Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Junk Drawer


I think Junk Drawers must be universal, at least to US households. Some thoughts on these potpourris of excess:


I took the plunge this morning. I pulled the overstuffed junk drawer from its sliders and lugged it over to the dining room table. It overflowed with takeout menus, thread, tape, paperclips, wires, and Happy Meal leftovers (toys, not McNuggets. I do have some standards.)

The experience was part treasure hunt, part exercise in exasperation—a microcosm of my own cluttered life and my attempts to clean it up, materially and otherwise.

I found things that proved useful (a forgotten headset for the phone, still-good coupons for today’s mega supermarket trip), things that would have been useful had I found them earlier (many expired coupons!), things destined for the dump (broken flashlights, pieces of toys), and things that defied explanation (plastic thingamajigs that must go with other thingamajigs, but hadn’t been missed for a second).

The Fly Lady recommends a psychologically clever first step in her campaign to help people take back their messy households: start by cleaning the sink. Of course, it does no good if only the sink is clean, but there is something about taking that first step, doing that one manageable thing that feels good and invites more productive activity. I felt that way about the junk drawer: I managed this 2 × 3 foot space, maybe there is hope for 4 × 6, even 6 × 9 if I really apply myself.

How good it feels to realize how much you can lose, or dispose of, and never really miss it. It means that moment of hesitation before disposing of almost any given item is unneeded. The moment of hesitation before acquiring something new, however, should be doubled, maybe tripled. I’ve known people who will only buy something if they can identify something else to give up, thus keeping the seesaw of clutter in perfect midair equilibrium (until that big kid Christmas climbs on).

Despite the exasperation clutter brings, I know that it is the flip side of abundance. How lucky, in some ways, to be able to sigh and sputter about having too much, albeit what seems like too much of the wrong things. Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of Simple Abundance, captures this concept well in her writings. Her current site has a great quote by Melody Beattie (abbreviated here): Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

In my finest tuned moments, everything reminds me of how much I have. This means that both deprivation (our drying up well) and abundance (a crowded closet or pantry, even a junk drawer) have me thinking about the world at large. I want to give water to those who have none, because I have a small taste of that deprivation in my need to choose shower over laundry, dishwashing over car washing until our new well is dug. I want to share what I have, all too well aware of those who can count their possessions on one or two hands.

The opposite of this weekend’s junk drawer was my hike with Gavin into our local woods yesterday. Every item--leaf, mushroom, centipede, frog, salamander, stone--seemed to have real and benevolent value, not a moment of our journey wasted. Everything recycled in the most thoughtful of manners: leaves and worms into rich soil, acorns into oaks, wet, rotting logs into mushrooms.

And when I think about it, I realize that writing is my own way of recycling—putting it all in order, making more sense, making connections, feeling gratitude, and moving on to new settings and sensations. Here’s to manageable junk drawers and the best kind of recycling.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Creative Juices


  • I write a lot about the need for peace and respite—long naps, long walks, deep breaths. But there is also the equally important need for creativity: thinking creatively, doing creative things, surrounding yourself with creative people. Creativity replenishes and refreshes, and creative inspirations are often free for the asking, via Internet, the library, or your own untapped cerebral territories. Here, some links to help with the care and feeding of your creative juices.
  • -Paint like Jackson Pollock via this happy, splattery link.
    -Do you have a creative personality? See what Psychology Today has to say.

-This blogger writes about the 9 attitudes of highly creative people. In case you didn’t fit the description of creative in Psychology Today, this writer suggests that these skills can be acquired or enhanced.
-Blast is a BBC initiative that praises, supports, and has practical suggestions about creativity—visual, music, writing, and otherwise. It’s meant for older kids, but we could all use more of this!
- List Your Creative Self looks like a great book for sparking new ideas and insights.
-There’s a reason the classic books became classic. Read them for free here.
-Olga’s Online Art Museum is another creative well that can be dipped into for free.


I made a long-awaited trip to Niantic Book Barn, a book-lover’s paradise. You can trade in your old reads for cash or voucher, the voucher always worth a bit more towards a new collection of books. I chose the latter, and, as Frost would say, that has made all the difference.

I have before me quite a collection of creative people to admire and emulate. Of the six, I have only spent real time with Mary Oliver before, a Pulitzer Prize winner who made me want to write poetry again. Now I like her even more, because it turns out she writes brilliant essays, too. I’ve a passing acquaintance with James Michener and John Muir. Michener wrote a Writer’s Handbook, where he generously displays and dissects his own brilliant writing process. He wears his single-minded devotion to his work on his sleeve. John Muir had an amazing life, and The Wild Muir is a selection of some of his highest adventures, in his own words. Muir found meaning in every adversity. A bout of temporary blindness moved him away from industry, where he was very clever, back to the natural world. A malarial fever diverted his travel plans to South America. He landed in Yosemite instead, and went on to love the region feverishly and contagiously, creating Yosemite National Park, acquainting Teddy Roosevelt and the rest of our nation with its nearly wordless wonders (except he did find the words).

The remaining three authors/editors are new to me. Betty Flanders Thomson wrote The Changing Face of New England, a primer that I hope will acquaint me with the terrain through which I drive and walk daily. Robert Vivian wrote Cold Snap as Yearning, a book I bought for the title. Finally, The Writer on Her Work feels edited just for me: women writers exploring why and how they do what they do.

I don’t have as much creativity as I want these days. Work and family strains seem to drain it all away. Until the well refills again, I have these saints of innovation and originality to keep me company, maybe even get a trickle going.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Note to subscribers: The Get Satisfied site is up. Meet the authors and read some excerpts from the book! I am helping to author the House Party discussion guide, which will be posted in the fall.


Johnny Cash writes, in Sunday Morning Coming Down, that, there's something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone. It’s a mournful song about feeling lost and disconnected. On my recent trip to Weston Priory, one of the themes the Benedictine brothers emphasized was the need for a Sabbath, a day of rest. To me, this need transcends (or precedes) religion, speaking to the universal human need for renewal of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual energy so that we can connect and do what we need to do during the week. Here are some links to thoughts on the Sabbath:


This Sunday is the usual choppy mix for me. I want to write my blog, take my mom to check out a new church (she’s seeking a friendlier parish!), food shop, catch up with some housekeeping, and make sure Gavin doesn’t watch too much TV. Tom’s already gone off twice to the dump with brush from the trees he pruned yesterday. I’ve stopped my blog to help load the truck in my pajamas. Later Tom and Gavin will attend a kid’s dinosaur-themed birthday party. I suspect all of us will collapse, exhausted, at some point later in the day.

This may not be a Sabbath a traditionalist would approve of, but still I look forward to the novelty of a day where I don’t need to show up for work, and where the possibility of a late afternoon nap, although faint, exists.

Last Sunday was quite the opposite of today. The women of our family (my mom, my sister, and me) enjoyed a retreat at Weston Priory, a Vermont mountaintop haven for rest and reflection. I am not Catholic, but there is so much I admire about these monks. They pray, make beautiful music, live hospitality and kindness, and work for peace and justice. Last Sunday, after a Saturday of avoiding most of the masses (I also like that the monks don’t keep score!), I greeted the sunrise listening to melodic vespers, took a walk with my family, and ate wholesome food that some very talented monks had prepared (including honey that some very industrious local bees contributed).

The Priory is a once, maybe twice, a year treat, and I get an occasional boost by some quiet days spent a Mercy by the Sea, much closer to home. In fact, many of my personal Sabbaths are not Sabbaths at all. They are, instead, random days off where I choose to write and rest, and my soul feels laps up these delectable treats. Some weeks I survive by clinging to the promise of one of these mini-respites. How I savored Friday, after a Thursday of sorting fire- and soot- scarred belongings from my mom’s house (soon to be ready for occupation again). I worked on the Get Satisfied House Party draft, surfed the Web, and journaled over the course of many hours, accompanied by lattes, cheese and tomato melts, and green tea at Borders, another home away from home.

Just recalling these breathers is enough to let me launch into my busy day. At some point soon I may get more serious about keeping the Sabbath, but for now I am taking my little windows on peace where I can get them.

I have learned that rest and reflection is something that needs to be sought, especially in today’s expectation-laden world. Wishing you many restful windows of your own this week.