Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thoughts on Simplicity

Well, 'tis the season for making resolutions. And my resolution this year is to stop making resolutions!

Really, I'm not just being a sarcastic smart aleck... I actually think that resolutions are, in general, a really bad idea. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may have noticed a little theme repeating itself over and over... (yes, the phrase "repeating itself over and over, is soft of like the department of redundancy department, but bear with me here).

I tend to believe that people in this culture have a pathological fear of their own humanity. I don't say that to judge, gawd knows I'm an expert at the art of self avoidance.

But the older I get, and the more I slow down, the more it becomes strikingly apparent to me that so many of the people I admired in my youth, really were just more adept at the art of hiding their humanity than I was. You know the people I mean... the ones who seam so god damned "normal." The ones who have nice sterile little lives that seem to be bereft of untidy emotions and unfinished business... the Marcia Brady's of the world.

So as I've been cruising the blogosphere these past few days, I've had to bite my proverbial tongue many times at the long lists of goals and resolutions that I see splayed out across the interwebs.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the idea of making positive changes to one's life, it's just the "I'm gonna hold my breath and force myself to do this thing" approach that makes me crazy. It's not that I am immune, I'm just old enough to have tried and failed the "resolution" approach many, many, many times.

The way I see it, people pretty much always do what they want to do. So whatever dysfunctional things you're doing must be serving some sort of purpose in your life. And until you uncover what that purpose is, there is just no way that you're gonna be able to muscle your way into changing your behavior. Oh, you might be able to maintain it for a while, but unless you really deal with the emotions underlying it all, you're doomed to failure.

It's sort of like practicing "tantrum yoga"... you know, that's where you hold your breath until god gives you your way. It just ain't the path to enlightenment as far as I can tell.

Anyhooo... lots of people are resolving to simplify their lives right about now, and while that's great, it's just that... well... so much of what I see people touting as "simple" just isn't.

First we have the arts and crafts approach...

Now, I have nothing against arts and crafts, and I do believe that there is much to be gained in doing things for yourself rather than relying on some poor slob toiling away in a deathtrap factory somewhere in China. And while it is great to "re-use" things that might otherwise end up in a landfill, so many of these projects just seem like crazy make-work propositions which serve no useful purpose other than to keep the doer occupied and paint a lovely and meaningless picture of "living a simple life."

Take, for example, my quilt. Many years ago, I decided that my life had become too complicated and I needed to "simplify". Since one of my mental images of simplicity was Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of the first things I did was to set out to make a handmade quilt using bits of cloth I had salvaged from a bag of clothing that was destined for the rag bag.

I dutifully cut out squares and planned my pattern, and after a few months of painstaking work discovered that all I had accomplished was to drive myself stark raving mad.

Here's the thing... I didn't need a quilt. Plus, if I did need a quilt, I could actually purchase one used from the thrift store for less money that it was costing me to buy the thread for my interminable quilt project! But, oh how I fought and fought with it... how could I just give it up? I mean, it was so green, so hand made, so utterly and completely simple... wasn't it?

When I look back on it I can see that I really wasn't very interested in quilting at all. What I wanted was the pretty picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder sitting there in a tiny cabin spending hour upon hour in quiet contemplation. But the only purpose that my quilt was serving was to keep me busy and occupied and to give me one more thing that I was supposed to be doing. Seriously, how is this "simple?"

So as you peruse the many patterns for making bracelets out of pop can pull tabs...

 or baskets from braided bits of old magazines...

or coasters from... well really, you could make a coaster out of just about anything, couldn't you?

Anyhow, my point is this... filling your life with a bunch of projects that only result in having a house full of crap that you really don't need in the first place will only give you more work and more things to deal with... but it is a nice distraction...

OK... so next we have the "I'm swearing off _____(fill in the blank with the societal evil of your choice)"  approach. This is very closely related to the "I vow to commit to _____(fill in the blank with the wholesome and virtuous behavior du jour.)"

Yes, folks, it's January, and all over the world television sets are being packed away into closets, sugar and cream are being banned from kitchens north and south, exercise equipment is flying off the shelves, and people everywhere are working hard at packing themselves into tight little boxes.

All I have to say is Oy! I mean, it's great if you want to try new things, or try not doing certain old things, but really, truly, making a whole new pile of rules for yourself to follow is just not my idea of "simple." Frankly, I find it thoroughly exhausting to even read some of the lists that I've seen people making. I WILL do X every day, come hell or high water! To me, this is not simple, it's just exchanging one set of arbitrary rules for another, and that really doesn't seem like progress to me.

You see, it doesn't really matter who cements the bars in place... prison is still prison. So if forcing yourself to follow a whole pile of rules is your idea of simple, then bring on the hair shirts I say!

OK, I could go on and on, but I think you're probably getting my point. The whole object of simple living is to make your life more SIMPLE, as in easy, or less complicated. But so many of us are, on some level, wedded to our complicated lives... and it's not because we have no say in the matter... it's that the complications serve us in some way, shape or form.

So here's what I think. If you really want to simplify your life, start by sitting quietly and doing nothing. Don't make it into a "task" that you must accomplish, just look for opportunities to do nothing, and take them when they arrive.

Here's an example. I've been having a lot of work done on my teeth. I broke a tooth and it finally got me to drag my sorry ass into a dentist's office after nearly 15 years of avoiding it. At some point when this whole little dental adventure is complete, I'll write and tell you all of the gory details, but for the moment, suffice it to say that lately I've spent a large number of hours sitting in a chair and waiting.
And, the truth is... I sort of like just sitting there. It's also really amusing to watch the assistants and receptionists who keep trying to foist magazines and other "distractions" upon me. It's hard for them to understand, but really, I've been just enjoying the opportunity to sit and do nothing.

You see, it's not really that we're addicted to FaceBook or Twitter, or television or Netflix or texting, or computer games or any of the bazillions of other distractions that the modern world provides... we just hate the thought of having to be with ourselves for any meaningful period of time.

It's often said that simple living is about "making do with less" and I think there is some truth to that statement. But unfortunately, "making do" often turns into "making work," which really doesn't help to simplify anything. I guess I just think we need to focus more of our energy on the "less" part of the equation and let the "making" take care of itself.


  1. Totally get your overall point here and somewhat agree but... (you knew a but was coming, didn't you?)

    Reading all those resolutions were annoying me too, but I think that's mainly because the word resolution annoys me. But then I went and posted some goals for 2012, although Apartment Therapy used the word intentions, and I like that one best. I can understand looking over how the last year went and wanting to make some changes. I don't view these as hard and fast rules, nor will I berate myself if I fall short. My "intentions" are also pretty loose so it's hard to fail completely. I find that I have to focus on a few things at a time and forget the rest.

    The other things I wanted to add is that I'm re-reading Your Money or Your Life, and finding it much more valuable this time. Anyway, one of the things they say is that living more simply is not necessarily simple. You have to balance simplicity with convenience.

    At the same time, if you don't enjoy something, why bother? (quilting for you, having yardsales for me)

  2. Candi - Well, first of all, your list was not one of the ones that made me crazy, and as I said, I have nothing against the idea of making positive changes to one's life.

    It's really things like "I will read a book every week" or "I will write 3000 words per day" that make me insane, because, if you wanted to read or write, well, you'd already be doing it.

    But on another level, I guess I have just come to the conclusion that will power is never very effective as a tool for personal change. If you want to change your behavior, it's probably more useful to ask yourself why you haven't done it already. What does your current mode of behavior do for you?

    For me, I often find that that either...

    a) There's nothing wrong with my current behavior, it just doesn't fit with the fantasy image that I have of myself. This post is full of examples of what I mean:


    b) My behavior is somehow dysfunctional, but it serves me in some way... either it lets me escape from an uncomfortable feeling, or I'm acting out some crap from my childhood, or I'm engaging in some other similarly futile process

    Maybe there are people who can will themselves into changing... so perhaps this isn't a universal truth and I'm just a lazy slob with no will power... seems at least somewhat likely to me! :)

    OK - one last thought. I agree in terms of the balance between convenience and simplicity, but one of the things I have learned over the years is that "convenient" things often really aren't convenient at all when you really look at all of their elements.

    For example, we often think that it's easier or more convenient to go replace something that's broken rather than trying to fix it. But often this is just not the case. I mean, look at everything that's really involved in buying a new one. First you have to earn the money to pay for it, then you have to get your sorry ass to the store (which includes earning the money to pay for the transportation), then you have to make a decision about which one to buy (which can involve hours of research), then you have to deal with all of the new item's idiosyncrasies, and you have to deal with getting rid of the old one, and deal with all of the packaging that the new one came in. When you add it all up, it can be a pretty big time suck. Sometimes it's just simpler to get out the glue, if you know what I mean.

    And I did run across the kitty New Years resolutions as I was putting together this post. How did such cuteness ever come to be?

  3. I don't really do resolutions, either, though on New Year's Eve, I put all my loose tea into pretty glass jars and decided I wasn't going to buy any more tea bags (wasteful!). It was something I had meant to do for a while, but didn't get around until NYE. My other vague sort of resolution was just to spend more time outdoors. I am a terrible homebody, yet I love being outside if I can get myself there, and it gives me a lot of motivation to keep on greening.

    However, I still love doing nothing and spend plenty of time sitting in a patch of sunlight watching floaters. Kevin calls it 'catting out' which is about right. Agree with you about the crafts -- I caught up with my mending pile this weekend and thought that was probably more useful than actually making new crap.

  4. Jennifer - "Catting Out" I LOVE it! And I must find a place to buy loose tea... it's just that the bagged stuff is so darned cheap!

    And speaking of spending time outside, I can totally relate! It's nearly 60 degrees today and I've just come in from hanging the laundry (which, I suppose, is a "green" thing, but mostly I just like the excuse to be outside.) I'm about to go pick some winter spinach that I've got growing under some frost cloth and later I may walk to the store. Any excuse to be outside!

  5. "whatever dysfunctional things you're doing must be serving some sort of purpose in your life"
    Don't I know it!
    I love, love, love this post Eco Cat Lady and hope that I've not fallen into the category of deluded resolution maker with my resolution to do less of what I suck at this year.

  6. Christine - Ha! Doing less of what you suck at sounds more like an anti-resolution to me! And I heartily approve of the decision to let yourself off of the self-imposed hook!

  7. This post really made me think. I don't generally think of what I do as the 'simple life' but I guess this whole self sufficiency thing is pretty close to what people mean by the simple life. The thing is, though, it's not simple, which makes me wonder why people call it that.

    I think maybe it's because the focus is on the simple pleasures in life; those that don't require lots of money or fancy gadgets. I totally agree that making do with less does tend to involve making work, but I don't see that as the problem, I see the misuse of the word 'simple' as the problem here.

    Another issue is that 'simple' does not necessarily mean 'easy'. Digging over a patch of ground is not at all complicated, it's very simple in fact, but it is very hard work. If you're trying to do 'simple living' things on top of all the other things you had in your life already, then it's going to make life more complicated, but it they displace the old things, then life can get simpler, if more hard work.

    I'm not sure if this makes sense, or what I'm trying to say really. I think the phrase, "simple living" is confusing.

    Also, I can think of another reason why people don't do things that they say they want to: Those things are difficult. As someone wrote on my blog recently, "Hard work may have its rewards in the long run, but laziness is its own reward."

    Anyway, I came back here to post this rubbish on your lovely blog, and clicked on your link to Miss Minimalist's post about fantasy selves. Wham! That one really hit home today, because I've just thrown some old papers away. Her post made me realise I was hanging on to a fantasy self - in my case the fantasy was of being a scientist and the papers were an extensive collection of research papers, still tidily filed through several relocations. This fantasy was particularly hard to let go of because that's who I used to be. Throwing those papers away was pretty emotional - some of them were like old friends. Accepting that that role is increasingly a fantasy for me is also pretty tough but as Miss Minimalist says, letting go of the fantasy self makes more room for the real self.

  8. Hi Rachel - Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I do agree that semantics is a big part of the problem, and perhaps I wasn't very clear in my discussion about making work. I don't have any objection to work per se... it's making work for the sake of making work that bothers me. Perhaps "busy work" would have been a better phrase to use.

    I just think that we tend to use business as a way to escape from ourselves, and that behavior really does us a profound disservice in the long run.

    The fantasy self thing is huge isn't it? I think it's all very close to the need to be important... which is closely linked to the fear of being irrelevant.

    I was commenting the other day on a blog about de-cluttering that I was currently battling with getting rid of a very pretty souffle dish that I bought many years ago at a thrift store but have never used. In the process of leaving the comment, I realized that the truth is, not only have I never eaten souffle, I don't really even know what it is! LORDY! Talk about an item linked to a fantasy life! Out it goes!

    Anyhow, here's to accepting our real selves, and making room for them both physically and emotionally.

  9. LOVE this post and I agree 100%! It should really tell us something about the way we are living when weird things that would normally be stressful become our moments of relaxation - like you waiting at the dentist, or like me when I found having an MRI totally relaxing and enjoyable. Really? Yep, most of us are trying to hard. It's too bad living simply isn't cheaper. I would give up working in a heartbeat if there were any way it was possible without living under a bridge.

    Thank you for your comments over at Minimalist in the Making. Your first comment led me to revise and add to my posts. I guess I sometimes just write as if everyone knows everything going on in my life, lol.

    We kind of accidentally got into this vacation rental business too like your friends. When my mother passed away last year her home needed major renovations before we could even put it on the market. Once we were done we decided to move in since it had a pool, which was something we didn't have and really wanted. Yet our original home is the more valuable of the two because it's right by the beach. We decided to do the vacation rental and see how it goes. We could potentially make a lot of money doing it ::fingers crossed::

    Anyway, thanks again for stopping by. Here's to a more simplified life ::cheers:: :)

  10. Hi Martha - The last time I had an MRI I found myself laying there staring at this little red light trying to read the words printed under it... my eyes are REALLY bad without my glasses. I finally made it out... it said "Laser - do not look at." Oh well, that was 20 years ago and I haven't gone blind yet!

    Good luck with the rental thing... maybe you'll get lucky and it will end up being your ticket out of work!

  11. Random tangent here, but you know me! Anyhoo, I think folks get into the whole crafting thing (or maybe it's just me) as a way of connecting. Yeah, it's easier to go buy a thing instead of make it, but the act of making something connects you to the process of "manufacturing" and just how much goddamned work it is. It also puts me squarely into my body, whereas sitting around doing nothing is often just an other escapist behavior in which I don't have to be present. Crafting/creating actually helps me overcome behaviors that cause me to disassociate from self.

    But, um, yeah--ain't nothing simple about that, as you and Rachel noted.

    Also, I don't always agree with the notion that folks keep doing things because those habits still serve them (I blame Dr. Phil for putting that out there). Me thinks a lot of folks continue with behaviors that don't work simply because at one time they did, and it takes a lot of work to create new neural pathways/new behaviors that are beneficial. If you're at all detached from self, it can take a really long time before you catch on with an, "Oh! This crap isn't working anymore."

    ANYHOO, I agree completely with the "I will do X everyday" thing as an effort in futility. Me thinks we're constantly chasing some feeling or state of being, thinking that doing X will take us there, when that's not necessarily true. Of course, I still make resolutions and 5-year plans and such, but I put no stock in keeping them. :)

  12. Also? Why can I not leave a comment on your blog without it becoming a freakin' novel?

  13. Aldra - That's an interesting point about crafting being a way to connect with self... I guess for me that sort of busy work, while it can be enjoyable, leads me down the road to disassociation... it gives me just enough to do so that I don't really have to face myself. But perhaps this all just means that we agree that the goal is to connect with self... and we just have different ways to get there.

    I'm torn about the notion that "change takes work". I mean, it's not like I haven't spent thousands upon thousands of hours bemoaning how difficult it is to change some behavior or another. But to me, that's a clue that I'm not really facing the ugly roots of it all, or even if I can see it... some part of me isn't really ready to let go of it yet.

    I'm not saying that therefore we should all have no problems and if you do it's your own stupid fault... because having that "come to Jesus" moment with myself is never easy. (Can an armchair Buddhist actually have a come to Jesus moment?)

    Well anyhow, I guess I've just found that the biggest and most monumental changes in my life have happened nearly instantaneously, and they generally weren't provoked by trying to goad myself into changing. Usually it's like I fight it, and fight it, and fight it and then all of a sudden I realize that the answer is really simple, and I just have to accept something about myself that made me uncomfortable. From that point on, changing the behavior is effortless, because I'm not forcing myself to do something I don't want to do, I'm allowing myself to have the thing that I really do want. It's kind of magic actually.

    Not sure if I explained that very well... but I've got a post brewing about one such a-ha moment. Stay tuned...

  14. Dude, that is really profound. And I think I get what you're saying! And I'm kind of excited about it! The most monumental changes for me have also been pretty instantaneous. Not all, but most. Geneen Roth talks a lot about that in her book "Women, Food and God" (I love and hate it--she is all about the drama and hyperbole, but has really good things to say). I would like to give you a big hug and a kiss right now, because this is exactly what I needed to hear--"Usually it's like I fight it, and fight it, and fight it and then all of a sudden I realize that the answer is really simple, and I just have to accept something about myself that made me uncomfortable."

    I have found that once I stop fighting and just LET GO FERFUCKSSAKE, the change becomes nearly effortless. Letting go, letting go, letting go.

    I could ramble forever, but I will shut up instead. You always have the best insights. Thank you so much for this wee corner of the internet.

  15. Ha! So, I'm profound? I'm not sure you'd say that if you could see me crawling on the floor making baby talk with my cat, but thanks for the vote of confidence.

    And I think I have to check out that book... drama and hyperbole notwithstanding. :~)

  16. I would love to wrote an epic response but alas am on the iPad and typing is WORK :)

    Suffice to say I love this post and all the comments! Yours are the only comments I could be bothered reading on every post I find them as interesting and helpful as the posts!

    Really thought provoking, I'm new to the act of slowing down and simplifying and this will keep me questioning my motives and resultant actions. Good timing for me to read this!

    1. Ha! It's good timing for me to re-read it too, as I've finally decided to tackle that "projects" cupboard... which has turned into a massive mess of clutter where all good ideas go to die. I think the road to hell must be paved with craft projects! When will I ever learn?

  17. Hi -
    This is a new comment to a really old post, but I'm catching up and also trying to read some of your more popular posts. I like to read your stuff - and this is a perfect example - because I think you're pragmatic.

    I've come to the same realization about most "projects" - which is why I banished my house a few years ago of lots of old art supplies and craft projects. Kudos to the person who likes it and is good at it, but I finally decided that when you're working full time and trying to look out for your general health/well-being through daily physical activity, there's not much room left to nurture hobbies or "simple" habits that support a more DIY lifestyle.

    Of course, if I had any skills, I probably wouldn't need the aforementioned full time desk job and commute, but I don't know if I'm wired to work that way.

    I read another person's blog (wish I could remember where it was) recently who said that she used to be a pretty hard-core minimalist/simple-living advocate but found that she was having such difficulty living up to the perfectionist standards that she'd set for herself that she ended up being pretty miserable. She also said that she felt blogging about it didn't seem to fit her after awhile -- almost like she was trying on clothes that were misfits. After awhile she realized it didn't reflect her "true self" and she was moderating her views a bit.

    I say this as someone who's taken more (for me) strident measures in the past, but who always comes back to a simple but middle-class lifestyle.

    My husband and I save a lot (about 1/3 of our gross income), but we also spend alot (on travel) because we've decided that's important to us and we can do it at this point in our lives. What this means is that certain months we go into "austerity mode." We don't have a lot of toys, we don't buy a lot of clothes, but I don't do a lot of DIY. So far, it's worked.

    1. I totally agree, it's all a trade-off. I mean, I think that if you enjoy your job and don't hate going there every day, it makes complete and perfect sense to earn money that way and pay others to do certain things for you. It all depends on how you enjoy spending your time and which evils feel "lesser" to you.

      It sorta drives me crazy that minimalism/simplicity has become a "thing" with lots of rules that people feel compelled to follow--- so totally NOT the point in my opinion! It's all about maximizing joy and minimizing the crap. :-)


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