Once upon a time I got into an argument with my aunt over a trashcan. I needed one to place under my desk and she was urging me to settle for a tub that was really ugly simply because it was the cheapest. I, on the other hand, was willing to pay a few hundred pesos more for something that was way prettier. She would not hear of it. “It’s just a trashcan,” she said, “don’t be maarte.”
Obediently, I went home with the ugly plastic trash bin. I used it for many years and it did serve me well, but I always pushed it way under my desk so I did not have to see it every day. For me it was just a black hole that swallowed stuff I did not need anymore.
It bothered me for a while, the fact that she labeled me as maarte and impractical just because I wanted a prettier trashcan; but I’m over it. In fact, I love that I love pretty things. I celebrate that part of me every chance I get. On one wall in my office in Congress is a saying by Aristotle: “Pleasure in the task puts perfection in the work.” That sums it all up for me. I think of that each time I bring out my hammer with tiny flowers printed all over it as I pound nails into the wall to hang frames. I am reminded of that each time I take tea in a pretty cup or eat from our prettiest plates even when there are no guests around. Like wearing nice underwear always, applying bright red lipstick right before doing a battery of household chores all by yourself or putting on a pretty dress on a very regular day, it is something you do entirely for yourself. Our cook loves going to the wet market very early in the morning wearing dangling earrings, the other helper who accompanies her wears a mini skirt and a halter top, and if that makes them happy as they fill up their baskets with fish, fruit, and vegetables then so be it, I have no complaints. Happy people make for productive people. I believe that, and life has taught me in so many ways that happiness can be had in many small doses throughout the day if we are just mindful of it.
We were taught to clean up after our own mess while growing up and especially over the weekend we had to make our own beds, fold our own clothes, organize our closets. It was fun to do for the most part but on days that it did not feel quite so, I’d put on music and tie my hair very, very neatly into a ponytail with a nice clip over it and feel all the better for it. My friend Mia, in an effort to empower her employees further, painted the lobby of their office building a cheerful yellow. She said she wanted them to start their day by being welcomed into a cheerful space, even if they just pass through it to get to their own cubicles. Like being in airports, a fleeting experience should not justify ugliness. Just because you will not soak in it forever does not mean it has to be or can be less pleasant. In fact, the reverse is true.
Our dirty kitchen was the bane of the household before. Our helpers liked heaping stuff in all the corners and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason in terms of how (and why) they kept things. They loved storing (but never using) all the plastic utensils that come with takeout or delivered food and had a penchant for hoarding empty containers — the latter they would throw into plastic bags that did little else but gather dust in the far corners of the cabinet spaces under the sink that they were stuffed into. It used to give me a headache, the sight of it, and in an effort to make them be more organized and conscious about de-cluttering, I asked a contractor to reconfigure the space. The backsplash was extended all the way up, a nice cabinet was custom-made to conceal their plates and utensils, stacked metal trays held bottled oil, spices, seasoning. There was enough room for the essentials only. I even changed their uniforms; they had work clothes in happy yellows and bright blues and for dressier occasions there was an entirely different set in darker hues, some of the styles even trimmed with lace. When I did that there was a stark improvement in the dirty kitchen, as if the sun shone on it again. The helpers, they also looked neater. Sure, the minor renovation cost us, as did the uniforms, and it was something we definitely could survive without, but I do not regret spending on what is usually written off as a useless expense. It has paid off far more in many intangible ways. It is that very same situation I revisit when I itch to undertake yet another home improvement; it simplifies the decision process for me. It puts everything in perspective for me and the real value ceases to be just the amount of money we have to shell out to achieve it. The intangibles are all there, factored in along with the actual cost, and if at the very least the outcome becomes one less thing for me to worry or stress about in the daily grind, then it has been worth it.
I’ve always liked pretty things, and I say that in the context of the small rather than big ways. It affords pleasure in many layers and I have seen how it makes people smile more. I’ve seen pretty wild flowers propped up in old soda bottles: they look shabby chic against the printed oilcloth used to cover the table they are on. I’ve seen classrooms filled with colorful mismatched furniture in the poorest barangays, and that only because they had to make use of leftover paint. Nevertheless, it adds character and contributes to some measure of gloss where little is immediately available. But see what diskarte and imagination can do. I visited a Habitat for Humanity village in Baseco once and one of the houses had a chandelier that the owner of the house assembled after finding it dumped in the trash. It was restored by her son. There were parts that were missing here and there, but the glass still sparkled in the daylight and was a source of happiness for the old woman residing there. I could see it in her toothless smile as she proudly pointed at it for all of us to see and if only for that, the chandelier had served its purpose.
After being stuck with that ugly trashcan, I promised myself that I would surround myself with functional things that were also pretty. So, at the risk of being called maarte, that is the reason why I ownbulaklakin scissors and measuring tape. I don’t like buying expensive pens because it will be such a heartache when I misplace them but I have a bunch of inexpensive ones, Dong-A and Artline among them, that make my penmanship look nice. My memo pads are not scratch paper and I like using old biscuit tins to store all those odds and ends every household has but I only use the ones that have pretty prints and designs on them. Yes, I surround myself with pretty little things. Oh, and yes, the trashcan I have now is not ugly by any measure. It is very inexpensive, I’ve had it for 14 plus years, and it has cracked a bit at the bottom. But I still use it because it just holds paper anyway, and yes, it still is very pretty.
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