Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!

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Calling all hoarders

All going well, at this time a couple of days from now we will be back aboard Carina. The past five or six days have been a marathon of sorting and packing in preparation for our Tuesday morning flight. Five days ago, the bedroom we sleep in at my father-in-law’s house looked like a cyclone had blown through, with all our belongings strewn everywhere as I began the task of choosing what to pack.

One day last week Julian and I took four bags of unwanted clothing, books and miscellaneous other stuff to a charity shop, and I have now filled two more bags to donate to charity shops tomorrow. Our two pieces of hold luggage have been packed, unpacked, repacked, at least five times each, as I assess how much they weigh and what’s left over and what still needs to be packed. With each unpacking and repacking, stuff gets jettisoned in favour of other stuff. Clothing, books and toiletries that I thought would definitely be coming with us have been discarded in favour of other things. I have decisions to make about what I want aboard and what we need aboard.

When we flew to the UK in May the girls and I had two pieces of carry-on luggage. When Julian joined us three weeks later he had one piece of hold luggage and one carry-on. We’re going back with two hold (packed right up to the 20kg weight limit) and four carry-ons. Why are we going back with so much more stuff than we brought over?

All of this has got me thinking more generally about our accumulation of stuff; about how, once we have something, we find it hard to let it go; about our commodity addiction. We find we suddenly don’t want to live without stuff we never even knew we wanted before it was given to us. We burden ourselves with material possessions, physically and emotionally weighing ourselves down. As I jettison unnecessary stuff this week I’ve been thinking about what we really do need.

Why was I even considering a dolphin-shaped eraser that Lily got free with a magazine and that she’s never even taken out of its plastic wrapper? Why was I feeling guilty about leaving behind a book Katie was given over the summer in which she is not even remotely interested? The girls and I came over with four pairs of knickers each; four pairs of socks each; four changes of clothes each. Why am I now stressing about the excess clothing we’ve all acquired over the summer? Do I really need ten pairs of knickers and eleven pairs of socks (in addition to the five or more pairs already aboard Carina)? Does anyone need that much?

The answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t be getting my knickers in a twist about any of these things. As we get closer to our return date more and more stuff is jettisoned, mostly out of necessity, to get our luggage below the airline weight allowance, but also out of my growing realisation that we don’t need all this stuff.

Why are so many of us hoarders? Even as I embrace a lifestyle of uncluttered simplicity I find it difficult to get rid of stuff once I have it. Once something is in my possession I have this gnawing angst over getting rid of it, even if it is of completely no use or value and takes up valuable space. I can understand when it’s something I’ve paid money for, but why am I so indecisive when it comes to things given to me either by someone else or acquired free with some other purchase – things I never asked for or wanted in the first place? I’m more ruthless than a lot of people, but I still find discarding unwanted stuff tough. What is it about our material possessions that makes us want to hoard them to us, keep things that have no value, that are neither utilitarian nor bring us joy? Why do we stuff our stuff into cupboards, store it on shelves, bury it under more and more stuff?

I’m not talking here about the things we have in our homes that are without utility or monetary value but that give us joy and pleasure simply to have around. We all have things that are precious to us, that give us joy to look at or touch, that remind us of who we were or are or who we want to be. I’m talking instead about all that stuff that is hidden away, that takes up space, that is worthless to us in every sense.

I have tried very hard not to accumulate anything over the past five months. Yet accumulate stuff I have. The past week has been a tiring and often emotional de-cluttering of unwanted and unnecessary excess. I still think we’re bringing too much back to the boat. Admittedly, we’ve stocked up on teabags and factor 50 sun screen (which is more expensive in southern Europe), the rapidly-growing Lily and Katie have new clothing and foul-weather gear to replace the now too small ones aboard Carina, we’ve got some Spanish-language resources to help us with our studies, and books to keep us all going for another few months.

But here’s the thing. I bet I could halve the amount of stuff we’re bringing back to Carina and we wouldn’t miss what I’d left behind. Maybe I’ll have to jettison more in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe I’ll do it because I want to. In the past week I’ve filled six grocery-bags worth of stuff we no longer need (or never needed in the first place) to take to the charity shop, and I have recycled at least three other bags worth.

So, here’s a challenge to you. Can you find one thing in your home that you no longer want or need? Can you find ten things? Twenty? More? What can you do with that unwanted stuff? It might go straight in the bin (landfill or recycling?). But I bet the chances are you can give it away (to a friend, a charity shop, Freecycle), or you can sell it and make yourself some money (eBay, Gumtree). One person’s unwanted junk can be someone else’s treasure. Does it make you feel good to make a little space, empty a shelf, clear a little clutter? Let me know how you get on!

Picking through the plastic

From two miles off shore the narrow strip of golden sandy beach that runs the length of the east coast of the Tanger Peninsula glistens in the sunshine. It beckon to me, inviting me to walk its length, dip my feet into its azure waters. We drop the sails and motor into Marina Smir. While Julian takes our documents to the marina authorities, Lily, Katie and I walk to the wall separating the marina from the beach and look south along the endless sand. From here the beauty of the golden sand is littered with the detritus of human consumption. Plastic drinks bottles are the most obvious. But there is other plastic waste too – lengths of nylon fishing net, plastic bags, bits of rope. There is a beach hut, that in high season sells soft drinks and snacks and hires out sun loungers and jet skis. The man working there is raking sections of beach, creating mounds of rubbish here and there that I presume will be removed later on.

DSCI0238Two days later, the girls and I go to the beach for the afternoon. I am further appalled by the rubbish. I think of the article I have recently read, and briefly mentioned in an earlier blog, about the amount of plastic in the Mediterranean. According to research carried out by Andres Cozar and colleagues, there are around one thousand tonnes of plastic floating on the Mediterranean. 80% of this is micro-plastic, pieces of plastic 5mm or less.

The impact of these plastics is varied. The obvious impacts are the slow and painful deaths caused to birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans from eating plastics that they mistake for food. Stomachs get filled with plastic, making it impossible to eat, and animals die slowly from starvation. See Chris Jordan’s plastics photos here.The less obvious impact is from the consumption of micro-plastics which can pass through the digestive system, and which deposit toxins in the lining of the gut, leading to cancers and other diseases. These toxins get passed on from prey to predator through the food chain, and may well end up in our own bodies, as we dine on seemingly healthy seafood. Such plastics have been found in oysters and mussels growing in northern Europe.

DSCI0252I take some photos of the plastics on the beach and notice that drinking yogurt, Coke and mineral water bottles are by far the biggest offenders on this beach. This litter troubles me. It is one thing to teach my children not to litter and to be careful in their use of plastics. It is quite another to sit on a beach, relaxing and reading my book, while not doing anything about the litter all around me.

DSCI0254The next day the girls and I go back to the beach again, this time on a clean up mission. It is an impossible task, so I set us a goal. We will try to pick up as much litter as we can in the small stretch of beach along the tidal zone between the point where we enter from the marina and the point where we sat and played yesterday. It’s an area about 200 metres in length and 5 metres in width. I figure that the plastics in the tidal zone are the ones that are of the most immediate threat to sea life. Maybe I’m wrong. I have a couple of heavy duty plastic bin liners. I advise the girls not to pick up anything sharp, made of glass, or that feels like it might cut or harm them.

Among the plastic rubbish we find are razors, pens, plastic forks, tampon applicators, nappies, condoms, sanitary towels, fishing line, dolls’ limbs, chocolate wrappers, drink cartons, motor oil cans, bucket lids, shoes, sandals, flip-flops, beach balls, plastic bags, plastic flowers, plastic grass, sun lounger arm rests, sun glasses and of course the ubiquitous plastic bottles. In less than half an hour we have filled four bin bags with plastic.

Noticing an abundance of plastic bottle caps, I set the girls a challenge to see how many they can find in one minute. I set my watch. They bring me 65 bottle caps. The great irony is that most of these are blue – bottle caps from mineral water bottles, the commercial bottling of water being one of the most unnecessary of neoliberal capitalism’s many successful marketing ploys.

What most disturbs me and stays with me when I get my head down to sand level are the tiny particles of plastic that blend in with the sand. These micro-plastics are too small to pick up, and I can only imagine the mass removal of the top layer of sand could get rid of these. Looking at the sand from the eye level of a turtle or a crab, I see tiny specks of blue, green, red, yellow – plastics that will be in circulation around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to come.

It would be all too easy to blame Moroccan holiday-makers for their poor attitude to littering, but a map of sea circulation in this western end of the Mediterranean tells a more complex story. The local currents here are circular, running clockwise along the western Costa del Sol in Spain, across the Mediterranean to this east coast of the Tanger Peninsula and back up to the Costa del Sol again. Much of the rubbish on the beach clearly is Moroccan, but given the currents, there is sure to be as much rubbish from the Costa del Sol here as there is Moroccan rubbish in the Costa del Sol. And all that unnecessary throw-away plastic, circulating around this fragile sea, is detrimental to the health of all life – non-human and human, here on the Mediterranean.

It would also be all too easy to put the blame solely on the shoulders of consumers. For this stuff to be consumed, it has to be produced and marketed and distributed to people far from the site of production. The yogurt cartons, soft drinks bottles and motor oil cans of multinational companies nominally from Denmark, the US and the UK carry within them stories of global capitalism and of the marketing of products that are often unnecessary, unhealthy, and hugely damaging to the environment.

And the Mediterranean isn’t the only place. The eastern Pacific gyre is a well-documented plastic patch twice the size of Texas floating in the waters between Hawai’i and California where, for every square mile of ocean there are 46,000 bits of plastic. All over the world there accumulation zones are growing in size. And as these floating plastic islands grow, birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans die slow and painful deaths from starvation or disease.

My children know not to litter. But not littering is not enough. We all need to clean up our act and clean up our oceans, for the sake of everyone – humans and animals.

Raising women and other thoughts on International Women’s Day

Julian and I were recently engaged in a heated discussion with someone that hinged on the role of personal responsibility in the fight against that three-headed monster consumerism-global poverty-environmental degradation. Our friend took a rather defeatist attitude – people will never change, so why try to change people. We took a more proactive stance. We do not want and cannot presume to change anyone else. But we can change ourselves. Our small contribution to the eradication of social and environmental injustice is to make responsible choices in our lives and to raise our children to be responsible in their choices. We are one small family whose consumer and lifestyle choices are influenced by our social and environmental consciousness and philosophy. But we are not alone. Every day in millions of homes throughout the world individuals and families take responsibility for their consumer choices, starting from places of optimism and a belief that one person, one family, can make a difference.

So it was, as International Women’s Day approached, I thought about the power of the individual or of the family to bring into being a just and fair world for all, irrespective of gender.

I am a privileged woman. I was raised by parents for whom my gender was no barrier to anything I chose to do. I have lived a life of my choosing. I chose how much education I wanted, and what jobs I wanted; I chose who and when to marry and I chose when and how many children to have. With such great privilege comes responsibility. I cannot change the world. I cannot erase sexism or violence against women or unequal pay or lack of choice or poverty. But I can make responsible choices in how I talk about and to other people and how I interact with other people – both men and women. I can make responsible choices about what I buy and what I do. With my husband, I am striving to raise two women to know that their gender is no barrier to their aspirations, but by their choices and actions they can further contribute to the eradication of gender-based inequality and injustice.

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The girls and I have been in Ireland since Wednesday and I’ve been spending a lot of time with some of the amazing women in my life – my mother, sister, nana, cousin, aunts and friends. There’s been a lot of laughter; we’ve drunk a lot of tea. Last night I went out with two friends who I’ve known since we were all four years old. In their early 40s, one is about to have her first baby and the other is about to complete her first degree. We met other old school friends when we were out – strong, sassy, opinionated women, and I felt really proud to be part of that tribe!!

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Wishing you all a very Happy International Women’s Day – appreciate the women in your life; celebrate being a woman, or knowing a woman; and think about what small steps you can take to eradicate gender-based inequality and injustice. xx

Frozen: Lessons in consumer capitalism

Santa Claus was well on his way on Christmas Eve and had probably already delivered presents to New Zealand and half of Australia when Katie announced that what she really wanted him to bring her were Anna and Elsa dolls from the movie Frozen and an Elsa wig and dressing-up dress for herself. But by then it was too late to get a message to Santa and, anyway, given how many gifts he had to load on his sleigh, he was unlikely to have any spare dollies or wigs or dresses on board.

DSCI0026On Christmas morning there was great excitement, but the absence of the Frozen dolls caused a little disappointment. But among the gifts from family and friends were four envelopes – two for each of the girls – containing €20 each. Now Lily and Katie each had €40 and, as talk of the Frozen dollies carried on through Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day, Julian and I decided that they should use the money to buy the dolls.

On New Year’s Eve, Lily, Katie and I took the bus to Toys ‘r’ Us in Roquetas de Mar. Katie knew what she wanted, but I tried to explain that her €40 probably wouldn’t stretch to two dolls, a wig and a dress (I had no idea how much any of this stuff cost). Lily didn’t know what she wanted and intended to browse before making her choice.

Immediately inside the door of the shop was a huge section of Frozen merchandise. Katie instantly saw a box containing an Anna doll and an Elsa doll. It cost €46. Six euro over her budget, but how could I deny her? The wig cost €26 and the dressing-up dress €45. I was shocked by these prices. Katie took the box containing the two dolls. That was it, she wasn’t interested in even looking at anything else in the shop.

Lily saw an ice-skating Elsa that she liked but, true to her word, she decided to browse some more before making her decision. She left the doll and went browsing but, after twenty minutes or so decided she really wanted the ice-skating Elsa and went back for it. It cost €30.

We carried on with our browsing and afterwards browsed through the shops in the rest of the Centro Commercial, the girls carrying their still boxed-up dollies under their arms. (Katie was keen to get home because there was no ‘blow-hole’ in the box for her dolls to breathe through!). A woman, about my own age, came up to us, pointed to Lily’s doll and asked where we’d go it. When I told her, she turned and almost ran towards Toys ‘r’ Us. I started to notice that other parents and children had Frozen merchandise – backpacks, t-shirts, notebooks, etc.

One wouldn’t have to be the most observant person in the world to realise that Frozen merchandising is everywhere. In Toys ‘r’ Us itself, apart from the dedicated Frozen section, there was Frozen merchandise scattered throughout the shop. A bin of soft-toy Olafs here, a stack of Frozen art sets there, Frozen backpacks, Frozen balloons, Frozen party ware. Often, the same item was to be found in multiple places around the shop, so if you missed it once, or tried to walk away, there is was again around the next corner. Outside of Toys ‘r’ Us, as we wandered around the shops we found Frozen merchandise in clothes shops, pharmacies, luggage shops, stationary shops, and we even found Frozen chocolate biscuits in the supermarket.

The merchandising is ubiquitous and it’s no wonder that every little girl I know is obsessed. It’s a great movie (despite some flaws) about the love between two sisters. The songs are infectious and there are lots of memorable lines and characters. But the Frozen-bombing of merchandise is troubling.

Katie loves her two dolls, but in the days after the shopping trip, they weren’t enough. She wanted more. She wanted things she never knew she wanted until she was bombarded by them on New Year’s Eve. For a few days, the dolls were not enough. The dress and wig were quickly forgotten and in their place was a longing for variations of the dolls – ice-skating Anna and Elsa; Anna and Elsa whose hearts glow when their hands are squeezed, and so on. ‘Can we go back tomorrow and get those?’ she pleaded. I explained that she had already spent all her money and then some. Could she bring her dolls back and get those others instead? It doesn’t work like that, I tried to tell her. You’ve already played with these, we’ve thrown away the packaging, Anna’s hair is a mess. As the days go by, though, she seems more content with her dolls and her initial desire to trade them in for something else seems to be fading.

Now, I know there are some among you who will think me the meanest mum on the planet for not buying them all the dolls they want. But if you think I’m mean, you miss the point. It’s not because we can’t afford them. We can’t afford them, but even if we could, I wouldn’t buy them. It’s not because we don’t have space aboard Carina. We don’t have space , but even if we lived in a mansion (or a super yacht), I wouldn’t buy them.

This is how consumer capitalism works – playing on the consciences of parents who want to satisfy their children’s desires. Corporations – Walt Disney in this case – bombard us with so many images of stuff, with promises of a better life if we consume this stuff, that we are brainwashed into believing how much happier we will be if own that stuff. Hook ‘em young, because today’s consumers of Frozen merchandise will be tomorrow’s consumers of iPads, Xboxes, perfume, make-up, jewellery, cars, TVs, throwaway clothes, junk food, plastic surgery, one-season football kits, and on and on and on.

I rarely expose my children to such insidious marketing. Our occasional TV viewing is generally advertisement free and our visits to shopping centres and other such cathedrals of consumerism are few and far between. My children are happy with what they have – which is quite a lot (read this post about essential toys for live aboard kids). And they don’t miss what they don’t have because most of the time they don’t know it’s even out there.

I’m not a mean mum. I’m a mum struggling to protect my children from global corporations that do not have their best interests – or the best interests of any of us – at heart. I try to protect them (and prepare them) by teaching them the value of money, and the value of our material possessions. And I try to protect them by instilling in them the knowledge that their own happiness and value does not reside in the consumption of material stuff.

Hooray for Christmas!

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us, although I’m finding it hard to be convinced that it’s not still August. December on the Mediterranean is all sunshine and palm trees, blue skies and sandy beaches. The daytime temperatures hover around 20˚C, so different to the cold, wet, windy Decembers I am used to in Ireland and England. But, Christmas weather in southern Spain is, I’m sure, more akin to the weather in Bethlehem on the first Christmas.

2010 - a rare snowy Christmas Day at home in Ireland

2010 – a rare snow-covered Christmas Day at home in Ireland

Spain, like many countries, has adopted the pre-Christian Northern European symbols of mid-winter – the decorated pine tree and the flying reindeer. Still walking around in short sleeves, skirt and sandals, I am amused to see shop windows decorated with snowmen and snowflakes. But these symbols of Christmas are no more alien to Spain than they are to Ireland and the UK. I have only rarely experienced snow at Christmas, and the reindeer, decorated pine tree and jolly gift-giving fat man are as much a syncretic import to my Irish Christmas as they are to the Spanish Christmas.

Perhaps because of the (for me) unseasonably warm weather, or because this is our first Christmas living aboard Carina and we are somewhat removed from the frenzy, I am less aware this year than in previous years of the manic consumerism that accompanies Christmas. But I know it’s there. I was shocked to see images of Black Friday on the Internet and in the UK newspaper we treat ourselves to each Saturday. People fighting, punching each other, pushing each other over, generally being mean and nasty, for the sake of monster wide-screen TVs and other such unnecessary junk. The only people amused by this are the CEOs and shareholders of the multinational companies that make and sell this stuff. They’re laughing all the way to the bank.

This year I feel more removed than ever from the pressures to consume at Christmas. I’m removed from the pressure to buy gifts that I can’t afford, to receive gifts that I don’t want or need, to line the bulging pockets of multinational producers, manufacturers and retailers, and to contribute to environmental degradation and social inequality. Instead, I’m free to get on with a more low-key Christmas that focuses on giving and sharing and being with family.

2010 - Lily, aged one and three-quarters, posing under Granny's tree.

2010 – Lily, aged one and three-quarters, posing under Granny’s tree.

Last week we started to decorate Carina. We made and hung up a few decorations, and more will follow over the next few days (pictures to follow, when Carina is decked out in her Christmas splendor). The girls and I have come up with lists, not of what we want to receive, but of what we want to give. We have plans to make sweet Christmassy treats to give to our neighbours in other boats and to the staff who work at the marina. And I’m planning a mini-Christmas party for each of my classes at the English school. Making Christmas treats with Lily and Katie and visiting our neighbours is something I’m very much looking forward to.

This year, gift-giving is thankfully curtailed by necessity. We live in a confined space 11 metres long and 3.4 metres wide, so big unwieldy gifts are out of the question. Mammy and my sister are flying over from Ireland and, with their limited airplane luggage allowance, they can neither give nor receive lots of gifts. Spending Christmas with them will be the best gift. We are all spending Christmas with my cousin and his wife in Almeria. With the pressure to give and receive gifts removed, we can all concentrate on enjoying each other’s company while we share some good food.

I have done all the Christmas shopping I am going to do. I spent about half an hour last week buying crafty, creative gifts for the girls on behalf of their grandparents in the UK. (I found even that half an hour immensely stressful). Now we can get back to the fun stuff – singing Christmas carols and hymns, decorating the boat, baking, reading Christmas stories and looking forward to seeing Granny and Aunty Antoinette in a couple of weeks time.

Now…let me think…where did I stow Julian’s Santa costume?

Bloody Christmas here again.
Let us raise a loving cup:
Peace on Earth, good will to men
And let them do the washing up.