What are People For? by Wendell Berry

What are People For?
What are People For? by Wendell Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was another of the books my husband got for me from the library for Christmas. I put it on my list about a year ago when I was reading back through the materials from Northwest Earth Institute’s Voluntary Simplicity discussion course, which my husband and I took more than a decade ago. Two of Wendell Berry’s essays were reprinted in those materials, one—“The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?—made such an impression on me, I decided to pick up the book. And am I glad I did.

Berry’s essays include book reviews, poetry commentary, and personal essays of the kind that, in 20 years’ time, would appear on blogs in much simpler form and cut down to <800 words, most likely. Their tone is conversational and their insights simple and relatable. In fact, I was impressed by the sense of conversation that pervades the pieces. Writing for print media at a time when internet was in its infancy, Berry communicates with his readers and other authors, both contemporaries and those throughout history, in a way similar to that to which I strive in my blogging. Like a good conversation, the essays meander through literary and historical references, personal anecdotes, and assertions of strong personal opinions; I found it a pleasure to follow the trails he blazed. Read More

Living Our Values as Parents (or By Choosing Not to Be Parents)

Years ago, long before I became a mother, I was riding in my boss’s car along with several other co-workers on our way to an off-site department lunch.

“So, Cheryl, do you have any children?” one of my co-workers asked my boss.

“No,” replied my boss. “Children were never on my to-do list.”

I’ve always found that reply amusing, but it’s only been recently that I really understood that what she was saying was that she was prioritizing her career as a scientist over a potential role as a mother. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t see value in a mother’s role, it just wasn’t her value for her life.

This, to me, is the essence of voluntary simplicity: Looking honestly at our values and aligning our lives with them, even if this means our lives don’t look like the brochure. This is a simple thing to say but it can be difficult to implement because often saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” or at least “not now” to a slew of others.

Periodically I ask my husband if he’s happy with the amount of time he spends with our kids.

His answer is always yes.

“I like spending time with them, but I also like the work that I do,” he explains.

As a scientist engaged in biological research, he’s only recently been in a “job” job. After his bachelor’s degree, he went to more than ten years of school and postdoctoral training. He didn’t get his first post-post-doc job until he was solidly in his 30’s. He’s devoted much of his life and his time to his career. It’s something he values and that he finds enriching. Through science, he believes he can make his mark on the world and do the most good he can for humanity.

He values his children and his role as a father. He is very engaged in our children’s lives, devoting essentially every hour he’s home in the evenings and on the weekends to being present with them. He arranges his schedule at work so he gets in to lab before the kids wake up in the morning and comes home in time for dinner between 5:00 and 5:30 so he can see them and play with them and read to them before they go to bed.

He wants to make a mark on the world through his role as a father as well as through his role as a scientist.

On the other hand, I don’t have a career calling, at least not that I’ve discovered. I enjoy writing, and I can see how I could make a mark on the world through my writing. But being a parent is the primary way that I believe I can make my mark on the world. Parenting feeds and, I think, enhances my writing, so the two are intertwined, but I prioritize my parenting over my writing. As a result, I spend the majority of my time with my children and write in the evenings and on weekends.

My husband and I have arranged our lives around these values. The way this looks in our lives is that my primary occupation is at home with our children and his primary occupation is at lab with his scientific career. We’ve done this even during the lean postdoc days in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area where we lived simply but just barely voluntarily. Even then, we didn’t feel like we were sacrificing because we were living our values.

Our roles are synergistic in a way that reflects and supports the priority we place on our values. My husband’s salary as a scientist is, for now, the sole source of income for our family. My caring for our children and teaching them at home allows him to work at a career he loves and bring home the money that supports our family’s needs. When he’s home and spends time with our children, he supports my writing.

When we decide to live by our values, we have to admit that we’re prioritizing many important things, which can be a difficult process. Our family is arranged in one of the couple of ways that are deemed acceptable by our culture, which I think makes it a little easier. The way my husband and I articulate our values vis-à-vis children and career is pretty darned traditional and therefore (besides the homeschooling) accepted by our culture, but if our values were switched, I think we’d end up with a little more difficulty.

Even if it accurately reflected my family’s values, it would be less acceptable for me as a woman to say, “You know, I love my kids and value my role as a mother, but I see my career as the way I’ll make my mark on the world. I’m comfortable leaving the daytime child-rearing to others and having my time with the children after work and on weekends.”

The answer a woman must give to be a “good mother,” the only acceptable answer, is that she’s torn up inside about leaving her children, but that she has to work to bring in more money. Even women whose spouses have very high-paying jobs express this “I need to work for the money” when they choose to continue their careers after birthing their children.

Even though my husband and tons of other men state clearly their priorities for career over child-rearing and it’s seen as normal and even admirable, if a mother makes a statement like this, she’s callous or unmotherly. I don’t know why this is.

Whatever the reason, any deviation from the cultural norm is viewed with suspicion. If he valued being with our children over having a career (and acted upon that value), my husband would be looked at with raised eyebrows and given less societal support than stay-at-home moms get (and that’s precious little to start with).

And if both my husband and I had careers that were central to our lives and our fulfillment and we chose not to have children, woe betide us for being so selfish as to recognize and live by our values. It would be more culturally acceptable if we had children anyway and then outsourced their upbringing, complaining all the while that it sucks but we both need to work to support the financial needs of our family and sacrifice time with our children to do it.

I don’t get why this is. Don’t all children deserve to be raised by people who value child-rearing over essentially everything else in their lives and who don’t feel acutely in every moment that they’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else?

Here’s the thing: when we live in line with our values, we don’t feel it as a sacrifice. We might feel pressure from family, friends, and society at large to make different choices, we might look wistfully into an imagined alternate future, but we’ll ultimately know that we’ve made the right choice based on our values.

A sense of sacrifice is a sure sign we’re not living our values.

I spend my days with my kids, and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed my career because I’m living my values. My husband works full-time outside the home and doesn’t feel that he’s sacrificed time with his kids because he’s living his values. Even though we each complain on the bad days, the way we’ve arranged things works for our family because it’s in line with our values. A feeling of sacrifice would signify that we’re not living in line with our values.

We don’t feel like we’re sacrificing. We feel like we’re simply living.

Possession Identity

“Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”

 William James

This is today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I remember times in my life when my sense of identity was very much tied up with objects.

My first car was a 1983 Volvo 240DL wagon. My parents had bought it new when I was 6 years old and I remembered how huge the backseat had seemed and how smooth the vinyl upholstery was under my legs. I learned to drive on that car (and I taught my husband how to drive stick on it) and it just kind of became mine during my sophomore year of college. That car was blue, and she was boxy. She handled like crap in the snow (rear-wheel drive), and I could fit an entire full-size mattress in the trunk if I put the back seat down. Two friends and I slept in the back when we went to Halloween at Ohio University one year because we were afraid we’d be puked on if we slept in the house where we were staying.  When I sold that car, I cried.

In college, there was a professor who was trying to quit smoking by only buying cigarettes one at a time for a quarter each from the smokers clustered outside the academic buildings before and after classes. One day, I was smoking with a couple of other people before Brit Lit when this professor came out of the building, surveying the scene.

“Ah!” he said when he saw me. “A Camel smoker!”

I traded him a smoke for a quarter and thought to myself, “A Camel smoker…yes, that’s what I am.”

I’ve not smoked in 15 years and it’s been nearly 10 years since I said farewell to that Volvo. I think I’ve loosened my attachment to things in the intervening years, but when I give up clothes or when I consider buying a different car (I’m still driving the car that replaced the Volvo, by the way), I still think, “Who am I if I don’t wear this item, if I don’t drive this car?”

In a slight shift from that, as a mother, I realize I’ve begun to base my identity on my relationship with my children. While one could argue that defining oneself by one’s relationships to living people is perhaps a little healthier than defining oneself by the brand of cigarettes one smokes (for more reasons than one), it still doesn’t take into account who I am on my own (or, for that matter, who my children are separate from me).

Who are we on our own, unattached to people or things? Is this why we cling so tenaciously to possessions and people and social media? Are we afraid of who we’ll meet when we’re all alone in the quiet? Is that what I’m afraid of?

Simplicity Parenting: The Book Review

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Lisa M. Ross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book for both the practical suggestions (backed by both formal research and informal observation) and for its tone.

Since I began reading this book, I’ve made some concrete changes in our home environment, including reducing the number of toys and books my children have easy access to (I put many into a “library” in our basement until I can work up the courage to donate/sell/throw away), reducing the number of scheduled activities I have for my children, and implementing some basic daily routines, most notably the “flute-practice-after-breakfast” routine.

There have been some small but noticeable changes in the way my children go about their days in the weeks since I’ve made these changes. We’ve had fewer arguments about flute practice, and my daughter (age 6.5) has been practicing more regularly and with more joy. She’s even begun initiating flute practice on her own without my even prompting her!

My children, especially my 2yo son, are playing imaginatively with everyday objects more than they were before, making an empty toy bin into a car for the stuffed toys and things like that.

And my daughter has lightened up about the order in which we use the colored plastic cups and flatware. She used to scream at me and my husband if we forgot and gave her a blue cup before the green cup. The order was green, light blue, dark blue, yellow, orange, pink, pink, and woe betide the parent who tried to go out of order. There were no discussions about the cups, and we made no changes directly related to the cups, she just stopped getting angry with us about them. Which has been quite a relief.

Of course, my son has also decided that the toy room is much too neat, so he goes in and up-ends three or four toy bins at a time into the middle of the room. That’s not so cool, but at least it doesn’t take long to pick everything up.

I was already in the habit of simplifying our home, but this book really helped give me the confidence to cut deeper, and to remove toys and books without my children’s input about which we kept and which we got rid of. The books were a real change for me, though. I knew the kids (and I) were somewhat overwhelmed by the number of books on their shelves, but I felt like I just couldn’t get rid of any of them. Books are unequivocally good, right? But once I halved the number of books, they’ve been much more engaged with the ones they have left. And they don’t even seem to notice that any are missing.

One area that I’m going to try to work on a little bit more is verbal clutter. From the book:

“In our era of spin and counterspin, when words are parsed and split, where news stands beside opinion and embraces blogs, meaning is often drowned out. Just as it’s hard to cherish a toy lost in the middle of a mountain of play things, when we say less, our words mean more.”

Although I fear that if I really take that to heart, I might blog a lot less.

The tone of the book was the real refreshing piece, though. Payne clearly delights in childhood and the whimsy of children. His anecdotes and suggestions are peppered with images of children interacting with each other and with adults and the funny and adorable things they do and say. I felt a sense of peace and well-being reading such a sunny view of childhood. Not that Payne isn’t realistic about the struggles of parenting and children’s sometimes not-so-desirable actions, he just doesn’t focus on them. He treats children as human beings to be loved and guided rather than creatures to be trained and manipulated, and “misbehavior” as a sign that something in the child’s environment might do with some changing.

Payne talks about how one of the biggest differences between parenting now and parenting a generation ago is how much data about our children we have available and how many “experts” we have to consult to make sure we’re doing this really big job right. But in this, too, he offers reassurance.

“For all of the measures we now have at our fingertips, by and large children defy them by being both more ‘normal’ and more extraordinary than any scientific measure, or means of quantifying them.”

This rings true to me, and it promotes the freedom we as parents have to love our kids and to let go of worrying that we’re not giving them an “ideal” childhood, whatever that might be.

The only thing that I thought was a little lacking was that Payne is very much focused on two-working-parent homes. As a stay-at-home mom who homeschools, I would have kind of liked a little bit of information directed towards me or that at least reflected my demographic. However, I know I’m in a pretty tiny minority, so I don’t hold it against the author for not including me and my friends. His suggestions are significant and applicable even to those of us who do not see our specific situations in his case studies.

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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.

“No.”

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.

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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)

Simplicity and Awareness in Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed

The Unnamed
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, I read this at the same time I was reading Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, and a lot of the same ideas come up in both books. No, Voluntary Simplicity does not encourage people to chuck it all, take a walk, and not turn back. But it does deal a lot with conscious action and awareness and how living consciously can often alienate us from the rest of society. In The Unnamed, main character Tim is trapped in the dichotomy between mind and body. He prefers—as many of us do—to live almost exclusively in his mind, until his malady hits and he’s at the mercy of his body, his mind a mere passenger.

There’s a scene in which Tim is sitting still, absorbed in something at the office late at night when he’s surprised by the motion-sensor lights shutting off. The surprise pulls him back into his body, reminds him that he’s not just a mind functioning on its own. This scene sums up the premise of the book for me.

There’s the micro-version of this single-minded attention that excludes all else with Tim and his attorney colleagues focusing laser-like attention on the task at hand and ignoring all else around them, including their bodily needs and their families and the weather. Then there’s the macro-version, in which there are signs all over of global warming and ecological disaster and people barely notice them (if at all) as they go about their lives. (This scenario is in Voluntary Simplicity, too.) Of course, everything seen from Tim’s point of view is suspect, so the reader needs to decide for herself whether to trust Tim’s perspective or not. Maybe there really aren’t bees dying off; only Tim sees them because they don’t exist for anyone else.

The story of Tim’s illness seems to be a metaphor for the journey through life. We travel through life feeling complacent until something wakes us up and we reconnect mind and body and notice our surroundings as if for the first time. We travel through life as one individual ego, essentially separate from everyone else even though we are, in fact, connected to and dependent upon every other entity with which we share this world. What does it take to bring awareness to this interdependence and the need for compassion and collective action? What is the motion sensor light that will bring us back into the world?

All of which is a long way of saying I came upon this book at the exact right moment, I think, and I found it immensely satisfying.

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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.”

The Complex World of Simple Living

Ironically, many of the things that people do for the sake of simplicity actually make life more complicated, at least in the short run.

There are blogs that rather glibly assert that the way to live simply is to move to the country, work from home, go car-free, grow all of your own food, and cook on a woodstove (never mind the irony of blogging about cooking on a woodstove).

If you don’t already have experience and knowledge about rural living, gardening, or stoking a fire, it’s going to take a lot of time, education, and physical work to do any of these things. It may well require a job/career change and will almost certainly require a major lifestyle change. Even if these turn out to the be right choice for everyone (something I doubt would be the case), there’s nothing simple about changing everything about the way you live.

Not only that, but if you decide to live your life in one of these “simple” ways, you’re going to be spending much of your time on the rudiments of living. If you’re someone who places high value on having intimate knowledge of the basics of living, like participating in food procurement from the soil to the table to the compost heap and back to the soil, then focusing your life around these activities might bring you fulfillment. However, if you’re a scientist who’s devoted her life to researching and finding a cure for cancer, spending hours and hours in the laboratory and reading scientific research and talking with colleagues all over the world about the latest discoveries, growing your own food or washing your dishes by hand or knitting your own socks might impinge upon the time you would otherwise spend doing what you truly value. In addition, if you spend a lot of time doing laboratory experiments at major medical facilities, working from home and/or living in a rural area might not work for you.

The key to voluntary simplicity isn’t living with less; it’s making space in your life for what matters most. If you dislike driving and you resent the expense of filling the gas tank and having the oil changed, perhaps you value something other than car ownership. Perhaps a car-light or car-free lifestyle is for you and it would be worthwhile to put forth the effort to research options that will bring you closer to that lifestyle (moving closer to work, working from home, biking or taking public transit, saving up tons of money so you can retire early and stop commuting, etc). But if you love working on your car, if seeing how everything works together gives you the sense

Dodge Charger photographed in Laval, Quebec, C...

Image via Wikipedia

of well-being that others get from meditation or long-distance running, then going car-free would not follow your values. Instead, you might get rid of pay television because you’d rather spend your evenings and weekends under the hood or at the car show than sitting in front of the television with your friends speculating about which talented amateur will make it to the next round of competition on American Idol, and you’d rather spend the money you’d otherwise spend on premium channels to buy the parts necessary to rebuild the transmission on your 1969 Dodge Charger.*

This is why I’m leery of sites, books, and magazines that make living simply sound like nothing more than making your life look like the one in the pictures. There is too much work and mess and soul-searching and rearranging involved in making the changes necessary to live life more in line with your core values to follow some arbitrary plan some random person came up with for their own voluntary simplicity challenge. What works in my life will only work in yours if we have the exact same values weighted the exact same way.

I plan to share my insights and thought processes and research on the off-chance this information might help you in your own life. But nothing I write should be misconstrued as a prescription for simple living.

Or for anything for that matter.

I have no answers. You will find no numbered lists or fourteen simple steps to a simple life here. Just one woman typing while she ponders what it is she really values in life and how to go about organizing her life around those values.

*I have only the most basic knowledge about car restoration and about popular television shows, so these statements might be totally inaccurate. Please take them for their meaning rather than the specifics.