Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Beginnings Again

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There's no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.
—Harry Chapin, Circle

Thoughts for Your Resolutions

  • Small steps count: Take finances: many Americans are in a quagmire of debt. According to EcoFuture, the typical American household carries $8,570 of personal debt (this does not include the mortgage). The good news: small steps can add up. David Bach has acquired fame in part by naming The Latte Factor™ (how small daily expenses eat away at your chance to save or pay down debt more quickly). The Latte Factor calculator is a great tool for quantifying the rewards that can come from (both literal and figurative) small change.
  • False starts are not dead ends: Many modern thought leaders reflect on the meaning of false starts. In Choosing Simplicity, Linda Breen Pierce comments that we can view false starts as mistakes, or as side trips of value for a limited time period, but not the long term. In her New Year’s issue, Oprah writes about a false start of her own: trying a humanitarian effort that failed before starting her leadership school in South Africa. The impulse was good all along, but the details of how to help needed to gel.
  • Think circular — endings are also beginnings: Harry Chapin (see lyrics above) said it well. If you face endings this year—losses of a relationship, a loved one, a job—try this exercise once you have caught your breath. Write about what changes this ending might inspire, what chances it might provide. Write about how you have grown (or can grow).
  • Creativity is a collection of beginnings: Include a creativity clause as an essential element of your resolutions. A lot of people, weighed down with misplaced work ethic, see creative endeavors as an indulgence, but they are a great way to stretch mentally and emotionally. Visit The Top 10 Benefits to Creativity to learn more.

Great Expectations

I await the New Year eagerly. I am waiting for the intense action and emotion that surrounds Christmas to subside, for life to settle back down. I am waiting to feel cleansed of excess, for a pause that allows real reflection again.

The expectations that come with Christmas can be both joyous and suffocating. As we anticipate meaningful connection with those we love and relish the magic of stars and bright lights, we sometimes suffocate the possibility for joy with the desire to make things even better, to make things perfect. Our intuitive selves know that what we have is enough (if we stop to recognize it), and that perfection is a false goal.

The possibility that the New Year presents, like Christmas, is double edged. As I ask, What will it be?, I make an effort to avoid the wrong kind of expectations. It will be an adventure, a revelation. It will contain both disappointment and fulfillment. It will not be perfect. It will not be predictable. But even the disappointments are likely to carry a hidden gem of wisdom. The fading holiday wreath is a reminder of life’s circular (versus linear) qualities. Endings can double as beginnings, and the most valuable lessons are likely to come around again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Holiday Simplicity: Not an Oxymoron

To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the
world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.
–Robert Louis Stevenson


  • -Earmark one day as sacred this holiday season. Example: a day of no traveling, no shopping, no obligatory phone calls or household tasks. Just rest, reflection, attention to dreams. If you feel you can’t afford a whole day, consider a sacred morning or afternoon.
  • -Going postal over holiday card post office deadlines? Consider taking a break from sending cards this year. If this thought seems too radical, try a compromise. Make your postholiday thank you cards double as belated holiday/New Year’s greetings. Use the extra, less frenetic time to pen a more personal note.
  • -Adopt Boxing Day (Dec 26), New Year’s Day, or Three Kings Day (Jan 6) as a more interesting (and more forgiving!) delivery goal.
  • -Feeling pressured to buy yet another scarf, candle, or gift card? Conspire with a friend to pool your gift money for charity instead. Make donating more personal and fun through charities like World Vision or Heifer International, where you can contribute funds for vaccinations, school books, clean water, or even a share of a dairy cow!
  • -Opt out of the New Year’s Eve party and choose a family night at home. Share a living room picnic (takeout can make this even more of a cinch!). Give everyone a turn at playing their favorite music. Spread out the year’s shoebox contents and reminisce as you update your photo albums/scrapbooks. Too tired for even these scaled-down plans? Rent an epic movie and fall asleep way before the ball drops!


In Lieu of

Americans talk a good talk, especially at the holidays. How many times have you heard yourself, your friends say: ‘I just want this year’s holiday to be more simple, more laid back’? Yet every year the spending, the feeling more frenzied than planned seems to happen inevitably, as if we were haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Trashed.

Each year I inch closer to the holiday I really want. My sister and I and our husbands have favored charity in lieu of gifts 3 years running now, and I await the World Vision catalogue more eagerly than all of the LL Beans, Eddie Bauers, Brookstones, and Plow and Hearths combined. I decided that Christmas at my house did not need one more ham, so I am layering (baste-free!) lasagna and eggplant parmesan ahead of time, all ready to warm up on Christmas Day.

One of the keys for me in simplifying Christmas, and life in general, is the in lieu of approach. Taking gifts or traditions away, especially with so much abundance on every side, can feel like deprivation. I take great pleasure in substituting a more fulfilling tradition or event for one that's purely habit. I think often of how I see the expression in lieu of only in obituaries: In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Red Cross. I want my own in lieu of efforts to be gestures that belong to a thoughtful life, not just an endnote to my demise.

I grew up with abundant Christmases. I remember building “forts” out of my gifts; surrounded on all sides by material blessings. But I have my mom to thank for both the gifts and a nice sense of balance. New Year’s Eve was a welcome simplicity: finger food picnic, an equal opportunity music party where Mom and all three kids got to play their favorite (yes, still vinyl) albums.

My purest holiday memory is a New Year’s Day walk alone to the church across the street. The modest Garden Club plot was coated with snow, but one mahogany rose had bloomed, just like in the Christmas song, Lo, how a rose ‘ere blooming. Snow and quiet fell over me, just around the corner from busy, suburban Merrick Avenue. I sighed, full of satisfaction and reflection, and walked home to share my miracle with family.

The best holiday for me has always been one of balance: my own time to reflect, then coming together with those I love. I wish you both of these gifts this holiday season.