a sucker for simplicity

I’m a sucker for simplicity, a lover of designs that make sense and advice that is without fluff, or wax.

[my favorite word origin: sincere = without wax = hiding imperfections, as in filling a pot’s cracks with wax to deceive the buyer into thinking it is whole.]

image by tabo garcia via flickr

I admire chaos but need to corral it into some sort of order in order to understand it, in order to thrive. Shamelessly I admit that I love the minimalist shoe cabinet that I got from Ikea that has tamed my front hall of mounds of shoes and cleats and flipflops or that I lust after notebooks (lovely ones, with tight-gridded lined paper and tabs and pockets). I’ve admitted before the frisson of pleasure I get from good typography and from parallel lines and intersections, rulers and  sharp pencils. I dream of living in a world designed by Edward Tufte (great article on him, here ). I love to make things from knots tied a milion different ways.

Commodification. Gameification. Books, websites, pins and links, they all promise to guide us to a place which we can find that ever elusive nirvana, whatever that may mean to us. They promise a roadmap to peace and fulfillment, true love and a brilliant career, all while letting us earn points and make friends along the way. So very easy! Simple! Just a few steps and you’re on your way! (Just click here to buy, to subscribe, to sell your soul.) It can be alluringly fun, but in effect our consumption of all this takes time away from the actual goal, which may well have been right before our eyes the whole time.

There is a huge industry which sells us ways to simplify our lives, offering us lessons on how to make and do and be in ways that we think are new but are actually instinctual and were practiced without quick-fix self-help in the days before our minds were cut off from their stem. I often think we are being taken for fools, the knowledge of these basics inside us all along.

Like a stubborn child I want to toss them all out in the same way I do the religious ladies who come to my door, gently but firmly; to plant hands on hips and sass back that I already know how to work hard and learn harder, how to choose and prepare good food, how to care for my partner and my children and myself with love and respect, how to balance my needs with those of the community around me, how to sit still and allow my mind to wander, my thoughts to stew until all the flavors blend and meld into something nourishing and savory. I know how to move on from disappointment and regret, from sadness and loss, and how to find beauty in what is before my eyes and what is beyond them. I know that.

Or maybe I do not. We have forgotten so much, our models absent, our attention diverted, our time stolen or co-opted. We need to be unschooled, mindful, find focus, and perhaps we do need a little help every now and then in remembering how to do this. I do, anyway.

I signed my youngest child up to receive letters from the Rumpus’ Letters for Kids. I was a bit disappointed when the first two letters came and she showed little to no interest in reading them. When I asked she said she had read them, but something in me doubted she’d done anything other then open them and refold them, tucking them back in their envelopes. Sort of the way my brother went through elaborate means to make it look like he’d taken a bath, pouring water in the basin, sprinkling the towels, rather than actually doing so (he’s all growed up now, and would be embarassed if he knew I was exposing his momentary lapse in good hygiene). Anyway, when the third letter came and I found it unopened after several days despite the fact that I’d posed it in prime spots in the house to draw her attention to it, I tried something new.

This time, I summoned her to my lap and asked her to read it to me. She got through the first page and promptly put the letter down, ready to leap up to do something else. “Wait,” I said, “isn’t there more on the other side?” She sighed and turned it over. “Read it to me, go on…” She sighed, but began to read aloud.

By midway through the second page I saw her eyes light up and her whole demeanor change. She sat up taller, held the letter up and read with enthusiasm. We laughed as the author, Kerry Madden, told of her wiener dog, Olive and the list of thirteen things about her (She doesn’t like the beach because she thinks sand is abnormal. She dresses up like a Russian grandmother and poses “with plenty of stuffed animals gathered around her like adoring fans.”) When she read the part about writing back, I asked her if she wanted to and she grinned, nodding.

That’s when I realized that she’d never written a letter before, or read one. She had to be nudged a bit to pick up those four typewritten folios (with squiggly drawings on their edges), but once she did a world of magic opened before her. That night I found all three letters tacked prominently and proudly on the corkboard above her desk. “Can I bring them to school?” she asked.

So, yes…I already knew that I struggle sometimes to see the simple path right before my feet, but now I see that the struggle is not only mine. Of all the things a parent must model and share with their children, this is one of them: showing them that we have the tools and the knowledge which can not only help us navigate the craziness of modern life, but also to retreat from it, to savor it, if only for a few moments, an hour, an afternoon.

I love the memory of getting into the car with my father and him asking us, little kids who had little say in much of anything, which way we wanted to go, which road we wanted to follow. No big highways, just small winding country roads. He had a way of simplifying things that perhaps set him up for failure in some ways, but instilled in me a sense of calm that I believe serves me well. It helps me to see. To feel.

With focus and calm and a stripping of pretense and complexity secrets can be uncovered, magic can emerge from the mundane. Those are the points I want, not the ones that can be tallied on a website or blink at me from a counter. We all just need some help every now and then to remember how.

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2 thoughts on “a sucker for simplicity

  1. Awe, so dig that you signed your daughter up for it! I cancelled my adult subscription, but may renew once budget shakes out. Shaking head…hard to imagine not knowing what it is to receive a letter in the mail…sigh, times, they are a changin’ ~ a

    1. I know—crazy, right? When I think of how important letters were to me over the years… Just as she never learned how to write a letter (or read one!) I never learned things that were so basic to those in previous generations, things both concrete and abstract.

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