Making, cooking, food and wasting

IMG_0504.JPGWhen my brother and I were little, we used to sit in the dirt under the crab apple tree that grew beside the back door of our home and pile handfuls of dirt and handfuls of fallen crab apples into buckets. We’d fill the buckets with water, and attempt to make soup.

I don’t remember if we ever intended to eat the soup, but I do remember various strategies we employed to try to soften the crab apples so they might be edible. The crab apples were small — more like red berries really — and rock hard. Even trying to grind them between two flat rocks didn’t break them down. We tried soaking them in water for a short while before pounding them with rocks, we tried dropping them from the balcony. I’m not sure what motivated such a strong desire for softened crab apples. Perhaps we were thinking about chewing them, or perhaps we just wanted the texture of the crab apples to match the texture of the mud.

I’ve tried for some time to think of an anecdote that might illustrate how I came to be fascinated with making things. But the truth is that I don’t really remember where or when it started — although this story about the crab apples, and its placement early on the timeline of my life might suggest that the desire to make might be something I was born with or something I was taught from a very young age. And indeed both my parents are makers, and their parents before them. Things made from wood and stone, wool and cotton. Things made from food materials, destined for lunch boxes or the dinner table.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes about making as being similar to walking (2010). He suggests that both making and walking are a form of ‘wayfaring’ — that is, they are a way of knowing or coming to know, of making one’s way through the world. He describes a way of making that considers that the materials with which a person makes things are not inert, that skilled practice “is not a question of imposing preconceived forms on inert matter, but of intervening in the fields of force and currents of material wherein forms are generated” (pg 92, 2010). He suggests that to make is to “find the grain of the world’s becoming and to follow its course while bending it to [an] evolving purpose” (pg 92, 2010).

When I first began trying to make things using food scraps as materials, it became obvious to me very quickly that the materials I was using were not inert and that I would need to be willing to evolve my ideas about what I was making and how in order to avoid throwing out vast quantities of failed attempts. This was, after all, part of the reason I was attempting to make things from food scraps in the first place: I was trying to find value in these things that were usually considered waste.

Of the materials I use, I have been experimenting with lemon rinds the longest. My household goes through a lot of lemons, and I’d been taught somewhere along the line to keep them out of the compost for fear of upsetting the critters who made it their home. I also kept turning up yet-to-break-down lemon rinds in compost I was trying to use on the garden, and it was irritating to have to pick them out. The rinds that were kept out of the compost were going in the rubbish bin. This bothered me—mainly because I didn’t believe this could be the only answer. Lemon rinds are an organic material, I thought, surely there was something else I could do with them.

I tried making marmalade first (and in finding out how to do so, came across this lovely essay about marmalade making). It was easy and delicious, but I realised very quickly that I’d need to make an awful lot of marmalade to deal with the volume of material the household produced. So I tried making a lemon vinegar for cleaning. Again, it was very easy, and it was a brilliant all-purpose cleaner — perhaps the best I’ve ever used — but there’s only so much of it that a household needs.

I read that lemon oil was good for cosmetic purposes, and had a brightening effect on the skin and hair. I’d been making my own hair washes and skin moisturisers for some time, so I began trying to incorporate the lemon rind. At first, I made the mistake of trying to use it fresh, and discovered that there is still quite enough flesh in the rind of a lemon to go mouldy and send an entire batch of face cream that way too. It wasn’t the appearance of visible mould that made me realise my batch was going off — the smell changed. It wasn’t awful, but there was something not quite right about it. And when I continued to stubbornly use it on my face, not wanting to waste the cream and the time and effort I’d put into making it, my skin went blotchy and itchy. Eventually, reluctantly, I put the whiffy face cream aside and started again.

A woman at my work told me about how women in India (where she was from) use lemon oil for their skin and hair, and about how they dry the rinds out so they can keep them for longer. She described rows and rows of lemon and other citrus rinds lined up on people’s roofs on hot days, and the vague citrusy scent that hung in the air.

When I tried it at home, it was spring. One day hot and sunny; the next, rain. The lemon rinds went mouldy again, but at least this time it happened before I’d put them in a face cream.

I began a dance with the oven. Every time I was at home for a stretch of several hours, I’d put a tray of lemon rinds into a very low oven. I call this a dance because one of the other uses for citrus rinds is as a fire starter, due to the oil in citrus being highly flammable. I did, thankfully, managed to avoid lighting my oven on fire, but the drying results were inconsistent, and required more of my attention than I really wanted to give.

Then I was gifted a dehydrator. The drying was much slower, much more consistent, and required far less of my attention. And slowly I accumulated jars of citrus (mostly lemon) rind for later use in making other things.

Describing this process of learning how to use lemon rinds rather than throw them out perhaps sounds tiresome and lengthy on paper. At times, I guess it was, but for the most part, this experimentation was fascinating. All the stops and starts and changes of direction have helped me come to know an awful lot more about lemons and lemon rinds, about what they might be useful for, but also about myself. Playing with lemon rinds has taught me how much I enjoy the smell of citrus, that my hair and skin do indeed get brighter when I use lemon oil. It’s taught me to trust my sense of smell and to notice how my skin reacts to the things I make. It has also taught me about the rhythms I follow in my daily life, and for what and how much I am willing to change them — it has shown me how much of what I do is habit, and given me an opportunity to look at those habits with a new perspective.

It has also changed the way I look at and feel about these materials, at the idea that they’re commonly dismissed and thrown away, and at the infrastructure and culture that makes it difficult for people to waste less than they do. There are, of course, the environmental impacts of continuing habits where food scraps and other food are wasted, and those are by no means insignificant, but they are not the main focus of my research. As well as the environmental downside to these food waste habits, there is this idea of Ingold’s that making is a way of knowing and learning, of coming to understand something about the world and our relationship to it. It saddens me a great deal to think that sending food waste to landfill might both contribute significantly to global warming and represent a missed opportunity for making — and for learning through making.

This is perhaps what most makes me feel it is a shame that we have a tendency to think about ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas, 1980) as dirt or waste. In her seminal book ‘Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo’, anthropologist Mary Douglas examines the ways in which cultures come to categorise things as ‘unclean’ (and, I would argue, as ‘waste’), often because they do not neatly or easily fit into another category. “As we know it,” Douglas writes, “dirt is essentially disorder” (pg 2, 1980) She argues that we shun dirt (or waste) because it “offends against order” (pg 2, 1980). Eliminating dirt or waste is not a negative action, Douglas says, “but a positive effort to organise the environment” (pg 2, 1980). It is an attempt to make our environment conform to an idea we have of it, “to impose system on an inherently untidy experience” (pg 4, 1980).

Douglas’ book analyses cultures across time, finding this systematic categorisation at work (although in different ways) in both ancient and modern cultures, so my argument is certainly not that older cultures managed this objectively better. Instead, my exploration of food waste is an attempt to challenge the boundaries of some of these categories in our own culture, to suggest that there might be something to be learned from looking at, rather than eliminating, what we might refer to as ‘food waste’. It is to suggest that the waste is not so much the materials themselves, but in the labelling of the materials as dirt or waste, and the (failed, as it turns out) attempt at eliminating them. It is to suggest that looking at what we label ‘waste’ might have something to teach us, good or bad, about how we habitually organise our world in other ways.

I think of these experiments of mine with food waste as a form of play. A game that has extended out over years, and will no doubt continue to be played. What I am doing with these food scraps is not so different to what my brother and I did with mud and fallen fruit and pieces of stone. He and I were playing with materials of the world, perhaps imitating the dinner-making process our parents undertook in the kitchen, but we were also engaging with the world in a way that taught us about texture, about how different materials didn’t always behave the same way as one another when they were, say, mixed with water or pounded with rocks. We were probably finding out about ourselves and about one another. We were learning that that the non-human world was not something inherently or only dangerous, even when we were actually playing with dirt; that being in the world can mean engaging with it as a wayfarer, coming to know it through trial and error, rather than applying preconceived categorisations. We were exploring the world. We were making our way, untidily, probably covered in dirt, through it.

~

    Douglas, M. (1980). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Binghamton, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
    Ingold, T. (2010). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91–102.
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Cycles

The compost bucket is heavy in my arms. It is so full that the lid won’t stay on properly and through the gaps wafts a smell that means I can’t possibly ignore the fact that what I eat is something that was once alive: the smell of rotting, mould and decay. Of something that was once alive but is no longer. I walk quickly, and the liquid in the bucket sloshes around. I make a mental note to be aware of this when I empty the bucket into the bigger outside bin in a moment, lest there be any stinky splashing. 

The compost bin lives about halfway down our backyard, near the shed. To get there, I leave the house by the deck doors, peer around the side of the bucket to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs, and then make my way across the patchy grass, hoping there are no bindis popping up yet.

As smelly as the kitchen compost bucket is, it is the outside bin I find most confronting. It doesn’t smell, but it has bugs. Thousands of them. Once or twice I’ve also found mice out here. 

When I reach the bin, I put the bucket down and squint as I open the bin’s lid. The insects rush out at my face in a cloud, heading for my nostrils and squinting eyes. They take a few moments to clear, and I shake them away from my face. I empty the bucket, holding it firmly while I tap the bottom to dislodge the slimey bits of pumpkin from the bottom of its insides, trying to avoid dropping the bucket into the dark cavern of the bin. The pumpkin goop is thick and squelchy sounding and reluctant to leave the bucket, stretching and sliding around the bottom of the bucket instead of falling. But it does eventually fall and lands somewhere in the large bin with a satisfying muffled thud.

IMG_0434.JPGWhen the bucket is empty, I put the lid back on and skip back to the house, pleased to have completed the smelly chore. 

I am perhaps eight or nine in this memory. But it could also be cobbled together from any evening in my childhood. Empyting the compost bucket into the outside bin was a regular household chore throughout my entire childhood. 

There was a point sometime last year that I realised I was a bit obsessed with organic waste — and that maybe I always had been. The empyting of the kitchen compost bin into the outside bin, and all the sensory grossness of the task, looms large in my childhood memories.

IMG_0435.JPGI’m not sure now whether these experiences were unpleasant for me as a child, but I tend now to think of them as confronting but worthwhile. Lessons of a very visceral kind in how life works. Certainly they’re not unpleasant memories — just vivid. And they have not in any way made me want to avoid food scraps and food waste.

As an adult, I’ve initiated and emptied compost buckets on behalf of whole sharehouses, and I’ve acquired and become bizarrely fond of thousands of composting worms.* I’m not disgusted easily (except, perhaps, by bugs, but then maybe that makes sense too, given these memories) and my hands have touched and held much food that is very far from being at its best.

And now I find myself undertaking a major research project on food waste that will see me making things from food scraps (albeit before they’re too stinky or slimey) and making a radio feature about it. 

IMG_0436.JPGIt occurs to me know that when I started this blog years ago, I called it ‘avocado and lemon’ because those were two foods that I have always loved to eat together, and now two of the food scraps I’ll be making things from will be lemon and avocado detritus (the third food item is spent coffee grounds). It occurs to me too that the reason that I chose those particular food items is that they’re problematic in large amounts in the compost.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life seems to move in circles?

*I called all the worms Barry, in case you were wondering. Known collectively as The Barries. I’m not sure why. Barry just seemed like a good name for such an immensely helpful critter.

Hearing other people’s stories

Clear blue skyI am sitting at a tram stop on a sunny Sunday morning, reading a book, when he approaches me.

Excuse me, he says, which tram do I take to get to Bridge Road?

From here, I tell him, you can catch the number 75 tram. I’m catching that tram too.

He sits near to me on the cold metal seat and tells me he’s going to a church on Bridge Road, because his usual church is closed today. He is a thin man, probably in his forties. His face has softened around various piercings—two in his eyebrows, one in his lip. His lips are large and soft and seem occasionally to get in the way of his speech. His eyes are blue and clear.

He hasn’t been home since last night, he says. I smile. But what he says next surprises me. He hasn’t been home because last night he found his housemate dead and now he can’t face the house.

His face falters as he tells me this.

They tried to make me go home, he says, but I couldn’t. Could you?

No, I say. And I’m really sorry to hear that’s happened. I don’t know who he means by ‘they’ but I don’t ask.

He is on his way to the church on Bridge Road because a friend of his is the minister there, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to offer him some support.

The tram comes and we both get on. He tells me about his night, about how various Melbourne hospitals refused to help him, about how his Dad refused to let him stay, even knowing what happened. He tells me about his troubles with depression and suicidal thoughts. That the only person he knows who offered him a place to sleep is someone he doesn’t trust.

The book I was reading when he interrupted me at the tram stop was Hugh Mackay’s ‘The Good Life’, about how to lead a life that is morally good. My life, of course, like everyone’s, is full of moments where I fail at this, where I could be better. This man, I am absolutely sure, comes across many people in his day-to-day life who fail at being good in the moments they are interacting with him. I can see it in his face. He probably fails at this too. Years ago a friend told me that she thought I attracted more than my fair share of crazies, and certainly my interaction with this man is not a particularly unusual occurrence in my life. But I wonder whether it’s less that people with issues are attracted to me and more that, for better or worse, I find it difficult to turn away in that first moment of eye contact.

Suddenly it is my stop. I wish him good luck, say that I hope his friend can help him. He tells me he hopes I have a good day. I wonder to myself how his life will play out from here, whether he will get the help he needs. I wonder what series of events in his life lead him to here, telling a complete stranger on a tram the story of an awful night in his life. I step out into the sunshine, but the image of the clear blue eyes in his troubled face stays with me.

EWF blog post ~ Breathing, anxiety, writing

My next post is up on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog this week. It’s about the relationship between breathing, writing and anxiety or distress.

~

20130717-192416.jpg

I am standing in the kitchen, in front of the toaster and the kettle, waiting for the toast to pop, when I realise I’m barely breathing. It’s a cold morning, and I can feel the cool floorboards through my thin socks and the colder-still granite bench top under my restless finger pads. My breath is shallow and quick and maybe even a little bit painful.

I start to count to four as I inhale, and again to four as I exhale — a familiar exercise and one I run yoga students through at the beginning of every class I teach. It helps, slowly. My breath begins to slow down, to feel calmer, even though I’m still aware of the tightness in the muscles between my ribs and in my belly.

This is a very distinct memory, although I’m sure it’s actually cobbled together from a number of different occasions where I’ve been dealing with some sort of anxiety and noticed it in my breathing. I know it’s happened often, because I remember so many different sets of small details. I remember exactly this situation, but with bare feet on a tiled floor, for example, and with shod feet wandering through a park. I breathe this way, and have to struggle to calm my breath, when I have deadlines looming or angsty life events.

To me, how someone breathes is one of the most intimate things you can know about a person. There are three reasons I think this: you have to be quite close to someone to notice how they’re breathing; breathing is quite literally the first and most enduring way in which we draw the outside world into ourselves; and I know enough about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing to see how it’s useful as an indicator of how well someone is coping with their emotions.

~

Read more here.

The Fortnight of Full

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself slumped in my chair at my office job, heavy limbed, unable to concentrate on the sentence I was trying to construct on the screen in front of me. I desperately wanted to crawl under my desk and go to sleep. Instead took myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle, and sat on the closed toilet, folded over my legs for five minutes. I let my breath slow down. Let my exhales become longer than my inhales. Kept my focus firmly on the cracks between the grey floor tiles so I wouldn’t drift off. I could feel my slow pulse in my arms and legs, that feeling like the very beginning of pins and needles.

When I made my way back to my desk, I wasn’t really any less tired, but I had realised I couldn’t ignore the fatigue anymore.

This last fortnight (and a half, really, since today is Thursday) has been full. I use the word ‘full’ instead of ‘busy’ quite consciously, and not just because this article from last year about the ridiculousness of ‘busyness’ still plays on my mind. I use the word ‘full’ because the last few weeks have involved so many things that require some level of mental or emotional processing from me, and not very much time to attempt that processing.

I can hardly complain, because most of what I’ve been doing, seeing, saying, hearing has been hugely positive and I’m incredibly grateful for all of it. But it’s possible to be overwhelmed by great stuff too, isn’t it?

I think often of this blog post by yoga teacher and writer Bernadette Birney, where she talks about the balance between work and rest (although she refers to work instead as ‘play’, which I love — especially now that much of my work is stuff I really love doing). The basic premise of her argument in the post is that there’s a limit to how much each of us can do, to how long we can be continuously active, and beyond that point we just feel overwhelmed. And really need to rest.

Some of the wonderful things I was involved in over the last fortnight included running a Yoga and Writing workshop at the Emerging Writers’ Festival this last weekend, and sitting on a panel for a discussion called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m more conscious of the interplay between activity and rest just at the moment, given that both those events touched on these ideas.

For me, that relationship between activity and rest, and how I attempt to know when to move between the two, essentially comes down to energy. I mean that in the least hippy-dippy way possible — I’m really talking about levels of fatigue. I took a yoga class (as a student) late last week that had been designed to support a flagging immune system, or for periods of heightened stress, and the teacher talked about learning to notice the difference between stress that gives you the strength and vitality to get things done, and stress that is masking deep fatigue.

Thinking here of a ‘stressor’ as anything that makes demands of the body and/or the mind, it shouldn’t really surprise me that today I’m feeling deeply fatigued. Overwhelmed. This last fortnight or so has stretched me in a few different ways and forced me to consider a number of different aspects of my life from a new perspective. And maaaan, as amazing and helpful as it is, that stuff takes up valuable energy.

One of the outcomes of not having a thyroid and instead taking a dose of thyroid hormones each day, is that I’ve only got so much energy each day. (The thyroid hormones are rather directly linked to the body’s energy levels — they control the metabolism, that is, the release of oxygen in the body, or the way the body distributes energy.) Grave’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disease, is the cause of my thyroid issues, and I gather that most people with autoimmune diseases deal with this battle with energy as well. I can’t really hope to outdo this wonderful explanation about the kind of decisions people with chronic illness need to make about what to do with whatever energy they have each day, but suffice to say that the notion of having to ration it out really rings true for me.

Rest is something I’ve been historically and consistently bad at (which ultimately could have contributed to my getting the Grave’s in the first place, but then Grave’s also causes a big spike in thyroid hormone levels and metabolism, so it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument, really). For instance, I walked the hour home from work yesterday, instead of catching the tram, despite the irrefutable evidence of exhaustion from earlier in the afternoon. I’m an active person. I like to move. Moving is how I deal with the normal mental angst of being human. Plus, I have so many things I want to do! All of them right now! So rest is something I’ve really had to work hard at learning how to do, because when I don’t, I end up collapsing in a heap anyway. Which is rarely fun.

Strangely though, the collapse can be useful too. I’ve given a lot of thought these last few years to what it is that different emotional states can give us. For me, an exhaustion collapse usually involves anger or tears or immense anxiety (told you it wasn’t much fun), as well as the physical tiredness. Because I’m not very good at letting myself rest, sometimes this is what it takes for me to realise I’ve reached breaking point and that maybe I should just lie in bed and read rather than replant the garden and make a loaf of bread and ten litres of lemon marmalade and write those three essays and do all those hours of yoga I’ve been thinking about for the last month. Sometimes those emotions are what make me realise that something else is wrong, or that something bigger than just my activity level needs to change. At times, my periods of great activity are not imposed by anyone other than myself; they’re a way of distracting myself from something that’s troubling me. It’s definitely unpleasant, but I certainly get the message when one of the collapses occurs: look here, stop running away.

Other times, the busyness is really just accidental, or at worst, a case of poor time management. But even then, being overstretched usually highlights something I’ve been pushing away instead of facing, even if avoiding that thing is not what’s caused the busyness in the first place. What makes me really grumpy/sad/fuming when I’m exhausted often surprises me. If I manage to stay observant during an inner (usually) tantrum about the washing up, there’s frequently something other than sheepishness I can take away from it.

Tea and pyjamas

That said, I definitely do not consciously seek out these collapses. Trying to avoid them, useful though they may sometimes be, is what’s helped me begin to learn how to rest.

So this time I’m going to listen to that feeling of being overwhelmed, to that tingling tiredness in my limbs, and I am going to rest these next few days. I am going to be quiet and spend a lot of time in my pjyamas and potter about the garden and reflect on the wonderful fullness of the last fortnight or so, because I’m sure there’s enough I can take from that without the need for a meltdown.

Walking home

This last week or so I’ve been walking home from work on the three days a week that I’m in the office. It takes me about an hour to get from my office to my front door, which is about double the time that it would take if I caught the tram, but I much prefer it.

When I was teaching yoga full-time in Sydney last year, I walked fair distances very regularly. I didn’t realise until I started walking home from my current work just how much I missed it. Walking somewhere gives me a feeling of being capable, on a very basic level, in a way that catching public transport or driving somewhere doesn’t. My body can get me there.

And walking for an hour definitely gives me a good sense of my body – not really of what it looks like, but of what it feels like. When I walk, eventually all the little tight bits make themselves known to me, and the dodgy alignment of my hips and shoulders is increasingly obvious (a side note: when I walk long distances shortly after an osteo session, where my skeleton is nicely aligned, it’s absolutely magic). After an hour’s walk my feet are sore and I’m tired. I sleep better.

Now that autumn’s upon us, walking home in the evening means facing the chill in the air. Something I loved about walking places in winter when I lived in Sydney was watching my body warm itself up with movement. I’d leave the house layered up with jumpers, jackets, gloves and scarves, and usually by the time I’d reached my destination, I’d taken most of it off, even when it was a very cold day.

Walking home this last week or so, I’ve been aware again of that warming process, and I’m still amazed by it (even though it makes complete sense). In cool weather, walking warms me up from the inside, and I love the contrast between that internal warmth and the coolness of the exposed skin of my face and hands.

Walking home, Princes Park It’s always been my habit to end up with favourite sections of regular walks. They’re usually parks or nature strips of some description. I have a feeling my favourite bit of my walk home from Melbourne City to Brunswick will end up being the section along Royal Parade where I can walk along the edge of Princes Park (pictured). Walking, more than anything else, is what helps me feel like I’m really in a place. There’s something about moving through the same place on a regular basis that helps it really sink in.

Of course, the other fantastic thing about walking home is that by the time I get there, I’m calm. Walking, like yoga, helps me move my way through frustration and anxiety. Regular walking (and regular yoga, for that matter) makes me a generally calmer person. This can’t be a bad thing.