to Small Wins

Ever since moving to a new city, I’ve really come to realise one thing – celebrating the small wins really does make a difference.

I’m still pretty amazed at the amount of time it takes to get used to a new place. To a new environment, routine, and rhythm. Thank goodness it’s Europe, where people are known to take things easy and especially in Berlin, where there are many who walk to their own beat of life and are all the more accepting of others who do the same. Every time I get stuck on something (e.g. getting lost on the train line or being totally confused in the supermarket), I just keep telling myself, things take the time they take. In fact, that’s the line from Mary Oliver’s poem which is so easy to repeat. It’s definitely etched in my heart and there’s always a warm sense of comfort that bubbles up from within whenever I repeat those wise words of hers.

“Things take the time they take.
Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”

― Mary Oliver

But yes, why chastise myself for not being able to do something well, when really, at the end of the day, everything important in life takes time. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when I find that my internal dialogue is often geared towards quietening that anxious productivity-driven insecure creature inside because when we take in a deep breath and return to the now… what’s the rush? Really. It’s something I need to constantly remind myself, that some things take time.

Learning a new skill takes time. And heck, if we talk about Housework, it’s really MANY skills lumped under that seemingly innocuous label. (The Japanese say it well, Housework really consists of 3 main categories – cooking, cleaning, laundry. And under cleaning, there are sooooo many different types of things that require cleaning.) Getting used to all the supermarket signs and ingredients on the back of food products being in German (99.7% of which I have yet to understand), takes time. Finding out the most efficient way of sorting out trash for recycling, takes hell of a lot of time. Though improvement comes of course, after numerous trials and ever more errors, a lot of the process involves that feeling of not quite knowing what on earth is going on/whether I’m doing it right. Perhaps better described as utter confused bewilderment.

Nothing like moving to a new apartment in a new city, living with no one else but your husband who has surprisingly high tolerance levels for dirt and clutter, to realise that not knowing the first thing about housework at this age, is quite…mortifying (to put it lightly). There were so many questions that needed answering. First of, just how often would I need to clean the apartment? And I get sweeping…plus with these amazing microfibre type mops that I discovered that take up dust so incredibly well, where did vacuuming come in? And just how does one wash those kitchen towels that get dirty so damn easily? Would it be alright to toss ’em together in the washing machine with clothes? Or would that be too gross… If I simply switched gear to think about laundry, how on earth does one iron a shirt properly? So many questions it was almost paralysing not knowing any of those answers.

But after speaking to some friends who’d either studied overseas for university or still happen to be living alone abroad for work and realising that actually a ton of friends did the whole study abroad thing and had a wealth of knowledge to share with me, bit by bit the pieces of this whole housekeeping puzzle started falling into place. The first few days… up to a week or two maybe, were a blur of going out to get some cleaning equipment (spending way more time than expected absolutely clueless and staring at the alien looking German words on a thousand and one cleaning detergents/sprays/liquids in the supermarket, not being able to Google anything because of the poor 3G signal X’D), sweeping, vacuuming, Youtubing ‘How to Clean Toilet’/’How to Iron Shirts’, rewatching Konmari videos on folding clothing, and basically figuring out that Housekeeping is very much a personal affair. How clean your home needs to be is basically how clean you want it to be…or how much dirt you can live with. 😉

(Btw, in the end I did sort of find out the answers to those questions I had. 1. How often to clean depends on how clean I want it. It seems that now every 2-3 days I do need to do a bit of sweeping with the broom/microfiber mop because hair/dirt/friggin CAPSICUM/Chilli seeds just seem to accumulate all the time. Those seeds have become the bane of my life. 2. Vacuuming would be for those random corners that are really hard to get at in spite of using those microfibre mops. Or for sofa fabric… 3. For kitchen towels, I end up putting them in water in a pot designated just for cleaning, adding some clothing detergent and a bit of oxygen bleach, bringing them to a boil then washing them with water till the water clears out. That method seems to be good at getting rid of stains and apparently helps prevent the towels from smelling. 4. The shirts… well, let’s say YouTube is a lifesaver.)

What helps take the sting of that somewhat warm wash of shame of not knowing how to do much housework at all after more than ahem…2 decades of living, is being able to stare that moment of having-cleaned-the-now-squeaky-clean-bathroom-mirror-for-the-first-time straight in the eye, grab it so tight it can hardly breath, and then embrace it with the most joyous exuberant whoop one can manage. Because regardless of how small a win it is, it is STILL A WIN. And if we don’t celebrate the wins, no one will.

I must say that incredibly (and to my own surprise), one of the best feelings I got from cleaning was that of cleaning the toilet bowls in the apartment for the first time. The moment when that toilet bowl was transformed from one ringed with a less than savoury grimy blackish rim (courtesy of D having disposed of leftover squid ink pasta sauce into the bowl or so he says) to that of a spotless, gleaming bowl fit for a showroom… Man. That was a real work of art. The joy I felt in my heart at seeing that gorgeous view… almost indescribable. If pride were a champagne, that would have been a sweetest, most fizzy one bubbling up in my chest. Of course a few seconds after, I almost felt silly for having felt so happy about something that others may view as trivial (‘just cleaning up a toilet bowl ain’t it?’) but I caught myself. And was determined to hold on to my joy. ‘Stubborn Gladness’ as Elizabeth Gilbert would have labelled it, based on the poem ‘A Brief For The Defense’, by Jack Gilbert.

“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.”

– Jack Gilbert

(Quote from his poem, A Brief For The Defense)

What goes hand in hand with stubborning feeling the joy of Small Wins, would probably have to be Gratitude. Because with gratitude in mind, it seems a whole lot easier to recognise something small as a win.

Some Small Wins that I couldn’t help but feel grateful for over the past few weeks:

– Stumbling across a lovely Floral shop completely by chance and getting some gorgeous Eustoma which lasted the week
– Walking down the street with a bouquet of flowers in hand, wrapped in shocking hot pink ;), feeling thrilled because well… who doesn’t love walking down the street with an armful of flowers
– Going to a random homeware store and having one of the staff tell me that the Floral shop I’d stumbled upon was in fact his favourite and that it was indeed a great Floral Shop

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– walking down a pretty lane hearing the wistful strains of a violin in the air (possibly a resident living in the upper floors practising his craft?), while rays of sunlight danced against the vine-covered walls of a building ahead at that very moment…

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– finding Pandan leaves in the Asian Supermarket (MAJOR SCORE!) and being able to cook one of my favourite desserts, Green Bean Soup. Slurping it up cold with ice reminded me so much of home.

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– being able to decorate the apartment with flowers from the Floral Shop with the scene of the evening sunset in front of me (of course, the table is still a mess, covered in random stationery and not organised one bit but still… a small win is a small win!)

I suppose now I’ve sort of gotten into more of a routine for things such as washing dishes and in my attempts to minimise the amount of clean up that needs to be done after cooking. I remember feeling rather anxious initially when trying and not really being able to iron clothes well. (Might be the old iron left behind by the previous owner of course! ;p) However, after awhile, cleaning does allow me to get into a bit of a zone. If I cast my thoughts away and just focus on the cleaning task at hand… when it’s done and the dirt has been cleared, that sense of achievement is almost tangible. And there’s much to be said about the link between cleaning and Zen practice as well. It’s part of the practice of Zen Monks to do a period of Soji or cleaning in the temples usually after morning meditations. And there’s something about that metaphor of physically cleaning equating to a form of cleansing of the spirit and mind… Something to look into. But for sure, if I view the act of cleaning or the tasks of housekeeping as a chance for a bit of meditation, it sure makes it seem a lot more enjoyable.

Plus, there’s nothing like looking at a spot that has been wiped of dirt/grime, now beautiful and clean and feeling pretty darn proud. Like hey, I did that. 😉 Hell yeah. The sense of accomplishment for something so simple can be pretty addictive. And once the space is clean, relaxing becomes so much easier and more delicious.

So here’s to Small Wins… and clean spaces.



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