Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cutting the Fat

Connecticut readers: On DECEMBER 1, at 7:30pm, SIMPLE LIVING AMERICA will host a special Q&A with the director of What Would Jesus Buy, Rob VanAlkemade, following a screening of his movie. As a contributing author of Get Satisfied, I will also be part of the Q & A.

Please come!

86 Temple St., New Haven
Call (203) 498-2500 for info.

Tomorrow is weigh-in day. Yes, I’m in the company of countless middle-agers who have joined Weight Watchers, and so far (it’s only been 2 weeks), so good.

It feels good to regain control, to stop and think about balance, and my attraction to this approach has got me thinking beyond my waistline. If only I could “track points” in every area, look thoughtfully at my consumption at the end of every day, and regroup. How great it would be to have this feeling of mastery over the money in my wallet, over my energy use, over the ebb and flow of my relationships. How useful it would be to have it all mapped out on a spreadsheet for my perusal, to be able to say “today I excelled”, or “this morning I overdid it.”

But the real world isn’t like that. And if I managed to design a “system” for everything, I’m sure it would become tedious very quickly. Getting back to the Weight Watchers model, you’ve got to leave room for a splurge, allow a reward for a week of wise eating. Feeling starved will only lead to a food fest. But after the splurge you might want to conserve a while, to avoid tipping the scale.

Splurge, to me, has a happy, bubbly sound, while binge takes on an ominous tone. I am thinking of these words, specifically, in relation to Christmas. It is so easy to leap from splurge (one delightfully indulgent item) to binge (can’t stop shopping even though I hate the mall) in a matter of minutes.

Does consumer binging arise from feeling starved? When we binge with our wallets, are we hungry for renewal, craving approval, starving for a deeper satisfaction? After the binge do we feel any better, or just drained? Best to back off the retail buffet if your consuming starts to make you feel consumed.

Extremism doesn’t work for most of us, not for diets, not for shopping, not for simplifying our lifestyle, and almost never in the long run. But an attitude of thoughtfulness can really effect some change. In my new weight loss effort, it occurred to me that I don’t need to eat right after awakening. I am a very early riser, and come to think of it not really hungry as I march first thing to the pantry. A simple rule of sticking to just coffee until at least 7 has defeated my Hobbit-like craving for “second breakfast” every morning.

In the Christmas shopping swirl that starts to deepen into a vortex, similarly small changes have kept things more sane this year. Mom is leading the charge to each buy 1 gift per person, and the in-laws suggested no gifts for the grownups (what a relief!). Tom and I are getting a coffeemaker and exchanging pajamas. Mom’s effort is founded on simplicity, the in-laws’ on their practicality, and Tom and I share the love for all things warm at the holiday. Simple, practical, and warm sounds quite inviting to me. And it feels like quite enough.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Joyful Juxtaposition


Sometimes contrasts allow us to see better. Some thoughts on the topic:


I finally tackled it yesterday. Well, some of it. The mess in our house had reached critical mass, partly the fallout from busy schedules, part the fallout from domestically unfriendly choices (like using precious spare time to write). My disgust with the clutter grew for weeks, and it was this disgust that propelled me to clear the decks with the pace of a whirling dervish.

It felt good to be ruthless. Magazines that I hoped to someday read found their place in the recyclables paper bag. Tom’s tool bag and work equipment have landed too many times on the kitchen chair, so I cleared a new home for them in the pantry. Gavin consented to donating his “baby Legos” to charity. Once the decks were cleared, I dusted. I thanked the heavens for our Roomba purchase. The automated vacuum did not come cheap, but it saves me heaps of time and energy. It makes it possible that I can dust and vacuum in an afternoon, rather than having to pick one!

I clean best when indignant and angry—it fires me up. But in the bedroom I ran into some items that quieted my rant. I started to notice the beauty in our mess, framed by the contrast between real and ideal. The primary colors of Gavin’s many books strewn about our bedroom, clashing with our attempt at muted tones. A “great job” giraffe sticker stuck to the top of our otherwise sleek alarm clock, a memory of a worthwhile day at Kindergarten. A cardboard “treasure chest” next to my jewelry box, recalling the day when Gavin split his gems with me. Countless shells and rocks and leaves, cluttering our windowsill but also memorializing many fine walks. Any decorator worth her salt would have me hustling to remove this “clutter”, and I did find better homes for most of the items. But I appreciated those imprints of a busy, happy family and all of the clutter that can entail.

I also thought back to a personal joy I experienced this week. A columnist at the Baton Rouge Advocate gave eloquent thanks for things not owned, a thought that propelled me reduce and recycle (and acknowledge that there are some things I can’t reuse). Even better, he called my essay in Get Satisfied "charming”, definitely a banner moment.

The contrasts outdoors are getting more extreme: branches against sky, the sharp cold against our skin, and soon the fall of snow that will soften but also showcase every shape. I'm hoping for a winter where each juxtaposition lends a lesson, each contrast uncovers a forgotten joy.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Art of Saying No


Saying no is a hard-won skill. Here are some links to learning the art:


Pursuing simplicity is an act of embracing. Embracing what and who you love, embracing your beliefs and ideals. At the same time, it is a turning away—from demands and expectations that threaten to overshadow the good stuff; from possessions and practices that clutter your home, your mind, the environment.

Embracing comes naturally to most of us. After all, we are embracing those things we already love. But saying no takes practice and skill. Today I insisted I really needed some time to write and relax. This meant no to a family ice cream outing (definitely a tough call), and it also meant disappointing my husband. But now I am happier: I got to slow down a bit and write; I got to play Cat Stevens (major childhood memories) in the kitchen and make crab cakes with Gavin. I feel refreshed and much less cranky—and hopefully more fun to be around.

Christmas is not far off and we are starting the season, as we do every year, vowing to have a simpler approach. Tom and I don’t really need gifts, and have agreed that just having a long-postponed date would be more rewarding. But already I feel the vortex pulling me in: maybe just stocking stuffers, maybe just something small. It is hard to stop that snowball effect of buying more, incurring unneeded debt. I want a clever scheme that will save me from The Ghost of Christmas Must Have. Still working on that one.

Then there is that backlog of stuff you didn’t really need in the first place, or maybe you outgrew it. Gavin, only 5, is already experiencing some of that hanging onto stuff, and it seems tied in with sentimentality. In anticipation of Christmas we started to clean out his (several) toy storage bins, starting with a big hallway trunk. The emphasis on charity didn’t work as well as I hoped. What worked better was my allusion to Santa’s assessment of toys already owned, and how he might bring fewer toys to boys that seem overloaded. That resulted in a small garbage bag filled with forgotten toddler toys, although the barking dalmatian toy that he no longer walks had to stay.

As a mother, I struggle with sentimental clutter every day. The volume of artwork that comes home from kindergarten and daycare is staggering. I might trial a weekly “art sale” where we pick the top 5 “keepers”. Gavin’s baby clothes are packed in giant Rubbermaid bins in the attic. I can’t bear the thought of losing them; they all carry such memories. And yet, maybe some little boy out there could really use at least some of them. Do I really need 50 onesies and T-shirts to hold my memories of babyhood?

A local author and artist, Jill Butler, wrote some columns in our shoreline paper. I liked the term she came up with: rightsizing. She wrote about how downsizing sounds so deprived, while rightsizing sounds so, well, right. This is a great way to put it. I don’t want fanaticism. I don’t want deprivation. I want sanity—a clear head and clear surroundings.

What is it about saying no that’s hard? In my case, I don’t want to be difficult. I don’t want to be a “stick in the mud”. I want to be fun and easygoing, not the “bad guy”. And yet, a few carefully placed “nos” have yielded some great results. I said no to being a manager and regained some workplace sanity. Before that, I said no to a career at a large, prestigious company and got a short commute and a much better rapport in exchange. I say no to the ringing phone when I am absorbed in something else and get far more done. I say no even to mothering when I feel the need for escape, and come back much more patient, ready for any challenge.

I like this quote by Linda Breen Pierce: If you say yes to one thing (like a job promotion), recognize that you are saying no to something else (perhaps more time with family). Live consciously and deliberately.

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