Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Letting in Symbols: A New Way to Pay Attention


Joseph Campbell said, We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. To me, this means we must be open to new and different thoughts that push out the boxes we often draw around ourselves. This week, my inching toward simplicity has been about stopping for thought, not so much logic but musings and imaginations. Some links to stimulate this kind of creative contemplation:

  • -Get your Chinese name by putting in your English name, birthday, and the characteristics you want to embody

  • is a fun online encyclopedia where you can surf for hidden meaning

  • -My friend keeps seeing cardinals (the bird, not the Catholic variety) in her dreams. This online Dream dictionary interprets them as a sign of vitality and happiness.

  • -As a kid, I found the idea of hobos (short for homeward bound) intriguing. Here, a link to their visual shorthand.


Surrounded by a thicket of pine, oak, and maple, our yard seems a haven for birds and bugs. I like to step out at dawn and see what small creatures are gracing the porch. Some sort of wren or finch has built a leafy nest in a gazebo-type birdfeeder we rested on the railing. And lately it seems grasshoppers are everywhere: clinging to the door, on our car, adding color to our interior walls.

Years ago, our screen door blew off the front porch. I had a habit of not latching it, and one day found the door violently ripped off its hinges and leaning on the walk-in basement door around the corner. At first I thought that vandals had visited us, and I felt foolish when I realized it was only the wind, taking advantage of my carelessness.

The screen door was custom made and proved difficult to fix. So, like a few things in our house, it never quite got restored to its rightful place. A small thorn in my side but I don’t complain, since I don’t feel I have the abilities (or tools!) to repair it myself.

The other day, though, I had a refreshing Pollyanna moment. With the migration of insects, primarily moths, in through our screenless portal, Gavin has become a miniature entomologist. Sure, he would discover the same bugs outside, and he does, but every morning he is immediately on the lookout for a new specimen as he descends the stairs from his room. Our winged friends often grace the walls along the staircase, and collectively they have provided him with hours of entertainment and education. The education extends to the need for kindness: to be gentle, to let them have undisturbed rest, to return them to the outdoors and appreciate their restored freedom.

I do believe in negative or irksome things sometimes evolving for the good like this. My cynical side says I take this too far, but I delight in seeing what the positives might be. I am also a sucker for icons and symbols. The visiting grasshoppers seem to be trying to tell me something: even with attempts at removal they linger on the fine hairs of my arm, seeming to cling purposefully. The Flaming Grasshopper, a blog for the Chelsea Green publishing company (specializing in sustainable living), describes the grasshopper as representing potent life energy contained in a small “insignificant” exoskeletal package, capable of covering great distances in a single leap. It is also an ancient symbol of good luck.

I am completely ready to buy into this symbolism: some family stresses of the week made me feel both insignificant and luckless, and I am considering some weighty changes that may require a leap of faith. I had to chuckle when I searched further for what my grasshopper following might mean: a bit of trivia on Wikipedia reminded me that grasshopper is sometimes used somewhat in jest, referencing “an inexperienced person who has much to learn" (thanks to the Kung Fu TV show)! Carl Jung would support me on my embrace of symbolism. He said, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Best of Times and The Worst of Times (aka Today’s Supermarket Trip)

  • -My supermarket trip has me philosophizing today, and I am not alone in my Sunday reflections. This blog provokes a lot of thought, including the ending statement that, in our society, the power to buy…is the power to be.

The very politically incorrect movie Borat has a funny extra scene where an American man guides Borat through the dairy section of the supermarket. What is this?, asks Borat repeatedly as they walk the length of the aisle. His guide answers, with uncanny patience, Cheese, to every question. This happens at least 20 times. I hear non-Americans are stunned when they first see an American mega-supermarket. Sixteen kinds of cream cheese? 101 instant rice or pasta dishes? A whole aisle just for pet food?

Is this hell or nirvana?

It can be hell with a 5-year-old, with the constant task of negotiating what treats should be allowed, which are too unhealthy, and how to make the remaining 6 aisles fly by before Gavin, my mom, and I descend into a frothing megastore lunacy. Even without a child present, the experience is a barrage of brands, hype, and stressed-out shoppers. My feet ache and at the end I am throwing anything within easy grasp into my cart.

At the same time, I realize the privilege that we have in buying what we like—not just what nourishes us but what strikes our fancy. We opt for something new, seek out a brand that is particularly pleasing, compare calories and fat grams and come out with some sense of accomplishment and anticipation. We deposit a few boxes of Rice-a-Roni in the community food pantry box—hardly enough to balance out our big-eyed indulgences, but a nod in the right direction and a good lesson for Gavin.

Becoming vegetarian has complicated my shopping in some ways. I am a pesca vegetarian (still eating fish), and often wonder how full-throttle vegetarians (completely meatless) or vegans (no dairy or meat) do it. I have to think twice before I fall back on the old habits of chicken—a lot of seemingly meatless items like rice and vegetable soup contain chicken flavoring.

I don’t feel deprived. Our market has an entire health food section with loads of meatless choices. Even the so-called deprivation of meat is a privilege, because it is a choice. I think of the many in the world who must eat what they can manage to beg, borrow, or steal. I think of the many who don’t have the extra resources—the time, the education, the choice-centric lifestyle–to ponder ethics and make informed, globally-oriented decisions.

Our local store is, well, local. I have avoided going there for 2 reasons: the diminished choices (perhaps only 5 varieties of cream cheese!) and the limit on free time that seems to force one-stop shopping: somewhere that has a home goods aisle, a drugstore aisle, a greeting card aisle, etc. Maybe I will experiment with a shorter trip, wean myself down to fewer choices and less hassle. Maybe the time and energy I gain will let me make those extra trips for nonfood things, and still leave time and energy to spare. It is worth a shot.

This simplicity thing is a work in progress, and sometimes my idols are the people who make more sweeping choices. Yes, yes, the people who move to remote cabins to think, or even better to remote, war-torn countries to make a tangible difference. But sometimes my envy is of the more mundane simplistics—the single guy I read about in Choosing Simplicity who approached nutrition in the most pragmatic and economical ways. He ate primarily ramen noodles, varieties of protein mixed in for nutritional benefit. He saved money, he saved time, he saved the energy that I expend every 2 weeks on food choices. Or what about the woman who purchased a modest cottage, making the tiny square footage work by sleeping in a loft, paring down to only the most essential items? Having a family, at least a democratic family, definitely prevents some of the more radical choices, as different needs and preferences must be weighed.

And so, I continue to look for little ways to simplify. It’s funny to me that grocery delivery, a given when my mother’s mother was young, has come back. I’ve used the service (called Peapod here in Connecticut) and there are some inherent advantages: undistracted price comparisons (even a sort-by-price button!), the lack of random temptation, the ability to review your list and subtract as needed (it’s all just a thought process until you press the ‘confirm’ button). Still the same problem that you have with a smaller store, though: not everything you need pops up on your computer screen. No doubt the time is coming when it will.

I think a lot about how, with planning, a lot of things could be done differently. But today’s fast pace allows only a limited time for planning, and this forces choices that are less than ideal. Still, I relish the choices that might benefit my own use of time, the way our family spends its days, and maybe even in some cases the world at large. The food crowding our cabinets tonight is also food for thought. Maybe the trip was worth the aching feet.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Coming into Focus


I chose today’s links because being aware of the need to step back and focus and actually focusing are two different things, and most of us need all the help we can get:

  • -This Green Living Web page offers 8 tips to focus your mind in a brief, digestible, and doable format.

  • -Bella Online has an article on keeping track of your focus over the longer term.

  • -Here’s a very pragmatic look at dealing with distractions, written for unfocused writers but probably helpful for anyone whose mind insists on straying from the project at hand.

  • -Duane Elgin’s article Garden of Simplicity in Yes magazine talks about avoiding distractions through a variety of simplified approaches. It gives me hope: so many ways to try simplicity—even reading about them has a calming and hopeful effect!


It’s been a thought-provoking week. I’ve been privileged to read the draft of Simple Living America's Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough, which is coming out in October.

I am one of the twenty. Like the other authors in the book, I am not purporting to have all of the answers. My essay, like many others, is about the search for what is really important, the attempt to eliminate whatever is superfluous, whatever distracts or detracts from a thoughtful or meaningful life. I have managed to make some good decisions in this direction, but just as often I get caught up in the whirlpool that many describe: working too hard, overindulging when I do get a break, sacrificing rest to get things done, neglecting my health, not seeing a way out of the cycle.

Today, for example, I filled my day with errands. I ate too much for lunch. I made some reckless purchases. I did too much and wore myself out. Certainly not the end of the world (I consider myself lucky if this is my biggest complaint), and often this seems to me to be the American way. But when I stop to focus I know that this kind of mindless march through the weekend isn’t the best I can do. I can take a breath and make better decisions with my time. I can “neglect” tasks that add to my already heavy load, knowing that in truth most of them can wait. I can create the space to write my blog, and pause for a few moments to more thoughtfully schedule the rest of my weekend and the coming work week.

I think about the small conversations that spring up in the lounge at work, and so often the refrain about the weekend is, I have so much I have to get done (before the weekend), or I did a lot of running around (after the weekend). I ran into this quote by Florence King on a Google search on distractibility and stress:

The American way of stress is comparable to Freud's 'beloved symptom', his name for the cherished neurosis that a patient cultivates like the rarest of orchids and does not want to be cured of. Stress makes Americans feel busy, important, and in demand, and simultaneously deprived, ignored, and victimized. Stress makes them feel interesting and complex instead of boring and simple, and carries an assumption of sensitivity not unlike the Old World assumption that aristocrats were high-strung. In short, stress has become a status symbol." (from "The Misanthrope's Corner", May 2001)

Do you ever get the feeling that people would look at you oddly if you reported that your weekend entailed “just relaxing” or “doing some thinking”? Or if, around the holidays, you offered not one complaint because your holiday was deliberately understated, low key, and smartly planned to avoid any last-minute hassles? It is hard for me to picture, while living in the real world, to ever get to the point where I had no stress to report. But I am going to try to avoid the peer pressure, so embedded in our media and even our daily small talk to be busy, stay busy, and continue complaining about it! Busy is not a bad word, but the only way to stop the potentially endless, mindless race through mountains of tasks is to apply some mindfulness to the whole mess.

Here’s to the pause that refreshes—originally a 1929 slogan for Coca Cola, but also a great approach on a much deeper level.

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