Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dig into the Past for Presents

My last trip to the Niantic Book Barn yielded a sweet and unexpected gift. My mom shopped on her own while Gavin played fort on the playground and I leafed through my new finds. My reading cup was already overflowing when Mom pulled a surprise out of her bag: A Laura Ingalls Wilder book I had never seen before! It was befitting that Mom was the giver, as she had given me, one by one, the whole “Little House” series during my childhood.

In 1991, Stephen W. Hines edited a rediscovered collection of Wilder’s writings gleaned from farm papers and national magazine clippings: Little House in the Ozarks. These pieces, even though they were written earlier in her life, describe the life that came after the events depicted in Little House on the Prairie.

It has been a hard month—I think the nation is collectively feeling the grim state of the economy, the uncertainty of the upcoming election. So it gave me enormous comfort to read of another place and time. Soon into it, however, the words reminded me more and more of the present.

1917: Wilder writes about wildflowers and the pure memories of her girlhood. Her conclusion: “I believe we would be happier to have a personal revolution in our individual lives and go back to simpler living and more direct thinking. It is the simple things of life that make living worthwhile, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest, and living close to nature.”

1920: Wilder writes: “People used to have time to live and enjoy themselves, but there is no time anymore for anything but work, work, work.” By the end of the piece, she has reframed her perspective, recalling how much harder things were for her parents, and how far reaching a positive attitude can be, lightening the load of so much that has to be done.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, were she still alive, would be welcome as a guest writer on my blog any time, although I know she might very well steal the show. Her words showed me that human nature has an evergreen quality, that we are joined to other centuries by the similar longings and plans of those who came before us. The editor must have had the same experience, for he titled the section that housed these articles Nothing New Under the Sun.

Those that think deeply may complain, but ultimately they want to go even deeper. They were seekers in the last century; they will be seekers in the next. And their journey is ever one of persistence and hope. My slow, bumpy progress toward a simpler, more meaning-infused existence is not by any stretch the first such journey. It’s nice to know I have many centuries worth of company sharing the road.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

The Art of Small Things

This past weekend I enjoyed my final birthday gift: a seminar called Writing as a Blessing and a Prayer, at Mercy by the Sea. It was a day for writing, which I do well, and deep reflection, at which I have to work very hard.

It felt good to stretch my meditative muscles, and I also opened up to the idea of how many different ways there are to live artfully. During the discussion times, I met or heard about women who meditate daily, women who are skilled calligraphers, women who raised 6 children, women who are recluses, women poets, women who sew, women who keep art journals.

All of these women craved ways to express themselves, ways to connect their spirit with what they do every day. All of these women had journaled, some only a few words a day, many only once in a while. Still, the journaling seemed to mean a lot.

Men were vastly underrepresented, except for Rainer Marie Rilke (oft-quoted author of Letters to a Young Poet, a man who always seems to show up for these things). But the main men in my life back home were dipping into artful living, too. Gavin, who’s never been very interested in art projects at school, has become decidedly passionate about painting, and he got Tom to paint a sailboat scene. Eighteen years married and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him paint. Gavin painted the beginnings of his first “art book”, and called my artist sister Linda to share notes on “my latest project.” All this from a $6 purchase of cheap brushes, watercolors, and paper at Job Lot.

What I wouldn’t give to get back that uninhibited, consuming devotion that goes with new discoveries of childhood. Aiming for that, I’ll take the small moments I can get in the meantime. While I’m often too distracted to be utterly saturated in creative flow, I can take small steps in that direction.

One of the distractions that seems to plague so many is the quest for perfection. How many paintings or poems have withered on the vine because of a fear of imperfection?

I’ve been struggling with some of that--my great idea for a book on nature rendered me temporarily paralyzed in the face of two small acorns. I brought them home from the woods as a writing prompt. Between me and the acorns stood the agonizing (and silly) question: What if the book concept flops? I got an answer to that during my seminar - a quote by Alexandra David-Neel:
Neglecting small things because one wishes to do great things is
the excuse of the fainthearted.
So here I am again, revisiting my acorns (the younger one has already turned from green to brown). They seem to be laughing gently, sympathetic with me — they know what it’s like to have big plans, and to temper that grandiosity with slow and steady growth.

Once again I am reminded to attend to the small things. Big things are sure to follow (eventually).

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