Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Leaving Las Vegas: Thoughts on the Power of Place


Wendell Berry said, If you don't know where you are, you don't know where you are going. Some links that look at sense of place and how it connects with both the personal and the ecological:

  • -Writers and artists love to philosophize on the meaning of place, how we connect to place, how place affects us (see my own philosophizing in prose below!). One great example: the travel anthology A Sense of Place.
  • -This Web site has some great quotes on the sense of place we derive from home and garden.
  • -More and more school curriculums are realizing the need for children to understand their local ecology, and how it connects to the world at large. Here’s one of many curriculum links on the topic.
  • -Richard Louv coins a new term, Nature Deficit Disorder, in Last Child in the Woods. He doesn’t define the term medically – his book is a look at the increasing disconnection of children from their natural surroundings, and the importance of reconnection. Ditto for adults, I say.


I’ve spent a week in Las Vegas, the anti-simplicity capitol of the world. I was surrounded by noise, flashing lights, and larger-than-life artifice. The hotels are in a one-upmanship race for the biggest attraction. We saw lions pacing in glass tunnels at MGM, an almost-authentic joust at Excalibur, and the Eiffel Tower at (where else?) Paris, Vegas. I got a good feel for how the rich get bored. Every possibility for indulgence and amazement, and still even Gavin’s eyes began to glaze over. Man made thrills have no real staying power. They are sugar highs.

It may not be my favorite destination, but work got me to Vegas and I was glad to stay on and vacation with Tom and Gavin. We loved the deep bathtub in our hotel. We savored our lunch in Paris. Faux as they were, the cobblestones and patisserie storefronts conveyed a warm European ambiance. We won money in the slots after many failed attempts. Enough to cover all that we had gambled away, and perhaps a few of our meals.

After a couple of days of glitz overdose, I craved fresh air and quiet moments. A stroll through the indoor conservatory at The Bellagio helped. Sunlight streamed in through the high paned ceiling, and I marveled at the floral displays and exotic butterflies. Our trip to Hoover Dam provided some desert scenery and a walk in the high, dry air. I took in brown, black, and orange mountain ranges and tons of sagebrush, so foreign to my East Coast eye.

Tom and I have already started to plan a Vegas antidote – a camping trip somewhere local when we return to Connecticut. He surfed around on the Internet, looking at tent deals (our last one, the one we spent our engagement trip in, went to mildew and rot). We crave a wooded campsite by some water (some real water free of pennies, dimes, fountains, light shows, and chlorine) and long nights contemplating the stars.

Vegas does not seem compatible with writing – not the kind I do, anyway. Living here for a week (and I am still here, in the airport) has made me think a lot about place and how it affects us. I watched strangers relax in the sunlight of the conservatory, and I swear I watched their faces take on a hard look in the casino. Not immediately, and not when they were winning, but most of the time.

Can you be anywhere and still manage to achieve inner peace? Can you be surrounded by slot machines and billboards and push them aside mentally, focus on deeper thoughts, on true priorities that reside far from money and celebrity? Thinking about my own experience of leaving crowded suburbia behind, I think it requires more effort in some environments. It can be done, but you might have to crank up your mental energy to stay with what’s real.

Postscript: I am glad to be back in the place I call home. Looking forward to a long walk later.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Stealing Time, or Stealing Beauty

I’ve let the blog slip, a bit. I’ve let life crowd it out.

Listen to those friends who remind you to persist in whatever you love, to take time for it. Steal time, if you must. Stealing time to write, for me, is stealing beauty. Even when I don’t make it to the computer, I turn over a title, a story in my head. Yesterday, as I washed thick soot off of fire-damaged fine china, I thought about the wealthy great grandmother I never met, described by my mother as rich in possessions but poor in warmth and generosity. I thought about the legacy of families, how our tendencies trickle down through generations, how we are blessed by our heritage but also must fight its bad habits, its demons. All this, a baby plot for a novel (never mind that I don’t write fiction) while I stood at the sink.

I have a day of tasks before me. A big trip tomorrow. Lists to make, suitcases to pack, work papers to sort, a house to clean, a husband with an injured foot whose best hope for navigating the airport is to rest today.

When I set up this blog, I planned to start each entry with some pragmatic tips, only then letting open the floodgates to philosophizing. But sometimes I want to avoid pragmatism. The most effective start for my day, a day all about productivity and completion, is to sit and think, to re-sort priorities. Push aside the tips and tricks, the efficiencies for a moment. Let my day be driven, or at least started, by what I desire.

I got a kick out my mom yesterday, for I saw myself in her. She lacks a computer since the house fire, so I printed the blogs she has missed. She pored over them with keen interest, eager to phone me with commentary and encouragement. It reminded me of how I examine Gavin’s drawings from school, wonder at his imagination, display them for all the family to see. I encourage him, as my mom encourages me. As my sister, husband, and friends encourage me. So I had to get back here, if only for a quick dip in the oasis of creativity that teases from the horizon. If only to acknowledge this part of myself that has to wait today while I hustle and bustle. I’ve made a list of small writing projects to bring along. I hope for, savor the possibility of more stolen beauty, early mornings at the hotel room writing desk in Las Vegas.

PS: The movie Stealing Beauty has great footage from Tuscany, a real treat for the eyes (as is Liv Tyler, its star). More than that, I remember its soundtrack, my first introduction to Nina Simone, and her classic My Baby Just Cares for Me. Great music to pack to, if I can find the tape.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bringing Simplicity Home


  • This week, I found myself stunned to find décor magazines recommending at least 2 sinks per kitchen. Apparently appliance garages are essential (can I get a remote door opener with that?), and one article that implied a “simple” cottage lifestyle gushed, The more “stuff” you have in your cottage style rooms, the more it will feel like you have been collecting for years. Below, some thoughts that buck the madness too much stuff, too much to do, and the exhaustion that can result:

    -Care2’s got it right in this Simplicity Overhaul piece on making time for what really matters. I like the idea of listing priorities (for me, family time, writing time, and nature) and then identifying some of the day-to-day obstacles.
    -I didn’t realize it was all Walt Disney’s fault. If you have 5 minutes read National Geographic’s The Theme-Parking, Megachurching, Franchising, Exurbing, McMansioning of America. This is a reflection on the collective mess that can occur with skewed priorities and poor planning.
    -“Less is more” seems to be making its way even into high-tech machines and systems. But it seems America is conflicted on this point. I love this quote from the Fast Company article The Beauty of Simplicity: The market for simplicity is complex. If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier.


I wrote above about the exhaustion that comes with too much. The links I provided are focused mostly on too much stuff, or the pollution of clutter (be it household, community, or even visual aesthetics). But it goes beyond the physical realm, of course.

The clutter for me, of late, has been the clutter of responsibility. When so much is expected of you, how do you clear the decks, how do you make way for a life that feels more livable? This is what I have been struggling with over recent weeks, so much so that I wrote nothing last week.

Maybe the first lesson is to surround yourself with the right kind of support. I wither when I don’t write, so I finally got back to the computer today. But I might have delayed it even further had Linda (my godsend of a sister) not encouraged me to write, if only for 10 minutes.

I took a small step at work and begged off of a business trip so that my workload stays manageable. There’s still a long list of projects waiting for me, but now I’ve gained an extra day to address them. I need to do more of that.

The responsibility of relationships can be a struggle. I have learned to keep an eye on my family role, often self appointed, of helper and coordinator. I am learning, quite painfully sometimes, when to pull back, when to let others make mistakes, how to focus on my own needs.

Lowering unrealistic standards really helps, and I brought that into play this weekend. I tend not to invite people over unless I’ve just cleaned. These days, this habit translates to not much company! I realized that my friend Pam will remain a friend even if I have dirty dishes in the sink and an unvacuumed floor. This letting go meant that Gavin had precious play hours with Sara, the 6-year-old love of his life, and Pam and I got to have a long-postponed, honest-to-goodness conversation.

Here’s to a new week with clear decks and new possibilities.

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