Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Organic Psychology

I have a new person to envy: the author Sue Hubbell. Particularly the Sue Hubbell who documents her beekeeping in A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them. Part of her routine is to fill a thermos with coffee and go down to watch the bees. I picture her leaning against the warm bark of a tree trunk in the sun, watching carefully and then taking thoughtful notes.

It’s not the bees that I envy, although I do treasure an occasional glimpse into their productive world (note: Hubbell writes that an entomologist who tagged bees [I picture him applying microscopic security bracelets to their hair-thin legs] found that they spent a lot of time idle. A lesson here?). It is the regular contact with nature that I envy.

Yesterday I walked the three miles to work. I’ve had walks with more sights to report, more deer and herons and swans. But yesterday I simply cherished the smell of the day and the marsh warming up and the sun on my face. I smiled at the squirrels, who rattled about the trees bordering the water. In my pocket I carried two elegant and perfect leaves, species unknown. A three-year-old girl waiting for the bus with her sisters chased me to bestow this gift, squeaking “Happy Birthday” as she bestowed them. They were my talisman, my memento of the peaceful start to my day. That walk was the ideal mix of exercise, contact with nature, and contact with people at their best. Older children alone and younger children with their parents waited outside for the school bus, and they, too, seemed to be relishing the quiet and sunny morning. If only I could start every day this way.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a like-minded soul this week. Michael J. Cohen, a Director of the Institute of Global Education, heads up Project NatureConnect, an initiative that recognizes a link between many of our problems and the extreme disconnection with nature that is epidemic in the modern world, aka Natural System Dysfunction. The remedy? Organic Psychology, an approach that helps reconnect psyches with natural systems. I am intrigued by this mindset, which sounds simple and radical all at once. I am learning more about it. Cohen has been identified as a maverick genius, and there are many layers to his work. My own initial take, looking back on my week, is that children may be good guides for this approach, little organic psychologists or facilitators in their own right. Twice this week Gavin and I let furry caterpillars traverse our arms, and on Wednesday we followed a warty toad as it leapt across our lawn. These moments were graced by a quiet pleasure, a sense of connection, and temporary amnesia from time and tasks at hand.

I love to catch myself at typos and read into their Freudian slips. I often type right instead of write, a very revealing slip for me as writing is what rights me. I chuckled reading back this entry, for at first I typed warty today instead of toad. It is a task-laden day before me, a long list of postponed chores and responsibilities. But later I will relish a walk in the woods, maybe another caterpillar or toad moment. It’s something to look forward to.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, May 21, 2007

New Hope for the Weary Traveler

Pragmatics: Knowing Your Priorities
It is the mark of great people to treat trifles as trifles and important matters as important.
--Doris Lessing
In this world of what seem to be ever-increasing demands and distractions, it is hard at times to know which end is up, let alone what your priorities are.

Prose: New Hope for the Weary Traveler

It is so easy to get away from what is important to you. My blog is not the full-time writing career I dream about, nor the paid column I long for, but it is, at the very least, my touchstone for the week, my getting back in touch with what’s important.

What is important? Living my life so that I am true to my priorities. These include appreciating my family and friends, remembering and respecting the natural world, making time to reflect and rest, and writing. My effort to simplify is an act of clearing space for these priorities. I know that I am my best self, best wife, best mother, best friend when I‘ve attended to what I know is important.

Sometimes it feels like the world is conspiring against this effort. Friday was eaten up by a dentist visit and errands too numerous to count, laundry and packing, straightening the house, writing notes to the dog sitter, all in preparation for a visit to an old friend. Now that we are back, the house calls to me, desperate for a vigorous vacuum and mop. But I have set my timer and glued my seat to my chair, determined to reflect and write. I know I need this soul medicine. I am glad I know that the chores can wait.

I’m getting smarter in admitting what I can and cannot manage. I took Friday off to prepare, Monday off to recover from our trip. I can’t do that every time I travel, but how much more sane I felt this morning, knowing I could ease Gavin into his day, take some time to myself, take a deep breath and, in effect, press my reset button.

We took a detour on the way home from Pennsylvania to a favorite haunt we don’t get to haunt much anymore, New Hope. New Hope is artsy, quirky, crowded and touristy, a lively blend of culture and ice cream and, this weekend, gay pride. Lots to see, lots to eat, lots to do. And for us, lots of history. Tom first took me here nearly 2 decades ago, when we were dating. We kept coming back for long walks and talks. Later, we used a weekend drive to New Hope, when I was 5 months pregnant and had just learned we were having a boy, to choose Gavin’s name. Gavin sat in his infant carrier seat next to a cafe table here, and toddled on the steps of a grand old church in the center of town, and he remembers neither visit. Yesterday he fed the ducks and reveled in Farley’s Bookshop, a rich old place with piles of delectable reads, pet cats, and secret nooks. He named it his favorite place in New Hope. He is truly his mother’s son.

I always struggle a bit with squeezing things in like this. We got in after midnight, and although Gavin slept in the car I worried about the quality of his rest. But I am glad we pushed the window and made the detour. New Hope is special to all of us, now that Gavin is old enough to process the place. He knows that we chose his name there. He reveled in the waterfall and the ducks and the canal. He wants to go back to Farley’s. I often write about simplifying as doing less, but in this case attending to a priority (reconnecting with a town so good for our family’s soul) meant doing more, maybe sacrificing some rest, but for lots of emotional reward in exchange. It simplified things in that it brought me, really all of us, back to a mindset of joy and interest and appreciation. I am so glad we went, so happily tired.

The lesson here for me is an important one, because there were other things this weekend that tired me too. Things too personal for this blog, but the lesson is one I want to share: if you are going to exert your energy, if you are going to wear yourself out, make sure what you are doing is really worth the exertion and the potential aftermath! If you are going to get tired, try to get happily tired as often as possible.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ants, The Tao, and, always, Simplicity

Note: I am pleased that I will be published in Simple Living America’s anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Watch this space for more information.

The ants finally came this week. We’d purchased a National Geographic Ant Farm for Gavin at Christmas time and mailed away for its inhabitants.

The package said to refrigerate them, to “calm them down” before the big move from vial to farm (does hypothermia calm anyone down?). Then, I tapped and they fell, great heaps of them, upon the gooey green gel that will be their home, their food, and, finally, their resting place.

I can’t help but draw parallels to humans. What if my neighborhood, most of us outside for long-postponed lawn maintenance in the May sun, had been scooped up into a tube, dumped out into a house of meat? I don’t think we’d consider the free food some sort of paradise. Still, we’d eat to survive, try to replicate the homes we’d been torn from (as closely as we could with meat). We’d chat just like we had on the asphalt of our old street, only now on meat paving, while Gavin played with toys made of meat. (I don’t think his scooter would roll very well.)

I peered in, overlooking the stereotypical industrious ants and focusing instead on the corpses (or pieces of corpses) that didn’t survive the journey. The anniversary of the Hindenburg has just passed, and (always one to take a metaphor too far), all I heard in my head was Oh, the humanity. Okay, maybe not humanity. But, oh, the unfairness and sadness of being uprooted, of stepping over corpses that had tumbled out with you. Also, they have lost their leader. Federal law prevents shipping of queen harvester ants.

I’m coping now, just as the ants are. I mean, the deed is done. We can’t return them. Tom pointed out that in a big colony those ants were probably used to stepping over corpses to begin with, inevitable with the large community containing infant to elderly. Small, strange comfort there.

It’s 5 something AM on Sunday, my best writing time, and I have to work through the restlessness caused by the ants upstairs. What does any of this have to do with inching toward simplicity, my beloved theme? The only metaphor I can draw is compassion.

Many proponents of the simpler life talk about how releasing burdensome, nonmeaningful things, be they habits, possessions, or attitudes, goes beyond simple, egocentric de-stressing and works to free up compassion. There is less to get in the way of connecting. A Simplicity as Compassion course designed for churches builds on this premise as a way of connecting with the earth and to people affected by environmental degradation.

It turns out there is an old tradition of connecting simplicity with compassion. Lao-Tzu listed them as two of the greatest treasures, with a third important element in between: patience. I love that I learned this at Tao Logic, which seems to be an unusually evolved Web site design/consulting group. They talk about patience in the context of page loads and site specifications, and for the first time I can relate to “techies”. Also, a nice insight into how you can bring your belief system into whatever you do.

I got more information on the Three Jewels of the Tao from Wikipedia: Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world. I am not sure who wrote the entry, but like how they explained Lao-Tzu further: Simplicity is extremely important in Taoist philosophy in that complex actions generally are destructive and can upset the natural balance of the universe by imparting too much intellectual yang structure into a person's actions. Acting in simplicity allows for one to lead a more harmonious life without having to deal with complex social constructs that can arise from living in that complexity. The more simplistic an action, the truer that action can be from that individual. Patience is also key in Taoism in that the lack of patience is caused by wants.
Reading this, I am reminded of patience as a great connector. For me, more need to sit quietly and think. To sometimes observe rather than act. To stop for a rest. To lower my "to do list" standards.

This morning, Taoism. Later, a return to our Congregational church after 2 weeks off for Vegas. All thought provoking, all good moves on a Sunday morning overrun with ants.

Labels: , , , , , ,