Simplifying Childhood: What About Sports?

Game of Battledore and Shuttlecock in 1804

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned before that I’m reading Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting. This morning I read the chapter about Scheduling. Much of what Payne writes about scheduling in general makes sense to me (balancing downtime with scheduled and more stimulating activities, making the schedules of each member of the family work for every other member of the family, etc), but I’m having a little trouble with the section about sports.

Payne makes a few points about organized sports:

  • Children under about ages 8-10 need unstructured play more than they need sports, both for the activity and for the developmental benefits it offers.
  • Playing and interacting with other children in open-ended games rather than in rules-driven sports is a necessary stop along the developmental path. Rushing through this period can cause sports burn-out.
  • Sports participation peaks at age eleven and declines steadily from there. Payne quotes numbers from the Journal of Sports Behavior that report a 90% sports drop-out rate by tenth grade. This concerns Payne because, as he writes, organized sports provide particular benefits for children entering and in adolescence (although he’s not terribly specific about what these benefits are).

If we take at face value Payne’s claim that children under ten should have limited involvement in organized sports in favor of unstructured play, and we accept the idea that organized sports are then very important to adolescents, how does a child make the transition? How does a child who’s not played organized sports break in during early adolescence?

Some background about my experience with organized sports. I played soccer when I was in kindergarten. I was one of two girls on the team. I didn’t understand the game, I was intimidated by the very aggressive playing style of the boys, and I lived in mortal fear of having the ball kicked into my face (I’d seen it happen to my female teammate, so this was a very vivid possibility). And I didn’t like orange wedges. Basically, soccer had nothing to offer me.

I briefly played intramural rugby in college, but they never let me play in a game. Not that I blame them; I never seemed to acquire the ability to take in what was happening on the field, know what should happen next, and know what role I should play to make that thing happen. I sprained my ankle twice, got wicked shin splints, sent a girl to the hospital for a shoulder injury during a scrimmage (I was very good at tackling), and got a bloody nose when a teammate stiff-armed me for the ball. I enjoyed the parties, but never wanted to make a try (a rugby touchdown) because then I’d have to dance naked around the backyard of the house that was hosting the party. I lived in mortal fear of being required to “shoot the boot” and drink beer and spit and all manner of nasty stuff from the athletic shoe of one of the players on the men’s team.

And that was the extent of my experience with organized sports.

I had a desire to try organized sports in middle school and high school, but I never could figure out how to get started. Everyone else seemed to have experience playing volleyball or basketball or running track. How would I ever be able to make it through try-outs and onto a team if I didn’t already know how to play? I’d already had the experience of getting shut out of all three performing bands at our high school because of my poor auditioning skills and lack of private flute lessons. My high school was very competitive and if a kid hadn’t been playing their sport or their instrument outside of school since kindergarten, there wasn’t much chance of breaking in. (To give you a sense of the atmosphere at my school, Mia Hamm played soccer at my high school the year before I started there. My kindergarten soccer season was not nearly enough to prepare me for being on a team with Mia Hamm or anyone near her caliber.)

And let me tell you, playing a sport or an instrument isn’t fun at all if you don’t get to play. It’s just yet another opportunity to feel like an outcast.

In short, I missed out on the very important developmental benefits of organized sports during adolescence because I hadn’t already been playing in elementary school.

I don’t actually mind the idea of my kids never playing organized sports, but my husband loved playing basketball and baseball and football and rugby, and he really wants our kids to have that wonderful and character-building experience. And from what Payne says, it’s developmentally important, too. So, there’s the fear: If I just let my kids engage in unstructured play rather than getting them started in sports, how are they going to start when they’re 11 or 12 when every other kid has already been playing for 5 years or more?

I’m not going to allow this fear to move me into putting them into sports prematurely. I don’t really want to shuttle them to practices and games, and I definitely don’t want to get them in a traveling league. I’ve heard enough horror stories about that to know I’m not at all interested, regardless of the repercussions. But how am I going to help my kids have options when they’re teenagers if I don’t get them involved in sports during their pre-teen years?

Help me out here:

What was your experience with sports during your childhood? What were your kids’ experiences?

Is it possible to break into high school sports if you don’t already know how to play the game?

What benefits have organized sports had in your life and/or in the lives of your children?

Simple Living with Children: The Christmas Conundrum

We’re getting there, I think. The kids’ haul this Christmas was slightly less unreasonable than in years past, but they still got way more than two children really need. Way more.

As I organized the gifts by recipient yesterday, I eyeballed the size of the stacks critically.

“They’re still getting too much stuff,” I lamented to my husband.

“Come on. It’s Christmas! What they don’t play with after a few months, we’ll pass along to someone else.” While I appreciate his unflappable personality, I sometimes wish he’d get just a little uptight about the things I’m uptight about. It’s a real burden being uptight enough for the both of us.

I bought our son two gifts, a book and a wooden train set. I bought our daughter four smaller items (Bananagrams, a chess set, a pair of binoculars and a book about being a young naturalist). In their stockings we put two cookies, three pieces of candy, a set of “Three Little Pigs” finger puppets I real quick made up Christmas Eve, and a few stuffed toys and plastic animals that they already owned. I was skeptical about regifting to them things they played with every day, but my husband was right: they were thrilled.

“A new Elmo!” my son exclaimed when he from his stocking retrieved the small stuffed toy he plays with practically non-stop throughout the day.

Even with this pared down Christmas and the de-cluttering I did in the toy room before the holiday, it took some pretty creative maneuvering to find enough space to house the new stuff.

Before the new stuff arrived, I was really liking the new streamlined toy room. The only trouble I had was that my son reacted to the neater appearance of the space by creating chaos of his own. He would dump out the stuffed animals and the toy cars and the play food and his dinosaur floor puzzle all at the same time. When I suggested we get just one toy out at a time, he seemed to temporarily lose the ability to understand the English language. In addition, the toys seemed to be distributed throughout the house more comprehensively than before the de-clutter.

My kids seemed to be having more fun with their toys, though, and using them in more creative ways. The dress-up bin was getting much more use and the kids were using the recently-dumped bins as cars and rockets and (rather disturbingly) some kind of stuffed animal prison. My son could be seen toddling along, pushing Winnie-the-Pooh, Elmo, the stuffed cat he calls “Tokyo” (which used to be “Gatito” in my daughter’s toddlerhood), and  his plastic panda in the toy stroller saying, “Okay, guys! Let’s go back to the park! Park then museum!”

With these new toys, I don’t know how the dynamic will change. One thing I really appreciate, though, is that as much as my children enjoy getting presents, they aren’t fixated by that aspect of the holiday. Opening gifts comprised a relatively tiny portion of our day yesterday. We opened gifts and played for about an hour and a half, then we headed to church. My children were the only kids there. They made rather more noise than I would have liked in the echo-y meeting house, but they were received graciously by the other ten people in attendance. We all sang carols together, my daughter following along in the hymnal with me, my son improvising an animal-related song to the tune of “We Three Kings.” I closed my eyes for meditation and saw the shadow images of the pews and the minister fade gradually away, reminding me of the transient nature of our time here. Afterwards we enjoyed cookies and coffee and conversations about solar panels and vegetable gardens and the aching absence of adult children grown estranged.

After church, we took a raw coconut cream pie next door and spent Christmas dinner with our neighbor’s extended family. Once again, my children were the only non-adults present and, as at church, they were welcomed and praised and entertained by grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles by whom we were adopted for the afternoon.

Back home, we called Nana and Skyped with Grandma and Grandpa and remembered again why so many gifts roll in at holidays and birthdays. It’s not to irritate me or to teach my children that materialism is paramount to interpersonal interactions. It’s how our families show their love for our children from hundreds of miles away. I know that they would much rather be here with us, eating and laughing and praising and petting, listening to my daughter play the flute and my son sing the alphabet song in person rather than over the internet. And we would rather be with them. My lamenting having too many or too few or the wrong kind just serves to put the focus more firmly on the items themselves rather than on the meaning behind them.

The gifts aren’t the point; it’s the love with which they were given. Yes, I want to simplify Christmas and streamline the kids’ toys and clothes in general, but I need to keep sight of the big picture.

Why I’m Not De-Cluttering My Baby Carriers

With all of my de-cluttering and simplification, there is one drawer I’ve not even been able to bring myself to de-clutter.

It’s the drawer where I keep my baby carriers.

My son hasn't ridden in a sling for at least a year, but he knew exactly what it was for ("Mommy, put my animals in it!")

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was so excited to acquire baby-related gear. We were living in a small apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, so there was no discussion of whether to have a nursery or a crib or many of the other standard baby items, but there was still a remarkably large number of items that, as a new mom, I just had to have. I’ve since parted with nearly all of those things, several of them before my daughter was even out of her infancy as I realized just how superfluous most of those items were to the care of a being who was soothed by closeness to her mother and by nothing else.

There were three things I kept.

One was our cloth diapers. Those came in handy when our second was born. We still use the one-size dipes for overnight insurance and the prefolds for cleaning up spills and “accidents.”

The second thing I kept was outgrown baby clothes. Those proved largely unnecessary given my husband’s unwillingness to let our baby son wear dresses, despite my appeal to his normally frugal nature.

The last things I kept hold of were my many and various baby carriers. I even manufactured some excuses for acquiring even more baby carriers before and after my son’s birth.

I didn’t learn to use a ring sling until my daughter was eight weeks old when I finally visited La Leche League. Once those helpful mothers (who would become some of my dearest and most supportive friends) showed me to use that sling, I was hooked. Finally, I had a way to get my baby to SLEEP (and to leave that awful baby “bucket” seat in the car). From there, my love of babywearing just grew and grew.

When we were still in California, I went on weekly hikes (3-5 miles) with a family hiking group, with my daughter strapped to my back in a woven wrap carrier. I wore her on my back while cooking meals or lugging laundry to and from the coin-op machines. My husband wore her to the farmers market and street festivals and around the neighborhood when she had croup and needed the cool air to soothe her. In Utah, I wore her in a mei tai or the wrap on the bus and light rail where it was impractical to take a stroller. I wore her until my pregnant self could no longer comfortably wear a three-and-a-half-year-old.

From that first sling until the time my son turned two, I acquired lots of baby carriers. Over the past six years I have had:

-three ring slings

-an adjustable pouch carrier

-two woven wraps (a Moritz and a blue-and-white Indio for those Didymos fans out there)

-a stretchy wrap

-two gauze wraps

-a water wrap (for the pool and the shower)

-two soft-structured carriers

-two mei tais

-a front-pack carrier (before I knew the ease and comfort of pretty much every other carrier ever created)

The one carrier I never had but always wanted was a podaegi, which is a Korean-style blanket carrier you don’t need to hook over your shoulders. It was the one carrier I’d never seen in person and I was afraid that if I bought one, I wouldn’t figure out how to wear it.

I’ve gotten rid of some of my carriers, but most of the ones on the list above are still in my baby carrier drawer or the trunk of my car. I really only use one of the soft-structured carriers and one of the mei tais anymore, and those I only use if my son falls asleep on the way somewhere or if we’re going on a long and/or snowy hike. He’s not as enthusiastic about toddler-wearing as my daughter was.

Logically, I know it’s time to pass along the rest of these carriers. But I’m just not ready to let go of that period of my life. The co-sleeper, the swing, the “stationary entertainer,” even the cloth diapers…those were easy to give away. They were utilitarian for a period of time and then they weren’t. I just found someone who needed them and I packed them up and felt good that they were going to a good home. And the maternity clothes? I practically celebrated when I got rid of those. No one makes clothes that fit a 5′ 2″ woman who births 9-pound babies.

But the carriers that remain in my drawer represent a closeness with my children, their little bodies snuggled close to me, a tinyness they’ll never have again. The carriers represent that brief and beautiful time between when my children and I occupied the same body and when they became their own little beings. Just the smell of the carriers in that drawer takes me back to my babies’ warm weight against my chest or snuggled up between my shoulder blades. I’d been telling myself I was holding onto the carriers in case we adopted a baby, but more and more it looks like our family is complete the way it is. So passing them along will also mean that we are, for sure, done anticipating the arrival of any more babies. And that realization is bittersweet. The transition from “woman” to “mother” was such a momentous one, it’s hard to imagine that I’m done with that “baby” period of my life, even though I feel ready and excited for this next phase.

I know it’s time to let the baby carriers go. But I think I’ll let myself hold onto them a little while longer.

What items do you let yourself hold onto even though you no longer need them?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Starring “Mom” as the Grinch.

Cover of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the...

Cover via Amazon

I’m reading Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne right now and alternately enjoying and feeling strangely anxious about dramatically reducing the number of books and toys my children have daily access to.

It’s funny, but the reactions he describes from children who are overwhelmed by their environments—lashing out in anger, tantrums, a short fuse, reactions disproportionate to the reality of the situation—are all things that I, the mom, have been doing.  Because the children and I are together for every waking hour (and most sleeping hours, too) our moods really play off of one another, so I know my reactions aren’t happening in a vacuum and it’s possible my kids are overwhelmed and that’s causing me to feel overwhelmed (and/or vice versa). Pondering this helped me notice that, while I’ve cut fairly deep with decluttering my own stuff, I’ve been hesitant to cut so deeply into the kids’ stuff. After all, we choose good toys and it’s good to have lots of books around, right? Reading Payne’s book, I’m starting to question this assumption.

Today I went into my daughter’s room and, with the kids in there with me, removed half of the books on her bookshelf. If I follow Payne’s recommendation to the letter, I’ll halve it and then halve it again, but I’m not quite ready to look ahead that far (getting rid of books provokes a lot of anxiety in me, even if I’ve just put them in boxes in the basement), so this is where I am now.

What was interesting was that the kids actually seemed excited about the change. This shouldn’t have been a surprise because this is exactly what Payne said in his book would happen. But I realize I didn’t fully believe him until I saw it myself. When there are fewer items to choose from, kids can really see what their options are and notice things that escaped their attention before.

I read an interview with Payne on The Mother Company (“What Too Many Toys Can Do”) in which he says this about the effects fewer toys have on sibling relationships:

Fewer toys reduces conflict among siblings. With feedback through our blog and countless workshops, we’ve noticed kids get along better when there is less. It’s not a huge mystery. Fewer toys invokes scarcity. Scarcity fosters more cooperation. It activates the limbic system in the brain which encourages cooperation. With fewer toys, a toy is rare and is precious. Limiting toys allows for increased depth of play that allows children to process their day. I see it as a cup where they carry all of their experiences from the day. it allows them to empty their cup for the day and be ready for the next.

I have to admit, I’m skeptical about this one, too (and not just because I think “evoke” might be a better word than “invoke” in this context). I mean, the way I’ve chosen to avoid arguments between my children is to have a Noah’s Ark of toys: two stuffed cats, two stuffed dogs, two sets of blocks, two matching games. They still argue, though. One wants a cat and a dog and the other wants the same cat and dog. So, it’s possible that Payne might be right. (He probably is, darn him.) Time will tell, I guess, as the children react to my gradual whittling away of the their toys. And just in time for Christmas, too. I hope they react as joyfully as the Whos down in Whoville.

What do you think? Does fewer toys = sibling harmony, or is Payne totally off his rocker about this one?

Creating Treasured Childhood Memories: An Amateur’s Guide

Gingerbread house pieces ready to bake.

I stopped making the recipes passed down from my female ancestors when we started on our food sensitivity odyssey. For five Christmases, I searched out gluten-free, dairy-free alternatives that didn’t leave me feeling awful, but which lacked the taste of tradition in Great-Grandma’s crumb cookies or Great-Aunt Eva’s toffee. I realized this year that, while I’m fairly comfortable picking and choosing my Christmas traditions and/or making things up as I go along, my children had never eaten a snickerdoodle, and that just seemed wrong.

This year I’m saying, “To heck with GF/CF desserts!” I’m making six different kinds of cookies, a gingerbread house, and fudge. My husband’s taking some to a potluck at work, we’re taking some to a celebration at music class tomorrow, some to church this Sunday, and the rest (except the gingerbread house) we’re packaging up and giving to friends and neighbors. I’m not eating sweets at all this year, so we need to do something with the dozens and dozens of cookies I want to make, and if that serves to help us build community and get to know our neighbors, all the better.

Today the kids and I started just after breakfast and baked two batches of cookies and the pieces of the gingerbread house, which we assembled after lunch and decorated just before dinner.

Based on our baking day today, there are a few lessons that I could apply to our next baking adventure, if I manage to think of them ahead of it (which has never happened before, but I remain hopeful):

Sugar and Spice cookies.

1) Don’t try to do homeschool on a day I’m baking three batches of cookies and assembling a gingerbread house. (This one I knew before I started, although I did still momentarily suggest we do a math lesson instead of play outside while the base of the gingerbread house was setting up.)

2) Stop at one batch of cookies. While we cut out and baked the gingerbread house pieces this morning, we were all happy and joking and singing. When we made the sugar and spice cookies, my eye started to twitch when my son kept pretending to play the shell game with the dough balls my daughter was trying to arrange in a 3 by 4 array on the cookie sheet, and my daughter kept sneezing into her hands or picking her nose as soon as she came back from washing her hands. By the time the snickerdoodles were cooling and I got the kids outside to run off some of the sugar they’d been eating since breakfast, I’d yelled at my daughter and had to have extended huggle time with her to make things right. But I really enjoyed baking the first batch of cookies with my kids. It was nice, and I look forward to making one batch of cookies with them again.

Infinite snickerdoodles.

3) Put the cookies up high to cool. None of our moods were helped by the sugar rush my children (and especially my two-year-old) experienced after yoinking a half-dozen cookies from the cooling racks. Four of those my son just licked the powdered sugar from the tops, which I kind of view as worse than actually eating the darned cookies.

More snickerdoodles.

4) Go outside. If I must bake multiple batches of cookies in a single day, for love of Mike, take the kids outside between batches. We could have avoided so much crying and gnashing of teeth if I’d just preemptively taken us outside rather than waiting for the “That’s it. I’ve had it. Everyone out” moment. It was amazing how much difference it made just hanging out in the sun throwing rocks into our bushes and breaking up the two-inches of ice on top of the sandbox cover. We did this just prior to decorating the gingerbread house and when we came back inside, and despite my son’s not-so-subtle pilfering of peanut-butter cups and chocolate kisses and his rather dramatic reaction to the cinnamon imperials he decided to try (“Need water!” he cried, dribbling red, sticky drool all down his front and onto the floor), the decorating went remarkably smoothly. If I’d had the foresight to kick us all out between each batch of cookies, it’s possible the whole thing might have gone more smoothly.

Giant block of ice. It creaked and groaned when heard up close.

5) Arrange to find some item I thought was gone forever in the middle of a mommy-tantrum. We lost four picture books from the library two weeks ago. I’d looked everywhere for them, even going so far as to move the fridge out (twice). It was while I was muttering profanities to myself and clattering around in the skinny and impractical cupboard next to the stove looking for another cookie sheet that I saw the corner of a book. After 20 minutes of fishing with a yardstick and taking the flashlight back from my son, I stood triumphant, all four books now freed from their incredibly tight squeeze under the stove! If I could plan this kind of plot twist for every time I was in a surly mood, I’m certain I’d yell a lot less.

Completed gingerbread house, back view.

I still wish there were a quick-fix for my blasted temper, but in the end, the day turned out okay. While I was fixing dinner and the gingerbread house stood decorated, just daring the cats to lick it, my son sat on my daughter’s lap on the kitchen floor behind me while I chopped onions.

“You know, Mom,” my daughter said. “[Brother] and I aren’t just siblings; we’re life-long friends.”

It’s that kind of moment that gives me hope that, on the balance, the things I’m doing well as a mother will outweigh the things I’m doing embarrassingly poorly.

Maybe by the time I have grandkids, I’ll have this “creating treasured childhood memories” thing down a little better.

Completed gingerbread house, front view.

(If you’re interested in making your own gingerbread house (this was my very first ever gingerbread house, by the way), I used the recipe and instructions here, and was inspired by my friend Timbra’s annual tradition, described on her blog here (I have a feeling she yells at her girls less than I yell at my kids).)

As bonus, here are two in-process gingerbread house photos, just so it’s clear what exactly I undertook with my two kids today. And no, I will not be posting a photo of what my kitchen looks like right now.

House minus the roof (chimney is to the side).

Ready to decorate.

Living Simply with Kids: Knowing When to Say When

Toy Room

This weekend, our family watched the movie Babies together.

In the opening scene, two toddlers sit playing, focussed and quiet. In front of each is a large stone onto which each boy bangs and grinds a smaller stone.

Seeing these two boys playing in such a focussed manner with a couple of rocks, a question came to mind: How much stuff do my kids really need?

I asked my husband, who didn’t have a specific answer but was convinced our children have too much stuff. He and I went into the toy room that night and took away a shape sorter and two games to make room for the wooden train set our son is getting for Christmas. The rest of it stayed. It all seemed to have a use.

I asked my daughter about the boys and the rocks and if she thought she and her brother had more toys than they needed. She looked at me suspiciously.

“You could give your extra toys to those boys in the movie,” my husband suggested. My daughter shook her head.

“No. They’re too far away. And they get to play with rocks and bones and things, so they don’t need other toys.”

“What if I got some rocks and bones for you guys to play with? Would you need fewer toys then?” I asked.


And that’s all I got out of her.

We have more than we need, toy-wise, but we’re not inundated (for now). We have guidelines about electronic toys and noisemaking toys and character toys (except for a few small Elmos and Winnie-the-Poohs), and that keeps a lot of stuff out of the house in the first place. Every few months the kids and I go through and set aside a box or two full of toys that they’d like to pass on to other kids. I’ll make suggestions to get things going, but I do my best to let them drive the purge. And so far, it’s worked well. My kids actually seem pretty excited about picking out toys for hypothetical toyless children.

But it’s not just the toys. As homeschoolers, we have the time and opportunity to engage in a huge number of enriching activities.  Even with just a few activities, we’ve got too much going on, but I feel nervous when I turn down any opportunity. Material possessions I don’t feel too bad parting with. Experiences are tougher for me.

There’s a chapter about families in Janet Luhrs’ The Simple Living Guide. In this chapter, Luhrs describes a situation in her own life that was quite similar to my kids-and-rocks moment (and that, oddly, also involved rocks) and that led her to feel similarly torn between scheduling enriching activities and scheduling enriching unstructured time.

“After much soul searching,” Luhrs writes, “I opted for conscious balance. Conscious balance means that I am fully aware of my motivations for making choices. If the choice is based on insecurity, I look hard at the insecurity.”

She already had my attention, but my ears really pricked up at her mention of insecurity.

Insecure is exactly what I feel when I think of my kids missing out on any of the dozens of wonderful but time-consuming activities. I know we need unstructured play time and recharge time from all of the interaction and stimulus of being out and about. But what if I throw in my lot with the homeschool co-op and my daughter ends up not making any close friends there? Would she have been better off at Girl Scouts? Is that where her future best friend is, just waiting for my daughter to find her? If we choose the wrong activity, how will we ever find her? As though there’s just one best friend out there for my daughter and it’s my responsibility to seek her out and bring us to her. That’s a remarkable amount of pressure.

I have to realize that my kids don’t have these worries. They’re in it for the fun. And I’d be willing to bet we’d all be happier and less stressed if I were in it for the fun, too. One of my college religion profs used to say, “You can’t dance at every wedding.” Right now, I’m not dancing at any of them. While everyone else dances around me, I’m sitting in the corner, tired and overwhelmed and worried that the wedding I chose not to attend is where I really ought to be.

The truth, if I choose to accept it, is this: If things are in balance and we’ve followed our values, my kids and I are where we’re supposed to be, no matter what we choose to do.

And the toys? Well, that’s a work in progress.

Book Review: Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband and I took a “Voluntary Simplicity” discussion course back in 2000/2001. The course was from Northwest Earth Institute and was based on Duane Elgin’s book and scads of other terrific writings about simplicity and mindfulness. It was remarkably influential on how we lived our newly-married life together, but for some reason, it took me more than ten years to pick up Elgin’s original book (well, the 1993 revision).

When I finally did read the book, I was blown away by the simplicity and compassion with which Elgin presents the idea of Voluntary Simplicity.

The book consists of three main sections. The first introduces the idea and contains excerpts from the written replies on a 1977 survey of people committed to voluntary simplicity to give a sense of how some people live the principles of voluntary simplicity. The second expands on the idea of voluntary simplicity, dissecting both the “voluntary” and the “simplicity” aspects of this way of living. And the third was a rather apocalyptic vision of the future if we choose not to address our current ecological problems head on.

The first section was a little dry at times, but I found it interesting to note the demographics of the respondents as I read their responses. It was encouraging that so many people from all over the country and with so many different ways of life embraced voluntary simplicity and were finding similar benefits (and challenges). It was also interesting how similar the culture of 1977 seems to be to the culture of 2011. My dad would laugh to hear me say that and make some comment about how it wasn’t that long ago and how he was there when I was born, after all. But being that I was less than a year old then, it seems like a long time ago to me, and it seemed odd how little things have changed, really, in the past 34+ years.

The second I found inspiring as Elgin made it clear that there’s no one way to live a voluntarily simple lifestyle. It’s about making individual choices with awareness of both their direct and indirect effects on us and on the people and environment around us. Two people can live lives of voluntary simplicity that look vastly different from one another. The important piece is to stop living on automatic pilot. We must wake up and make conscious choices.

The third section I approached with some trepidation. Elgin empathizes with the discomfort the reader will likely experience considering the possible collapse of civilization as we know it. “All of the hopes and fears that lie in uneasy though quiet repose in our everyday lives become starkly visible as we consider the depth and scope of change that lies ahead.” He encourages us to embrace these changes as natural: “Our anxiety about transformative civilizational change is lessened when we realize that it is part of a natural and purposeful process.”

I wasn’t really comforted.

It took me a week or so to pick the book back up, but last night I screwed up my courage and finished the book. And it really wasn’t so bad after all. Elgin outlines three possible cultural responses to the current ecological, societal, and governmental problems:

1. Overshoot and collapse. Basically we continue to increase our rampant consumerism and individualistic focus until the ecosystem can no longer support us and society collapses because we’re not at all prepared for the disasters as they mount. The human race experiences a massive die-out due to disease and famine and civilization enters an extended dark age. This was the one I was worried about reading. On to the next…

2. Dynamic Stagnation. This is the one where we as a culture fight so hard to maintain the status quo that we don’t really make anything all that worse, we’re just not well prepared for what comes so we end up making the changes necessary to survive but not to thrive as a species and a civilization. We depend too much on existing institutions rather than taking personal, local, and global responsibility for the changes necessary to make it through this “Winter” period of our culture. This is bad, but not so bad compared to #1.

3. Reconciliation and Revitalization. This is the one that made it possible for me to go to sleep last night once I closed the book. Individuals come together in a grass-roots effort to build up new decentralized institutions to provide for the needs of our population on a more local level and to put pressure on our government and the global community to make choices based not on isolationism and personal gain but on a collective desire to see humanity thrive. We enter a period of unprecedented cooperation and compassion which results in a New Renaissance of cultural, artistic, and governmental advances.

Elgin concludes by making the case for compassion as the basis for our society and for our species going forward. “If we value our freedom and vitality as a species, we are obliged to do no less than learn to love one another as a human family or else destroy ourselves in the learning,” he writes.

I immediately began to think of ways that I could act in my own life to improve the health of my community. Voluntary simplicity from Elgin’s perspective isn’t about a back-to-the-land movement or about living a life of deprivation and social/geographical isolation. On the contrary, Voluntary Simplicity requires making conscious choices not only in our own homes but also in close cooperation with our communities and being active in creating the changes that we need on a national and international level. I thought of things that I could do to connect with my neighbors and to be a part of our small city and our religious community that would also serve my introverted needs for physical space and quiet reflection. Learning about the history of our town, inviting the neighbors over one or two families at a time to talk and share food, asking for assistance in gaining expertise about issues from home repair to hiking trails, and sharing yard and garden-care equipment were all ideas that came to mind. It will be a challenge to engage like this, but I think that if I do it prudently, we’ll experience a much richer involvement in our community.

The key really isn’t simplicity so much as it is consciousness. Making conscious choices, we understand the larger impact of our consumption patterns. For example, when we buy a television, we recognize not only the price tag, but the materials and labor and research and marketing that went into bringing us that television. We understand the social impact of the manufacture of the television on the community where it was assembled. We understand that our perceptions and our desires will be shaped not only by the programs we choose to watch but also the advertising that we see between and within the programs and by the time we spend watching television rather than interacting. In addition, we understand where that television will go when its useful life is over (or when we choose to upgrade to a newer model) and what affect that later life will have on our environment and on the health and wellbeing of the communities surrounding the television’s final resting place. Voluntary Simplicity doesn’t mean not buying the television; it means knowing what it is we’re really buying.

Making conscious choices, we see the world with open eyes, and we realize that there is nothing we can do that doesn’t somehow affect someone else. And that’s comforting, when you really think about it.

View all my reviews

A Birthday

“Let us decide on the route that we wish to take to pass our life, and attempt to sow that route with flowers.”

 Madame du Chatelet, from Gretchen Rubin’s “Moment of Happiness” for 9 December 2011

Today I turn 35. That seems an auspicious number for a year I plan to focus on Voluntary Simplicity.

Last year's cake. No cake this year, but that's cool.

I’ve been living Voluntary Simplicity to one degree or another for the past 10+ years, but this birthday marks a re-commitment to the conscious application of the principles of Voluntary Simplicity.

The goal for this project:

I will cultivate mindfulness and awareness in my daily life and through that awareness identify areas where I place the highest value. I will explore my values and options for living more deeply in those areas, and then make incremental changes and future plans with the goal of consciously living my life around those values.

Although I can’t hang onto the things that I value, I can court them in my daily activities, attract them with careful selection and arrangement of the physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of my life, and pamper, preen, and nourish them with attention and awareness. I can give them space by clearing out the extraneous. I can live them fully while I’m here. And after? Who knows?

This month seems right for introspection, with the dark and the cold, with the Solstice and the religious holidays celebrating hope and the promise of rebirth even in the midst of darkness. And, of course, my birthday, which always invites even more navel-gazing from a person already inclined to peer at her bellybutton. It’s also a practical month for this type of search because my husband’s company shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s, so I’ll have assistance with the day-to-day maintenance of our home and care of our children, hopefully giving me more space for awareness.

So, I’m excited! This year promises to be great! (knock on wood, though, because I’m still superstitious about being too enthusiastic)

Simple Eating

Jars of soup cooling in formation on the counter.

As I type, the cauliflower is steaming on the stove. When I finish this post, I’ll have a bowl of homemade chicken soup and some steamed cauliflower. That will be my breakfast, lunch, and dinner today.

The last time I did this was almost exactly four years ago. It worked for me then, so I’m trying it again.

I won’t go into too much detail about this way of eating. It’s a digestive health diet (“diet” in the sense of “food and drink one consumes regularly,” not in the sense of “eating less to lose weight”) for people who have certain specific ailments of varying severity. And that’s all the detail I’ll go into about my digestive health. It’s somewhat similar to the GAPS diet, if you’re familiar with that one.

Diet is a very individual thing. People like my husband seem able to eat anything with no ill effects (except hydrogenated oils…those make him ill), while people like me seem to get a rash or other ailment from practically everything that modern humans consider treats (sugar, alcohol, wheat, ice cream…). Which is why I’m not going into detail about my particular diet. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

For the first three years after I started the diet the first time, I did fairly well with it. It even saw me through my second pregnancy without the high blood pressure and swelling I’d had with my first. But in the past year, I’ve really stretched the limits of the “allowed” foods. As an example, an all-day sandwich cookie (a half-inch-thick layer of vegan chocolate buttercream frosting sandwiched between two large, vegan, gluten-free chocolate-chip cookies) once a week is not actually on the digestive health diet. Neither is Two-Buck Chuck or Faux Pep Mo. Finally, the mood swings, fatigue, rashes, anxiety, and myriad digestive symptoms led me to re-commit to the way of eating that had carried me so well through those several years.

All of this just means that I’ve been eating what’s basically homemade chicken soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner since Tuesday. Yesterday I added lots of probiotics (liquid acidophilus, probiotic capsules, and a fermented coconut beverage) between meals and steamed veggies with each meal.

It occurred to me that I had inadvertently simplified my diet (to an extreme). I make three days worth of soup in one day and put it in pint jars in the fridge. For each meal, I take out a jar, pour the contents in a bowl, and heat the soup in the microwave. I can’t eat out, so there’s none of the looking through restaurant coupons or trying to get the kids to eat something other than pizza, chicken fingers, and french fries.

I feel a little bored with eating the same thing all the time, but even that has a positive side: after three days of nothing but soup and water, the liquid probiotics taste incredibly good.

As much as I crave variety, I feel great already. I have more energy even when I stay up late (before, I could go to bed at 9 for a whole week and not feel rested), I feel calmer, and many of my other symptoms have already improved dramatically. The eczema I’ve had on my eyelids for the past three months (since I accidentally ate “real” feta cheese) is even clearing up.

In addition, I like cooking large quantities and then just heating them up later. It really streamlines my day. I’m wondering if there’s a way to use some of these lessons in simple food prep when I go back to eating a much more varied diet next week.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus on planning my birthday foods. I arranged it so I’m starting the phase with greater variety on my birthday next week. I’m planning meals that are likely not exciting to anyone who hasn’t consumed as much chicken soup as I have this past week, but they’re a source of great anticipation for me. Scrambled eggs for breakfast. Salad with homemade dressing for lunch, either with cooked chicken on top or with chicken soup as a side, if I have some left. Poached fish and vegetables for dinner. Then for dessert: apple slices dipped in a homemade honey/almond-butter dip.

I’m really looking forward to that apple.

Uni-tasking With Children: The Impossible Dream?

I’ve been making a point of Doing One Thing these past several days. It’s been nice when I can manage it. I’m feeling more calm and dishes washed by hand shine a lot better than they do when they come out of the dishwasher.

Buoyed by this relative success, I’ve begun to try to extend my Doing One Thing to eating. Trouble is, it’s difficult to Do One Thing when I’ve got kids asking me for a glass of milk or to re-wrap their burrito, or making bird noises and quizzing me about which bird they’re mimicking, or spilling their milk all over the seat and the floor and the heat register, or asking me to wrap their burrito again.

I remind myself that Doing One Thing isn’t about ignoring all other thoughts and stimuli. It’s not about being an empty vessel; it’s about bringing awareness to the present moment. It’s totally okay to go from one task to the next and then back to the first, as long as I’m aware in each one. I can be aware of the patterns that the oil floating on top of my chicken soup makes and then I can be aware of the spill pattern of the milk I’m wiping up and then I can look my daughter in the eye while she’s trying to mimic a Stellar’s jay mimicking a red-tailed hawk.

But what about those times when I don’t want to be aware? When my daughter is yelling at my son in the backseat to “Be quiet! I don’t want to hear you talking!” I want to turn up the radio and sing along to Beck (“Baby, I’m a lost cause,” seems particularly appropriate in those moments). When my son has decided to tell me he has to go poo after he’s already gone in his pants, I want to distract myself with thoughts of how I’ll blog about it later rather than being aware of the poo-cleaning process.

Or when my son wants me to do his dinosaur puzzle with him for the 57 billionth time, or my daughter wants us to be dogs for the day. I’m embarrassed at the intensity of my boredom, and I want to call someone and chat on the phone or get my laptop and check my e-mail while helping my son find the T-rex’s foot.

I’m reminding myself that, small as it sounds, Doing One Thing is actually a big challenge, especially for someone who lives in her mind as much as I do.

“What’s your grand plan?” my husband asked about my Voluntary Simplicity Project the other night. “You’re doing the dishes mindfully. What else is on the list?”

“Nothing,” I said, somewhat embarrassed to say it. “I’m just Doing One Thing for a while. That feels like enough for now. I’ll add something else later, but I don’t want to get caught up in my usual flurry of planning or get consumed by the external appearance of simplicity and miss the point of the project.”

“What’s the point of the project, then?” he asked.

“To live more consciously. I figure simplicity will naturally follow if I can live more consciously.”

This project is a process, not an endpoint. I’m not going to get to a point where I am living every moment in conscious awareness and can just check that off my to-do list and move on to something else. If I can be aware just once a day of a moment in which I’m trying to escape the intensity of interacting with my children, if I can stop myself, look my child in the eye, and just be there for her completely one time during the day, that’s a start. And that’s actually pretty huge.

I suppose the appropriate thing to do with those feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and worries that I’m just not accomplishing enough stuff fast enough is to be aware of them and let them go. That’s pretty huge, too.

Last night, out of the blue, my husband told me he likes my new project.

“But is it okay if I still use the dishwasher?”

“Sure, you can use the dishwasher,” I said. “Just use it mindfully.”