In Celebration of Simplicity - Chapter One

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In Celebration of Simplicity - Chapter 1

A decade of living

Our 35th wedding anniversary was yesterday, and for a splurge, we bought ourselves a 10-year journal. The whole idea intrigued me - here in front of me, pages ready for information, is a book that will detail the next 10 years of our life together.

Each page has one date, for example, January 1, and four lines for 2009, four lines for 2010, all the way up through 2019. The next page has the same layout for January 2, and so on. Of course,we’ll be starting 2009 in the middle of the year, but that’s OK. I’m planning on recording the highlights of each day; Ed wants to record the temperatures and weather conditions. It will be fun to take one date, say, August 24, and see what we did on that date through all ten years.

The journal also has a section with blank undated but numbered pages for extra room if the requisite four lines are not enough to record a special day. Each dated page has a little blank where we can write the page number to turn to for the “overflow.”

Also the journal has a special section for our medical and car upkeep. There is a page for each year, 40 or so lines, one column for medical, one column for our car. We can write down our doctor appointments, lab tests, etc., in the first column, and car repairs, registration records, etc., in the second column.

My dad was a big record-keeper. He could show you the record of a utility bill that was decades old. He could tell you what he spent on a family vacation 20 years before. I really like the idea of being able to look back on things like that.

As I opened the new journal yesterday and discovered what it had to offer, my mind just took off. Ten years! In ten years, this book will be filled with all our activities, our joys and sorrows, births and deaths, quilts/clothes I’ve made, trips, weather, books we’ve read - you name it. The future is a mystery, for sure, but this we can assume: In ten years, Caroline will be learning to drive, and Charlotte will turn into a teenager! I will be able, should I take that option, to apply for Social Security! Rachel will be in her 40s, and Matt in his late 30s, Ed in his (gulp) 70s! What will our house look like? Will we have painted inside by then? Will we finally have grass? Will we have given up and purchased a snow blower? Will I have finished Matt and Sarah’s quilt? Will we have a new grandchild in the family? What will technology look like - the technology that changes almost every day? What inventions will be the norm that we’ve never dreamed of? Will there still be newspapers? Who will be president of the USA? Will we still be in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many digital pictures will I have on my computer (since I have over 20,000 today)? Will there even be digital pictures, or will some other technology for photographs appear? How will our health be? How much will gasoline cost? Will researchers have made great strides in curing cancer and other diseases? Will I still be blogging?

Of course, after all these questions went through my head, I realized that I was sounding like soap opera teasers: "Will Debbie marry Bill? Will Amanda find her son she abandoned years ago? Will Stanley recover his vision? Will Ramona awake from her coma?"

Well, we have plenty of time to find out where our personal soap opera goes, and we will diligently write it down as the future unfolds. Stay tuned!

Dirt Woman Transcends the Dust Mites!

Worried about the way mattresses take your sweat and dead skin cells and give you allergens and dustmites in return?

Wish you could go on holiday in the Caribbean but haven't got the money?

Wondering how to furnish a very long thin room?

Or just in need of a blissfully relaxing place to chill out?

A hammock could be your answer! This one came from Handmade Hammocks UK: the frame is made of sustainably produced rubberwood and the woven bit is made from fairly traded organic cotton.

"My life is my vacation" (Mohandas Gandhi) Woohoo!


The Bad Woman's Guide to Painting and Decorating

Almond White.

If you look round your cosy home – because your mother is coming to stay, or you want to sell it, or it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving – and the only words that spring to mind are ‘Oh ****!’ – then what you need is almond white.

Because almond white has the happy property of being uncannily similar to paint that was white, once long ago.

So a duster and a damp rag will do for the passable bits, and the bits that need something a little more radical can be uplifted by a couple of coats of almond white.

Now, personally, I have grasped that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I would not climb on the desk and the filing cabinet because I can’t be bothered to move them, and have a damp rag handy to wipe up the spots of paint that fall on the new telly. I would not skip the bit above the bay window because I can’t raise the energy to move the sofa and take down the curtains. And it would never, ever occur to me to paint over a brown patch where some damp got in once, without really bothering with the rest. Not me. Oh, no. I would have all the furniture moved out or covered in dust sheets, I would spread special floor-coverings made of recycled old bedding that I’d fallen on with a glad cry when someone else was throwing them out, and kept on their own shelf in the Useful Things Cupboard particularly for that very purpose. I would wash things down and sand things off and take days and days and days over the whole palaver. But you – now you might not be such a thorough kind of person. You might think, as some people do: ‘Oh, blow that for a lark – won’t a dab of paint just do the trick?’

And if you are that kind of dubious, half-hearted, indolent type of person – the words you need to hear are ‘Almond White’. Okay?


I had the pleasure this weekend of visiting with my grandkids other grandma, Alice. We were talking about yard sales, and the subject came around to Beanie Babies (which she had gotten at a yard sale for the girls and brought with her). Alice said that she knew a woman who “back then” thought Beanie Babies would be a good investment, only to increase in value. At least that’s what people told her. At any rate, she now has a Beanie Baby worth practically nothing, for which she originally paid $700.

You hear the word “investment” tossed around frequently in a troubled economy. Everyone wonders what to invest in. Stocks? Real estate? CDs? Oil? The choices are many.

Investment has three major definitions. The first: “The action or process of investing money for profit or material result.” The second: “A thing that is worth buying because it may be profitable or useful in the future.” Both of those, of course, deal primarily with money. I like the third definition: “An act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.”

I think a lot of life’s results are the results of what we deem worthy of investment. Most of the time, we don’t really see it as investment. We associate the word investment with money so much that we forget the third definition - time, effort, or energy. Money, of course, can also be used in the third definition - you can invest money in causes, such as the environment, that you likely won’t see immediate benefit but which you feel will “pay off” in the future.

At work, for example, I’m trying to teach other MTs that taking the time (unpaid time, off the clock) to learn our word expander inside and out, to build glossaries, to find shortcuts, is an investment in time that will eventually make them more productive after a while. Of course, during the time they’re doing the “investing,” it seems to be a waste. The payoff comes later - but it will come.

Then we stretch the definition of payoff to involve others. I’ve told this story before, but there once was an elderly man who was planting an apple tree. A young boy came by, watched for a while, then said, “You know, old man, you’re never going to live to eat one single apple of that tree.” The old man replied, “I know, but others will.”

The best investments, it seems to me, result in a payoff not for ourselves, but for other people, whether it involves money, time, effort, or energy. We had a local man die last year who bequeathed an investment of a million dollars to our new emergency room. He will obviously never reap the benefits, but he did it anyway. Ed invested in the future of the ministry when he paid a year’s tuition anonymously for a deserving fellow student at the seminary where he was attending. We invest in future generations when we recycle and look for alternative forms of energy. We invest in the future when we spend time with our children and make memories with them, when we take action to help families become functional again, when we write a poem or piece of music to be enjoyed in years to come. We could never have heard the great composers if they hadn’t invested time in writing and editing their symphonies, or the great singers such as Beverly Sills, if they hadn’t invested time in learning and practicing.

Our society is so addicted to the instant gratification that we forget some investments take a long time to “pay off.” Long-term benefits versus short-term pleasures. It can be a hard lesson. Sometimes in the Journey to Simplicity, we don’t see the results of your choices until they become cumulative. Then we can finally see some results - but it can take years of wading through difficult choices.

My hope for the world is that we are choosing our investments wisely, and that we have the patience and wisdom to understand exactly what we are investing and why.

O the ingenuity!

In our kitchen we have these really good pan shelves that Badger made.

Today in the post came a skirt I bought on ebay. It is max priti but also makes me look max fat.


So I combined the skirt with the pan shelves.

Ta da!!

The Wretched Wretch

Leo Babauta's Zen Habits blog

I really love this blog. His post of yesterday (August 12th) - The Minimalist Principle: Omit Needless Things is, I think, one of his best.

It has good writing advice, and a link to his excellent piece on creating a minimalist home, which I have just read again and enjoyed and found inspiring all over again - and paragraph on buying is spot-on.

I haven't yet explored the links to other related sites he's posted, but when I have done that in the past I've found them to be treasure indeed (so I'm off to do that next).

My two next tasks in my personal discipleship are:

  • Establishing in my life a discipline of joy. Joy is a source of energy and dispels discontentment. It encourages others, creates beauty and light. Too often (and increasingly) I have allowed my soul strength to dissolve into anxiety and restlessness, and this needs addressing now. I know that joy is linked to freedom and peace, and all three are linked to a discipline of simplicity - so I intend to meditate into this for a while.

  • Thinking carefully about treats and the creation of cheerfulness. When I am under emotional stress, to keep myself cheerful and prevent myself nosediving into depression, I ask less of myself and give myself treats. The problem comes when the treats cost money and involve accumulation of stuff - ie shopping. I mainly do internet shopping now, and restrict myself absolutely to very inexpensive items (or I would crash the simple and focussed lifestyle I have chosen, which is low-income). In the past I have noticed that companionship does the same for me as shopping - so planning a party with someone, and having a film from the library and party food for supper supplies the cheerfulness element of the treat. The challenge for me at the present time is being isolated from my family (and the writing discipline requires a lot of solitude, so working up a second group of people to have fun with would be writing suicide!), which has the effect of my cheerfulness draining away like water through sand. So when I get low, I buy some clothes (very, very cheap and usually on ebay). Then when I get too many for the allocated space I send some to the charity shop. But this is wasteful of time and money. So I need to address it.

'Thank you' to Leo Babauta, then, for his continued inspiration on the Zen Habits blog!

Opus Interruptus

Working from home. Oh, glory! The snag is, it’s not only your own home you're working from, but also the home of the other people who live there but work somewhere else. So you become the natural troubleshooter and all-purpose person to deal with everything of any description concerned with that location.

It wouldn’t be like that, living in a shed. There would be no phones to go wrong, no wiring or plumbing challenges, no painting and decorating, and only minimal repairs. Shed life is my heart’s desire.

I asked the magazine Woman Alive if they would like a regular column on living simply, and the editor thought that might fit in well with their vision for the development of the magazine. She offered me a regular column of 290 words in length, and after some deliberating I said ‘yes’. The hesitation was because it’s mighty difficult to convey or discuss a concept in 290 words – much harder than if you have 1,000 words, or even 500. Part of the reason I said yes is because it isn’t easy; it’s a writing challenge, and I like that.

The last few weeks have been full to overflowing with family and house matters – looming especially large was the interaction with estate agents and the preparation of our home for sale.

FINALLY today offered a clear space for some writing, and this had to be a Good Thing, because today is also the deadline for the copy for December’s issue of Woman Alive, when my regular column begins (though I do also have an article in this month’s issue, about my new book which comes out in September).

Yesterday, at teatime, the telephones in our house ceased to work.

This morning I phoned British Telecom and had a lengthy interaction with a very nicely spoken female automaton. The outcome of this call was an assurance that an engineer would fix the problem by tomorrow, and that updates would be texted to my mobile phone in the meantime.

I thought that was okay, and went to hang out the washing.

When I came back into the house, there were letters on the mat – I had left the front door open, to be friendly and so the postie could drop in any parcels, knowing I was at home. One of the letters was a Post Office card explaining that, as I was out when the postman called, the parcel he had brought (which had to be signed for) would be taken back to the sorting office. The card had a time written on it – 3 minutes before the time of my reading it. I grabbed my sandals and dashed out to look for the postie, knowing I might have to be at home the rest of the day waiting for BT, so not be in a position to go to the sorting office. No sign of him anywhere up and down our road, or in the next road. Hey ho.

I gave myself a pep talk. ‘Why are you so stressed? Why do you get so het up about these things? What does it matter? There will be time to get the parcel, it’s no big deal! For goodness sake calm down, Ember!’

Resolutely, I set myself to the tricksy task of saying something useful, inspiring, interesting and intelligent in 290 words.

I fired up the computer, set up a file, typed one sentence, and the house phone rang, just one little trill, then stopped. A short while later, it did it again. ‘They must be testing the line,’ I thought – and addressed myself again to the task in hand. Then my mobile phone rang. It was BT to say they had an engineer not far away – would I be home later on? Yes, indeed.

I returned to writing the article, and began to warm to the task. Then came a knock at the front door. ‘Ah!’ I thought – this must be the BT engineer.’ But no – it was a man come to read the gas and electricity meters. The gas meter presented no problem, but the electricity meter lies deep within the cupboard under the stairs where we have put all the junk to be disposed of in the course of preparing our house for sale. I heaved it out to the point that with the help of a powerful torch he could get at the meter. Then put it all back when he went.

My computer had started to play a quiet little piano tune to itself when I returned to it, but I jerked it back to reality and read through what I had written. With some effort I felt my way to the state of mind I had been in before. Then came another knock at the front door. ‘Ah!’ I thought – this must be the BT engineer.’ But no – it was a delivery man with a large parcel from Amazon for the people at No 31 who are cunning enough to work in some other place than their own home, and were therefore not available to take delivery of their parcel. I felt a certain sense of injustice that things had so fallen out that I had missed my own parcel but been home for theirs; but, hey.

I signed for the parcel and gave the man back his clipboard. He gave it back to me. Could I please print my name in that box too? I did.

Then I went back and once more interrupted my computer’s harmless little ditties, and read through what I had written. To my astonishment, it seemed okay. I wrote another sentence.

A text message came in to my mobile phone. Assuming it to be one of the promised updates from BT, I opened it. It was a message from Orange to tell me I could now text anyone in Europe for 10p. I deleted it, and returned to my article. I wrote another sentence. My mobile phone rang. It was BT. The engineer would be with me in five to ten minutes. Was that okay? ‘Yes,’ I said through gritted teeth – ‘that will be fine.’

I finished the sentence I had been writing and shut down the computer. The engineer arrived. He needed constant attention. All the phones in the house had to be unplugged and plugged in elsewhere. Two of the sockets were behind large bookcases, one of which could be accessed only by moving our lodger's stereo speaker, which stood on a heavy and unwieldy metal stand fixed into the carpet with prongs and supporting a tall thin candlestick and a houseplant. And then the engineer asked for a cup of tea. Since he had done a nice job of fixing the phone I made him one, and gave him a cake, both of which he enjoyed slowly, while pursuing a conversation of considerable length.

‘D’you work locally, then?’ he asked me. This was an improvement on what most people say, which is: 'Day off, is it?'
‘I work from home,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ he said; ‘what do you do?’
‘I am a writer,’ I said.

We then had the usual conversation – he has a fourteen year old daughter with a rich imagination; what did I think were her chances of becoming a writer? And we had the other conversation –

‘What does your husband do?’
‘He is a publisher.’
‘Oh, right! So that’s how you got your books published!’
‘No. No, not at all. After twenty years of writing books, I married my publisher.’

Then he tested the phone one more time and went away.

I switched on the computer. It was sulking now and didn’t want to play any pretty tunes. It has to be left in peace before it feels like playing little tunes to itself.

I opened the file with the article. It was looking good.

There came a knock at the front door. ‘Hello? Hellooo! HELLOOO!’

It was Melissa from No 31. She had come for her parcel.

For some obscure reason, my mind has just made a connection with a Christmas card my sister sent me when our children were small. The first four lines of text were on the outside, beneath a cartoon showing Father Christmas with a child on his lap. The last line was on the inside, discovered when you opened the card:

‘You’d better not pout
You’d better not cry
You’d better not shout, and I’m telling you why:
I have a gun.’

I have finished the article. 290 words exactement. I have submitted it, invoice attached. The phone is working. The sun is shining. I am off to the sorting office to collect my parcel. Howzat!


We grew these. Now, how groovy is that!

The Scenario

Here’s a shocking story: Last week, a group of people wearing masks strapped a woman down on a table, knocked her out, and with a sharp knife they slit her neck!

The group of people, of course, consisted of a surgeon, anesthetist, and various nurses. The woman was me, and the “slit in the neck” was a thyroidectomy.

I once wondered what aliens would think if they came to Earth and saw the scene described above. Would they get the idea that I was being harmed, with all those people bending over me with knives? I thought that was kind of ironic - someone from another planet might have tried to rescue me, when in reality, the people were helping me, not hurting me. The aliens just wouldn’t have had the whole picture, and would have jumped to the wrong conclusion.

I frequently think of that Bible verse, “now we see through a glass darkly.” This is why we really can’t judge others, because we can’t ever have the whole picture of someone’s life. We don’t know what their upbringing was, if they were lucky enough to have a strong family unit, as we may have had. We don’t know the obstacles they had to overcome, the peer pressures they encountered, the abuse they suffered, the hopelessness with which they were burdened. We don’t know if they had lousy teachers or a learning disability. We don’t know if they are genetically predisposed to addiction. We don’t know, and even if we think we know people well, we cannot know them well enough to be able to pass judgment. Our focus is too small, our fund of knowledge is too limited.

Every time I transcribe a report of a pregnant woman taking illegal drugs or a patient with severe lung disease who still insists on smoking, my tendency is to shake my head at their choices. I must try to remember that I don’t have the whole picture. I’ve been very blessed in my life, and many, many others have had struggle after struggle, for whatever reasons not known to me. Empathy, yes. Judgment? I’ll think I’ll pass.

Hanging on...

In the days when I used to cross-stitch on a regular basis, I cross-stitched this pattern of a raccoon. We hung it in the parsonage where we could see it every day. One day, Ed mentioned to me how lazy he thought the raccoon looked, laid back, just lying around on the tree branch, without a care in the world. I was astonished, actually, because I had always thought the poor raccoon was hanging on for dear life, stressed to the max, trying not to fall to a certain and painful death!

Besides our different takes on life (Ed is more tranquil, I’m more type A), this conversation really impressed upon me that handling anxiety is one of my weaknesses. When we went to AA decades ago, their mantra of “Let Go and Let God” irked me. Let go? Are you nuts? Do you know how much of a fall that would be if I let go of this branch to which I’m clinging with all my might? No, thanks!

As a child, I had few worries, just the usual anxiety about going to the doctor or dentist, getting a shot, that sort of thing. Later in school I was anxious about making good grades, pleasing my teachers, fitting in, etc. After I got married, I worried about money among other things, and when Ed was drinking, I had stresses coming and going.

When I had kids, of course, the anxiety increased exponentially at an alarming rate. (I can guarantee that when you have kids, you have just presented yourself with a lifetime of anxiety.) Now I had two more human beings to worry about - accidents, psychological health, physical health, whether they had enough friends, whether they were eating right, even kidnapping by strangers. Then when they started school, I was experiencing the same anxieties for them that I had put upon myself at their ages. And on and on...

Until, yes, they learned to drive. Major, major parent stressor. Not only did I worry about the possibility of wrecks, I had to worry about where they were, with whom, what they were doing. Later on, it was worrying about college tuition on top of all the other stuff. Next, came marriage. I thankfully never worried about the mates they chose, as I think both my son-in-law and daughter-in-law are super people. But there is always financial anxiety - are they doing OK? Are they making good decisions? Are they surviving the normal pitfalls and stresses of married life?

Then Rachel had kids, and Matt may be following in a year or two...

That’s right. The stress and anxiety is never-ending. I’ve heard people say, “I know I need to make a change, but now is not the time. There’s too much on my plate.” Well, even if one’s schedule deflates somewhat, there will always be stress because so much of it is self-inflicted - and in our heads, where we don’t always notice it - that overpowering, paralyzing worry. It is possible to not have anything appointments or to-do lists penciled in on the calendar, and still spend the day stressed because of what it going on in one’s brain. The need for relaxation and replenishment is not just limited to the physical realm.

I also heard once that 99% of the things we worry about never come to pass. Now if you can keep me from worrying about that 1%, that would be great. Thanks.

I think “letting go,” - of past mistakes, future worries, and present problems; of greed, thoughts of revenge, malice; of the need for excessive material things, popularity, acclaim; of all the “what ifs” - is one of the hardest things in life to do. It’s scary, it’s accepting vulnerability, it’s fear of the unknown. I also think a lot of these worries boil down to this: Am I strong enough/are my parents strong enough/is my husband strong enough/are my kids strong enough to handle life’s challenges? Again, my favorite prayer: To change the things I can, accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. Just a few words that pack a major punch.

I still have the raccoon picture, but these days I try to interpret his quality of life a little differently. I try to use him not as a symbol of hanging on for dear life, but as a reminder that life is indeed dear - and having faith that I will grow in wisdom and patience and courage and all the other attributes that make up my response to life, which will allow me to react to circumstances and change in a healthy way. "Letting go" is that first step on the Journey to Simplicity and Contentment, and, like so many other decisions, is a choice that has to be renewed on a daily basis.