With the publication of Oprah’s new book, lots of us are asking what we want. My answer isn’t sexy. I want simple!
I’m not denying that many problems are complex, family relationships convoluted, and institutions difficult to navigate. That’s all true. It’s also true that everything connects to everything. The more I simplify, the more simple things become.
Maybe my preference for simple is why tiny houses appeal. Having to condense into a very small space requires a different focus than adding layer upon layer of things to clean, organize, and maintain.
Each time I stand in my closet annoyed by the choices, I think of my grandmother. She had about 4 dresses at any given time and many of those were worn for years before she replaced them. Yet she was always more polished than I am.
She wore heels, her bright red fingernails were never chipped, and every hair was in place. Her clothes were crisply pressed and well fitting. Obviously, it’s possible to pare down and still look good.
When MTV introduced the “Unplugged” series, I liked it but I didn’t appreciate the concept as much as I do now. At that time, there was plenty of music in my world that didn’t feel overly produced.
It didn’t seem odd to find Lucinda Williams standing alone with a guitar on a stage with no light cues. Autotune didn’t exist. The focus of a concert was the music, not the “experience”…which made the EXPERIENCE more appealing to me.
I don’t like the frenzied feeling of a club with loud dance music and flashing strobes. It might be okay if there were contrasting moments, but it seems like there’s just loud and louder and ever-building furor.
Children’s toys increasingly play music, scurry across the floor under their own power, and cast lights on the ceiling leaving no room for a child to create his own motion and sound or learn cause and effect past push-a-button-get-a-single-response. In case no one has noticed, this does not expand a child’s world. It limits it.
My preference for simple extends to the kitchen. That doesn’t mean I want a large appliance that feeds me a grocery list or a set of recipes. I don’t. To me, all of that detracts from the experience.
One of the joys of cooking is observation which leads to problem solving which leads to creativity. When I observe that the strawberries I was going to use for dessert are moldy, I have to come up with a substitute which may lead to a flavor combination I never would have otherwise considered. There’s something about that process that leads to a delight that I never feel when following instructions or opening a packaged food.
I’m not anti-technology, anti-science, or anti-progress. I just believe we are geared in harmony with nature which has inherent contrast — light and dark, hot and cold, wet and dry, loud and quiet. When we feed only one of those elements, we have to continually ramp up the input in order to notice. When we do that, things get out of balance.
Everything becomes complex, overproduced, noisy, and over-busy. To solve the way that makes us feel, we rarely go backward to stillness, fresh food, more sleep, and slow walks. Instead, we tend to add medication, activity, memberships, subscriptions, games, trips, meetings, media, clutter, and “smart” devices that compound the problem until we can no longer connect because we are never disengaged. Instead, parts of us selectively shut down when they become overtaxed. More than likely, we ignore this and push forward.
And why wouldn’t we? We live in a culture that has become too busy to listen, play, and imagine. Filling our ever larger living spaces with things and our days with obligations feeds our egos — we equate more with more important. What we’re really doing is creating lives filled with undue stress that takes a toll on our health.
I am the same person whether I live in 500 sqft, 2500, or 5000, but it takes much longer to clean 5000 sqft. I can pay someone to do that for me, but I have to be willing to work at a job that provides enough money to afford that service on top of the additional utility bills, furnishings, and maintenance required for the larger space. For most of us that means either longer hours or a more stressful job.
It has taken me years to learn to say no not because I’m busy but because I don’t want to be. Last week that earned me a lecture from someone I barely know who told me I work too much because I wouldn’t join him for dinner on a certain night. The funny thing is, I had only worked at my job about 4 hours that week. He assumed I was working too much.
Of course it’s not good to become isolated or stuck in a rut so embracing opportunities is still a priority for me, I just recognize that without downtime in between, I won’t get as much enjoyment from saying yes. Knowing this allows me to say no without angst or guilt most of the time. And it allows me to more fully relish an experience when I decide to participate.
Of course, the everyday question is how to simplify that day. Sometimes simplifying looks like going backward and starting over. Sometimes it looks like a series of tedious tasks. Sometimes it looks like not impulsively buying the cutest shoes you’ve ever seen! Sometimes it means saying no when everyone around you is saying yes.
Since everything connects to everything, I start with the obvious — don’t schedule too much; make a list; prioritize the list or allow it to flow naturally in conjunction with other obligations (do the dishes while the meat is browning); do the hardest or most dreaded task first; file as I go (that means electronically too); use systems to support my efforts; drink enough water; wear fewer layers; use a smaller purse; throw away a ripped shirt; turn off the TV; go to bed on time; use a backward timeline; be flexible; allow every accomplishment to count. Many of those tasks are organizational, but it’s amazing how much a little organization now simplifies my world later.
Checking a recipe before I order groceries saves me a trip to the store for a forgotten ingredient. Filing the papers on my desk means I know where to find them quickly. Getting rid of junk mail, torn clothes, and old magazines regularly means less clutter to sift through to find what I need. Keeping my Inbox cleaned out allows me to deal with important email swiftly.
I dated a guy in college whose waterski matched his swimsuit, matched his slalom ski, matched his ice chest, matched his MasterCraft, but he couldn’t maneuver that boat onto the trailer or around a skier safely. I was terrified to ski with him. If he had kept things simple and focussed on proficiency, I would have felt safer. But hey, he looked good! And that was his priority.
Some things that make me feel stressed won’t bother you. Some things I consider important won’t make your radar. But we can both reduce stress by simplifying in our own way.