Wrapping my head around simplicity

Simplicity —

On New Year’s Day, as we promised each other, my husband and I, that we felt a rising manifesto, a palpable energy toward building community on simplicity, faith and hospitality; even then, more so now, as I see these fruits, I’m grateful.

A life with room to say yes to projects, a life with room for walks and books. Sounds simple enough.

But something pinches a bit. My desire to define these things instead of breathe into them — that pinches.

Strangers’ “simplicity” sometimes looks sparse and white as an Ikea catalog shoot; or colorful as homemade gingham bunting over a claw-foot tub on a porch. Beautiful; but maybe incomplete. (Of course, searching on Instagram for simplicity is a bit counter-intuitive; but recognize that hunger for prettier simplicity? I’m working on feeding this hunger with gratitude. Thank you, Lord, for leaves on trees, which add color to my view.)

Defining what simplicity is for our family has in the past boiled down to rules, and rules don’t work for me. Rules aren’t gospel. Rules make me rigid to other people’s interpretations. Rules make me grumpy. Rules aren’t life-giving because it’s bent humans trying to put up straight fences.

Of course some agreements are healthy: we buy second-hand when possible, we vacation local, we don’t use credit. We have enough to pay the bills, but no more.  This isn’t about stuff, though; it’s about living free. It’s about asking what’s working, and what we need to let go of.

“But test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV)

Agreements keep me focused on the root of simplicity: faith first; no Pinterest. When I feel something’s missing, I keep my hands busy.

But don’t I especially want to enumerate simplicity? Don’t I want to limit jeans, toys, shoes? Isn’t that a concrete way to ask if I’m living into our manifesto? The lid must always close on the toy box, for instance. Reducing clutter is a healthy impulse, and one I do without thinking.

But … it’s more than stuff.

This is America in 2014: yes, we need to let go of the stuff first.

{Sidebar: Have you ever wondered how stores in the United States sell pens? How do they convince us we need more pens? Have you ever considered the sheer number of pens on the bottoms of purses, in drawers, handed out free at fairs, stolen from offices and passed out before elections? Pens in jars, pens in cars. How much more true would this be of sweaters, or shoes, or half-used notebooks, if these things were as portable as pens?}

{Tallying is a pitfall, though. Simplicity is a heart thing.}

What’s beyond this recognition that we have many things? After we’ve personally narrowed down our wardrobes, toy boxes and our garages; after we’ve emptied our basements? It’s possible to not have clutter and still not live simply, because simple is a daily choosing of priorities. Sometimes we trip all over ourselves on the way to being more simple.

Six months into my yogurt-making adventure I abandoned it; there are more life-affirming ways to spend my 10 o’clock hour on a Thursday night. I was grumpy over something simple. Now I spend $3 on a tub of it, and we have more room for … sleep. And each other. I’d argue that’s a victory in simplicity.

The turning point is joy: is the joy in the doing, the product, the project? If it’s not, then what’s the cost?

Sometimes simple’s free and natural, and the payoff’s amazing. We watch tall trees bud and catch sunlight way up in the canopy before we mention “photosynthesis”; or feel Robert Louis Stevenson’s rhythm before we say we know his work from one poem. Simplicity means I’m reading books on “Love and Logic” because simple joy is our goal, and my mornings are full of way too much drama over which parent made the oatmeal.

Tallying stuff is the wrong approach. I want to tally space and free evenings and breakfasts without tears. I want to lose count pondering the ways these joys add up.

Simplicity is the wonderment on the other side that everything I have is a gift, is useful, and is exactly what we need. Then not holding too tightly to it, so it can be someone else’s enough.


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