a cast of talented actors who take us through The Great Gatsby in a unique and fun production. The characters mingle with the audience (my sister and I are welcomed by the Nick Carraway character loudly proclaiming that he is ‘SO pleased we could make it!’), have impromptu conversations that become part of the show, and we even get a dance lesson – the quirky Charleston. It is the perfect way to end our weekend.

My sister tells me I am ‘fun in London’ and I have been striving ever since to channel some of that London vibe and make it a part of everyday life. Full immersion. Sequins and feathers optional.

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©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

 

A Helicopter View of Jargon

Confused-Baby

When they tell me we should ‘touch base offline
perhaps just before close of play,’
I wonder.
Which base do they want to touch?
When is anyone ever offline?
What game is it we are playing?

When they suggest we think outside the box
one day, then another day ask for blue-sky thinking
and mean the same thing,
I wonder.
If everything outside the box is blue sky
then perhaps inside the box is sweet-smelling earth,
grains of soil you can gather, rub between your fingers
and inhale
just to feel something real.

I feel like crawling into that box
where I am safe from low-hanging fruit,
where there are no thought showers,
just simple, meaningful words
(and room for lateral thinking)
with other like-minded folk
who are tired of getting the ball rolling
then moving the goalposts.

Sometimes I find myself thinking about
deep diving, or drilling down, or closing the loop
and I don’t always catch the words before they escape.
But if I ever diarise a meeting for ideation or solutioning,
please promptly throw me out of the nearest
window of opportunity
where there will be plenty of blue sky.


©2018 Seetha Nambiar Dodd