Thinking in(and out)side the box

Something my parents actively encouraged their children to do was to ‘think outside the box’. They led by example in this, making many decisions that raised eyebrows along the way. I still get funny looks when I tell people that I am one of seven siblings, and that most of us home-schooled at some point. During my high school years, we hosted a weekly dinner for a group of 30-odd international students. On her tiny stove, mum would manage to cook massive pots of coconut rice, and litres of curries. The nights would inevitably end with the furniture being pushed back against the walls so we could wildly dance through the house. People would ask ‘why?’ and answering ‘because it’s fun’ never seemed to quite satisfy them. When mum decided to study Mandarin and ended up living in China several times (with my dad and various siblings in tow), a lot of people were genuinely startled – supportive, but startled nonetheless. I think a lot of the reactions came from people wishing they were able to do something like that, but feeling (for whatever reason) that they couldn’t. Being raised to think outside the box is something I am grateful for, but it is something that I often expect of myself, no matter the context. On occasion, I catch myself feeling sorry for people who happily accept the norm. This is a slippery slope – if you end up compulsively resisting the norm because it is the norm, you are really just putting yourself inside a different kind of box.

Mid last year a colleague announced to our team that he had a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away for one of those meal delivery services. Now, despite my general outside-the-box-ness, I have some strange and stubborn ideas about the ‘right’ way to do certain things. Hanging laundry and making beds are examples that anyone who has tried to help me out with housework will recognise. Another example, I came to realise, is that having a box of ready-to-assemble ingredients delivered to your door, then chopping and cooking them into tasty meals isn’t ‘really’ cooking. There was some part of my mind that felt it was cheating to let someone else do the hard work of choosing the meal and selecting the ingredients; in order to ‘really’ cook, one should suffer through the entire process on one’s own. I should clarify that I only apply these bizarre ideas to myself… if you want to hang your clothes crooked or leave your sheet crumpled under the quilt, more power to you. The only person I judge regarding these things is me, which highlights how altogether ridiculous these ideas are. Still, without giving it much thought, I inwardly rolled my eyes and declined the voucher.

Shortly after my colleague’s announcement, I experienced the sudden and unexpected break-down of a lovely relationship. It was awful. I was heartbroken, and overwhelmed by the shock and grief of it. Although I was in a bad state, one part of my mind fixated on the true fact that I needed to keep eating, and eating healthily. I tried, but I just couldn’t get myself to think or care about meals, let alone slouch my way through aisles and aisles of groceries, let alone actually cook anything. So I swallowed my pride and decided to think inside the box. I accepted my colleague’s offer of a free trial and had a box delivered to my door.**

It was delightful. It took all the thinking out of dinners. All I had to do was chop things and cook them, and it was quick and tasty and easy. So easy. I was hooked, and ended up subscribed to the ongoing service. The weeks passed, as they do, and my heartache slowly eased, as they do, and my dinner boxes were delivered like clockwork. I can’t overstate how much of a life-saver it was to have that element of life taken care of, to know that healthy, easy food would arrive at my door without me having to spend any emotional energy on it. But as I came out of my sadness cocoon, I began noticing the trade-offs. The subscription was pretty reasonable, cost-wise, but it was more expensive than my usual grocery shop. The packaging was excessive – I’ve been making a concerted effort to cut down on plastics, and even though a lot of the packaging was recyclable, the fact is that individually wrapped portions of cheese cumulatively create a whole lot of waste. There was a substantial amount of wasted food. Even though the box I ordered was only for three meals, if I ate out or didn’t have time to cook that specific recipe a few times a week, I found that the fresh food went to waste. I get a particular kind of guilt-trip from veggies festering away in the bottom of the fridge. I hate it. I switched to getting a box fortnightly, instead of weekly. That reduced waste, eased my guilt, and allowed me the freedom to plan my own dinners again. That’s right, after three or four months I had reached the point where I wanted to pick meals and shop for ingredients again. Over summer, I paused my subscription because I knew I was going to be socialising like mad, then going away for a few weeks. Since arriving back, I haven’t un-paused the delivery. I feel like I am ready to get back into the swing of regular shops and meal making. In fact, I am looking forward to it. But I haven’t crawled all the way out of the comfort of the box yet. I haven’t unsubscribed. And now I am the one with a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away.

This experience has given me a bit of perspective on what ‘thinking outside the box’ can mean. For me, it’s not just aligning your choices to oppose what you perceive to be expected, or mainstream, or ‘inside the box’. It’s not a reaction; it’s certainly not a way to seek attention. Thinking outside the box is making choices that are good for you in that particular moment, no matter who else is doing what. For me, thinking outside the box is a path to managing my expectation of myself, and to valuing my own decision making process more highly than someone else’s knee-jerk reaction to my choices. I am sharply aware of the luck and privilege that allows me to reflect on these things, and that gives me the freedom to make choices in my own best interest. Sometimes my choices are pretty out there, and sometimes they fall squarely inside the box… and that is perfectly okay by me.



**Let me just note here that I am not singing the praises of one company over another. I happen to have tried this product because of the above coincidences – there are many options out there, and I am sure they all have their pros and cons, and I am in no way affiliated with any of them.



Egg on one’s face

I have lived out of home for well over a decade, and I have been making meals for more than half my life. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many omelettes I have made in my time, particularly over the last few years of having a small child and part-time work. Some nights creating even the most humble of omelettes is almost more than I can manage! You would think that this would be the kind of meal I could make with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back and yet sometimes (perhaps more regularly than I would like to admit) they turn out looking like the mess above. This is not the only area in my life where I should know what I’m doing and yet regularly make an apparent hash of things.

I am consistently 10-15 minutes late for work. This is because I always hit snooze on my alarm one too many times, because I have always stayed up just a little bit too late (or had a little too much wine) the night before. On the odd occasion when I do get to bed at a respectable hour, make it through a night of unbroken sleep and get up when the alarm first rings, everything else just falls into place – we get ready BEFORE we leave the house, we make it to the bus without running, we get to creche without drama, I get to work on time, I leave work on time, we get home in time for a proper dinner (not just an ugly omelette), we go to bed at our respective bedtimes ready to do it all again tomorrow. It seems so easy. TOO easy. Yet I have never managed to do it on two consecutive days. I have never managed to do it twice in the same week! Why haven’t I learned?

Similarly with parenting. I am newer to being a parent than I am to most things in my life. Still, I have close to 5 years of experience and by now I really should know the basics. In fact, I do know the basics – don’t let your child get overtired &/or very hungry; don’t get mad at your child if she’s playing up because she’s overtired &/or very hungry; have realistic, age-appropriate expectations of your child, especially when she’s overtired &/or very hungry. I know the basics, I just don’t live the basics. Time and again I will find myself engaged in a loud verbal battle with my near-hysterical daughter, having fixated on some minor misdemeanor of hers (snatching, not saying please, etc) whilst having conveniently neglected to remind myself that she is only 4years old, she had half a cruskit dipped in yoghurt for dinner, she has gone all day without a rest and it is now 8pm. Why. Haven’t. I. Learned??

Well, the truth is, I have learned. I’ve learned an awful lot, and I am still learning. I have learned that there are patterns of behaviour that are ingrained, whether through nature or nurture, that are extremely difficult to change – but there are ways around them. For instance, I remember being unfairly scolded as a child – but I don’t ever remember being apologised to for it. I have learned to be mindful of my reactions to my daughter’s behavior, and when I overreact I apologise and explain to her that sometimes I get tired and cranky too. I am learning to stop and think before I snap – I am, after all, the adult in the situation. I have the ability to apply self-control, even if I sometimes forget to.

I have learned that, while punctuality is important, there are other things in my life that I value more highly than being at my desk by 8:45am – things like sharing a glass of cheeky red and a long talk with my housemate; my husband reading aloud to me late at night, putting on silly voices to make me giggle; sitting by our daughter’s bed in the wee hours, soothing her back to sleep after a bad dream. These are the things that carry meaning in my life, small things, memories that I treasure.

I have learned to be kinder to myself, especially when I don’t meet my own expectations.

And I have learned that I know how to make delicious omelettes. They may not always look like they should, but they are quick, easy, tasty and nutritious. And, like so many things in life, the wonky bits can always be hidden under a layer of cheese…