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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where living is doing is loving is learning – Part 2

If ‘doing is learning’, then what am I, as an adult, doing with my time? Questioning ‘learning’ led me to question my own ways of living and doing. I realised that I spent most of my time in the world of words and images – writing, reading, talking, labeling, thinking, watching and listening. I spent very little time stepping out of this world to engage and explore with my hands and heart. I asked myself how can I enable learning as I simply went about living a fulfilling life? The answer for me started with taking charge of simple, mundane day-to-day household work. 

Housework: There is so much to be done in simply waking up, folding the sheets, cooking, eating, cleaning up, organizing, shopping, etc. that can teach us and our children so many things and keep us engaged meaningfully. This can be done if we choose to not outsource housework to maids.  

We, the urban middle and upper classes, see housework as monotonous and boring. We see it as something that we need to get out of our way as quickly as possible, so that we can get on with more interesting and meaningful things for ourselves or to simply get a break in our overflowing and complicated lives. After a long conversation in our family about whether to have house-help or not (this lasted a few years, while we still had someone to do the cleaning for us), we finally decided to just do all the work ourselves, two months ago.

Thinking about it now, having a cook and a maid means giving up many things for me. It would mean robbing Isha of all the fun she has working with me and Rajeev peeling vegetables, putting clothes to dry, carrying stuff, mopping the floor, etc. One cannot expect house-helpers to have the luxury of the time (or the sensitivity or interest) to let Isha play with the steam, take ten minutes to go around the house counting how many idlis to make, play with the beans, etc. And if she spills something or makes a mess with something, I cannot expect them to not sulk or label it ‘bad’ or ‘irresponsible’.

It would also mean that Isha would grow up thinking that these jobs are for other poor people to do and not us. My truth tells me to take responsibility for the ‘dirty work’ in my life. Gandhi is definitely my inspiration in this matter. He didn’t think that cleaning his toilet was any less important than responding to the thousands of letters, which he did too. And I’d like for Isha to grow up knowing that the dishes and clothes don’t ‘somehow’ get cleaned. Doing labour helps me learn humility, an important quality that I think all of us (children and adults) need to learn.  

The other day Isha spent a good half hour picking up ladles and spoons to hang on the nails on the wall (where they belong) one  by one, which requires concentration and well-developed motor skills. When she puts the bowls one into another, she figures out which is bigger than which and keeps trying until they've all gone into one compact pile. There are numerous ones like these if you look around. Sequencing, counting, differentiating, pattern-making, gross motor, fine motor skills can all be developed by taking up simple tasks at home that need to get done. It can also teach us and our children responsibility.  

In an overwhelming and overflowing life, and with a homemaker like me (who lacks discipline in many ways), the first thing I had to do after taking charge of housework was this – ‘letting go of the ideal of a perfectly clean and tidy house’. I am learning that ‘cleaning’ is a process that I can pursue with joy, rather than anxiously chase the ideal of a ‘clean house’, which invariably makes me stressed out and exhausted. To learn to do every simple task mindfully is a very calming and grounding meditation practice. Over that, to experience every act of cleaning as an act of cleansing my inner self, and every act of creating (making food) as an act of love makes mundane housework an irreplaceable opportunity to heal.

ReStore: I am part of a collective called reStore that runs an organic food store. Of late Isha and I have been spending a few (4-5) hours at a stretch at restore. Typically, I go there for something specific, and end up staying there because Isha pleads “Ingeye irukkalaam amma, please!” (Please, let’s just stay on here.) She has grown up enough to not pull things down from the shelves, tear packets, etc. These days, she loves to do useful things and contribute. Of course, every now and then, she’d wander off to play with the sand, the water from the tap, to watch the ant and figure out if it is the one that bites (red ant) or the one that tickles (black ant).  Yesterday, she arranged an entire box of tamarind packets on a low shelf. She said “Amma, until the wound on your leg heals, don’t eat this stuff, ok?” When Gomathi asked what it was about, she explained that the sour taste from the tamarind aggravated my eczema! She arranged the various handmade soaps based on their colours – this took her a while and was an activity she enjoyed thoroughly. We separated some vegetable waste and took them to the compost pile. She carried some drumsticks and forgotten small onions and put them in the boxes where they belonged. She explained to a customer that ‘red rice was very good for health’. We met some old friends who had come to buy provisions. We swept the floor, folded the mat and empty sacks, climbed a short suppota tree, made drawings, had conversations, sang songs and ate lunch with the staffers. Whenever we got hungry, we chewed on a carrot or a banana. We even had some tasty organic green grapes from the store. Isha collected a lot of tiny tender fruit that had fallen off from the mango tree. She pointed at one of them, the size of a pea which had turned yellow and asked ‘Ithu kaayaa pazhama?’ (Is this unripe or ripe?) A good question, I didn’t know the answer to, and I told her that. She played with the coins in the cash box. Isha and I are now planning to create a small nursery of useful plants (greens and herbs) to stock in reStore. She is excited about the new project.  

On days that we end up spending a few hours at restore, we feel very satisfied and fulfilled in a very different way. We both go back home singing away!

Restore’s staffers (Sajee, Ravi, Gomathi and Gowri’s) impressive quest to make their own lives more meaningful, healthy and responsible makes the store an interesting place for conversations. This is apart from similar conversations with customers and farmers who visit us from time to time. Our recent conversations around the meaning of ‘education, knowledge, learning, etc’ have been amazingly rich. After the first long conversation we (the staffers and I) had on ‘the problem with schooling’, we’ve been having review meetings (that happen ‘organic’ally) where they come back with their insights and results from testing out some of the things they tried out in order to ‘unlearn’ and ‘unschool’ themselves. A great deal of this is about pushing their children less and less, stepping back and allowing them to just be. We are now planning a trip-stay at an organic farm with our families.

Cane furniture store: I once took Isha to the cane shop to look for a bookshelf. We ended up spending a couple of hours there, as she found the whole thing fascinating. She thought it was so cool that those long poles and sticks could end up becoming all kinds of fancy things. She started engaging with the cane craftsmen asking them what they were doing, ‘Can I also make a chair?’ They did give her a few sticks which she started playing with. The only thing that was required of me there was to stop myself from saying ‘Enough hurry! We need to get back home!’ and put aside everything for that really special experience. And I realize that I’m needed to do this because we’ve ended up creating a society which does not have easy access to something as simple, beautiful and essential as cane craft.

Gatherings at home: Isha learns a great deal from conversations that naturally occur in contexts that are real and alive. We almost never sit down with her with the agenda of ‘teaching’ her anything. The key then is to seek environments where meaningful conversations happen naturally. Our regular gatherings at home are a great place for conversations. One day when Rajeev, Isha and I were getting ready to go somewhere, Isha asked us “Can we go walking instead of taking the car?” A few of us friends had just spent two full days of reading and discussing Gandhiji’s ‘Hind Swaraj’ with Isha being very much a part of that space. Rajeev said “May be she picked up something from our discussions! Who knows! J

Now, can we imagine a space / spaces in the city, which will involve adults pursuing their passions with their hands, hearts and minds, which they will then share (energy and skills) with everyone? Can we imagine this as a place / places where children can come together, take inspiration and learn from? Any ideas, anyone? 


Vaidehi said...

This is a beautiful post. Came here through the Indian Homeschooler Group. I am planning to homeschool my life 14 month old too. Are you still living without household help? How has the experience been? Do people criticize the way the home is kept? ( I ask because I go through that a lot. :( )

Looking forward to keeping in touch..

Warmest regards and love to Isha.

Niv said...

Hi Sangeetha!

I already mailed you...I also wanted to say the same thing as Vaidehi lovely blog you have here.
I discovered Restore now through your blog and signed up.

Hope you agree to meet me!