When you think you’ve simplified, simplify some more

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We need much less than we think we need. – Maya Angelou

A few months ago I overheard the mother of a bride telling someone that the month before the wedding was insane. It scared me a little because my daughter is getting married very soon, but I determined I would not let it get to the point of insanity. And it really hasn’t, but I see clearly how it could.

We are a consumer society and there is a huge market for weddings. Each vendor wants to schedule multiple meetings and sell their wares, preferably to an eager and demanding bride-to-be who thinks she is the only gal in town that ever married. The wedding cake vendor who requires two meetings to order a cake, and dismisses the groom in hopes of selling to an exuberant and frivolous bride. The makeup artist whose idea of a natural look is $250 worth of makeup. The bridal shop that doesn’t bring out the sought after simpler dresses because they are less expensive than the frilly ones. It’s sales, people. Wedding planning can and should be a joyful time, but without perspective, it has the potential to wreak havoc on one’s peace of mind.

Marketing schemes and Bridezillas aside though, there are things that must be tended to, and every now and then one of life’s details grabs me by the neck and has me in a chokehold. The current detail is wedding centerpieces.

The bride-to-be is, shall we say, the antithesis of Bridezilla. Her preference for her bouquet was literally limited to this: Let’s keep it small. I don’t want to be lugging anything huge thing down the aisle. She is in fact overwhelmed if she has to meet with one more vendor. So with the intention of simplifying, we decided to eliminate the florist by ordering dried flowers and arranging the centerpieces ourselves. I ordered lots of flowers and when they arrived we filled mason jars with dried larkspur in three colors, and then added ribbon. Lovely. In fact it gave me an all is well and I have simplified the decorations and am on top of my mother-of –the-bride duties moment.

And then it hit me. The centerpieces are too big. Guests will not be able to see across the table! How can they talk to someone they cannot even see? I pictured the dried flower arrangement looming too big in the center of the table. It was no longer a simple, pretty centerpiece. It was an obstruction. An intrustion. My nemesis. Worse than a task undone, it was an un-task, something done perfectly wrong that might require starting over.

I looked up images of the venue. I saw a picture of the rustic reception room looking lovely and inviting. In the center of each table was a number set inside a pretty stand. And nothing else. It looked good. Simple! Fabulous! Why hadn’t I noticed this before? There was room for the wine bottles, and open space to see across the table.

Suddenly, our simple centerpieces were too much. I had a box the size of a casket full of larkspur in my basement and what I wanted was to have almost nothing at all. The solution? Either fill the vases more sparsely, or only use the centerpieces to decorate the non-dining tables, such as the place card and gift tables. The lesson I learned? When you think you’ve simplified, simplify some more. When you think you have just enough of something, consider that you may actually have more than enough.

Routine and the precious commodity of time

 

A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. –Mason Currey

 I think a lack of routine leaves room for our time to be filled aimlessly, like the tide rushing in to fill the sandy grooves leading to the castle. Sometimes necessary things fill in the grooves of time, like dental appointments and grocery shopping, and work. But there are also those other things- the optional ones such as all that information, streaming in, all the time, everywhere, by mail and web, radio, and by osmosis. The Time magazines that seem to be floating around my home, reminding me I haven’t read them yet. And the newspaper, black ink scolding me for only skimming – This is the world for crying out loud! Read it all!

 Instead I’ve been reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, a book about renowned artists’ and authors’ work routines. I am thoroughly enjoying this book and picking up some good tips. But I’m also noticing the daily life stuff is suspiciously missing from the pages. The routines look a lot like “wake up early, have coffee, go for a walk, write until lunch, resume writing until late afternoon, break for dinner with friends” etc. Nowhere am I reading anything like this: did six loads of laundry, called the insurance company, prepared dinner, picked up the dry cleaning, brought dog to the groomer, paid the bills, made doctor appointment, shopped for birthday gift, called mother, answered emails, scrubbed the toilets, swept and vacuumed, bought groceries, took out the trash, got a haircut, went to Target, the vet, the dentist, the post office and the gas station. Exercised. Squeezed in a little writing.

 And I can only assume none of them had kids because there was also no mention of took my kids to the dentist, doctor, playground, school, soccer, ballet, went to school meeting, spent quality time with kids, helped with homework, discussed curfew, toured colleges, met new boyfriend, quietly fretted, analyzed and obsessed over choices and futures and goals, mine and theirs, but mostly theirs, doled out chores because it is really nice not to empty the dishwasher for the second time in one day.

  Perhaps they had an unmentioned, designated time of day or week that they called all the stuff I have to do if I am to consider myself a functioning adult. And all the stuff I want to do because I am a parent. Being successful artists and authors, they surely made their work the top priority, and somehow fit everything else in around that, not the other way around. Life is so full of all the extraneous stuff that can fill in our precious time, as well as the important stuff that keeps us whole. There are limited hours in a day and a finite number of days in a year. This forces us to pick and choose what the important stuff is. We just don’t have time for everything. Therefore, here is my short bucket list:
1. Finish and publish current book.
2. Write several more.

That’s it. Some other things, such as traveling to Finland or meeting Stephen King, (I’ve only read his memoir, but this was enough to make me love him) would just be pleasant bonuses.

And speaking of Steven King, here are just two of his 20 Rules for Writers:
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. The least of all (your concerns) should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
Good news. What a relief. Such a time saver too.
10. You have three months. The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
Not so good news. Three months? I am way, way behind. How about three years? Maybe I’ll hit my stride by book two and quicken my pace. For now, I’m setting new deadlines and a firmer routine so when the tide rushes in, which it always does, the big stuff won’t get washed away.

The complete list of Stephen King’s 20 rules are here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/stephen-kings-top-20-rules-for-writers/

 

Freedom from distraction

There’s an article in today’s Boston Globe about the lengths people will go to avoid being alone with their thoughts. During a part of the study, two-thirds of men and a quarter of the women actually chose a painful shock over having no outside stimulation. The researchers concluded, after several experiments, that most people loathe having even ten minutes of quiet time without distractions.

Timothy Wilson, the psychologist who led the study, wonders if studying people who regularly meditate would show different results. I hope he continues the study, as I think it is an important one in regards to human nature and happiness. My thought is that yes, people who meditate will indeed rate the experience of solitude as positive, rather than negative. I think the reason is twofold.

Everyone is subject to some uncomfortable thoughts now and then, but those who meditate have stopped trying to suppress these disturbances. Long term meditators, anyway, have let them surface, faced them, healed them, and let them go. Avoiding our thoughts, on the other hand, we can distract ourselves into feeling okay. I once read a quote (I don’t recall the author), that I thought was a simple yet brilliant summary of this: By trying to avoid feeling bad, we end up feeling mediocre. Once you’ve committed to meditation, you’ve stopped running from yourself. Grief, regret, anguish, stagnation, if followed to their source, will eventually dissipate, and there is a lot of peace and joy to be had afterwards. It also makes room to guides one’s own thoughts in a chosen direction, and there is power in that.

The second reason I think that people who meditate are happy to sit in seclusion, is that they have practice being alone without actually thinking. When we are free from thinking, we are truly present in the moment. There is room for inspiration, clarity and insight to slip in. When you observe your thoughts, you can then let them come and go without getting too carried away by them. When you let your thoughts go completely for a period of time, you are in the blissful state of meditation. Why would anyone want to avoid this? Experienced meditators seek this out.

In our modern day society, there is absolutely no reason why we have to be still and alone with ourselves for any length of time. It seems that no matter where we are, we have distraction at our fingertips. Entertainment, information, technology- we can take it all in at every second of every day if we so desire. So if most people are more comfortable not being left alone, why should they ever fly solo, unencumbered by anything to do? My unofficial study says they should try it anyway, because facing oneself is the essence of freedom.