Simple living is complicated

Browsing through a stack of women’s magazines in a waiting room recently, I counted no less than half a dozen features outlining how to “banish clutter” or “simplify and organize” everything that’s muddled in my chaotic household.

One article suggested that dumping the contents of my junk drawers would enhance my self-esteem. Another promised I’d experience more “positive energy” in other areas of my life — if I’d spend a week purging my closets and drawers, and clearing the tabletops throughout my home. If only it were that simple, right?

DSCN6509By now, we all know that the simplicity movement dates back to Henry David Thoreau’s famous sabbatical in the woods. And it kicked up some new dust in the early 1980s with the publication of Duane Elgin’s classic handbook, Voluntary Simplicity. Suffice it to say that the movement is more than a passing new-age trend.

Real Simple magazine, for instance, is taking Elgin’s movement for yet another spin. I should disclose that I’m the grateful recipient of a gift subscription to Real Simple. It’s a beautiful magazine and, for the most part, has the best intentions. Life is complicated enough these days, especially for families, and most of us could use some handy tips on streamlining our recipes and cleaning routines.

Cleaning frenzy?

Still, I worry. To magazine editors, simplicity has become a religion for the stressed. Order is godliness. Blank space is Nirvana. If these editors had their way, our homes would be totally purged of clutter — and nearly devoid of character. Our living rooms would be as sparsely furnished as a Quaker meetinghouse. Our kitchen and bathroom cabinets would be sanitized, organized, and alphabetized. The tools in the basement and garage would be labeled and stored in clear plastic boxes on shelves within easy reach.

If your inner slob is cringing, take heart: Most shelter magazines advertise a wide variety of products that will aid your efforts to simplify. Once your cabinets and closets are cleared, of course, you’ll have lots of room to stash all the spiffy new organizing components they want you to buy.

Problem is, I’m a born collector with years of garage sale shopping under my belt. Getting rid of things works against my nature. Just one example: My favorite hobby is making collage art – a messy pastime that’s fueled by my hopeless flea-market addiction. Over the years I’ve developed finely tuned radar for locating miscellaneous junk for potential art projects. According to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I don’t (yet) qualify as a “compulsive hoarder,” since my clutter hasn’t reached the point where it produces “severe distress” or blocks entrance to our living room.

We’re only human

I envy disciplined homemakers with a talent for controlling clutter. And I salute them as they empty their junk drawers and attics. Nothing warms my heart more than the sight of these good people hosting rummage sales in my neighborhood.

But I’m trying to make peace with the reality that my home will never be featured in a magazine like Real Simple. My furniture is often covered with the flotsam and jetsam of a busy life — books, souvenirs, family photos and heirlooms, dog hair, cat hair, and unprocessed laundry. Sometimes I go through phases when this drives me crazy, and I end up parting with mementoes that, later, I wish I’d kept.

As I settle into middle age, I’m learning to value the richer textures of complexity. Real life is messy and difficult, and its broken parts can’t always be sorted by category or tastefully hidden from view. Our homes, along with all our crazy things, tell the stories of our lives.

If I’m ready to unload anything this season, it’s the ton of guilt I’ve accumulated after reading too many magazine articles on simplifying life. Like the ancient Egyptians in their pyramids, I plan to be buried with all my stuff. — Cindy La Ferle

Looking for Walden

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” — Henry David Thoreau

Thanks to the digital tools of modern technology, I now have a mind-boggling array of options — the whole world — at my fingertips.

Without leaving the desk chair in my home office, I can converse online with colleagues I’ve never met in Cleveland, Melbourne, London or Los Angeles. With iPhone in hand, I can promote my own work on half a dozen social networks, from Facebook to Pinterest. I can order kitchen gadgets, books, pet supplies, designer handbags, fruit baskets, skincare products and cowboy boots from countless online catalogs.

Every day I have more choices than I can reasonably consider.  And so, like many over-connected Americans, I carry the burden of complexity — a burden so overwhelming that there are times when I imagine trading places with Henry David Thoreau.

It’s only fitting that I rediscovered Thoreau the week I purged my home office with a dust rag and a vacuum cleaner. The autumn mornings felt ripe for pitching and sorting, for creating blank space where none existed before.  Walden, Thoreau’s famous treatise on simple living, was jammed behind a pile of unread paperbacks on an overcrowded shelf.

Like other writers with good intentions, I’ve admired Thoreau but hadn’t read Walden since it appeared many years ago on a required reading list at my state university. I’d retained only a few pithy quotes, and recalled only sketchy details of Thoreau’s Spartan cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. But suddenly, here was the book, whispering to me across the centuries —Simplify, simplify!”– and begging me to take another look.

Glancing through the pages, I realized Thoreau’s words had been wasted on me when I first read them. At the time I was a college student living in a cramped dormitory, eager to graduate and buy enough furniture to fill a spacious suburban apartment.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau warned in the chapter titled “Economy.”  Only an overworked adult — one who is drowning in the debris of modern life and pressed by the weight of too many commitments — could truly appreciate Thoreau’s genius, I mused as I kept reading.

Yet it also occurred to me that things were vastly different for Thoreau. The “comforts of life” in the 1840s were not exactly cushy by today’s standards. His notion of luxury might have been taking tea in his mother’s bone china saucers. So what had he given up to commune with nature?

Even before he moved to Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t accumulated three television sets or a closetful of designer clothes. He didn’t own several pairs of expensive athletic shoes for all those philosophical walks he took. He didn’t wonder where he’d store his blender or Tupperware while he roughed it in the woods. His cot in the cabin couldn’t have been lumpier than the straw-filled mattresses in most mid-19th-century homes. And Thoreau never had to trade a personal computer for a pencil.

With all due respect, I wonder, how tough was Thoreau’s sabbatical with simplicity? Is it true that he occasionally walked from Walden Pond back to Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife had a home-cooked supper waiting for him?

As Andrew Delbanco notes in his wise book, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), reading Thoreau can make us feel “accused of hoarding comforts.”  We might even try to find holes in Thoreau’s impassioned pitch for the simple life. And yet Thoreau is, as Delbanco says, “an irresistible writer; to read him is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need.”

How true. Just as Thoreau did, I’d like to weed out, pare down, live deliberately, be a resident philosopher. (Would the family miss me?) A life devoid of clutter sounds positively blissful, especially when there are no empty spaces on my calendar.

But making choices is so much more difficult in a culture fueled by sheer busyness and commercialism. There are few places, few wooded Waldens, where one can escape the incessant bombardment of to-do lists or product advertising.

Visiting the “real” Walden Pond in Concord not long ago, I was amazed and disappointed to find the place overrun. Locals were strewn on its small beach. You couldn’t walk the path around the pond without rubbing shoulders with other curious sightseers; there wasn’t a spot left for soulful, solitary reflection.

If nothing else, my rendezvous with Thoreau got me thinking. What — and how much — do I really need? What price have I paid for technology and convenience? In which landfill will all my stuff end up?

And how would I fare if I were delivered into a place I fear as much as I need, as Delbanco put it? Could I survive in a one-room cabin with barely more than chair, a wooden table, a bowlful of raw vegetables, and my laptop? Honestly, I wish I could. — Cindy La Ferle

–A slightly different version of this post was published in The Christian Science Monitor. The original piece is reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home and in McDougal Littell’s American Literature textbook.–

Botanica

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

When I was a student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, three natural science courses were required of all liberal arts students.

An artsy kid, I’d nearly flunked math and biology in high school. So I was terrified, initially, by MSU’s rigid science requirement.  But thanks to a very creative counselor who supervised my independent study track, I was allowed to replace the final natural science class with a graduate-level botany course in my senior year.

I was born with a green thumb, so this was both a thrill and a relief. The class required several field trips to outdoor nature centers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Throughout the term, I learned to identify a wide variety of plant life, and even memorized the Latin names of species. I collected leaves, seed pods, and mushrooms. I sniffed berries and wildflowers. I learned that nature is an intelligent system; more than a thing of beauty in a controlled suburban landscape. Understanding and respecting that system — the miraculous cycle of decay and regeneration — has gotten me through some of the roughest times in my life.

But I digress. Botany was a blast — and guess what? I ended up with the top grade in the class — the first (and only) 4.0 I ever earned in a science curriculum. I’m still proud of that grade, and awed by the fact that so much of what I learned in a botany class serves me well to this day.

My love affair with plants is reflected in the Botanic Garden dish set my family uses now.

Produced by the Portmeirion Pottery company in Great Britain, the Botanic Garden pattern first caught my eye when I was outfitting my first apartment after college graduation. Durable and beautifully crafted, the designs were inspired by original 19th-century botanical drawings, replete with the Latin name of each plant. But the imported dishes were way out of my price range at the time. I was newly employed as a research assistant for a reference book publisher in Detroit, earning an annual income of $7,500.

Margaret, a favorite room mate from MSU who shared the post-grad apartment with me, bought my first Botanic Garden cup and saucer for my birthday in 1979.  “If I know you as well as I think I do, then I’m sure you’ll find a way to get the whole set one day,” Margaret wrote on the card that came with the gift.

I didn’t have the nerve to register for the Botanic Garden pattern when I got engaged 30 years ago; Doug and I thought it was too much to ask of our wedding guests during an economic recession.  But over the years, we managed to acquire a full set. Luckily, the price of the dishes started coming down in the last decade, and we found several pieces on sale at discount stores and Bed Bath & Beyond. We’ve also received a few of the serving pieces as holiday gifts.

Typing this, I realize it might seem silly or frivolous to romanticize plant science or a set of dishes. But at the end of a very difficult week, awaiting test results for my widowed mother’s worrisome health issues, I find comfort in these simple, ordinary pleasures. And Margaret was right. When you want something badly enough and your heart is in the right place, you’ll find a way to get it. That includes meeting academic challenges — and acquiring expensive dinnerware. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photos by Cindy La Ferle —