*First published during the more ‘severe’ lockdown conditions of the pandemic on the online forum for mental health stories:
The OC87 Recovery Diaries.
‘There are no little things. Little things are the hinges of the universe.’
In my first stay at a mental health institution, in 2013, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 29. Aside from the comfort of my books, I remember fondly the delicate, purple flowered orchid that blessed the window ledge in my room. It was a small touch of beauty and life in an otherwise bare space. The orchid had been a gift from my aunt, a wise woman who understands the importance of beauty in the everyday.
I would leave after a month and return home, taking my books and my beloved pot plant with me. The months to follow would be arduous. Most days I would struggle to fight the despair that made a bedfellow of me, to perform those ordinary daily rituals so taken for granted, before. On the better days I brushed my teeth, washed my hair, only to return to my bed, curtains closed to the world. But there my orchid sat by my bedside, ever blossoming, as if by some miraculous token of grace, and ever steadfast in the face of my malady.
It served as a gentle reminder that nature blooms, even in darker times, a soothing balm to my sickly soul. And when I slowly began to emerge, growing stronger, it was waiting patiently to join me in a place in the sun. And whenever I think on it, it reminds me that there are no little things in this universe. Even the littlest of things can be the stuff of magic. And yet, so often we fail to see the stuff of magic right before our very eyes.
It seems to me sometimes that we live in a world ever urging us to chase after the next big thing. That promotion at work. The vacation abroad. The shiny new toy, be it a flat-screen TV or the latest iPhone. And it leaves me wondering, have we gone so far that the smaller pleasures of contentment in the everyday and oh-so-ordinary no longer hold any value for us? So many things that all at once, with the threat of contagion, changed forever.
Perhaps I had been given a second chance to see it all anew. In the throes of a deep depression, even the simplest of tasks can feel insurmountable. A new iPhone the least of your troubles. So slowly but surely, I tried. I tried to prepare dinner for myself. I tried to clean my house. I tentatively left the comfort of my home to go to the shop for cat food. When a friend visited and consoled me with few words and a warm cup of tea, I was overwhelmed with immeasurable gratitude. And slowly but surely, I found something in me changing. I began to find a calming reassurance in the everyday duties I was able to accomplish. I began to find a greater meaning in the solidarity of friendship. I learnt that even a warm cup of tea can be a grand gesture of love. And as I changed, and as I detached from a society of endless pressures, I sighed a welcome sigh of relief. I knew now that it was okay to live an ordinary life.
In rituals of old, a friend and I used to have a very particular tradition on Friday afternoons after our classes were all wrapped up for the day during our varsity years. We would mosey on down to the corner café to get our hands on a copy of the Mail & Guardian, pick up a six pack of Black Label beers, and head back to his place. Once home, stretched out on the lawn outside, a chilled Label in hand, we would page through the newspaper to Lev David’s column so I could read it aloud, chuckling all the while. Thereafter we would swap sections and share bits and pieces that piqued our interest, sun shining and the beer a’flowing. I still think back on those days with nothing but fondness for good times. The ritualistic pleasure in it so very simple. A thing so simple I make it a habit not to forget.
And today, over and over again, I become ever more inspired by friends who have chosen to live ‘off the grid’ as it were. A more sustainable approach to living was perhaps the solution I had been looking for all those years… Before that total and utter burn-out, like a moth singed and wingless, in 2013. More relevant now than ever. And so today, step by step, I am reclaiming my life. One of the first women born of the West to become a Tibetan nun, these words of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo have emerged as words to live by, in this personal pursuit for a sustainable and stress-free life, both for my personal mental health as well as the daunting uncertainty within which we, one and all, find ourselves:
We have to cultivate contentment with what we have. We really don’t need much. When you know this, the mind settles down.
Sure, I may not have my very own piece of land, like some of my pioneering friends, but I can begin in my small rental, a cottage, and in my daily habits, habits I cling to more with Covid, taking the lessons of others to heart in ways that are manageable, and more importantly, sustainable for the individual. So each day now, I begin with greed. And gratitude. Hand in hand.
It took an ebulliently dedicated Italian woman to teach me this in the kitchen, many, many moons ago. You see, given my oh-so-very-English background where dinner time was often simply a perfunctory affair, when I first visited the home of my dear friend, Renata, the experience was one that was entirely new to me. And I was enthralled, to say the least. Here, food was lovingly prepared by the entire family, and each character had a role to play. No matter if it was la carne dei poveri (‘the poor man’s meat’) or prosciutto on the table!
Renata’s father is exactly what one would expect of an Italian papa bear, warm and generous to a fault with a naughty twinkle in his eyes and a wicked sense of humour. Her creative mother of Afrikaans heritage is seldom without an apron, either tending to the herbs in the garden or perusing decor magazines for DIY tips for her home, a calm maternal force in this otherwise boisterous household.
Her father would grate the parmesan, while Renata and her mother perfected the robust pasta sauce. Her younger brother meanwhile would be tempering dark chocolate for the delectable after-dinner cherries. When one of them was not busy with a task, they would join me at the table in the kitchen for an aperitif, nibbling on the spread of glossy olives and especially sourced slithers of salami that had been laid out.
It all left an indelible imprint on me. I always think of them when I find myself in the kitchen, applying myself to the art of cooking from the heart, or at a restaurant, delighting in even that first crack of a spoon on the top of a soft boiled egg or perfect crème brûlée.
And when I find myself washing up dishes, I think of all the years spent at my grandparent’s where my grandfather would clean up after a meal with an almost saintly dedication. Or the way in which my mom, an artist, cares immaculately for her brushes, and my father, a chef, for his knives. Even in the way, thinking back on childhood, how my mother had the knack for making of a home ever lovely and filled with music, so artistic in all things that she is. There is pride to be taken in caring for the tools that serve you, so very generously day in and day out, whether bipolar or not, in the throes of Covid or no, a ritualistic sacrament even in keeping as sacred spaces and means for ourselves and those with whom we lovingly share our tools, crafts and homes.
There is such a vibrant, glimmering and almost hopeful German word for ‘room’, a space in a home: zimmer. I keep it close by on my tongue. Slowly, but surely, I have come to see in all things and in all actions, the potential for gratitude and sanctity and simplicity. A glimmering. No matter how small. There is, to me, a kind of quiet unspoken beauty in domesticity. A ritualistic rite in the waiting. One that soothes me and brings me back to myself after a day’s work. Those frazzled nerves, the looming anxiety, all kept at bay just in the nick of time… Maybe that’s just me.
I remember still, within the four walls of lockdown in my wintery corner of South Africa, as if it was yesterday, the walk to work in my early twenties. I remember my senses revelling in the journey. I would walk past a laundromat, in the cold of winter, as the warm air would envelop me in the scent of fabric softener. Further along I would be welcomed by the comforting waft of baking bread from the German-owned bakery and finally the intoxicating aromas from the longstanding coffee shop roasting their beans from everywhere and elsewhere. I guess you could say this was my way of stopping to smell the roses. With no one there to witness the exquisite joy this brought me but myself. The universe showing me that it is infinitely kind and precious beyond measure. In so many ways. That small things are indeed magic, that they are indeed the hinges of the universe.
And so it is, that personally, for me, it has so often become those littler, less obtrusive moments, seemingly completely insignificant or mundane that are sometimes the sweetest and most tender. Truly, there can be an utterly enchanting quality to those everyday rituals, if we only take the time to notice.
And yes, and yes, and again yes, but of course, in so many ways I wish and urge one and all… Go forth, and live big and bold and bright and beautifully! Climb that mountain! See the world! Whatever your heart desires… Whatever fuels your fire. Truly, madly, deeply!
But, while you’re at it, try to never forget that those littler kindlings of the heart can be equally rewarding. And once in a while, where you can, find yourself stopping to smell those roses. In a cup of tea. In a lasagne lovingly made from scratch. In the crisp sheets of a warm bed. In a book that rendered you to tears. In a song that reminded you of a lost love. In the first bud of a fledgling plant. In a home you get to call all your own.
In the everyday.
Each and every day.