Defining minimalism

I’m a proud minimalist. My unrealistic dream is to own one pair of shoes that I can wear for everyday commuting, running, hiking, and the occasional work-related public speaking.

When I arrived in Canberra, migrating from India, I had one cabin bag—which contained my laptop, a few snacks, and the essentials for surviving an overnight fight. I had to check in my luggage because it weighed 12 kilos, a little over the 8 kilos of maximum allowance of a cabin bag.

And I’ve often narrated that story without the slightest sense of shame. While most people would identify themselves by the things they own and the value of those items, I lack the lust for materialism.

To put that in a different context, if a bushfire approached my house and I had to leave immediately, I’d have less than half a backpack to carry. Everything I own fits into my yellow rucksack.

However, as I’ve navigated society, I’ve developed many relationships and therefore, interests. As a result, I’ve started accumulating things. Stuff. Possessions I cherish, not because they’re mine but because I have anytime access to them—I now need them. For instance, I need proper running shoes, separate from my everyday sneakers. Of course, I didn’t start running until mid November of last year. And I would’ve have started if it hadn’t been for my friends talking about their running.

More than everything else, however, I can’t help but acquire books. I’ve always had that problem. Before I moved to Canberra, I gave away so many books because it made no sense to carry them all with me. Books—especially ones you want to re-read and enjoy for a lifetime–are, in bare terms, baggage. If I’m emotionless, I’d say books are an unnecessary burden. Having my teen ages possessed by technology, I’d argue I could get all the books in the world in one ebook reader—for the size and weight of one.

Yet, my social activities and my friend making has altered my view of possessions. I realised this last week when I visited a book fair. Even though I’d been to many such events in India, I’ve never bought anything because my string mind voice opposed to it. This time however, I ended up buying three new books, to add to the rather small pile that I know I’ll hold on to as long as I can. Unless there’s a bushfire and I have to evacuate immediately, I’d take these books with me.

This has made me question my principles.

I still consider myself a minimalist, but with a larger collection of things than I had before. I’ve come to understand that minimalism isn’t about having fewer things, but instead, about knowing the difference between wants and needs. It’s impossible to have one pair of shoes that’s ideal for all activities. And it’s ok to have two or three good pairs of shoes. As for books, I can always donate, and borrow when I want them again. Buying a book introduces me to the title. Once I’m familiar with the title, the author, and the style of writing, I can loan as many as I want.

That was my lightbulb moment. Minimalism isn’t about limiting your experiences, but it’s about expanding them. And you can do that without overloading your backpack.

Shanty time

It’s almost a year since I relocated to Canberra, and even though I’ve become conditioned to many of the everyday lifestyle quirks of living in Australia, this land and people never cease to amaze me.

For the first few months, I engaged in what I can only call aggressive exploration. I wasn’t violent, but I pushed myself to go out, meet people, make friends, and get involved in community activities. I even had a strict rule not to stay indoors during the weekend. As a remote employee, since I worked from home quite a lot during the week, I’d tease myself to go out even if I had no place to go.

Thanks to all that self-possessed desire to belong and become part of Canberra, I made some excellent friends. People who now text me and call me and want to meet up to know how things are with me. It’s wonderful. To be surrounded by people who care enough to spend time listening about my life choices. It’s not always easy to find that in a new, unfamiliar society, and I’m lucky to have that.

And yet, as I approach my first anniversary of arriving here, I’m baffled at the number of things and behaviours that are still so foreign to me.

Like joining a singing club, for instance. One of my friends introduced me to a sea shanty group. I’d never contemplated the idea before: a group of people—government staff, interview scribes, private consultants, business people, retirees, teachers, high-schoolers, and anyone from any walk of life—coming together after work on a Monday night to sing about pirates, the ocean, and seafaring.

I knew nothing about any of it. Aside from the short ferry rides during my travels, I’d never sailed in my life. Yet, there I was at the shanty club, one with the wall, unsure of what to do, why I was there, too nervous, and downright doubtful.

Oh, and did I say shanty club meets at a bar?

I don’t hang out at bars. I’ve never hung out at bars in India. Heck, there wasn’t even a bar where I used to live.

The good thing, however, was that the group was warm and welcoming. It also helped that my first time at the shanty club was in winter, and it was way more fun lounging by the fire and singing (shouting) at the top of my voice than being outdoors. That might’ve even encouraged me to stay the full two hours instead of running away at half time.

We sang about being in South Australia, travelling to England and back, drinking in Aussie pubs, and drowning in rum. It was so much laughter and belly-aching joy. I stuck with my friend because I knew no one else in the room, but as the weeks rolled on, I started recognising regulars, and they, me.

Now, almost a year later, I’m so comfortable with shanty club that I look forward to it. I smile at the bar staff as I walk in, the usuals wave when I arrive, and we indulge in small talk—something unimaginable in the past.

And I have a hell of a time, every time.

The toughest thing about migrating to a new land is navigating negativity without it affecting your sanity. Often, by allowing yourself to have new experiences, you find people and activities you’ll enjoy and cherish. Shanty was one of those things for me.

Rider

“How hard could it be?”

After all, I’d ridden a bike before. It’s been a while, of course, but I wasn’t a novice at the balancing act. Regardless, the last time I’d got on a bike was at my workplace. It was a Saturday morning, and having spent Friday night working a bit and then binge watching movies before I’d passed out from fatigue, I woke up at my desk and decided to ride around the office campus on one of the free office bikes. And so I went round and round our circular building. It was called the tower building for its shape. I wound my way like moon around the earth, making sure I stayed at a respectable distance, just enough to avoid an ugly crash.

That was about three years ago. That was my second time on a bike. The first was about 15 years ago. Desperate to learn, I borrowed my neighbour’s bike, which she never rode. It sat there, grappling in dust, gathering rust, its potential draining away, pointless. Since I didn’t know better, and it was a loaned bike, I couldn’t leave our building. I went up and down the front yard, which at less than hundred metres, still seemed rather lengthy at that frivolous age of 10.

And so when I moved to Canberra and realised everyone rode, to work, to parks, to the pubs, to climate protests, I craved to get myself a bike. Except, it was such a difficult decision. facing me was a gigantic world of wheels and tyres and handlebars in sizes, colours, and models I’d never heard of before.

I used to think gears were appropriate on motorcycles. Turns out, when you’re riding uphill—which is quite a bit in the Canberra region—you’d go nowhere without gears. I found out the value of gears the hard way Riding on a friend’s bike today for the first time since doing those office rounds, I stopped midway on a bridge and gravity snarled as it dragged me backwards. I had to get off and push.

Going down a slope, I wobbled before crashing right into a bush, scratching my knees, bruising the bike, and tearing my jeans. I fell again, scraping the same knee a little later. Never mind, I thought as I cruised down the serene bike path, as the lake expanded on my right. You can’t expect to be unscathed when you’re learning almost from scratch.

When I grazed the ground a little later, I was pissed. Shaken, frustrated, and embarrassed. But still determined. Despite an abundant lack of confidence, I rode home on a bike path my friend suggested. Loved every bit of it.

Non-existent rain and over exposure to heat has left the bush capital parched and yellowing. And yet, as I rode past them, a gentle breeze rode with me, assuring me that all would be well, that plants would recover, that I would recover. It caressed my jeans, sending cold shards of comfort through the hole onto my bleeding knee. Glorious.

As I unlocked my door and gingerly stepped into my home, I smiled. Happy and satisfied with myself.

I too can ride.

Cookies!

I’ve done quite a lot of baking since moving to Australia. But I’m no baker. I’ve never made delectable goods people would want to buy. 

I’ve baked vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and oat clusters. I’m a complete novice otherwise.

I volunteer at a co-operative food shop. Yesterday, one of the managers walked up to me as I cleaned the counter and asked me how I felt about baking. 

Unprepared. Unconfident.

And then, for the first time, I was asked to bake something. It was to be either banana bread or cookies. Nothing new or unheard of—we had s pre-designed recipe. I just had to follow instructions. If it said to boil two cups of salt, well… you know. 

I wouldn’t boil two cups of salt.

But I was making chocolate chip and tahini cookies. 

This wasn’t my usual marinate-vegetables-and-shove-in-the-oven recipe. It wasn’t anything like the pumpkin and oats mixture I bake all the time. To put it simply, it wasn’t simple.

cookies in the making

However, on paper, the recipe was pretty straightforward. It had fewer steps than the banana bread, and even though I’d have chosen the bread to stuff my face in, the cookies seemed far less intimidating to make.

I read the instructions over and over just to make sure I didn’t forget the salt or the vanilla, the oil, or the milk. 

It was a vegan recipe, and only a few days ago, I’d seen the recipe’s author bake some cookies herself. So I had a reasonable idea of how they were supposed to look. I recalled awe-ing at how flawlessly the cookies had spread and how much people enjoyed chewing them.

It was a lot to live up to. And that terrified me. Even though it was just flour, baking soda, and salt for the dry and oil, tahini, milk, and sugars for the wet, I still felt an enormous pressure over my head as I measured the ingredients, battling with myself over the difference between a heaped and flattened cup.

The recipe suggested 15 cookies. And as I balled up the cookie dough, smiling to myself at how much it resembled the cookie doughs I’d seen on television, I realised I was making far too many—I’d made thirty small balls instead of 15 big ones. Anxious, but still proud of my mixing capabilities, I greased the trays, arranged the balls, and popped them into a waiting oven. 

freshly baked cookies

For the next fifteen minutes, I was thankfully too distracted to bite my nails and check in on the cookies every two minutes. When they came out, smaller than I expected, they were more like blobs of chocolate-topped brownish flour than flat disks of chewy goodness. 

My heart sank. Perhaps I’d sunk the cookies.

The first taste-tester said it was good. But he’s a nice guy. The second affirmed the first guy’s comment, adding that the cookies were crunchy and crumbly—which is good, if you like crumbly cookies.

They were both more than less than helpful. I still couldn’t tell if the cookies were any good. And I didn’t trust myself to eat any.

We sold out of cookies in a day.

Many people appreciated my cookies. And yet, as a novice baker and an incredibly-doubtful person, it’s hard to believe.

Perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Perhaps I’m not such a terrible baker, after all.

Perhaps I could do more…

Swooped. Almost.

I’ve written about Australian wildlife being wild and at times, aggressive. Magpies swoop down on runners, bicyclists, and pedestrians even potentially leaving in their wake painful holes in heads and a bloody mess. All over the country, crocodiles await adventurous wanderers, kangaroos could become too friendly and shove all their weight on you, and venomous snakes slither into your home, making themselves cosy under your bed or on your toilet.

Even ducks waddle their way up to you wanting to pick a fight.

However, all of this is book knowledge. I’ve heard stories of others’ homes infested with eight-legged monsters, injured pedestrians keeling on footpaths nurturing magpie wounds, and countless other incidents that curdle your blood.

But you never understand it until you experience it yourself.

As I did today. While I jogged down my usual route by the lake, a woman walking a few yards in front of me shrieked. It all happened fast—by the time I realised what had happened, she’d recovered, a man walking behind her had helped her avoid the magpie’s talon. She held what looked like a leather bag that probably shielded her. The two of them quickly walked away while the magpie settled itself on a light pole between me and the path ahead.

I’d stopped jogging, my heart in my mouth. It seemed harmless. It was just a tiny bird sitting on a pole, watching the world beneath it. Nothing about it suggested any hatred towards humankind. And yet, as I watched, a cyclist pedalled his way towards me from the opposite side. As he rode under the pole, the bird screeched, bent its knees, and lifted off towards the bobbing red helmet.

It was ferocious. The cyclist didn’t deter even for a second. He rode onwards, steady, and almost oblivious to the potential death hovering over his head.

In a split second, without thinking, I took off. Seeing as how the bird chased the cyclist going the opposite side, I ran straight ahead, hoping it would be distracted long enough for me to escape.

But of course, nature is smarter than humankind. I ran like Phoebe, and the bird chased after me wailing and sending shards of panic through my entire being. I hadn’t run like that since my relay races in fifth grade.

As the bird’s cries died down, I slowed and stopped. From behind me came huffing noises, and I turned to smile surprisedly at a runner. She looked far more seasoned than I, and she slowed down long enough to add laughingly, “they went for me, too when I came in earlier.” And she went on as if nothing had happened.

For her, and the cyclist, it was just another morning.

Australian wildlife is crazy, but Australians are crazier.


Photo: Joel Herzog on Unsplash.com