Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mountains of Things


  • -Here's a piece, courtesy of Home Is Where the Dirt Is, on tackling attic clutter.

  • -I have always been intrigued by the idea of bartering, making your junk another's treasure (and hopefully acquiring something you actually need). Here's one site devoted to bartering.

  • -Even better than bartering (especially if you want to live more lightly) is Freecycle, a concept that is taking off.

  • -I love how Imelda Marcos ended up opening a shoe museum. I'd love to charge admission to my clutter!


This weekend, despite the recent relative heat wave up to the low 70s, we agreed it was time to retire our stand fan until next summer. I clumped clumsily up the stairs, already anticipating a challenge in finding space. I found a nearby cluster of miscellany that suited my purposes, but before I descended back to our home I shuddered at the mountain of things piled before me.

At least the clutter has a halfway house outside of our living quarters. The problem is that the halfway house too often becomes a permanent residence for what amounts to junk. Worst case: we actually have a box labeled “tacky Christmas ornaments”. I also noticed at least 4 plastic trick-or-treating pumpkins (and we only have 1 child). What else? A box of old cell phones that we meant to donate, old lace curtains that will never see a window again, kitchen tchatzkahs (Yiddish for knick-knacks), textbooks (I am approaching 2 decades out of college), etc, etc.

Why do we hang on to this stuff? A lot of reasons. Sentiment, guilt, or laziness, to start. In my case, I often hang onto things because they represent an idea. I buy books because I like the title, or I’ve heard I should read certain titles. One day I look back and there are 10 unread titles waiting for me. And then, whatever the initial reason for keeping what you keep, a sense of being overwhelmed takes over.

When I worked in psychiatry, mental illness was often defined by how some behavior impaired your ability to function. (In politically incorrect lay terms, we are all at least a little crazy. It’s just that many of us still manage to function.) The ultimate example of dysfunctional squirreling away is a feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder called hoarding. I once had a patient who crowded himself out of his own house with old newspapers. He knew intellectually that he did not need these newspapers, but emotionally they came to symbolize security to him.

Whether you have a bona fide diagnosis or not, the key to any level of overwhelm is baby steps. I want to go to my attic at least every Sunday and remove a minimum of 5 things. It’s not just that I want a clean attic: I also want to honor the simplicity I so admire as a philosophy and as a real-life approach. There aren’t many specific objects like plastic pumpkins, trivets, or lace curtains I need in plural tense. For other things, like shoes, I concede I need a small collection to cover work, exercise, or dressy occasions. Still, I have accumulated way more shoes than I need, and I am not even into shoes!

The clutter phenomenon reminds me of weight gain: you turn around one day and you are much larger than you intended. And the American habit of overabundance reminds me of the potato chip slogan You can’t eat just one. Becoming larger than you want to be, whether in girth or possession, is connected to living unconsciously, or living by skewed priorities. You keep eating the chips, glassy eyed and no longer hungry. Or you keep buying the items you think you need, although if you looked again at home, or thought about it, you would find that you didn’t need some, and had nearly identical matches for others.

Typical of me, in a spring cleaning mood in near-November. Maybe it's the global warming.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

In Praise of Solitude


  • What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness? Read here.

  • Here’s an article on how remembering solitude can help families. It's written for single parents, but married or not the principles still apply.

  • Contrary to my essay title in Get Satisfied, I really am not completely ignoring Walden. If you’ve got 10 minutes, see what Thoreau had to say about solitude. The guy could really write.

  • There’s a whole Web network on the life of solitude. Here’s a link from it on solitude poems. This may be the first Lewis Caroll I’ve read outside of from Alice in Wonderland:

I love the stillness of the wood
I love the music of the rill
I love to couch in pensive mood
Upon some silent hill.


I just had a piece called Ignoring Walden published. In reality, I don’t have a big chip on my shoulder about Walden or Henry David Thoreau. It’s more like an aversion to extremism, mixed with a jealousy for something I will likely never attain: extensive time alone in a remote cabin.

I am typing this in a foreign bed, 2:30 AM. My birthday gift from Tom and Gavin was an overnight at Mercy Center, my writing home away from home and the closest I may get to Walden. It is eerily silent here. I know that there are other overnighters elsewhere in this vast building, but I feel remarkably alone. It is so silent that I fear my laptop keys might wake somebody. (Thank God I don’t have an old Remington, complete with ringing carriage return!)

My obsession with writing sometimes drives me to a fault. Yesterday, walking alone on the grounds here, watching the waves crash Wuthering Heights-style below, I surprised myself and chose to keep my laptop under wraps for a while. I descended to the beach, sat on a rock, and thought. I turned a faded conch over in my hands and gazed out over the sea. Profound thoughts welled up from seemingly nowhere. Thoughts about God, my purpose, and the broad view of life.

Wow, I thought, the Long Island Sound really has mystical powers. And, yes, the scenery helped. But I realize now that another huge factor was my rare time truly alone. Even when I have those small windows I cherish to write or relax, it is rare that I sit and just listen for what truths might be waiting. I write surrounded by the bustle of my household or a Starbucks crowd. I relax by flipping channels or walking through my village. Even when physically alone, I am hooked on ‘mind candy’—e-mails, Internet, music, even my beloved writing. None of these things are inherently wrong, and my life would feel bleak without them.

But sometimes I need a fast from all of that mind candy, a true solitude. This means putting down pen (or keyboard) and closing my eyes. Hearing only my breathing. Resurrecting a neglected thought or prayer, one that can’t be sensed without a quieting of the mind, an attitude of intent.

There’s a reason people have ideas in the shower, or during their work commute. Though not necessarily very quiet moments, these settings are little windows of solitude, short periods when the mind can wander a bit. If the shower and the car hold such promise, just imagine how far the mind and spirit can expand when we really commit to some intentional time alone, reunited with that “still, small voice” within.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Spectrum of Simplicity

News: The House Party Discussion Guide I wrote is now posted at Get Here is the direct link.

  • I like this one-page write-up on Voluntary Simplicity, courtesy of a San Diego group. It’s a great summary.
  • Here’s a Website I haven’t run across before. lists a host of links in the simplicity/satisfaction vein.
  • Did you know that multitasking is a moral weakness? So says the banner at Slow Down Now, a site with a good sense of humor.
  • Here are some tips from the BBC program’s “Ethical Man”, about a man and his family that lived much more greenly for a year. I can’t relate to living without a car, but the rest of the tips seem feasible!


One of the reasons I embraced the Simplicity Movement is that it is diverse. What’s simple for one person may be way too complicated for another. For example, I am thinking about ordering from and today to get back some precious time at home. Another simplicity seeker might see this as complicating things with technology, being disconnected from my community, etc. As a mom, going into the market with a tired child can just about push me over the edge. And Gavin will be tired. We are taking my mom shopping at the megastore Ikea today, and tomorrow we have church, for which we are planning a service project. I’ve learned my limits. Too much running around = an irritable and tired family.

To me, the whole idea is to get closer to what your own true priorities are. Some of my own: family and friends, a creative life, contact with nature, living a life that makes some difference, however small. Actually, I like the term that Simple Living America has chosen for their book: Get Satisfied. It captures that the movement is about knowing what satisfies you. Part of that is knowing what is enough. That’s where the simplicity comes in.

I remember being struck, years ago, by reading in Choosing Simplicity about the different approaches people have taken to achieve that goal of feeling satisfied, of having a clear direction. I remember someone who chose the city, because they could walk everywhere. Another couple chose to restore a large, historic home in the country. Still another man lived a rather monastic life, eating as cheaply as he could manage, possessing only a few, well-chosen items. This may be the reason that some survey responders balked at the idea of a “movement”. One of the unifying aspects of this movement, ironically, is that everyone does their own thing. It’s the recognition that everyone wants the same things – satisfaction, fulfillment, being in touch with and personifying what you value –that unites.

I like that, despite the language sometimes sounding self-centered, there is room in this movement for the rest of the world. When most of us stop to think about what is important, there is room in our hearts for others. I am satisfied when I do small things that might be helpful. I know I should do more, and I am growing in that direction. At the same time, I have learned that I am more helpful when I feel replenished. A good life lesson this year has been the need to treat myself well, too. The trick, I guess, is balancing it out. I am ever aware that that Americans treat themselves a bit too well (here’s one example), using far more resources that most of our counterparts in the world.

There are people that I aspire to be more like. At the moment, I am reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the year she and her family dedicated to eating locally. She put her concerns about the environment, as well as what she puts into her and her family’s bodies, into action. I know that this is not a good time for me to undertake a task this extreme. But I am so not about black or white decisions. If every family ate one local meal per week, it could really make a dent in the economic, nutritional, and ecological ruin caused by massive commercial farms and food that travels thousands of miles just so we can have out of season eats. I can probably manage a local meal once a week, especially while farmer’s market season is still upon us.

I love to write, so each blog feels like a celebration to me. I’ve noticed that I’ve ended more than one with a “Here’s to” sentence, as if I am raising a toast.

Instead of another toast, here’s a quote from Ray Bradbury that hit the nail on the head for me today: We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

I hope that this weekend you find something to celebrate.