Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sense Meditation


Making Sense of it All

So much of simplicity is recognizing what is immediately available, savoring one’s surroundings rather than constantly seeking more. Some thoughts on the texture and connectedness that our senses contribute:


Sense Meditation

It was a crowded weekend: helping my mom and brother move into their rental, a night out with friends, church, errands, and finally, some acutely-craved time at home.

The moments that stand out when I reflect surprise me. This weekend, among other things, it was the softness of the well worn, slip covered sofa on my family’s new porch. I wished both my mom and brother good long naps out there, and also imagined one for myself as the spring sunlight filtered in through the screen. I thought of how Poppy, my mom’s father, loved to sleep on the screened porch’s settee when the weather cooperated. Good genes, this enthusiasm for sleep, fresh air, and their synergistic combination.

In church the story of Martha anointing Jesus’ feet caught my attention most. Not the theological considerations, but the perfume. I imagined its headiness, its incense-like, oily weight and how the scent must have lingered in Martha’s hair. The pastor filled in the scene, complete with the empty tomb of the recently risen Lazarus just out in the yard, and I swear I pictured a silver screen door looking out to a picnic table and a Biblical-era tomb. Smelled the perfume, saw through the screen door, and relished the sensual pathway that my mind carved toward the deeper story.

With Gavin, the sensation I noticed most was the tangible unknotting of my stomach when he finally yielded to my motherly ministrations. He had hurt his foot the day before, but insisted on limping along for most of the day, stubbornly refusing to sit and rest his legs. Our physical relief was in complete unison when he finally let me lift him into our shopping cart, when he leaned back and appreciated the rest.

What I’m thinking about today is how important physicality and sensuality is, and how it connects us to truths that go beyond the senses. I jotted down some favorite lyrics from a Chris Smither song, Small Revelations. The words reminded me that with all of this deep thought on what’s important, what practices create stress, how to achieve simplicity, one comforting thought is that our senses, so often ignored or taken for granted, are the immediately available link to some really meaningful stuff: passion is feeling in motion; compassion is standing still…hearing is letting it happen; to listen’s a work of will. I have to acknowledge my feelings and my passion before I contemplate compassion; I have to just plain hear before I can step up to really listen. Being here, just being here and taking it all in with my five senses, is often enough, but it has the added benefit of also getting me “there”, to the deeper places I want to go.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Spring Thaw


What is there to say about spring that is pragmatic? I guess I could find some spring cleaning tips, or precautionary strategies regarding mud season for the Vermonters. But my only gesture toward simplicity today is just plain appreciation.


I am an armchair river rat. My books this week: Edward Abbey (Down the River) and Robert James Waller (Just Beyond the Firelight). Abbey waxes more profound and Waller more pragmatic, but they both wear their river affection on their sleeves (and I don’t enjoy it as nearly much when they write on other themes). Despite Waller and Abbey’s credentials, I still prize above theirs a more obscure book on a river journey that I read years ago, Yukon Wild by Beth Johnson. Johnson speaks in a more familiar female voice as she chronicles her journey with three women into Alaska. They have better fireside chats. So I can more easily ease myself into that canoe and take off.

To top off Abbey, Waller, and Johnson, I have been dipping into Mary Oliver’s poetry. Mary, although not in a canoe, finds herself near the water quite a lot. Oceans, rivers, swamps, waterfalls, you name it. She seems obsessed with lilies, water birds, and the like. I like her thoughts, her enthused appreciation. She would be a prize walking companion (although she might be too busy mentally crafting poems to interact).

Thinking back on what I thought were random book choices, it finally dawned on me that what I am craving is spring. Yes, I’d also like someday to undertake a long canoe journey, but what I am seeking in these books is soft air and an early thaw. Our driveway outside is a sheet of ice, but only days before this coating descended I walked the three miles to work on a balmy, spring-like morning. The morning was quiet, and mostly I listened to my own breath as I determinedly ascended (and gratefully descended) Deep River’s and Chester’s gentle hills. Not quite halfway through, the rain came, first in gentle fingers and then thick and steady. I was unprepared, but at least spared a full force torrent. I knew I’d look ragged at work, but I treasured what felt like sole ownership of the morning, and the rain seemed to heighten this sense of possession. I looked out through my water-spotted glasses at the boggy marsh and sighed. Things were thawing and I could smell peat and new growth. Despite yesterday’s frozen aftermath, that walk was my personal proof that spring is undeterred. By the calendar it is only four days away.

Last week I wrote about the hardship of a house fire in our family, and the awful chill that this loss created is also starting to thaw. The coworkers who showered (and continue to shower) my family with gifts can have no idea of the impact, of the hope that this gesture presented. And finally there is a rental house on the near horizon, a house near the burnt house, two blocks’ walk from beach. A perch from which to regroup, renew, to decide what to do. I am hoping that my mom can resume her walks to the water, that spring will call into the windows and awaken more hope.

Corned beef and cabbage in the crock pot and spring nearly sprung. A great Sunday combination.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Enforced Simplicity


For pragmatic reasons (see Prose below), my pragmatics section is short and to the point this week.

Peter Menzel’s Material World: A Global Family Portrait is a book worth viewing. Photographs from around the globe capture statistically “average” families and their possessions, a thought-provoking visual reflection on the material disparities in the world. Viewing these photos also led me to think of all those who fall below the statistical average in their already impoverished countries.


I skipped my blog last week, and need to summon extra energy for this week’s entry. But I feel compelled to write, to capture the swirl of emotion and disjointed thoughts that have arisen from an unexpected turn, voluntary simplicity thrown onto its ear.

The top floor of my mom and brother’s house, just 15 minutes away, is irrevocably charred from a sudden and voracious house fire. Both Mom and John escaped without harm, and even their little dachshund Lilly got out unscathed. But the house is unlivable at least for several months.

Here, suddenly, we have an ugly, involuntary simplicity. It is ugly because of the exhaustion that comes from restocking even the most basic of supplies, soap to prescription medication to stamps. It is ugly because of the mental strain of rethinking permanent living arrangements, wondering where to live in the interim, finding a place for Lilly (no pets at hotels or rentals), etc, etc. When will the shock of being even temporarily homeless wear off, when will the strain of reconfiguring every aspect of day-to-day life lift?

Before my family recomposed itself, started the long lists for the first trips to Walmart and the like, I gathered what I could to help my family have some basic comforts. Some basic “starter” outfits, toiletries, pens, pads, utensils, snacks and beverages. It felt important to add simple pleasures: books and magazines to leaf through, my mom’s perfume, family photos. We pulled mom’s rosary and a sentimentally valuable bracelet out of the ash and rubble. There was nothing retrievable from my brother’s room: he must start entirely from scratch.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, my Mom was quick to point out that she had an expanded sympathy for the Katrina survivors, who had little or no resources to fall back on. An insurance check should help cover some, but not all, of my family’s losses. But, even knowing this, the emotional aftermath feels unrelenting.

There are lessons here. The first for me: I have so much to give away. My mom and I are roughly the same size, so I gathered clothes and shoes, jacket, pocketbook, sleepwear that I will not miss. John is much larger than my husband, but still we managed socks and jacket, tons of toiletries leftover from business trips.

Another important lesson, one my family has missed during past tragedies like the loss of my father and the disabling mental illness of one member: ask for and accept help. A mention of the fire at a church consignment store where my mom replaced some of her wardrobe brought out immediate generosity in the form of a big discount. My embarrassing tears at work one day had my coworkers gathering around me, quick to offer solace, quick to go further and take up a collection for my family, complete strangers to them. Despite the loss we remain blessed in so many ways.

All of this leads to thoughts of those in the world who seem permanently devastated: the impoverished, the flood survivors, orphans of war and genocide—the people who, in addition to having have no economic resources, have no one to turn to. How little they live on, how much small sacrifices from each of us might make a difference for them. In Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin writes that those who gravitate toward this practice tend to feel a compassionate concern for the world’s poor; a simpler life fosters a sense of kinship with people around the world and thus a concern for social justice and equity in the use of the world’s resources…Tend to involve themselves with compassionate causes…
My attitude toward intentional simplicity is deepening, extending beyond the desire to have less clutter, toward living with less so that others may have more. I know it is not that simple: it is important not to assume that cutting back on a handful of luxuries will change the world. There are politics to be aware of, injustices that must be corrected. But certainly the impulse is one in a good direction, one heightened by my own small personal taste of deprivation over the last two weeks.