Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Simple Life

In my unemployment, I have a lot of time on my hands, and I have come to spend a great deal of it pondering what I wish the shape of my life to be.

If I could have any life, what would it look like?  If I could do anything, be anything, live in any way, what shape would that take?  How would I spend my days?  What would my home look like?

I'm shocked that I still don't quite have all those answers, and then I'm amused at my own shock.  These simple questions are the hardest questions of all, and the ones that matter most (aside from the "and who shall I spend my time with?" question).

The simplest things are the hardest.

Examples abound of how the simplest things are the hardest.  Who amongst us does this simple list well?
- Minimum eight hours a night of sleep (and it's well documented why we should do that)
- Daily exercise, 10,000 steps a day or equivalent
- Minimum five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, very limited processed food
- Volunteer regularly in community (also well documented how important this is)
- Turn off the TV to read (also well documented)
- Change the furnace filter, clean the gutters, get the oil changed, review insurance policies annually
....and I'm just getting warmed up.  99.9% of the people I know struggle with just the first three items on that list, and those are the most basic of the basics.  They are, for many people, also the most difficult.  I could list 100 things more, from flossing to brushing the dog to meditating (which some call prayer), all of which I know are good for me and all of which I believe in, but which I struggle to do regularly.

At the end of the day, tired and stressed, it's easy for me to skip flossing, turn on my computer and click on a TV show instead of reading.  This generally makes me go to bed later than I ought to, and it also interrupts my sleep because I spent two hours before bed staring at a bright screen.  The fix is as simple as can be (spend two minutes flossing, open a book and not a laptop, go to bed at bedtime) and yet despite its simplicity I still do the "wrong" thing sometimes. 

I'm not beating myself up over these failures.  I'm observing my life, trying to decide what to keep and what to toss.  I have accomplishments, too: running is top of the list right now, but I do a decent job of eating well, a great job of volunteering in my community.  I am connected to friends and family.  My house is pretty clean and very organized, my bills paid.  I'm not trying to be perfect, just trying to make good choices, and to either change bad habits or stop stressing about them.

What habits are you struggling with?  Which habits, when done well, lead to a good life?  Which habits are you proud of?

A simple life rests on a foundation of simple habits and choices, and I'm trying to parse out what those are.  Flossing is a simple habit that leads to cleaner teeth and long term health, but I know there is a great deal more to life than that.

I'm looking at the bigger picture, as well as the smaller one, trying to build a life that fits me.

Enter: Pinterest.

I can't decide if Pinterest is wonderful or pure evil.  It's filled with all kinds of visions of some kind of perfect life, and if I type in "simple living" or "simple life" or "living simply" or "simple style" then I get a shocking number of beautiful pictures to look at, all purporting to show me what the simplicity I seek looks like.

I hope it comes as no surprise to you that very few of these pictures, when analyzed, represent my type of simplicity.  There are plenty of Martha Stewart-esque visions of simplicity: these involve possibly a million hours of crafting to create a perfect vision, but the tablescapes are cluttered and the visions make me tired just looking at them.  There are also plenty of simple visions that are lovely but utterly impractical and false: they show a single vase of maybe three flowers placed on a wooden table in the middle of a field, and the vision is restful and lovely.....but who put the table there?  And why are there no chairs?  And while the vista is fantastic, what does it tell me about how to live, or how does it fit into anyone's life?  There are no answers there, either.  Some simple visions seem to be whitewashed versions of life: everything is a room is painted or slipcovered in white, and there is a wire basket of eggs placed on a linen cloth (in artful disarray) with two plates stacked on one another, perhaps a white flower on one of those plates.  Conversely, some simple living pictures look like flea market displays, a glorious profusion of color and knick-knacks and textures and styles, with so many items clustered in a room that I start to think that just cleaning/dusting such a room would take a month.  No, no, and no.  How are those visions simplicity?  They may be pretty pictures but they are not a life.

I can not imagine living in those Pinterest pictures.  Pinterest, or magazines, or catalogues, or stores - none of them can show me what it means to live simply.

The surprise is that when I look away from all of the beautiful offerings on Pinterest and wonder what I want my life of simplicity to look like, the answers are becoming startlingly clear.

I want my home to be a place that invites Katherine and I to live.  I want soft linens on my bed and pillows that feel just right.  I want places to sit curled up with a book, and places to sit and watch movies.  I want a table ready for friends and family to gather and eat.  I want it to be warm, and practical....but also with touches of beauty.  I want it to be personal and to reflect who I am as a person, and I want it to contain the items that make day to day living easier.  I want enough, but not too much.

And so it occurs to me, that I've been seeking simplicity on Pinterest....and it was in my house the whole time.

Simplicity is not hours and hours of artfully arranging a photoshoot for Pinterest, as pretty as those results may be.

Simplicity, for me, is curling up on my grandfather's sofa, leaning on a throw pillow that was a gift from a friend, pulling a hand knit (also a gift) throw over my legs, and reading a library book.  Add in a cup of tea in my favorite mug, put Katherine on the other end of the sofa with her own book, and a dog lying on the floor next to us....and my vision is nirvana.

I've been living it all along.

If simplicity is about simple living, then this is it.  Grandpa's sofa - a Victorian button back chesterfield with wood trim and legs - isn't fashionable, but I still think it's pretty.  On my coffee table I have a silver tray (picked up at a thrift shop years ago) that is piled up with seashells that I've found on various beach trips: moon snails and muscles and periwinkles and sand dollars that caught my eye and are more precious to me than anything available off a shelf.  Next to one of the chairs there is a basket picked up a few years ago at the farmer's market, originally made in Ghana by a woman's talented fingers, and it's filled with throw blankets.  There is a piano inherited from my grandmother, and a lawyer's glass front bookcase from my grandfather that is filled with poetry and books on spirituality and a handful of hiking books (because those hiking books sometimes feel more spiritual to me than the holy books).  My living and dining rooms are connected, and hundreds of meals have been had in that dining room, ranging from Katherine's big birthday parties with delivery pizza on paper plates, to extended family dinners at Christmas with a full prime rib dinner served on wedding china.  Sometimes, the table has another family or two, our friends, and the wine flows freely and my entrée is complimented by someone else's salad and someone else's dessert and then somebody's kid knocks over a wine glass and there's a giant mess and people picking up broken glass and asking for a whisk pan and rags and someone else scraping a plate of ruined food into the trash and grabbing another plate to start fresh.  The wine glasses are replaceable, the bin of rags is under the kitchen sink, and there's always too much food, and it's okay.  It's my version of beautifully simple.

There are family pictures on the walls, inexpensive pieces of art picked up here and there.  The whole place is cluttered with candles (one form of clutter that I truly love; the other is books), which I light frequently.  The candles are a simple joy - they come from Target or Ikea because I can't afford the lovely pure soy and beeswax ones I want, but merely watching a flame flicker in low light rests my mind and so I light candles daily.

In the morning, when my alarm goes off in the dark when the rest of the world is still sleeping, it is both the most difficult thing and the simplest to get up and go for a run.  It is simple to prepare Katherine a lunch with a fruit and a veggie (often carrot sticks) alongside her favorite entrée (tortellini); when I'm working it's simple to prepare myself a lunch, too, but mine has a big green salad with garbanzo beans in it.  It's a simple pleasure to pull out the worn bamboo cutting board and the good knife to chop things rhythmically between sips of coffee in the morning as NPR plays, to use the same lunch bags and to tuck cloth napkins in them along with the food (packaged into little metal containers that appear to last for many, many years).

I'm working at creating more of these simple rituals and habits, because I find that when I adopt them, their beautiful simplicity speaks to me.  Sure, it'd be nice to be able to afford to go out to lunch every day, but it would take too much time and make me fat and I'd feel sluggish all afternoon from the restaurant food.

I think that living simply is rooted in living, and not in acquiring.  If you'd like a more fashionable life, it wouldn't be hard to find one more fashionable than mine - I know plenty of people with prettier things.  But it is at the heart of simplicity to take comfort in what one already has, rather than heading out to seek more, more, more.

Sometimes I need something new: the glasses break and need replacing, the vacuum refuses to suck up the pet hair, the shoes are scuffed beyond polishing.  I am at a phase in my life, however, where I don't lack for many necessities:  under my bed is a storage bin filled with queen sized sheets, in the closet there is a stack of many extra blankets, and if the whole neighborhood came over for dinner we could probably find enough glasses, plates, and flatwear to host them.  The table expands to seat many, but if it's not enough, we can pull up a folding table from the basement and cover it in a pretty cloth and find enough seating to go around.  The kitchen is filled with gadgets and pans of every size, and if you're making a cake there are different sizes and shapes of cake pans just waiting for you, and when it's done you have a choice of cake plates to put it on.  (The fancy crystal one, the white porcelain one, or the plastic cake-case for taking it somewhere?) 

So, my simple life is perhaps about getting rid of some excess, not about changing it out for something more stylish or popular.

My simple life is about creating space in my life to live.

Time to go to the library to browse.
Time to make home made popcorn and watch a movie with it.
Time to invite friends for dinner, and to make something tasty and then sit down to enjoy it together.
Time to put our things in a backpack and head to the woods for a hike.
Time to putter in the garden, coaxing strawberries and tomatoes to grow.
Time to take our bikes out of the garage and use them.
Time to play a board game, to do a cartwheel in the back yard, to throw a BBQ, to walk to the beach to look for seashells.
Time to do the science fair project without feeling rushed.
Time to write a note to a friend, put a stamp on it, and mail it.
Time to see the exhibit, visit the street fair, go look for whales, try out the new restaurant.
Time to volunteer.
Time to help a friend.
Time to dream, and to plan.
Time to go to concerts.

"Getting and spending we lay waste our powers" (Wordsworth) and I know I have sometimes been caught up in my own desires to get and spend.  (Right now, if someone would send me some beautiful black Frye boots, I can't tell you how much I'd appreciate them.  Size 8, please.)  But the life I dream of is not about stuff, it's about living.

I want time to love, time to play, time to dream.  I want time to make a difference in my community and in the world at large.  I want time to relish every second of Katherine's childhood, knowing as I do that it is slipping through my fingers.  I want time to be creative.  I want time to fall in love, and to live in that love.  I want time for friends.  I want time for nature. I want time to explore the world, near and far.  I want time to move my body.

My home will never be featured in a magazine, but it is comfortable and so often filled with people in addition to Katherine and I that I know it has something special to draw those beautiful people in.  I will never be featured in Vogue, but I have enough style to draw an eye or two or to feel good about myself. I have enough.

But I am much closer to my dreams than I thought.  Concert tickets ready to go, a calendar full of plans (including a movie night in, just Katherine and I).  Volunteerism, writing projects, a stack of cards at the ready to send to friends.  I make a lot of people birthday cakes (and last weekend's lemon and strawberry cake was particularly yummy) to show my love to them.  This year I'll have to travel near, not far, but I'll take time with my daughter to have fun in the local sun.

I'll keep working on flossing, on creating good habits that help me in my goals, on keeping the TV off.

Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to remember that the beautiful life I seek has simply been sitting here all along, in all of its imperfect glory.  Look past the weeds in the garden, the dog hair on the floor, the unfolded basket of laundry next to the bed...and maybe it's perfect after all.

I will find the right job.  I will find my ain true love.

But I'm working on recognizing what I already have, too.

What in your life is right in front of you, simple and perfectly beautiful?
What simple habits are you cultivating?
What does your dream life look like?

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