Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Carpe Diem


The pursuit of a simplified existence is rarely defined in black and white (and, ironically, sometimes feels complicated!). After calling time a construct (see Prose below), it seems a bit contradictory to talk about time management. But, while realizing the illusions, the false gods we can create with time, we also need to manage our very real, time-driven work and home schedules more efficiently. We also need to take a hard look at how our society values (or devalues) time.

Some timely tips:

  • -I love that this time management column starts with realize that time management is a myth. The column, intended for the frenzied, points out the obvious: there are only 24 hours in a day, no matter how organized you may become! After that it supplies some very pragmatic tips and links to help harness those 24 hours (well, at least the waking ones).

  • -This article is appealing because it promises to help save 1 hour/day, and gives a menu of easy suggestions that can add up to that hour pretty painlessly.

  • -Here’s an interesting fact sheet on Time Poverty. It is tied into the Take Back Your Time movement, which calls for societal changes in attitudes towards work time.


I grew up hearing carpe diem and loved the enthusiasm in its translation: seize the day. The image that comes for me with the phrase is that of passionate hands, my hands, grabbing the day by its shoulders and looking into its eyes steadily, appreciatively.

The Latin phrase comes from Horace’s Odes Book I, and the whole original verse is translated as:

While we're talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future

I contemplated time quite a bit this week. I had President’s Day off and added two vacation days to make a five-day weekend. Just the thought of this stretch made me giddy, but I agonized over how to spend my long-awaited window of time. Catch up with family, friends? Tackle those household tasks that never get done? Schedule time alone?

After spending a rare long weekend with family, I still craved time alone to write. I called my favorite writing home away from home, Mercy Center, aka Mercy by the Sea. For a small donation, I could spend the day at Mercy, overlooking the seascape, writing like a fiend, and undisturbed by anyone. I gave more than the expected amount. Had I the means I would have thrown bags of money at these quiet people, grateful for the space of this day.

It took me only a half hour to get into my writing groove, and I wrote for at least five hours, taking a break for the day’s lunch special, seafood gumbo. My contentedness seasoned my food deliciously. I covered a specific theme (simplicity, what else!) for a specific contest. I was on fire with motivation.

Even as I savored my writing nirvana, it was not enough. When it comes to writing time, my favorite phrase is if only. I drool over fellowships and grants in Poets and Writers. I think, if only I had the time, I could write that masterpiece.

Thought-provoking commentaries on time fell like rain onto my path this week. The March/April issue of Poets and Writers had a piece on The Writer’s Triangle, described by Caitlin O’Neil as the metaphorical vortex writers get pulled into while trying to balance making a living, …[their] literary lives, and staying connected to the world around them. The article led me to realize that even writers who do have the luxury of time still struggle to make good use of that time, to stay balanced, ironically perhaps even more so than writers who squeeze writing between their day jobs and family obligations.

I finally dug deeper into Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, by Gregg Levoy. He talked about spending nearly a decade thinking if only I had a nice fat chunk of time to write what I really wanted…I’d do it in something more than the fits and starts that…characterized my pursuit. When finally granted the time, Levoy realized that lack of time wasn’t the real obstacle to pursuing his dream. There were fears and misperceptions that stood in the way, that required real contemplation before any real progress could be made.

Apparently the universe really wants to drive this time message home. This morning my e-mail box contained a message from at the top, heralding the book Take Your Time: How to Find Patience, Peace, and Meaning. Time has turned around and grabbed me by the shoulders, particularly with the phrase put no trust in the future from Horace’s carpe diem verse. This doesn’t mean I won’t plan for the future; this doesn’t mean I won’t someday write creatively on a full-time basis. But I hear my grandfather Poppy’s voice along with Horace: Don’t wish your life away. This means write now, right now.

My sister Linda, fresh with inspiration from a children’s writer/illustrator conference, recounted one successful author’s story of writing 10 minutes a day. As a mother of four, 10 minutes was all she had. But she used that tiny slice of every day until she had a book. How could I, the mother of one, not be motivated by this kind of determination?

Time, like money, is a man made construct, and often an illusion. Like an oasis in the desert, free time can evaporate or morph when you finally reach what you thought was its location. Any parent can tell you this is true, because time suddenly changes shape when you have a child. At Gavin’s 5th birthday party yesterday the speed of time was more apparent than ever. I can still recall the stretched feeling of pregnancy, the impatient wait for labor with clarity. I never thought he’d be rid of diapers, or able to listen to reason. I am positively misty eyed at the rush in which Gavin is growing up, and now I want time to slow down. Of course, time waits for no man (nor boy, nor wistful mother).

Today, at the library, I will look for Take Your Time: How to Find Patience, Peace, and Meaning, and see where this particular message leads me. In the meantime, I’ve had my writing and reflection time, my daily dose of carpe diem.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Reign of Clutter


If you type in “clutter” in Google or on Amazon, the list of hits is mind-boggling, and, of course, quite cluttered. I am as annoyed with the sources that suggest acquiring multiple “organizing tools” as a solution to clutter as with those who recommend buying a plethora of items to simplify your life. These sources have been screened for the commercial “solution”, and include some thoughts about attitude and community:

  • -No one can accuse the FlyLady of not being task oriented. But she also recommends time for breaks, and actually encourages slow progress!
  • -Here’s a great list of suggestions on where to donate all that stuff you clear.
  • -A piece I wrote on the clutter of technology.
  • -Here’s a blog on an author who decided to root for clutter in A Perfect Mess. I might not go that far, but he does make the argument that obsessing over organization can diminish creativity. (This has been true for me at times).


It’s been a cluttered week. Tom’s work schedule had him traveling and typing at all hours, and I felt worn thin from the pace of my own job. A Nor’easter left a coating of ice on everything. Inside, the sink has filled, the laundry has gone unfolded, and stacks of papers (Gavin’s art work, notices from school, paperwork to complete) obscure the kitchen counter.

The too frequent presence of clutter in our lives makes me stop and think about what is wrong. This is what feels wrong: being stingy with time for Gavin so I can catch up with the house, wondering if I will ever get time to write, rushing most of the time so I can fit a long list of tasks into a short period of time. It’s a common American malady, this race to the finish line that keeps moving, the “treadmill” lifestyle. Tom and I have talked about solutions to the physical clutter: a better routine, even a biweekly housekeeper (neither has happened: the crunch of time and money has precluded any tangible fix). This week I realized that, while the piles on the counter are very real, a lot of the problem is in how I frame it.

I appreciated Chris Bohjalian’s attitude toward his house (not to mention his fine writing) in Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, a collection of his Vermont-based essays. Many house-related tasks he mentions are delayed, done at a minimum level, or not done at all. The guy sounds far from lazy, but he in effect shrugs and grins about his unchecked lists. I could use some of that.

I mopped some floors yesterday, and hand-washed a mountain of pots and pans too big for the dishwasher. It helps to be part of a team: Gavin took great pleasure in mopping (even the walls at one point) and vacuuming. We enjoyed the lemony smell of our clean floors and decided, despite the many unfinished tasks that beckoned, to get out and have some fun. We headed for Borders, for a café “date” and some stories in the kid’s section.

We stopped for a factory outlet White Sale first, for desperately needed new towels. We were both exhausted from our housekeeping. Gavin dozed in his booster seat, and I sat in the sunny parking lot, sighed, and stretched. The store could wait. Too wound up for a nap myself, I took great pleasure in the extra time Gavin’s nap allowed. I soaked up the satisfying warmth beaming through our car window. I started to sort out the yes, clutter, in my purse, and found unfinished Christmas thank you notes. In the warm, silent car, I thanked all who were generous with their gifts and with their thoughts, especially toward Gavin. These were the best thank yous I ever penned, because I wanted to write them. The sense of obligation was replaced with one of connection and awareness. This is a substitution that really satisfies: less I musts, more reflection and appreciation.

Right now I am reflecting and appreciating that I am on Day Two of a five-day weekend. I’ve got some closet cleaning slated for my time off. But there’s also family time today and tomorrow, and a day to myself on Tuesday. And the pleasure of fluffy new towels, many years overdue.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


The Promise of a Good Book

For those pursuing a simplified lifestyle, books and libraries are immediate friends. A list below of good books on simplicity, books that changed the world, the treasure that is the library, subversive literature placement, and pro-library propaganda:


Raised at the Library

Mom and I both love a bargain, so Saturdays often find us at a consignment store or factory outlet, sometimes armed with a list but more often discovering, when we get there, items that we “need”. In the summer, tag sales are added to the mix. I will always enjoy a bargain, but lately have become more aware of how often the need to spend is created versus actual. Gavin, a seasoned shopper at 5, is usually with Mom and me on these consumer quests, but he has his limits. His presence precludes reaching a fever pitch in our mini shopping frenzies. Still, something felt a bit amiss on some Saturdays of late. Shopping is far less important to me than it once was, and yet it has remained the most likely activity for many weekends.

Only recently did I think back on my own childhood Saturdays. What did Saturdays with Mom mean when I was a kid? The library, most often. We were raised strictly but the library meant freedom. We were set loose inside; no book was off limits. This was a safe place, a hallowed place, a place full of possibility. My sense memories of the library are immediate: the crackling sound of plastic book jackets, the distinctive smells of new (inky) and older (musty) books, the soft, carpeted footfalls that came and went past my chosen aisle.

The books I read there and the books I took home were too numerous to count. I remember the satisfaction with which we emerged, arms piled high with our choices. Our tastes were eclectic, and this was encouraged. I remember the usual kid’s reading fare, but I also remember books on medical anomalies, making money, and beauty secrets. We devoured our books in time for the due date, and returned the old pile eager to devour more.

Driving by our local library has felt like driving by an estranged friend’s house. With full-time work and our entrenched Saturday shopping habit, I’d framed the place as unattainable. The library’s hours are limited, and the few evenings it stays open late never seem to mix well with work and Day Care fatigue. It’s hard to go home and then venture back out, so on our rare evening visits we arrive hungry and keep the visit short.

Given the sacred place of the library in my own childhood, I’m surprised it took this long for Mom, Gavin, and me to plan a Saturday afternoon at the library. Gavin ran right for the kids’ wing, and Mom and I plopped down on the cushioned bench nearby. He chose book after book, a stereotypical boy in his creepy and crawly selections. My mom read several stories in an animated voice of professional stage caliber. Gavin took short literature recesses to dive into the playhouse jammed with stuffed animals.

I wandered off and came back with three selections: essays on country life, a book on the writing life, and another book on finding your calling. Even that short browse recaptured the feeling of freedom and possibility. I felt like a child again as I displayed my selections and Mom murmured enthusiasm and approval. I found two favorite books for Gavin: Diary of a Worm, and Shel Silverstein’s classic Where the Sidewalk Ends. He added The House that Drac Built , a delightfully scary picture book that taught me what a manticore was (half lion, half scorpion with a human head), to our growing pile.

This past Saturday felt like a full circle, and I am hoping there will be many more of these happy outings. I was raised at the library, and I am grateful that my mom saw the importance of this place. I am even more grateful that we found our way back.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007


Waste Not, Want Not

  • This week had me thinking about food quite a bit. (See Prose below for some thoughts on Jane Goodall’s thought-provoking book). How it is mass produced, how it is wasted, how it is a series of whims for some and a desperate need for others. Here are some links in the spirit of making mindful food choices:

    -I missed the news flash and did a double take when I read that Wal-Mart went organic last year. This certainly doesn’t mean all organic, not by a mile, and there are plenty of critics. Still, it’s a hopeful sign that shows the market supports more thoughtful consumerism. If all of those organic Wal-Mart shoppers could start influencing what the giant carries in the “crunchy” aisle, we might begin some real progress.
    -It seems a lot of evolving vegetarians drop fish last (or keep the fish and call themselves pesco-vegetarians). One revelation is that even more “healthful” choices, including fish and veggies, can be rife with contamination (pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, genetic modification). Here’s a link to a pocket-sized guide to fish choices categorized as best, good, and “to avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
    -Jane Goodall’s book is featured on a Web site by the same name. One appeal for me is the pragmatic (vs fanatic) approach by Dr. Goodall. The book does not scream you must be vegetarian, but initially suggests perhaps you want to consider eating less meat (the vegetarian chapter comes later, and doesn’t feel preachy). It doesn’t moan about the end of civilization, but actually suggests things you can do that might help diminish animal abuses and environmental waste. Her home page includes a list of What You Can Do.
    -It’s encouraging to see some thoughtful discussion of food waste by our government. Here’s the EPA’s Waste Not, Want Not page on food recovery (aka avoiding disposal of viable foods).
    - Many of us stock up on nonperishable items that gather dust even as we make new shopping lists. A simple tip I read in a women’s magazine: when money is tight, see how long you can be innovative with your pantry. Pull out that can of beans, that rice, that pasta, those stewed tomatoes, etc, and see what you can create. Simple choices like this, made regularly, have the potential to go beyond your pocketbook, to engender more mindful habits and lessen your personal contributions to wastefulness and its environmental effects.


Tomatoes, Psychosocial Theory, and a Second Chance

I found myself looking up Erik Erikson, a theorist I learned about in psychology class years ago. The way he set up his stages of life, from trust vs mistrust (infancy) through ego integrity vs despair (old age) captured for me how each stage of life carries a crisis, a conflict, a riddle to be solved.

I chuckled in recognition when I looked up my middle age stage: generativity vs stagnation. This means I am supposed to be productive and raising children, as well as thinking about my impact on future generations and the world at large. According to Wikipedia, my central task for this stage is creativity. That’s a relief, as I feel I am always struggling to express my creativity. I was reminded that every day, every work assignment, every parenting decision, every big thought about the environment or political injustices is creative, too. No wonder my writing pen sometimes runs dry.

I had a lot of big thoughts this week, beyond psychosocial theory to God and the afterlife. I rode out two medical tests, which turned out negative. I got to experience, almost literally, the swell of a joyous soundtrack playing just over my head when I found out I was in the clear. Before that moment of relief, all the while observing how melodramatic my life had become, I rethought what was important, and how I would live my life differently if given the chance.

All of that deep contemplation is a piece much larger than this blog will allow, but the book that kept me company as I scheduled my test, waited for it, and finally received results, was Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall. It lent new perspective on how essential it is to be thoughtful about not only what you put into your body but also how your habits of consumption mark the world. It was also a rather sickening confirmation of the waste, thoughtlessness, and greed that drives much of the food economy. In my effort to inch toward simplicity I may also be inching toward vegetarianism. I was reassured to learn that for many, including Dr. Goodall herself, this is a gradual process, as I am challenged by the thought of radically restructuring my diet.

Jane used a great quote that lightened things up for me: It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a home-grown tomato (Lewis Grizzard). The wise guy in me couldn’t resist piping in: Tomatoes, the new Prozac. But this simple remark carries, at first, the memory of succulent fresh tomato sandwiches from my first tomato garden. Then it makes me think about the joy derived from small moments and the satisfaction of small but wise decisions (the decision to stop and make that tomato sandwich, the decision to grow your own or shop organic at the local Farmer’s Market). Another great decision for me this week was the decision to play. I made sure Gavin and I had extra time before school yesterday, and helped him struggle into his snow pants and Power Ranger boots. We scooped up what little snow had accumulated off of his slide, the cars in the driveway and had a long-awaited snowball fight. Great as this moment was, I was far from disappointed to hear that the Groundhog finally predicted an early spring. Punxsutawny Phil (aka the Groundhog) had me thinking about Lyme Farmer’s Market (although more of a summer endeavor) and the absolutely requisite cup of Ashlawn Farm coffee (also organic) that every trip there entails. Perhaps this is the place where my budding vegetarianism will finally blossom.

Generativity vs stagnation: I can think of worse tasks to undertake. This is a good stage to stay in for a while.