“What was the best thing that happened?  Reviewing the day’s delights often yields surprises, and serves as a reminder of how full a life is, how lucky some days feel, and how stressful days may contain glowing nuggets of peace, pleasure, or joy.”
— Diane Ackerman, Dawn Light:  Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day

A grace note in my day — ‘Bishop of York’ Dahlia at the Center for Urban Horticulture

Sometimes it’s good to remember how little we need, really need, for a good life.  Today, for example, it gives me joy to write the date: 10/11/12!!!

What We Need
by David Budbill, from While We’ve Still Got Feet: New Poems

The Emperor,
his bullies
and henchmen
terrorize the world
every day,

which is why
every day

we need

a little poem
of kindness,

a small song
of peace

a brief moment
of joy.

Simply Elegant

July 20, 2012

“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
— Coco Chanel

Portrait of a classy woman

“Of all the things that people wear, nothing is more expressive than a hat, perhaps because it is so close to the wearer’s face, or even to his mind.”
— Ivan Vladislavic, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories

I love this photographic portrait of my friend, one of the classiest women I know.  I find the little twig endearing — style doesn’t mean rigid perfection after all.

” . . . the true beauty of a woman is reflected in her soul.  It is the caring that she lovingly gives the passion that she shows.  The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.”
— Audrey Hepburn

And for more things stylish, you might want to look at this list of the 10 best stylish reads, printed in the Guardian this week.

My theme for this holiday season is “Simplicity.”  As the following poet says, “This isn’t as easy as it seems.”  A challenge, then, for me in the weeks ahead!

Still life with boiled eggs and onions

Hard-boiled eggs with salt

 A Quiet Life
by Baron Wormser

What a person desires in life
is a properly boiled egg.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.
There must be gas and a stove,
the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills,
banks that dispense the lozenge of capital.
There must be a pot, the product of mines
and furnaces and factories,
of dim early mornings and night-owl shifts,
of women in kerchiefs and men with
sweat-soaked hair.
Then water, the stuff of clouds and skies
and God knows what causes it to happen.
There seems always too much or too little
of it and more pipelines, meters, pumping
stations, towers, tanks.
And salt-a miracle of the first order,
the ace in any argument for God.
Only God could have imagined from
nothingness the pang of salt.
Political peace too. It should be quiet
when one eats an egg. No political hoodlums
knocking down doors, no lieutenants who are
ticked off at their scheming girlfriends and
take it out on you, no dictators
posing as tribunes.
It should be quiet, so quiet you can hear
the chicken, a creature usually mocked as a type
of fool, a cluck chained to the chore of her body.
Listen, she is there, pecking at a bit of grain
that came from nowhere.

White egg, white dish, white salt

Watercolor sketch of boiled eggs

“Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplify, simplify.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Kathryn with eggs gathered from her family's chickens

I am still working on my vision of the simple life.  It’s definitely a work in process.  I know for sure that it does not include meeting my needs with my own hands by farming in the bucolic countryside.  I grew up on a farm, and I know that growing food and raising animals is hard work.  Even Thoreau did not “farm” at Walden’s Pond, though he did raise a crop of beans.  His experiment there was more in the nature of a retreat than a working farm.  I think he had the right idea!

Of all the definitions of the simple life I’ve come across, I like the one I read on Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog.  He says, “. . . there are really only two steps to simplifying: 1) Identify what’s most important to you.  2) Eliminate everything else.” (You can link to the complete post here:  http://zenhabits.net/simple-living-manifesto-72-ideas-to-simplify-your-life/)

I’m still a ways away from living a simple life.  But I hope to get there eventually.

” . . . for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Focusing on the simple life

Aah, the simple life!  It’s not so easy, is it, with all the competing demands for one’s time and attention.  A seemingly disproportionate amount of time is taken by the responsibilities of work and maintaining a household.  That leaves a relatively small amount of personal time for pursuing passions and interests.

Thoreau chose a different way — he did not own a home, so he did not have to work long hours to pay a mortgage, utilities, or maintenance.  He was austere in his other needs, such as food and clothing, so he could work as a day laborer for just a few days of the year to cover his living expenses.  That gave him a disproportionate amount of time for his personal musings, rambles, experiments in living, and writing.

I, in comparison, seem to have a long list of wants and interests, all competing for my attention during my finite hours away from work.  I watch very little television, so I am immune to commercials.  I rarely go shopping, so am not tempted by the latest fashions and gadgets.  But over the years, I’ve spent many hours on assorted activities, such as camping, biking, quilting, embroidering, and traveling.  Through reading I have discovered many more places I’d like to travel to, recipes I’d like to try, art I’d like to see, etc.

Would my life be richer if I left these things alone?

I don’t believe so.  I could probably live without many of the things I own, but feel enriched by my experiences

I feel it is important to use my remaining time on this earth wisely.  I realize that it might be time to let go of some of my former interests and focus on fewer, still meaningful activities.  It’s been twenty years since I’ve last made any baskets, for example, but my closet still holds reeds for constructing the ribs of baskets.  Why am I holding on to these supplies, when it’s clear that I won’t be making any more baskets in the foreseeable future?

My basket-making supplies, in the closet for over 20 years!

My handmade baskets

My handmade baskets

How much stuff am I holding on to just in case I might use it in the distant future?  I have even more boxes and boxes of fabric scraps for quiltmaking.  But it’s been well over a year since I’ve last pieced a quilt, and maybe it’s time to move on from that former interest as well.  How much can I afford to let alone?  And what riches will I discover when I do?

The Luxury of Time

May 13, 2011

A Different Kind of Luxury

I work in a library and see hundreds of books every day.  I read more books than anyone else I know.  So when I say that A Different Kind of Luxury:  Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance by Andy Couturier is the best book I’ve read all year, you should know that this recommendation does not come lightly.

Couturier introduces us to 11 Japanese artists and farmers who have consciously chosen a rural life of little money.  They’ve resisted the cultural pressures to conform to lives with salaried jobs (and this pressure is intense in Japan), and have fashioned instead lives grounded in nature, with space for their imaginations and philosophic thoughts, incredibly rich in time and inner satisfactions.

I was impressed with how many hats these individuals wear — farmers, teachers, artists, potters, community activists, musicians, parents, etc.  and yet their lives are “suffused in timelessness, in an endless present.”  Slow, but rich.

Couturier says, “Time is what we have in this life, and how we use it determines what our life is.  Why is it that so many people start to value money so much that they trade in most of the hours and years of their life in order to get it?”

Gufu Watanabe, diarist, illustrator, farmer, botanist, and potter says, “It is important to me to be someone who has time . . . There’s a term we have in Japanese, furyu:  the characters are ‘wind’ and ‘flow.’  Someone with furyu has time to write haiku, or can appreciate flowers, and they have space in their emotions to look at the moon or the stars.  They’re not too busy working or making money.  Those people who don’t have furyu are not full people.”

These people interviewed for this book often choose to do work manually rather than buy modern conveniences, because “convenience just speeds you up,” says Asha Amemiya, farmer, textile artist, author and illustrator.  Couturier says, “A craftsperson’s job is half meditation, half creation.  It takes creativity to design whatever you are working on, but it takes meditation to do it right.  Making things with one’s own hands cultivates a certain generosity and openness of the heart.  It nourishes that state of mind in the craftsperson themselves, which is intimately connected with an entire way of life.”

I savored reading these intimate portraits.  It is inspiring to read about people who have chosen to live such unconventional lives.  Their words resonate with me, especially in this year when I am thinking about the lessons of Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond.

I’ll leave you with the words of Osamu Nakamura, woodblock artist, handmade bookbinder, cook and traveler: “Doing nothing all day — it’s difficult at first.  Being busy is a habit, and a hard one to break.”

Saying Grace

November 24, 2010

I just love what Jerome Segal says about saying grace before meals in “Graceful Living,” his essay in a book about simple living called Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska.  His words are especially appropriate to this day before our country’s Thanksgiving holiday.  I know I plan to keep his words in mind when I sit down with family to our Thanksgiving feast.

Saying grace

“Consider the act of saying grace before a meal.  Here the core is an attitude of thanksgiving, of appreciation.  The focus is on recognizing the full value of what one has, rather than lamenting what one does not.  While one can mouth the words, one cannot authentically begin a meal with a benediction of grace and at the same time maintain a sense of dissatisfaction with what one has.  There is a certain peaceful contentment that is part of genuine thankfulness.
     When one does approach a meal gracefully, one can look in two different directions.  One can consider what one has against the ‘perspective of less,’ contrasting what one has with what others do not.  This means seeing things against the backdrop of poverty, of hunger, of times and places of suffering and deprivation.  Here the act of consumption is also a moment to see oneself and one’s situation within the broader perspective of human experience and, so seen, to be thankful for what one has and more aware of what one has been lucky enough not to have experienced.  Thus, one is thankful to have something to eat when others have starved.  And one is thankful to have friends and loved ones to share the meal with when others are lonely, and when there may come a day when those friends and loved ones are gone.
     Then there is another perspective, one that does not take its power from the contrast with deprivation and suffering, but rather seeks to put us in touch with the abundance in front of us.  Here the appreciation of the food rests not on an awareness of hunger, but on how good this food is, of how remarkable a thing is the simple potato or the diverse ingredients of a salad or the crust on a good bread.  And then to look around the table and take stock of those who are there, valuing them not against the possibility of loneliness but in virtue of the richness they provide.
     Here appreciativeness goes beyond thankfulness, to being open to the values that are inherent in something.  This kind of appreciativeness requires a certain kind of experiencing.  It is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent, but of an openness, of an accessibility to what is valuable, be it another person, a piece of music, a work of art, a spring day or a great ball game.  Often such appreciation is most present when we are young, when the world is fresh.  As we age and as we get into our harnesses, our ability to take pleasure dulls.  In other contexts, appreciation is not automatically present but is the result of learning and exposure:  for example, the appreciation of art and music, especially if it comes from other cultures.
     This appreciativeness is an orientation that we bring (or more likely, fail to bring) to any of the things of ordinary life.  Thus, with respect to food and meals, we may be oblivious to the difference between good cooking and bad, oblivious to the pleasure of eating off a handsome dining table versus a card table.  We may be blind to the value of those we eat with, blind to those we live with, blind to those we parent.
     Yet for this second kind of appreciation to be valid, there has to be something there to be appreciated.  What if the tomatoes taste like rubber, the food is overcooked, the bread is dismal, the spouse is in a foul mood and the children are obnoxious?  Where is gracefulness then?  What is there that is worthy of appreciation?
     Thus, in this second sense, a graceful meal requires more than the appropriate attitude; it also involves the presence of a qualitative richness, what we might call ‘good fortune,’ so long as we do not view ourselves as passive with respect to whether such fortune is before us.  This links to another dimension of the act of saying grace.  The grace ritual requires that we take a moment before digging in, a moment of pause, a moment of quiet that gives a certain dignity to the meal.  It separates it from what precedes it.  In spirit, of not in practice, the initial benediction establishes a space that pervades the entire meal.  When we have a meal in this way, we do not wolf down our food.  We set the meal apart; the benediction allows us to break with the hectic pace of a busy day.  To an extent, it turns the meal into a ceremony.  As such, it is not only a space worthy of appreciation; it is a space worthy of taking the time and energy to create properly.”
     — Jerome Segal, “Graceful Living”

Simply Sitting

June 23, 2010

Our cat Jellybean sitting on the window sill

“Sitting is a most practical approach to simplifying our lives.”
     — Marietta McCarty, How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas that Matter Most

I have to work hard at simply sitting in stillness.  I do think that the Zen Buddhist practice of zazen, or “just sitting,” is a good way to become more grounded and centered.  It’s a challenge to just watch your breath, in and out.  Too often I am living in my mind, not my body.  So simply sitting is something for me to work on.