This post isn’t about gardens or bodums. It’s about thinking and mindset.
Last July (~15 months ago) I had an interaction in my house’s laundry room, where I moved something on a shelf, which knocked off a bodum (aka french coffee press) which fell to the ground and shattered. I mentioned this to Jean (the likely purchaser/user of the bodum) that it had broken. But… the shelf was in a corner, with a chest freezer making it even more secluded, so the broken glass wasn’t a threat to anyone. So I decided I’d clean it up later.
Of course, as we know, later never comes.
So when it came time in August to leave for a four-month internship at Twitter in San Francisco, it still wasn’t done. I swore to Jean “I need to finish packing, but I’ll do it tomorrow morning before I go.” Not too surprisingly, I was packing basically all night. So morning came and I was running around and she said to me in my stress and frenzy, “Don’t worry; I’ll clean it up.” I was hugely relieved because I had felt an obligation to clean it.
Interlude: Malcolm in San Francisco / Berkeley, then home for Christmas
When I returned to the house in January of this year, I went downstairs to do laundry, and glanced in the corner. Lo and behold, a broken bodum remained. “Huh,” I thought.
Over the course of the following 8 months of living at the house, I often thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll clean it up” but I never did. Until tonight. Why? Why so long, and then why now? I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas. First, let’s go to Stone Age South America. Not so much to learn something from them, but to unlearn something. Specifically, work.
A young writer, Jean Liedloff (hereafter referred to by her last name; not the Jean I know personally who appears in many of my stories) traveled from the US to South America on what was originally a diamond-hunting trip, then ended up living with a few local families for several years. In her book, The Continuum Concept, she tells several stories to illustrate how fundamentally different the locals’ understanding of concepts like work and play. (Spoiler alert: they basically don’t see a difference between them.)
Another hint about human nature and work came later.
Two Indian families lived in a hut overlooking a magnificent white beach, a lagoon in a wide crescent of rocks, the Caroni and Arepuchi Falls beyond. One paterfamilias was called Pepe, the other, Cesar. It was Pepe who told the story.
It seems that Cesar had been ‘adopted’ by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.
‘Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?’ Mundo asked.
‘I was brought up by Jose Grande,’ said Cesar, according to the story.
‘Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,’ said Mundo.
Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.
For five years Cesar lived with Pepe’s family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown in Pepe’s plantation. Cesar was delighted to find that Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.
Cesar’s wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing the cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his two sons, who always liked to fish and who had supplied his family as generously as their own.
Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe had helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.
Cesar, after five years’ assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project and was as free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.
Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. ‘He wanted to make a garden of his own,’ Pepe laughed, ‘but he didn’t know it himself!’ Pepe thought it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work.”
We don’t have any rules that say anyone has to do the dishes, ever. In fact, we encourage people to only do dishes when they feel attracted to doing so.
This intention of not wanting to coerce people into doing the dishes comes directly from the understanding revealed in this excerpt of The Continuum Concept. Imagine, for a moment, how Cesar might have felt if after a year of being with Pepe, he had been passive-aggresively guilt-tripped into starting his own garden so as not to be a freeloader or defector (though I’m sure their language doesn’t even have those words). You can imagine that he would have had a subtle frustration with that work, and it would have felt like work. Rather than like play, as the task of tending the garden felt like for all of his relatives.
Thus we see that not only did the Tauripan have a consistent model of the world that created a different experience of living, but they were able to convey that culture to someone else who had grown up with an understanding much more similar to what I expect readers of this blog post would have. It took 5 years for them to create that shift in one person, so this totally doesn’t scale in that format. But could it, in some other format?
With some conscious design, I think so.
So we return to the story of the broken bodum. Why did I clean it up tonight? I think I had, like Cesar, finally reached a place in my relationship with the house and its culture (and with Jean) that I felt totally relaxed about cleaning up the bodum. I didn’t feel like I was being expected to do it. Nor did I feel like Jean was actually just going to do it either. And with all of that pressure lifted, it felt easier to just do it.
I think though, that that is only an answer to the question of why I did it this month. The relationship comfort has been growing gradually. Why tonight?
To answer this, I turn to this facebook post by Kaj Sotala, which I read just before I went down to do the laundry. It talks about walking past an opportunity to save money (by buying seasonal tickets rather than single tickets) and continually failing to notice, then reconfiguring his thought processes so that he would notice in the future.
Having started the washing machine, I walked past the broken glass for the hundredth time, and thought about doing it for the hundredth time, and realized, “you know, maybe the behaviour I want to have here is to do it, so I don’t need to think about it in the future.” This might cost some time, but it frees up attention. And it’s also an act of caring for the space, which is something I’ve been growing more and more enjoyment around (going back to, I think, the continuum concept story). So I did it. It only took 10 minutes, in the end.
I suspect there’s kind of a running joke with some of my blog posts where I talk about the most basic of household activities as if they’re profound. And I think they are… but it’s not the content—the series of events of the story—that is profound. It’s the thinking, and the mindset, behind it.
It took me about 10 minutes to clean up the broken glass and throw it out. It took me another 20 minutes to debrief the whole thing with Jean, and explore our thinking around it. And I’ve now spent an hour writing this blog post. (Edit, now at least 2 hours with editing etc.) The whole thing was a waste of time with respect to the act of cleaning itself. But it’s not about the cleaning. Just like Kaj didn’t share his story with the tickets because tickets are interesting. He shared it to integrate some thinking and feed the result back to others. Jean doesn’t care about the bodum, really. She cares about my thinking.
Jean would rather have [me not doing the dishes] than [me doing the dishes] + [me feeling forced to do the dishes]. She doesn’t want to be interacting with me if I’m feeling like she’s forcing me to do things. Same with Pepe and Cesar. This freedom of not having to do things for the old coercive reasons is what creates the space for developing new reasons—new kinds of thinking.
If we’re interacting—if we’re affecting each other—then I care about the quality of your thinking, and want to give you space for it to grow.
And the world is moving closer to a place where we’re all affecting each other.
I care about your thinking.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.