March 14, 2013

Keeping It Simple

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a book about Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda that had a bit of advice that’s stuck with me: the more complicated life is, the simpler your meals should be. It was such a lovely reminder that even when much of life feels out of our control, there are small ways we can take back the reins each day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of simplicity lately. There are scores and scores of great blogs devoted to it (and its cousin minimalism), and even still, I don’t have a clear sense of what it would actually look or feel like in my life. How to live more simply came up when chatting with a friend recently, and it felt as mysterious and out of reach to both of us as a nighttime ride on Falcor. We both knew we wanted it, but we didn’t know how to go about introducing more of it into our lives.

When I asked my mom recently what she thought a simple life looked like and how I could create more of it, she encouraged me to think about the roles I wanted to play in my life. It flies in the face of what Eckhart Tolle writes about, but I think it’s kind of a clever, side-door way of getting at the heart of the question. What do you want to occupy the most space in your life? Artist, friend, mother, breadwinner, athlete, advocate, leader? You can keep your life simple, she suggested, by keeping those primary roles top of mind in the choices you make each day.

What would a simpler life look like to you? This is not a rhetorical question. Because while I feel drawn to the concept, I also feel unsure of what its real-life application looks like in a busy, messy, full, and super-connected world. I’m still working it out myself, but a simple life to me is tidy and organized, lived within my means, and low-stress. I have stream-lined systems that provide ready answers to what to wear and what to make for dinner. I have a regular routine, with time carved out for creativity and exercise, weekends filled with friends, family and nature. A simple life also has to have some whimsy and bouts of adventurous fun, or else it may start to feel too spartan. And that wouldn’t do.

My sister swears by ruthless purging and small space living, the latter requiring the former. Her husband has been known to live at times by a strict one-in, two-out principle, and they are experts at unsentimentally disposing of belongings. They check-out library books instead of buying everything they want to read, and my sister’s closet rail is lined with slim, matching hangers holding only items she loves. That makes life simple.

Image: A Well Traveled Woman

I’m Day 4 into Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s 21-Day Meditation Challenge. It’s a wonderful free online program, filled with journal exercises, mantra, thoughts of the day, and Deepak’s wise and soothing voice. But if it’s brought up one recurring theme for me thus far it’s my need for a regular routine. As is, I wake up in some 2 to 3 hour window, exercise on the days it’s convenient, move through a few gentle yoga poses when I’m feeling especially worn in the evenings. The day of the week with the most reliable routine also happens to be my favorite.

On Sundays, I drink coffee on my way to a morning yoga class. After a class that invariably leaves me more cheerful than when I arrived,Ā  I walk toward the farmer’s market and call my mom or sister on the way to chat. Once there, I fill my tote bag with greens, apples, and eggs, and maybe buy a cider donut for Sebastian before slipping into a nearby restaurant where he will meet me for lunch. That’s my most regular and beloved routine. Otherwise, I make room for things that are important to me when I can (read: when it’s easy). More often than not, this leads to life feeling like it’s being lived behind the eight ball in a game of catch-as-catch-can. A daily routine seems like a really grounding way to simplify, even if it means waking up significantly earlier (no small task for someone who can hit the snooze button seven times in the morning, no problem).

Then again, some part of me says to enjoy it. There will come a time when babies and school days and dinner times will require a day that runs like clockwork. I should enjoy the malleability while I have it. But when the roles you want to inhabit are that of healthy creative person who lives with a sense of balance and vitality, making room for expressing that each day feels important.

These aren’t real problems, of course, just a way of refining the day-to-day so it feels most supportive. Making each day simpler feels like a good way to do that. But now I defer to all of you wise ladies to share how simplicity takes form in your life. What does a simple life mean, look like, and feel like to you? What have you given up? What have you introduced? What discoveries do you swear by? And how, help me, can I become a morning person?

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  • Sarah: That advice about meals is SO true. This week my husband is out of town, so I’m on my own parenting my almost 3 year old, and it’s been so much less stressful than other times I’ve been on my own with him because we’ve been eating almost all leftovers (we ate out a ton over the weekend because my parents were visiting) or super-simple meals (like cook a bag of frozen stir fry veggies & some wheat pasta, mix with teriyaki sauce. Easy, healthy, good.)5 years ago

  • Melissa @ Hilltophausfrau: Well, on this topic, I can only really speak to a self who has children.

    My guide to simple living is: survival. But I’m still myself, so I want so survive somewhat gracefully, if that makes sense! What does that look like? Today for example, I only have one thing on my list of things to do: host a friend with a new baby for a coffee date this morning. Yesterday’s only goal: make granola chocolate chunk cookies for today’s coffee date.

    See? These are attainable goals while not compromising how much time I take away from parenting, being a wife, etc…I have to set myself up for success! Once I’ve checked them off on a list, I feel better, like I’m moving forward, like I’m staying true to a self that existed before I had children!

    I can’t even get into everything I’ve given up to become a mother. Because really,they don’t matter šŸ˜‰5 years ago

  • brie.: i’ve been thinking about how to create good routines in my day for a while now. basically i’m looking for bookends – five things i do each morning to start my day and five things i do each evening to end my day, regardless of what’s in the middle….

    thanks for the thoughts and inspiration to give more time to this.5 years ago

  • Mac: I loooved this post. Thank you for these reflections. I too have been considering simplicity. I think what your mom shared with you is important, good wisdom right here šŸ™‚ I have chosen my relationships as a focal point for 2013, be it my husband, immediate family, or dearest friends. I make a point of skype dates with my family on the other side of the country, and intentional time carved out with my husband and friends locally. This has simplified focus for me, and I love it! I’m not constantly thrashing through all the “what ifs” and over commitments in each day.

    Now, as far as being a morning person, shoot, some of us will never be šŸ™‚5 years ago

  • Mac: * that “here” by the šŸ™‚ is supposed to be “there” (oops!)5 years ago

  • Julia (Color Me Green): i also feel like ‘m constantly wondering how i can fit healthier habits into my daily rhythms…it’s hard to figure out. like you, i’ll stay in bed till the last possible minute in the morning, making stretching or yoga impossible before work. but i do think having a structure to rely on makes things simpler.5 years ago

  • Amanda Bretz: Two years ago my husband and I decided to simplify our lives and for us it looks like this:
    We own one car, we live in a small one bedroom apartment that is a 10 minute walk from his work, in addition to being a writer, I am a part-time “float” librarian assistant (similar to a substitute teacher position, I fill in for others), so I never know where I’ll be working, so most days I keep the car. We’ve reduced our debt and that has been the biggest help in us simplifying and not having to work like maniacs. We went from being $40,000 in debt about five years ago to currently around $15,000. We’ve still got a long way to go, but getting there slowly. And, lastly, we don’t long for things anymore. We changed the picture in our heads of what our lives were supposed to look like, to what fit US, not what fit someone else. We don’t go window shopping, we never go to the mall, I buy a lot of my clothes at the thrift shop or where my husband works (he gets a 40% discount!). Now, instead of wishing we could afford high-ticket “things” we do simple activities together and enjoy experiences. This varies from going to see a matinee movie, to taking a walk in the park, to cooking a “take-out” style meal together at home.
    Good luck to you on your journey toward a more simple life, I look forward to reading about it here on your blog šŸ™‚5 years ago

  • Beck: I’m currently in ruthless purge/spring cleaning mayhem to further simplify, but the one shift I made at the beginning of the year was to consciously place myself in the rhythm of each day and not worry about the past and future and how they were often clouding my present thoughts. I acknowledge being tired on Mondays, the stress of an unexpected meeting on Wednesday, the overwhelming sadness of putting my 16 year old cat to sleep, the sheer pleasure of buying a few new things I had been wanting for my place. I think the fight to change what IS, combined with worry of what the future will look like and judgment/rumination of how we’re doing it all can be incredibly overwhelming and quite frankly exhausting! I breathe. Accept. Give thanks. Surrender. Even in those moments where I wish to do anything but.5 years ago

  • Mikey F.: Wow… I guess we are going through some of the same train of thought. I’ve been also thinking about simplifying my life and my routines, ever since I was diagnosed with a cronic heart condition.

    I now get up early, but I also go to bed earlier than I used to, and when one starts to force oneself to wake up early, you’ll end up loving it. At first I used to go about totally sleepy, not yet ready for my day, but as days went by, I started feeling better, now I don’t even need my alarm clock.

    I’m a writer, so I work from home, but I still get up really early so I can do everything else. Taking the dog out for a long walk after meditating, also helps to wake up and start the day much much energized.


    Good luck with your simple life! šŸ˜‰5 years ago

  • Susan: Thanks for another great post Sarah šŸ™‚ For me, the question of simplicity ties into that great quote: ‘you can do anything .. but you can’t do everything.’ For me, life is at its most complicated when I am trying to do and be and learn and understand and achieve more things than I can humanly do as one person with limited time! Too many layers to life are what complicate it. I think your mum has made a good point – it helps to decide which role in your life is the most important to you. I work a demanding full-time office job and am also trying to build a business as a food and wedding photographer. I had a meltdown before Christmas when the fullness and complexity of life wore me out and had me frustrated at the limitations I come up against, trying to fit everything in (I know, I know, First World Problems, right?!). But it taught me that simplicity really is the key to happiness and serenity. So I have learned to prioritise my work, my business, my partner, my thrice-weekly swims, and my thirst for reading. Because of this, other equal loves such as planning and cooking amazing meals, drinking coffee for hours with good friends, long hikes, yoga, seeing my family, excess personal grooming and keeping my house in any kind of order have all been pretty much neglected. But I accept that these are sacrifices I am willing to make for the short-term because I know what roles matter most in my life *right now* – businesswoman, partner, auto-didact. This won’t always be the case, as you say. But mostly, I think that those who seek simplicity like you do are also those who seek to live the richest of possible lives: lives of contemplation balanced with action, warm with an awareness of what truly matters, against a simple yet elegant backdrop of cozy routine which may seem dull but which best illuminates our blessings and our growth. Aren’t we so wonderfully lucky šŸ™‚ Susan x5 years ago

  • Donna M. Moses: I am also going through a simplifying time now. Simplicity for me is getting rid of things I don’t use or don’t bring me pleasure. I don’t live sparsely but I do want everything that I see in my home to bring me a nice feeling. I have an old water bottle that my grandmother used for ironing that makes me smile and a newer braided rug that my cousin made me. I don’t want one thing that pleases me surrounded by clutter that doesn’t so I try to eliminate the “just stuff”. I pick and choose what to surround myself with. This is not just my home, it is my haven.5 years ago

  • Allison Conley: There is so much wisdom in these comments!5 years ago

  • Hedda: My dear,
    How I wish I had a woman friend with your mind and soul. . . in answer to your question about “keeping it simple” — since i am quite reclusive, my home acts as the “end all and be all” of my safety net so i tend to keep it “fairly clean” and organized “enough.” My hubby and i have a rule: if something comes in then something must go out.
    Since my home is a 1950s mid-century modern ranch it lends itself to contemporary and simple furniture (whether Danish modern or Shaker simple). It forces me to scour thrift shops looking for 60s or 70s clean-lined styles. Of course Ikea fits in also.
    I love food and cooking — but with limited funds i cut corners by growing as much as our climate allows. I am an organic gardener (small scale little yard so i do lots of raised beds) and we eat everything i grow which during the 3-4 good months saves thousands of dollars in fresh groceries. We rarely eat meat or dairy but do eat fish. However, I try never to be too rigid or militant about our diet or rude when eating with others. One pot meals are a good way to simplify food preparation. Once a week i make a huge pot of vegetable and fish chowder, and we eat it for 3 days. It saves so much time and energy and has everything but the kitchen sink in it — oh and it is wonderful tasting!
    Just some ways of simplifying.5 years ago

  • Sarah: Hi Sarah, lovely thoughts as always, I think living a simple life for me means giving up control and excepting the day as it comes.5 years ago

  • Laureen: Simplifying has been on my mind too. Maybe it’s just me but work feels like it has fully emerged from any wintertime lull into full on crazy mode… and I feel like it’s pulling my life into full on crazy mode with it.

    I love the idea of making a schedule that starts with going to bed early and waking up early, a roster of pre-planned, pre-prepped easy weekday meals, and incorporating more exercise–which always feels grounding to me… As always, it’s just a matter of getting started.

    Susan’s reference to the quote about “you can’t do everything” is a good reminder that I need to prioritize what I actually care about and what I have time for–and maybe instead of ruthlessly cutting possessions (which is also a great idea) cut those things that don’t ‘matter’ as much–or that maybe matter more to living up to someone else’s expectations…

    Hedda–do you have a recipe for that vegetable and fish chowder? It sounds amazing!5 years ago

  • Patrice: I am working on simplifying my social life. Living in NY, there is always something going on. Movies, theater, dining out, live music. But you get jaded. Out on the town, spending money, running for the subway. How precious a nice quiet night at home becomes. Homemade dinner, junk clothes (as we call them) and some down time. I am discovering a chat on the phone, a nice meal with a good friend, snuggling on the couch watching an old movie, or listening to jazz on the radio beats out any big city event.5 years ago

  • I am getting so much out of reading these comments a week later, during which life seemed to get more complicated rather than less. Some things that especially are especially resonating with me…

    *Shifting my attitude from things to experiences.
    *The sweetness of a night in instead of out-in-the-city madness.
    *Having a primary focus (relationships, for example) and making choices that stem from that
    *Getting rid of things that aren’t either useful or beautiful.
    *Surrendering to what is (man, that is a toughie)

    Thank you all for boiling it down to the essentials. xx5 years ago

  • Elena: What a great post! I think we “evolved” from being content with a piece of bread and some jam to being insatiable with all the variety of choices when it comes to food, clothes, etc etc. Did it (the variety) make us happier? Not always! We have those nostalgic thoughts of how carefree our childhood was, and how little we had and were happy. Sometimes less is more!5 years ago

  • Jeane M.: Keep it plain, simple and chic have always been my mantra. Love the suggestions and findings in here. Thumbs up!5 years ago

  • Alyssa: Thank you for being a touchstone in my sometimes crazy life.5 years ago

  • Linda: Hello Sarah and thank you. Sharing your thoughts and that fab web sight xen habits are assisting me on making some mind shifts. I love reading your blog and I find your voice soothing and comforting in a rushed world. Have a wonderful Easter.5 years ago

  • What Iā€™m Reading: Hippie stuff & feelings | Coffee & Sunshine: […] Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, by Claudia Welch. I heard about this book from a post on Pink of Perfection, and while I sometimes feel too young to have “hormonal issues” I definitely felt drawn […]5 years ago

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