My Father - his funeral tribute

He was known to some of you as Steve; to a very few, who knew him from his schooldays, as John; to two of us as Daddy; and to seven of us as Grandpa. Today I shall speak of him as my father – not only mine of course: my sister Jane, who inherited his red hair and who absolutely adored him, was the first of the two children born to him and Mary; but the term ‘Our father in heaven’ is already taken I believe, so I will speak of him as ‘my father’ for now.

From Marcel Proust’s book À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, come the now famous and oft-quoted words, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) He may have been putting his own twist on a line filched from François Villon’s “Òu sont les rouilles d’antan?” and therefore presumably would not have minded that my father filched it again and improved it impressively, taking it to new poetic heights with his “Mais òu sont les cure-dents d’antan?” which he would routinely murmur at the end of a meal in any restaurant – which might loosely be translated as “Why do they never provide toothpicks any more?”

His dotty sense of humour and delight in winding people up are surely two of the things he will be remembered for. I remember a Sunday lunchtime when I was about ten, all of us sitting nicely round our beautifully laid table to a delicious meal – my mother’s contribution to the occasion – listening to her explaining to us exactly what a sphincter is (I can’t remember why). My father listened politely along with me and my sister, and then concluded Mither’s explanation with his own words:

I wish I were a little sphincter
I’d open and I’d shut
I’d tickle the oesophagus
And paralyse the gut

How could we possibly forget him?

Born here in Scarborough; descended, I am entirely certain, from Viking invaders – looking at our picture book of Norway as a child, I saw any number of men who looked just like my father – he was the only son of Clarice and Frank Stephenson, who were always immensely proud of him. My grandfather was organist and choirmaster here for many years, and my father sang in the choir and served as an altar-boy. Though he did not really pursue the gift for music he inherited from his father, it was there in his astonishing linguistic ability and his love of jazz, and he introduced us in childhood to world music, bringing home EPs from all over Europe. He also enjoyed playing the piano, and in recent years my sister acquired a piano so that he could have the pleasure of fooling about with a little jazz on a Sunday afternoon when he went round for tea.

Though he would get into conversation with random strangers all over the place, my father was essentially a private and solitary man. He loved his family, but could not bear extended company. When I was at university he sometimes travelled many miles to visit me, but would never stay longer than ten minutes.

But the friendships he made have lasted a lifetime: until the present time he kept in touch with friends from Scarborough High School where he was educated and from Oxford University where he read modern languages at University College: his death has meant cancelling his booking to attend the reunion dinner which he and Alan Green always looked forward to, and for which Harvey McGregor was flying back from Paris.

My father’s roots and formative years meant a great deal to him. My sister and I grew up in Bishops Stortford, and had tremendous fun on the occasions we were taken to Cambridge where my father would leave his watch in lieu of a deposit for boat hire, and take us and our mother punting on the Cam. Very strong and fit (he swam for the university in his Oxford days) he was excellent at punting – but as we went along the river we would be hailed by any number of well-meaning souls attempting to put him right: because he would insist on punting from the Oxford end of the boat.

He was certainly his own man. He started the export endeavours of EverReady batteries, and was sent to Scandinavia, French West Africa, Greece, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and probably other places I have forgotten. He drove his line managers wild by refusing to report back as he went. All they knew was, he had gone to the Congo; and he thought that was all they needed to know. My sister and I were more fortunate. As children in our home we had a large box full of the treasured postcards he never neglected to send home from his travels. Photographs of wild animals from Africa, enchanting replicas from Paris of street artists’ paintings of little girls – one red-haired, one blonde. His messages were funny and affectionate, decorated with his daft cartoons – I remember one of a giraffe wearing a diminutive scarf to comfort its sore throat. Imagining a giraffe with a sore throat is a very John Michael Stephenson line of thought.

And he brought home for us the wonders of the world – ivory carvings from Africa, an elephant’s molar, and sapphire blue butterflies as big as your hand; exquisitely dressed porcelain dolls from Japan, reindeer-skin slippers from Lapland – he was away from home more than he was there, but his family were never far from his thoughts.

Later, when he started his own business manufacturing carpet, he still divided his time between Hertfordshire and the north country. He never liked to perch on any twig for too long.

At home, though he was not famous for co-operation, his principal joint project with our mother was the garden, in any given one of the seemingly endless succession of homes we lived in.

He laid steps where the ground was steep, dug the pond and the flower beds, made fences to keep the dog in, managed the woodland, mowed the immense lawns with great patience, and put endless effort into all that was required to make our large houses and even larger gardens beautiful.

The wedding photos of his marriage to my mother show a couple that could put film stars in the shade. In those days his eyes were so blue you would notice them across the street and his hair as red as a flame. He always gave her yellow roses for their anniversary, because she loved them.

Essentially a gentle and patient person who loved his family and had a horror of hurting anyone, but who needed simplicity and homeliness and needed to be free, our domestic life was not always easy for him.

On Sundays we went to the village church; where he served on the sidesmen’s rota, and in which context the group of friends with whom he met every Thursday at the pub got to know each other. The Church held for him a real nostalgic value: but I do not know what his beliefs were. He was acutely intelligent, serving as what was described as an ‘interpreter’ in Germany for his national service with the Air Force, and could see through most blags and smoke screens. The power games of religion would not have taken him in; but I think he was not atheist, he loved beauty and, passionately Conservative in his politics, tradition mattered to him.

He had flair, he had persistence, and he loved the countryside. These characteristics came together in his project for re-afforestation of the Nile valley in Africa, which he pursued as far as he could, with the help and advice of his good friend Jack Leaf.

He was very interested in language and the structure of language. He remarked to me one day that once you know enough languages well enough to speak them, you become aware of the patterns of language and it is then easy to learn a new one. The thesis he wrote in his university days, about the sound shifts as language changes and develops, is now standard linguistic text-book stuff – but of course it wasn’t then, or there would have been no reason to make it the subject of a thesis: so his work and thinking has been part of our development of understanding about the structure of language.

He enjoyed his cars immensely, kept them immaculate and pestered the life out of the mechanics at the garage, nursing the old engines along till they were past hope.

He loved red wine, and no Cheddar cheese was safe with him.

He was individual, eccentric and completely unmanageable: the only man in Much Hadham who had to be excused from sorting his rubbish for recycling.

I shall remember him scrutinizing restaurant menus with care and ordering whatever they did not have. I shall remember him dressed in chinos, and open-necked shirts in colours of the sea and the sky. I shall remember him buying seed to feed the birds – and inadvertently, the rats – that came to his garden. I shall remember him talking wistfully of his dreams of living in a little house in Whitby Bay, or maybe a fishing hut in Norway – somewhere simple and honest and away from the crowd. I shall remember him saying dandelion when everyone else says dandelion. I shall remember him feeding Josh, the beloved border terrier, forbidden scraps from the table.

But most of all, I shall remember him for his kindness. I recall a day when his grandsons were very little – Joe a toddler and Luke a baby. Standing near the great beech tree at Grooms Cottage, I watched Jane and Tim roll in to the gravel drive in their Renault 4, and vanish into the house, Jane carrying Luke, Joe toddling along behind. Then from the walled garden my father strolled into view, taking Joseph by the hand, walking along with him, talking to him quietly and kindly. And that was so like him.

His health remained good into old age, and he disliked medical intervention anyway. When one of his teeth fell out he super-glued it to its neighbour, and that did him very well for several years.

He died as he had lived, as many people do. Without announcement, without the fuss and interference he dreaded. The day before he’d had a happy day out with my mother, failed to meet her as agreed because he got delayed buying a scarf from a market stall to give a child he had seen crying with the cold, but rejoined her at home for tea and cake in the usual way. He was looking forward to visiting my sister the next weekend. He had enjoyed a chat with Alan on the phone. He had got ready for bed in the lovely warm pyjamas Jane gave him at Christmas – he always appreciated his gifts. And he died very suddenly, with no fear, illness or drama.

When we found him, lying on his bed with his head resting on his arm, I looked at his face. In many of the dead one sees an expression of great peace. Looking at his face, the abiding impression was one of kindness. It remained in his features, because it had been the habit of his life.

Kairos and Chronos

Glad to be home at the end of a chaotic and difficult fortnight, in bed in the darkness of pre-dawn listening to the dripping rain and the call of the gulls, enjoying the freshness of cold air through the slightly open window, and the still-warmth of last night’s hot water bottle at my feet.

I’m pleased with the book I am writing, which will come in on target for time. I changed the word-length to 65,000, because the 2,000 words a day through Lent would have taken me over 95,000, which would have been wrong for the book it is and the series it belongs to. It is a fourth novel for the Hawk & the Dove books, because they have stayed steadily in print for twenty years now, and I had the idea to mark the passing of that time with a new book. I have 3,000 words and six days (inc today) to go: next week’s task is to look for a publisher! I hope Crossway, who have done a good job with the original trilogy, will want it. Some of you have been praying for me in the writing: thank you thank you thank you! I rely on you utterly and you did good. The in-house committee of quality control is giving it the thumbs-up so far and I think something real has come through.

But mainly I was meaning to tell you about the last two weeks.

There are two kinds of time (or so the ancient Greeks thought): Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the ‘life is just one darn thing after another’ (Mark Twain) kind of time: ‘Day-labouring out life’s age’ (T.S.Eliot??). Days wearing out days inevitably. In the Greek pantheon, Chronos was a god and he ate his children. Do I need to unpack that metaphor for you? Nah. Suffice it to say, some people still eat and breathe and make love and work by the clock, and are harassed and driven by the passing hour – they still make it their god and that god still eats his children. Tip: living simply is the way out of that.

Kairos, on the other hand, a word that means both action and timing (like the performer’s cue – Now! ) is about the prophetic reality of God’s now moment: or the present moment that Zen practitioners have taught us to notice and realize as the only doorway of Life. If you don’t live in the present moment, well you’re dead, aren’t you.

And it is possible to choose kairos over chronos: as a matter of decision to choose to order and experience life not by the imperatives of old age, lunch-time, the factory day and the television schedule, but by ‘moving when the Spirit says move’. The Kairos does not eat its children. It energises and delights them, and gives them hope.

Lao Tsu (wrote the Tao Te Ching) evidently understood about Kairos. Apart from saying that the sages of old were watchful, like men crossing a winter stream (they were taking cognizance of the living moment), he introduced us to the concept of wu-wei – the art of non-doing. If you want a good litmus test to distinguish Chronos people from Kairos people, wu-wei is your bunny. The Chronos people never get it. The Kairos people live it every day. Lao-Tsu described wu-wei as ‘I do nothing and it all happens’. What he meant was, if you are living in the ‘I’m gonna move when the Spirit says move’ Kairos kind of way (not the ‘I hope he doesn’t die this afternoon because it’s Wednesday so I have to return my library books’ / ‘I know you want to show me the first poem you wrote but I can’t read it now or I will be late for the office’ Chronos kind of way) you will become the right person in the right place at the right time doing the right thing just naturally: with no extra effort and no cunning plan, it will happen round you. This is not the same as being passive. You don’t cease to act. But you become watchful like men crossing a winter stream – you watch for the kairos and act when the Spirit says ‘Act!’. So you don’t fritter your life energy on treadwheels and other people’s agendas. Therefore you don’t burn out and you don’t become an indispensable hero/super-star. You remain humble and insignificant, the people and events around you organize themselves and do what needs to be done themselves – but they are able to do so because you are there. Jesus had this off to a fine art – he even got diseases and storms into the loop of the harmony he was generating by fixing his eyes and his personal identity squarely upon the template of God’s pattern.

Because I talk SO MUCH, you must need a tea break by now. Tell you what: you go and have a nice cup of tea, then come back. Then you can read about that happenings of the fortnight just gone and you will see why I have been going on about this. It has been like machine-gun fire of kairos moments.

LP (That’s my kanji of your mug of tea) Uo There’s another. One has a hole in the bottom, the other has a detached handle. Take your pick. Tip: you can drink a mug of tea with no handle, but with no tea is a challenge.

* * * * *


My mother is in her 80s. I won’t write about the relationships and dynamics of my family of origin here or any public place, but to understand this you need to know that my mother lives alone. I visit her, but she lives several hours from me; so, much of our contact is by phone. The last ten years of her marriage she has lived separated from my father, but they spoke on the phone many times a day, spent most of most weekends together, took holidays (US – vacations) together and were good friends.

Because she is so much alone her next-door neighbour Pamela, who has become a good friend, is very important to her. My mother still drives, and she and Pamela have taken each other to places the other has never seen, and enjoyed all kinds of jaunts out and cosy fireside evenings in and tasty suppers cooked at home or enjoyed in restaurants and hotels in each other’s company.

At the beginning of March, Pamela’s sister died. Pamela was raised in northern Scotland and currently lives in Essex (near Cambridge) but her sister happened to live in Driffield. The funeral was to take place at Octon crematorium out in the open farmland near Driffield. Pamela knew neither the location nor the route, but as it happened my mother’s brother, my Uncle Jeff, lived in a village on the edge of Driffield. So when she called him on the phone, he was able to give my mother precise, accurate, careful and helpful directions to get to Octon crematorium; which she passed on to Pamela who came back from the funeral saying those directions were spot-on.

My Uncle Jeff has been in failing health for years. Last year (having myself not seen him for a very long time) I went with my mother to see him, and we had a lovely visit; since then his health which was poor then continued to decline. Just after he had given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium, my Uncle Jeff was taken into hospital. After a few days, he just longed to come home. The staff thought him too ill to discharge, but he insisted. He lives with my Auntie Dinah who is equally old and frail, but has a loving family and a kind carer who comes by each day. When he came home his carer and daughter were there to help, and he asked to have a bath, having only been washed in bed in the hospital. He wanted a bubble bath (whether that’s a foam bath or jacuzzi function in his case I don’t know). So they ran the bath, and he had his bubbles. He said it was really lovely. He appreciated it so much. And while he was luxuriating in his hot bath with both his carer and his daughter on hand to look after Auntie Dinah, he suddenly died.

In the days that followed, my mother became quite exasperated with my father who kept telling her about a really good funeral director in Scarborough, the people who had looked after both his mother’s and father’s funeral. And he kept telling her the readings and psalms suitable for a funeral. She found this frustrating as she had no part in arranging her brother’s funeral and anyway he didn’t live in Scarborough: but she heard it enough times to have indelibly imprinted on her mind the address (1 Prospect Road) of B.Bernard & Sons, Funeral Director.

Because my uncle had just given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium the previous week, when Tony & I took her up to Yorkshire for the funeral she was able to take us straight there with no difficulty. There is a duty rota at the crem there: it so happened that Uncle Jeff’s ceremony officiant was a retired bishop – wise, gentle, dignified. In that safe pair of hands, we had the best funeral imaginable. The funeral was on Monday 15th March at 1.15, so we went up on the Sunday and stayed at the beautiful Monk Fryston Hall (I recommend) overnight, returning to my mother’s place after a bite to eat following the funeral.

Tony had to get back for work in Oxford the following day, so he left me at my mother’s place near Cambridge, and after a bite of supper with us he headed back west. I stayed over with my mother, planning to take a train back down to Hastings in the morning. It’s a four-hour drive from Yorkshire to my mother’s place, and two hours on from there to Tony’s Aylesbury work-roost, so our minds were occupied with supper and general tiredness that night. My father didn’t phone as he often would, but then as he sometimes didn’t phone, that was not something we noticed. He had been given the option to come with us to the funeral, but finding long journeys and big gatherings too exhausting at the age of 82, he had been grateful to sit out that number.

As we chatted over a cup of tea in the morning, my mother asked if I would like to call in and see my father before she dropped me off at the station. I had not thought of this myself, but saw at once it would be an excellent idea. A solitary soul, he did not enjoy long or busy visits, but loved to see me – so we agreed upon that. Over breakfast, my mother called his home several times but got no reply. This wasn’t odd. He usually started calling her any time from 7am, but if he got on the trail of some project of his own he was often out of touch. What to do? I suggested we go over anyway, reasoning that if he was out we could put a note through the (mail-slot in the) door for him to find, and he would be happy that we had made the effort.

So we went over to his cottage. His car was still parked out back, and as his walking was no longer good enough to take a walk for fun, that meant he was home – so we knew we’d find him in. Walking down the garden path to the back of the house, we saw his blinds were drawn; but my mother said that wasn’t odd, he sometimes drew them if the sun was bright, which it was.

However the back door was locked, and my mother began to wonder if something was wrong. We went round to the front of the cottage, where we saw the curtains were also closed. This began to look a bit ‘uh-oh’! He could not be away if his car was there (are you seeing this gentle preparation we had?). What to do? If the front door was locked, neither of us had a key.

To our surprise, the front door actually stood open – not wide open, just a little ajar. The front door opens directly off the front garden into the living room, so he had a door curtain against drafts, which pulled back not to the hinge side but the opening side, so obstructed the opening & closing of the door, and he had an insubstantial doormat which had ridden a little over the threshold. I had to reach in and poke the curtain aside to be able to get in, and the curtain would have stopped any draft and hidden that the door was open – so I guess maybe that’s why it had got left that way.

But we felt relieved, and went in, thinking he must be busy with something. The ‘uh-oh’ feeling persisted however, especially as the reading lamp beside his chair was on. My father was a very tidy man, and the scatter cushions on his sofa were in disarray, which was not like him. The cottage was in silence, no-one answered when we called. We began to feel very apprehensive. We looked in the kitchen and the bathroom (adjoins the kitchen). No-one.

Now we began to feel scared. Realising it was unreasonable for my mother to go up first, I went up the stairs, calling for him. There are two rooms upstairs. The door to the first – his study – stood open, and I could see there was no-one inside. Even so, I gave myself a moment to look in and check all was well, because I was afraid to proceed to the bedroom at the end of the corridor, where the door was only ajar but I could see the light was on. And there was that smell.

It’s a few years now since I was as scared as I was approaching the bedroom. I glimpsed his chair overturned and rug disheveled. His front door had been open. Had he been attacked? Would he be alive? Would he be alone?

I went into the bedroom. He was lying face-down and mostly on the bed, his head resting on his arm as you do when you don’t feel well and you just make it there, and crash out before you raise the energy to crawl right into bed. He was dressed neatly in pyjamas, and his support stockings were round his ankles. The drawers to his clothes chest stood open (I realize now on piecing together what I saw that he was in process of going to bed, had been sitting in the chair taking off his support stockings which he would put in the drawer, had felt odd suddenly, stood up and staggered forward kicking the chair over, got to the bed – and got no further).

I saw that (in his body tissues) the blood had settled gravitationally, which meant he had been some while dead.

I called to my mother as soon as I found him – then realizing he was dead, I called that to her as well. So she came hurrying to the room, then, not wanting to see, wisely withdrew. She wanted her last memory to be a living man, not a corpse.

So we went downstairs and began the phone calls. Later, between answering questions of paramedics and police, I bethought me to go back to his bedroom, and stroke his head, commend his soul to the great journey home, place him in Christ’s safe keeping, tell him I loved him, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

It all had to go to the coroner and be investigated by the police of course, but all was well. His aorta split, and his death (he’d been in very good health for his age) was sudden, instant and unpredictable – no warning and nothing that could or should have been done.

His funeral was yesterday, in St Martins-on-the-Hill church, in Scarborough, Yorkshire. B.Bernard and Sons took care of the funeral.

Are you seeing the hand of God’s love in all this? If I had gone straight home (as I’d planned to) my mother would have found him alone. Pamela’s sister… Octon… Uncle Jeff… B.Bernard & Sons… the open door… so many odd coincidences (coincidences are all kairos-nodes) that handed my mother gently from one moment to the next, knowing that we are frail in old age and need to be carried with care, taking her through these inevitable deep and terrible losses with the greatest of kindness. Do not ever doubt there is someone watching over us.

Isaiah 46:3-4: you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs; I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you says the Lord.

The dawn has come. The sun has risen. My bedside light is not needed. I can hear power machines from the road works. The school bus has called for the little girl next door. It took a long time to tell you that story!

Liquid Simplicity



Sometimes the simplest things are stationed right before our eyes.

When we wake up in the morning the first thing we gravitate toward is the coffeepot.  When thirsty we head to the soft drink machine.

I was raised by parents who counted on coffee, soft drinks and beer to keep then hydrated.  Rarely did we drink water or even consider the beverage.

However, water is not only a simple beverage it is inexpensive and healthy also. Keeping a glass nearby to quench our thirst will not only help us stay hydrated in a simple fashion but save us time, money and storage space for other types of drinks.

A splash of lemon can be added to water if one is not accustomed to the taste.  This beverage is naturally calorie-free, so we can save money and perhaps our health by avoiding diet drinks that use chemicals to sweeten them.

There are some who claim that water can cure a variety of ailments.  While I am not convinced that this is the case, I am convinced that water is truly liquid simplicity waiting for us to drink it.

Try keeping a glass of water nearby to drink whenever you desire, and decide for yourself whether this facet of simplicity is for you.

Simplified Solutions

Sometimes simplicity means finding simple solutions to annoying situations.

Late last June I shaved my head in sympathy with a family member undergoing brain surgery. My hair has since been slowly growing back.

Growing back from baldness is challenging, and I have fussed and fought with numerous hair care solutions since then.

I have decided that instead of fussing with it—instead of using all of those products on my head daily, wasting an hour of time styling it just in case someone sees me outside walking the dogs—that I would just invest in a simple denim cap.

Now instead of worrying about if this hair or that hair sticks up like Alfalfa I can just go about my day.  Eventually it will grow long enough to lay properly but until then who cares? The time saved, the worry eliminated—is definitely worth the price of a simple hat.

Having Less to Clean


Simplifying your life can take the form of reducing things that you are obligated to do.  Cleaning is one of them.

One way to reduce the amount you have to clean is by removing your shoes at the door, outside the home even.

Leaving your shoes at the door will prevent a lot of dust and dirt from entering your home. If you have one spot at the door where shoes are deposited you will notice a significant difference in the dirt level of that area compared to the rest of your home.

The Japanese have done this for centuries to protect the tatami mats they use as flooring, and it is something that we can do to protect our floors as well.

By reducing the dust and dirt that enters the home, you will have less dust and dirt to clean.  This means that you will have to dust and vacuum less often, freeing up valuable time.

Another benefit is for your feet and your shoes. By allowing your shoes to air out regularly while you are in the home less bacteria will grow within them.  They will have time to dry out between wearings, giving a less hospitable home to these smelly companions.

You feet will also be freed from the damp and smelly environment of your shoes which may help with foot odor as well.

The Japanese have special house shoes that are worn while in the home. You can designate some simple sandals for this honor. 

I tried using the special set of shoes for the home.  I constantly forgot which pair I had on, wearing the house pair outside or the outside shoes inside.  As a result I gave up on that idea and just removed shoes entirely when I am in the house.  The difference in my kitchen floor alone is astounding.

Place a small rug near your door to hold your shoes.  This rug will catch the dust and dirt that falls from them.  Shake out this rug on a regular basis to remove the dirt from your house.  If you have an enclosed porch keep your shoes there and prevent any of that dirt from entering your home.

Sometimes the simple things can add up to save a lot of work.

The blessing of average

I had to chuckle on my commute yesterday. At 5 a.m. while it was still dark, I was driving down a highway with a posted speed limit of 50 mph. I was going about 50. It wasn't long before I had to brake for a car in front of me that was going about 35 for no apparent reason. I felt uncomfortable passing at that time, and as my turnoff was just a couple of minutes away, I just continued to creep along behind him. A few seconds later, a pickup truck zoomed up behind me. He too had to slow down, but only for a moment, as he couldn't stand it and passed the both of us. Three drivers, three speeds. I personally was too fast for one, too slow for the other.

This little scenario was a life lesson for me in one minute. There will always be people going slower than we are in life and others going faster. There will always be people smarter than we are and those not so intelligent. There will always be people more attractive, wealthier, talented, and healthier than we are - and the other way around. I can sing better than some folks, but not as good as others. I can quilt tinier stitches than some folks, but not as tiny as others. I can transcribe faster than some, but not as fast as others. This is why we can't constantly compare ourselves with our friends, neighbors, and even strangers. No matter how hard we try, odds are that we will always be somewhere in the middle. Feeling inferior because we don't measure up makes us unnecessarily depressed. Feeling superior because we are ahead of some other person just makes us unbearably vain.

It's not bad being in the middle, and it's not bad being average. Welcome to the club of normal!

By the way, speaking of going fast, I will be going very fast tomorrow as once more I take the remnants of my fear of flying and put them to the test. I am looking forward to flying to Tennessee (with daughter Rachel and 4-year-old Charlotte) to see my mom and my sister and her family, as well as whatever other relatives or friends I can squeeze in. This will be Charlotte's first time on a plane, so I am hoping I can be a good role model for her and put her at ease. I am certainly looking forward to the week ahead! (Tennessee - hold the tornadoes, please. Thanks.)

Simplifying This Blog

I realized last night that this blog was trying to go in two different directions.  One direction is simplicity and the other is frugality.

This is not fair to you.

As a result I have decided to start a new frugality blog entitled Living on $500 a Month of Less.  This blog will chronicle how low I can go financially.

I will be going through the older posts here on frugality and moving them to the other blog to better clarify and simplify the message at both places.

I hope that by doing this I can better serve both you and myself by better clarifying my posts.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Puzzle_Pieces_9296 (2)

Sometimes we get overwhelmed when we look at everything that needs to be done. The dishes are piled in the sink, dirty laundry is scattered through the house, the beds aren’t made and the dog has left you a gift by the door.

It just makes you want to cry, doesn’t it?

Stop looking at that big picture.  It is merely a giant puzzle of many little tasks. You don’t solve puzzles all at once, you solve them one tiny piece at a time.

Make a list of those tiny pieces, and focus on just one piece until it is accomplished.  Then, and only then, worry about another piece.

Soon you will look up and discover that you have finished the entire puzzle. 

Time to celebrate.

The State of the World

The world can be a scary place. Every media outlet brings us fresh news daily to affirm this. Violence, pain, injuries, death - poignant stories that make it seem as if the earth and humanity cannot even coexist anymore.

Take natural disasters, for instance. The recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have just underscored the violence that Nature can have. The victims can be young or old, rich or poor, hardworking folks or bums. There seems to be no discernment (except in the case of richer areas that have built stronger buildings). I’ve heard recent stories of lobstermen who’ve drowned in the ocean, campers lost outside who’ve died from hypothermia, skiers who’ve perished in avalanches. Areas in drought need rain for crops while other regions are overcome with disastrous flooding and mudslides. I know one verse in the Bible that has been interpreted as saying something like all of Nature is standing on tiptoe to see what the children of God will do....and these days I keep thinking that it might be said that all of God’s children are standing on tiptoe to see what the natural world is going to do - for it seems like a losing battle.

Added to the above are the tragedies inflicted by the biological world of our bodies. Disease is everywhere - again, striking no one in particular and everyone in general. From cancer killing young kids who have barely lived, to Alzheimer’s crushing the once vibrant minds of our elderly - there is no sense of fairness or justice. And let’s face it - the tortures of the mind and spirit can be as devastating as the tortures of the body.

Although it is probably true that we have contributed to these tragedies by our choices involving how we treat our planet and our unhealthy lifestyles, the bottom line is that a lot of life consists of unfair calamities beating us to a pulp, unexpected, undeserved, with no meaning whatsoever. This thinking is the origin of the infamous bumper sticker delicately translated as “Crap happens.” No way around it. You can maneuver good to come out of the situation, but you can never explain why it happened in the first place.

All in all, the world is full of strife and suffering. Whether it’s ourselves, our loved ones, or somebody we read about in the newspaper, we’re all affected and despondent. If natural disasters and disease were the only powers trying to bring us to our knees, that would be one thing. But the list does not stop there.

As if there weren’t enough suffering already, we seem to insist on adding to it. I’m one of the most accident-prone person I know. I’ve cut the skin off my finger when peeling potatoes, slipped on an olive-oil spill on the kitchen floor while carrying a pot of pasta in boiling water, “burned my face off” with fire starter and had to be taken to a burn center to be treated - all because I was either moving too fast or wasn’t paying attention. These are called accidents because they aren’t done with purpose or malice - they just happen because we’re not aware of our surroundings or thinking about other things. Some are just inconveniences and others are pure tragedies. I’ve read one too many horrifying stories of parents accidentally running over their own toddlers as the parents backed the car out of the driveway, assuming everyone was accounted for. It’s bad enough to cause an accident for oneself, but I can imagine the heartbreak a careless moment can create if it involves someone else as the victim.

Of course hurting others physically by accident is not the only way we inflict injury. We do the same thing with our words. Because we don’t think of the consequences or because, again, we are just not paying attention, we let words slip that can never be taken back once spoken, and we have unwittingly contributed to the lowering of someone’s self-esteem or said mean or hateful things that it takes a second to say but years to regret. I would bet we have all done this at one time or another.

First, nature’s indiscriminate fury - leaving us feeling helpless. Next, our own accidental contribution to the grief of our world - preventable. Finally, there is the pure evil around us - those who lack some kind of compassion or moral compass or whose greed or hatred or quest for power dominate their lives and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process - also preventable because they are human choices.

As I’ve contemplated the state of the world this week, the word "preventable" kept coming to the forefront of my mind, and my whole spirit is agonizing over what we have contributed as individuals and members of the global society to our own grief and suffering. And, as my favorite prayer states, “Help me to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and have the ability to know the difference,” I want to renew my personal goal of changing what I can - paying more attention, focusing, avoiding mistakes and accidents, being a presence of joy to the world (and myself) rather than bearer of pain, and in this journey I am praying that we all try to cut the preventable suffering in our lives. Lord knows there’s enough we’re stuck with from the get-go.

Do Not Forget

IMG_1710_MSND While you are pursuing simplicity there is one thing you must never lose sight of.

This one thing is simple yet complicated at the same time.  I can’t take credit for it however, Shakespeare said it best:

“This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Don’t follow my idea of simplicity.  Don’t follow your mother’s or the dude’s down the street. 

Follow your own….

Simplicity Recap…

This post has been moved and updated on my new blog, Living on $500 a Month or Less.  You can find the new updated post here.

I was awakened early this morning so I’ll post an update on the things I do to make life simpler and use less.
Instead of renting or having a house payment, I live in a paid-for older mobile home. with a lot rent of $100 each month.  This enables me to save money toward a piece of land of my own.
I work at home on the computer, so my commute is from the bedroom at one end of my home to the laptop sitting in the kitchen. This saves gas, dress clothing, eating out, etc.
My coffee this morning was brewed three days ago in a metal stovetop percolator.  I brew a pot at a time then reheat for my daily cup of caffeine.  I gave up on automatic coffee makers after spending years replacing them every few months to a year (failed hardware, dropped carafe, etc.). I paid $15 for this percolator new 3-4 years ago for faultless, loyal service. It heats the coffee on the stovetop. so it has no fancy parts to fail.
I take my used coffee grounds, dry them and place them in old socks as hidden sachets to absorb odors around the house and in the refrigerator and freezer.
Breakfast is generally late, and is actually more like brunch.  This enables me to get away with preparing only 2 meals a day instead of three. This morning I will eat a bowl of Grape Nuts, but sometimes I fix a breakfast hash with a potato, a piece of bacon and some eggs.  Big breakfasts are homemade biscuits with sausage gravy, all made from scratch. We very rarely buy things like Pop Tarts or instant breakfasts—those are treats in this house.
I use Fels Naptha, Octagon Soap, ammonia, Bon Ami, vinegar, baking soda and bleach to clean with.  I am using up some products purchased before I realised that I could clean just as well with simpler products—and save a lot of money in the process.  I wash dishes by hand using Octagon soap that I pay 79 cents a bar for.  It cleans just as well as those fancy dishwashing liquids that cost several dollars for a small bottle (and lasts a lot longer). I tried using Ivory Soap to wash dishes, but that didn’t work out.
Instead of going to the expense of painting, wallpapering, etc. I wash the walls and woodwork.  If the walls get in sad shape I will eventually paint some of them but I would rather set that money aside for a piece of land than concern myself with buying paint and paper right now.  In my opinion a paid-for piece of land is much more important that the color of a wall.
We no longer use paper towels here.  I have several rolls left over from the case I purchased a year or so ago that get used occasionally to wipe up things that would stain the cloth towels we have.  Kitchen towels get soaked in a sanitizer solution until wash day to help keep any stains from setting.  Cloth towels are also used instead of sponges to wash dishes, and changed after each use for sanitary reasons. I may be interested in conservation, but I refuse to risk the health of my family.
Instead of paper napkins we use bandannas coordinated with our casual kitchen.
We use family cloths instead of bathroom tissue, though we keep bathroom tissue around for guests or on the occasion when we decide to use paper instead of family cloths.  We have only been experimenting with family cloths since late January after a frozen pipe ruined most of our stock of bathroom tissue.  Of the six rolls of tissue that were spared water damage we still have five left.  This amazes me because in this house of females we normally went through 1 or 2 rolls of bathroom tissue a week.
When our last box of kleenex ran out we decided to use bandannas instead of buying another box.  I have a small collection of bandannas that I have used for tying up my hair on bad hair days, etc. so we are able to rotate bandannas regularly while being able to identify which cloth belongs to whom.  I’m not sure how much this has saved us since we used a combination of kleenex and bathroom tissue for our noses.  I normally go through the bulk of the tissue so I’m going to hazard that we have saved at least a couple of dollars so far. It was definitely a big mental change for me personally—even more so than trying the family cloths to my surprise!
I have been working to conserve electric use, but I am far from perfect.  Instead of multiple electric clocks we use our cellphones and my Palm Lifedrive as timepieces and alarm clocks. Amazingly it has made life calmer not having a clock in every room.  I do have a battery operated wall clock in the kitchen, but it rarely gets referred to these days.  We have had it for several years, but if it dies I am not sure if we will bother replacing it.  We didn’t bother replacing the one in the bathroom with it finally failed.
With the exception of the lights in the living room that are on a dimmer switch, all of our lightbulbs are either florescent or led. I try to use the led ones more than even the florescent, especially since they only use 1.5 watts of electricity compared to the 13 or 14 watts per florescent bulb.
The microwave and toaster oven are unplugged when not in use to avoid a phantom power load.  The same goes for the chargers used on the small electronics.
We don’t have a stereo, television, vcr, dvd or game machines. I’m sure this saves us not only the money that would be used to purchase them and care for them but also in the energy used to power them both on and off.  Our computers replace all of these devices.
Instead of a land line phone I use a Magicjack attached to my laptop which is connected to a cordless phone.  I decided that a cordless phone was a worthwhile investment compared to a corded phone for simple mobility.  The Magicjack costs $20 a year for unlimited calls in the United States (and I think Canada but I’ve never had a reason to call there to try). I use that whenever I’m home or around a high-speed internet connection to save on cellphone minutes.
My daughter and I both have AT&T prepaid cellphones.  She has the $1 mobile-to-mobile plan which only costs if she uses it, and while the expense is being shouldered by me currently I believe her father is going to start putting money on it. 
My cellphone has the $3 unlimited plan on it, so it costs me $3 on the rare days I use it but I don’t have to worry about how long I stay on the phone or what number I call that way.  I keep a texting plan on it as well which helps to greatly control the expense on that phone.  I tell people to text me instead of calling me when I’m out and about to avoid that $3 charge.  As a result I still have to put $25 on it every three months but I have a balance accumulating on it for those times when I need to use it several days in a row.
We have multiple computers here—that is our one big splurge.  I work on computers so I am forced to keep up with the most current Windows operating system (which gives me the perfect excuse to feed my computer habit lol). I also use linux instead of Windows for a lot of things because of the stability and the wealth of free software available.
I used to keep multiple computers running at all times for various tasks but have managed to reduce that to a single laptop running when I am awake.  This laptop is placed on my kitchen table to enable me to get lots of light without having to use electric and is connected to a usb hub that basically converts this puppy into a desktop. 
I use an external keyboard and mouse to save wear and tear on the laptop when I am at home, especially since I do so much keyboarding on the computer.  It is much cheaper to replace an external mouse and keyboard than it is to replace them on a laptop. This enables me to have an energy-efficient machine with a built-in battery backup portable enough to move through the home easily when I want to watch a movie in my bedroom or take it with me when I travel to visit or work .
My daughter has my old laptop that she uses to watch shows and play games.  I already had the laptop when I upgraded to this new one so I just gave it to her.
To save on heating expense I keep the thermostat to the furnace turned down or off on warmer days and use a kerosene heater near me in the kitchen to provide heat without having to heat the whole house to a higher temperature. This kerosene heater has belonged to my mother when she died almost 20 years ago and is still going strong.  It also serves as backup heat in power outages.  We also wear sweatshirts and sweaters as well.
I have a printer/scanner/copier but it stays unplugged and disconnected when not in use to save energy.  The occasional short fax is sent using Faxzero which is free for up to 2 faxes a day of up to 2 pages in length.  You can send longer faxes more often (or avoid the ad on the cover page) by giving them $1.99 via Paypal but I don’t mind the advertisements for what faxes I send. 
I also have the capability to send and receive faxes through my MagicJack but I generally tell everyone to just email me things to avoid hooking the modem to the phone and waiting!  I have yet to locate a free fax receiving service online that does not force you to install some type of software.
I have a desktop computer that I use as a movie converter, file server and backup, but I try to keep it turned off unless I need something.  I keep my commonly used music, photos, books, etc. copied on an external drive for quick access without having to fire up the desktop, with stuff I use daily copied onto the laptop.
I convert movies to Xvid format and place the discs in storage to save wear and tear on them.  That way when we want to watch a movie we just click on a file instead of digging out a disc.  We also watch television shows and movies online.
One thing I have not clamped down on is laundry.  I wear things more than once if they are not dirty, but if it is dirty I don’t hesitate to toss it in the wash.  Laundry detergent is homemade. For a couple of dollars I can make 10 gallons of liquid laundry detergent that lasts us a really long time.  Compare that to what you pay in the store.
I have discovered that ammonia works better than bleach for whitening clothes, so I use that instead of bleach these days.  It costs less than bleach so that saves as well.  It is also safer on clothes and towels so they last longer.  I even put a half cup in with my colored clothes.  It really seems to help with dinginess on older garments, so I consider that my color-safe bleach these days!
I use cold water to wash almost all of my clothes and always try to have a full load to wash.  I make sure the clothes have room to agitate in the water which seems to help them get cleaner.  I hang them out on the line on pretty days but if the weather is cold, rainy or overcast I just use the dryer.
Dishes are washed by hand in 2 dishpans.  One has hot soapy water to wash and the other is even hotter water to rinse and sanitize.  I air dry all dishes for convenience and sanitation reasons. Using this method I may use three to four gallons of water at most compared to whatever a dishwasher would use, plus I don’t have a dishwasher to purchase, care for, maintain, repair and otherwise be in my way besides suck up all of that electricity.
I am still a sucker for a hot soak in the tub, but I try to limit that to once or twice a week to conserve water.  The rest of the time I either shower or take old-fashioned sponge baths.
If I have missed some aspect of my life you are curious about, please comment and I will address it in another post.  I am not interested in saving money just to be saving it.  I do want to make a statement that we don’t have to use as much or spend as much to live comfortably as big businesses would have us believe, but I also don’t want to cramp my lifestyle just to save a couple of dollars.
For instance we don’t use bottled water, but I do keep a pitcher filter for drinking water because we prefer the taste, despite the fact that municipal water is safe to drink.  I am a sucker for soft drinks so I drink about a 2-liter a week, but I am working on cutting that down.
If we are out and want a bite to eat occasionally, we get that bite to eat.  Living simpler has enabled us to have more discretionary income so that we can do that without worry. 
I enjoy finding new, less expensive ways to do things so it is a bit of a game—and the less I spend, the more I can either save or the less I have to work to pay the bills. Both are good.
Have a nice day!

Pats Market in Brookport Illinois

While visiting the bank I decided to visit Pat's Market in Brookport Illinois.  They are located on the first street to your left as you come into Illinois on the metal bridge on Hwy 45.

They are a small, hometown type of grocery.  When you examine items you see actual price tags.  No scanners and bar codes in use here!

They have a decent selection of food and non-food items for a small grocery--they even rent movies!

While there I picked up a single bar of Kirk's Original Coco Castille Soap ($1.49), Bon Ami scouring powder ($0.79), Novel Wash Sudsy Ammonia ($1.25), and a four-pack of Stewart's Orange Cream Soda ($3.99) among other things.

They carried neither Fels Naptha nor Octagon soap, but they did have Borax.  Not sure of the size of the box, but it was over $4.00.  Since so many places like Kroger and Super-Valu in my area already stock Fels Naptha, I placed a request for them to please start stocking Octagon soap.  I gave them my number and plan to keep their number as well as visit them whenever I make a visit to my bank. 

This store was untouched by the mass-market technology so prevalent in modern markets. Their cash register receipt was very simplified: Grocery, Coke and 6% Misc.  I was charmed.

If you want to take a trip to a store that has eschewed so much "modern technology" please stop in to Pats Market on West 2nd Street.  To get exact directions you can call 618-564-3131 or click here for directions on Google.   Tell them that the lady who requested Octagon Soap sent you, and ask if they have the soap in yet :).

I didn't have my camera, but next time I go to the bank I will bring it along and snap a few photos for you.  This store is small enough they will actually listen to the customers, and will know you by name. 

Please give this little grocery some of your business!

Octagon Vs. Fels Naptha Soap

There are a lot of posts concerning Fels Naptha soap out there.  Most homemade laundry detergent recipes recommend it for it's cleaning properties.  However there is another old fashioned bar of soap out there that is not getting a fair shake.

Octagon Soap.  I found some at the Food Lion in Cynthiana, KY not too long ago and bought 2 bars.  One the packaging it says it is good as a laundry additive as well as for dishwashing and other things.  I have been using it around the house here and I love it.  It has a lemony scent that is more pleasant and natural than the chemical aroma the Fels Naptha contains.

I have used it to wash dishes, and Octagon Soap really does cut the grease!  It doesn't lather as much as traditional dishwashing liquid but I am very pleased with the results.  I've been using it for a couple of weeks now and no intestinal discomfort like I had when I tried using Ivory Soap to wash dishes.

I've got some Fels Naptha here, and while Fels used to advertise in days gone past that you could use it for washing dishes, I'm not sure I want to put that to the test.  I know that it no longer contains Stoddard Solvent but I gather it still contains petrochemical ingredients so that is a concern of mine.  Has anyone tried using Fels as a dishwashing soap?

Octagon Soap costs less than Fels Naptha (the bars I bought were priced at $0.79 each) and overall seems like it is more versatile than Fels.  I have yet to try it in the laundry however.  I plan to do that when I make some more laundry soap, but I have a lot of it on hand right now and don't want to get overstocked..

I believe that I will try to keep the Octagon on hand, by stocking up the next time I go to Cynthiana since I can't find it in Paducah KY.  Has anyone seen it around here or perhaps over in Brookport Illinois?  I believe that it is not only less expensive than Fels but just a tad safer to use...

Ivory Soap For Washing Dishes

I decided to try an experiment over the last several days.  On the theory that back in the old days soap was soap, I attempted to wash my dishes with Ivory Soap.

I tried it using the bar soap.  I found that while it lathered and cleaned okay, it left a film on the dishes that was easily seen on glasses even if I put vinegar in the rinse water.

My largest concern was an intestinal one, however.  When using the dishes washed in Ivory soap I encountered a case of diarrhea.  I am guessing that the film left on the dishes disagreed internally and caused the issue, for when I re-washed the dishes in regular soap the problem disappeared.

Just to be certain it was caused by using Ivory soap on my dishes I tried it again, with the same intestinal results. Since I don't enjoy diarrhea, I will have to look elsewhere for a more environmentally and frugal alternative to dishwashing liquid, and I cannot recommend the use of Ivory Soap for washing dishes.

Ammonia for Whitening Whites?

Yesterday I discovered an old bottle of ammonia under my kitchen cabinet. After some research I read that some use it to whiten whites and as an all-around laundry additive.

I decided to try it.  I had a load of whites ready to go today from all of the cleaning I did yesterday, and they were quite nasty, especially the kitchen towels...

I had a load from yesterday that I used my normal amount of bleach for comparison.  I normally use 2 cups of bleach to keep them as white as possible...

I took this nasty dirty load of towels and washed them using one cup of ammonia in place of the 2 cups of bleach I normally use.  Added blueing like normal (which I also used on the other load) and tossed them in the dryer.

I was amazed.  The ammonia-washed towels were whiter and brighter than the bleach-washed ones!  I took pictures of them and showed them to a friend of mine and she agreed:  the bleached towels look much older and harsher used, despite the fact that the towels are the same age and had been washed the same until today, when I experimented with using ammonia in the wash.

I am going to post some pictures so that you can see for yourself. The kitchen towels are all about 3 years old and have suffered heavy abuse.  The washcloths are about 2 years old if that, because I just bought a new pack this spring.  All of my whites get washed the same way with 2 cups of bleach and have been washed that way since I eliminated paper towels from our house.

The bleached towels have a bit of a yellow tint to them despite the blueing used.  According to Barbara, "The ones on the right [bleached ones] are just marginally okay, they are gray and darker, with more staining. They look grungy in the photo, especially in contrast with the ammonia wash."  She even asked if the ammonia-washed towels were newer, or perhaps less stained than the bleach-washed ones...

Here are some photos.  See for yourself..

I called the local Wal-Mart for ammonia pricing.  Here in Western KY the current price for 2 quarts of ammonia is $1.12, so for three quarts, the equivalent of a standard bleach bottle the price is $1.68.  Cheap bleach sells around here for around $1.75 for three quarts while name-brand bleach is closer to the $2 mark.  This makes ammonia less expensive than bleach, especially when you use only a single cup of it compared to the two cups of bleach I was using per load.

Note:  Dollar General sells the same sized bottle of bleach for $1 a bottle, which reduces the cost even more...

I'm not sure, but I have heard that ammonia is safer environmentally than bleach.  I know it is safe for colors, while bleach is not...

I'm kinda happy that I found that bottle of ammonia under my sink.  I know I'm glad I didn't just toss it after this discovery!


Today I cleaned the area underneath the kitchen sink. 

Not only did I discover duplicates of some items, but some other pointless things to eliminate.  Like the meat grinder that was missing the most important parts that was under that sink when I moved in!

I have a fear of running out of stuff for some strange reason. Hence the duplicate item issue. Most of the items were old cleaning supplies and were able to be condensed into single containers.  Some items are things that I simply do not use anymore and could be discarded.

Simplicity at times does not seem simple, especially when fighting with yourself. 

That said, I need to make an effort to remember to use up the cleaning supplies I no longer use.  I have the remnants of a gallon jug of Greased Lightning, some dishwashing liquid (which will be used to wash the car this summer) and the remnants of a gallon jug of Windex besides a partial bottle of ammonia (which I plan to try as a laundry additive and some other things) and maybe a cup of Oxy-Clean.

It was annoying to discover I had two almost full containers of flea spray for the animals, two containers of insecticide for the yard, two cans of insect repellent, two cans of compressed air, a bottle of floor shine that had never been opened, several rolls of trash bags in multiple sizes and three partially used bottles of liquid potpurri (NOT including the several bottles I have stashed in the other room).

I pooled the contents that could be safely pooled, emptied one of the bottles of liquid potpurri into the soapstone oil burner, used the last bit of deodorizing carpet powder and arranged the rest where the multiples are now grouped accordingly.

Two bags of stuff were discarded--mostly empty containers after pooling things together.  There is a lot more empty space down there now and will be even more once some of this stuff gets used up.

To reward myself for a job well done I treated myself to a long soak in a hot tub of bathwater.

You know, at times it seems like I have made no progress at all, but then I open the refrigerator and see the space empty of the unwanted leftovers that used to fill the space--see that it is actually quite empty in there despite the fact that we have a lot of food!  I see the pantry getting more and more organized as the things we actually use are being given attention while the things that aren't used so much are being used, given away, or discarded without being replaced.

I see a large decrease in the amount of cleaners I need to satisfy the need to clean, with a subsequent reduction in my expenses as well.  I see a reduction in the grocery bill, though the quality of food has stayed the same and somehow things seem a bit less chaotic around here.  I'm definitely not tripping over things like I have in years past, which is a wonderful feeling.

All in all it has been a productive day.  I hope your day went as well, and I now bid you good-night.

Simple Living

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius--and a lot of courage--to move in the opposite direction."~~E. F. Schumacher

Sometimes inspiration comes from mysterious places.  I found that quote in a Pure Living handout that is distributed in my area of Western KY.  I thought of you.

Have a nice day!

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Step Three to Simplicity: Decide on Priorities

Pursuing simplicity is hard to do when you're racing around trying to have it all.  When you try to be the best worker, the best parent, the biggest moneymaker, the homeowner with the best yard, the driver with the fanciest car--you spread yourself too thin and inevitably will fail at one or all of your endeavors. 

This is a quote from Robert Collier's book "The Secret of The Ages" published in 1926 in a 7-volume set and available for online reading here.  This is a quote from Volume 2:

"Do you know how Napoleon so frequently won battles in the face of a numerically superior foe? By concentrating his men at the actual point of contact! His artillery was often greatly outnumbered, but it accomplished far more than the enemy's because instead of scattering his fire, he concentrated it all on the point of attack!

The time you put in aimlessly dreaming and wishing would accomplish marvels if it were concentrated on one definite object. If you have ever taken a magnifying glass and let the sun's rays play through it on some object, you know that as long as the rays were scattered they accomplished nothing. But focus them on one tiny spot and see. how quickly they start something.

It is the same way with your mind. You've got to concentrate on one idea at a time."

Sit down, have a cup of your favorite libation whether coffee, tea or Starbucks--and make a list of what is important to you.  If there are a number of items on that list consider it well, then one by one eliminate all but one or two.  These are the most important things to your life.

Only after consciously deciding on your priorities will you be able to concentrate your focus on what is most important and simplify your life by decreasing focus and energy wasted on things that are unimportant.

The difference

One of the goals of simplicity is to be able to find joy in everyday pleasures. One blog I follow recently described the personal satisfaction in using an old-fashioned pen and paper to jot down lists. I responded that to me, a fresh, sharpened wooden pencil is my personal preference. I remember how my son Matt never liked the grainy feel of wooden pencils when he was growing up and he preferred a smooth mechanical pencil. For some, I'm sure, the only simple, satisfying solution would be to forget a writing utensil and paper altogether and quickly type a list on a laptop. My blogger wisely responded:

This is a perfect example of simplicity being different for different people.

A foundational principle of Methodism is something called the quadrilateral. How can various religions and denominations hold one book - the Bible - as sacred, yet firmly believe that it says things quite the opposite of what other religions and denominations believe it says? The difference is all in interpretation. Using what is called "the primacy of Scripture," (the main leg, shall we say), the quadrilateral states there are three other legs to this guiding system of belief - that every individual has to interpret Scripture using tradition, reason, and experience. I have thought for quite a while that these three methods of interpretation can easily apply to other areas of our lives, including the ongoing question of what constitutes simplicity.

As a lover of all things involving history, I fully agree that one's tradition has to be included in this. Tradition, whether owned by cultures or families or churches or other groups, has much to teach us. There is a reason that wisdom from the past has survived generation after generation. The caveat here is that tradition is not a static thing but instead is a living thing. Traditions evolve and adapt. Some old traditions which have lost their meaning morph into newer traditions - trying to honor the past without being chained to it. I definitely think tradition has a place when one is trying to discover what it means to simplify. The wisdom of the ages can teach, instruct, and inspire, certainly. But you cannot stop there. You can't inherit and use a tradition, for instance, that you find personally abhorrent, or one that you think died long ago, or one that you feel bound to just because great-aunt Dorothy said it was so.

Enter reason. Critics say we humans seem to be able to rationalize anything, and I suppose that is true. Sometimes emotional arguments and prejudices can overpower what we know in our hearts and heads is the right thing to do in our personal situations. The beauty of applying simplicity to our lives is the fact that, unlike joining an organization with pages and pages of rules to follow, and unlike joining a specific religious group which says it doesn't matter what you do as long as you believe the appropriate things, simplicity involves simple, reasonable changes in your life. Nutrition experts say that your chosen diet cannot be so extreme that it is impossible to adhere to in the long-term, and in the same way, personal choice to simplify has to be doable and meaningful for you - not your parents or friends or co-workers - but you. Maybe you can't recycle every bottle or cardboard box - but you certainly can try to recycle as many as you can. Maybe you can't afford regular purchases of expensive grass-fed, humanely raised beef - but a carton of cage-free eggs is within your weekly budget. Maybe you watch 20 hours of TV a week and decide to cut it to 10. Maybe you decide you can live with 15 pairs of shoes instead of 50. You can't afford solar panels for your house, but you can change to some energy-efficient light bulbs. For some folks, these changes don't go far enough. But for others, these small simplifying improvements in their lives constitute progress. This we should not belittle, for progress is always relative. With frequent introspection and analysis, you reason out your own life changes, where you want to go and how to get there.

And that brings me to the last foundational leg - experience. This is why each of us has a valid comment to bring to the table of any simplicity discussion. My whole being is made up of the total of all my life experiences - which are different from those of my husband and different from even those people I grew up with. They are unique to me, and they are valid, just as yours are unique and valid. The ugly reaction of intolerance is so many times the result of reluctance to acknowledge and fully grasp this fact. My experience teaches me what works for me, what improvements need to be made for me, what changes are appropriate for me, what priorities should underlie decisions that I make for me. I can accept advice, I can listen to opinions, but in the end, these are my choices based on what I have learned in my life. This is not a selfish thing - it is the only way I can function and be true to myself - and likewise, for you, it is the only way you can function with the same integrity, and Lord knows, to be able to answer the call to simplicity with integrity intact is one more step towards contentment and happiness.

So there you have it - my take on how simplicity is different for different people. We're all in this individually, and we're simultaneously all in this together. My goal is to make my choices based on my tradition, reason, and experience, and if we all work towards the goal of doing this based on what that means for each of us, we will collectively bring a richness to the discussion that can only come from the richness of our differences. And there, my friends, will be immeasurable blessing!

Second Step to Simplicity: The Terminator Test

Roll back the clock to 1984.  A crowded movie theatre shows the cult classic "The Terminator."

Sarah Connor is a waitress having a really bad day when finally a bratty child places a scoop of ice cream in her uniform pocket.  She looks at the mess and groans when her friend Nancy walks up and gives some sage advice:

"Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who's gonna care?"

We can follow this advice in our journey to simplicity.

When we look at the outdated covering on the walls, ask that question.  Who is going to care in 100 years if we wash that wall covering and keep it a while longer before deciding to reaplace it?

In a hundred years, who is gonna care if we drive a paid-for jalopy or a Porsche with an exorbitant car payment?

The answer is simple:  no one.

Ask the question about other things:  In a hundred years, who's gonna care if we spent more time working or with the kids and the answer appears--the kids will care, and their kids as well, for they will be deprived of the rounded personality of a child who had parents who loved him and made a point to spend time with him.  The kids will be deprived of your time, attention and love while you pursue more money.  You will care (should medical science progress to the point where we are alive in 100 years) that you missed those precious times of your child's life.

Some things don't qualify for the Terminator Test--safety and cleanliness come quickly to mind, but the test can help us to weed out what is most important to our life from the rest of the chaos surrounding us.

Using the test, I can decide that painting the paneling can wait a few months or longer if I just wash the walls.

Using the test, I can decide to drive my paid-for van for a few years longer.

Using the test I can decide to stay in my older paid-for mobile home instead of bowing to fashion and renting or financing a more traditional place to stay.

Using the test tells me that my daughter is more important than making the big bucks, helping me to decide what career choices to make.

What can the Terminator Test help YOU to decide?

First Step to Simplicity: Become Comfortable With Yourself

Christiaan wrote a thoughtful post Titled "Why You Should Not Fake it Until You Make it."

I had to point out this post because it is true on several different levels.

All of us grow up learning how to fit in, to be one with the crowd.  We are taught that if we dress a certain way, behave a certain way and live in a certain way we are normal and will be accepted.

When those "certain ways" do not fit us properly it shows, whether we want to admit it or not.

Part of simplicity is paring down to what is important to us--is it so important to fit in that we have to pretend to be something we are not?

Each of us has these decisions to make, and all of us has a different path to our true comfort zone.  While I cannot point out your individual path I can give you some examples from mine.

I was taught that a home was not a home unless it had certain rooms and furniture.  There had to be a living room in the front of the house, and it had to contain a couch, a coffee table, lamps and end tables at the very least.  These items had to be fairly new-looking and in good repair to avoid being "looked-down" upon.   Bedrooms HAD to have a traditional bed, the bigger the better.  If you could afford a guest bedroom or a formal living room you just totally rocked, whether those rooms got used or not.

Reality Check:  Why in the world must one have a stupid couch if it never gets used? Ditto for the television and big fancy bed. If people rarely come to visit, why waste money and space on formal living rooms and guest bedrooms?  Why not take the money and time invested in those areas and put them to something much more important and enjoyable for YOU?  Would it not be more enjoyable to take the extra rent/house payment money and take a vacation to somewhere fun?  What about pay off a nagging debt if that is your preference?

What is more important to you?  Answer that key question and you are well on your way to a simpler life.

For me, it was easier to sell my pretty couch, loveseat and canopy bed than it was to beg people to move it.  It was easier to get rid of the stuff than it was to continue tripping over the things.  Sure, some may look at me askance when they realise my bed is actually a futon that I stretch out on the floor at night, but by day I actually have a room that can be used for other things. Instead of a couch and loveseat taking up all my precious living room real estate I have a small seat for the occasional visitor that serves quite well as the puppy perch it actually is--an item so small and light that I can move it about easily by hand and transport without issue in my van.  As a result the living room is able to contain the things that really do give us pleasure: our computer, which is our television, phone, stereo, game machine, etc., and Katie's beloved critters.

I could not make these steps until I realised what was really important to me.  Extra space, transportablilty, clean-ability--these are what is important to me, and these are the goals I seek as I journey through this life.

What is important to you?

Time Magazine Article on Living with 100 Things

Time Magazine featured an article titled  How to Live With Just 100 Things.  This article talks about David Bruno's challenge to do just that.  There is also a link for 5 Steps to Clutter-Free Living.

If you are serious about simplifying your life, you may want to read these articles for inspiration.

Anyway, I just ran across those articles and I thought of you.  Have a nice day!

Hi ho my friends

In case you are wondering where on earth I have got to, here I am on my own small planet still, but writing a book.

I have set myself the task of writing 2,000 words a day throughout Lent - actually as Lent has 46 days, that might get more massive than I want it - but anyway I will write every day, probable target of about 80,000 words. Made it to just under 28,000 so far.

More on what the book actually is once it's complete - but it's another novel.

Actually it's been a strange time - old friends have suddenly materialised out of the woodwork all over the place - on Facebook, by email, on the bus, walking along the street: all wanting to come over and catch up on news and drink tea. In addition to which the church where I mostly go has equally suddenly stopped steadfastly ignoring me and asked me to teach Sunday School.

That last was seriously odd. Bringing forward our move from Aylesbury to Hastings came in part from asking God what ministry I was supposed to be doing now, having stopped being a Methodist minister/preacher/member. The 'still small voice' came inside my heart that the way to go would be moving back to Hastings, and ministry would be not an individual thing but a family thing, and the time was now. So we did that. I have had difficulty establishing roots in a church here again though, for one reason or another. I almost gave up on chapel attendance, except that the Bible says don't do that (give up). And I was sitting in chapel on Sunday morning, turning over in God's company what contribution I was supposed to make to the household of grace - then the thought came to me, 'Sunday School'. Afterwards, I went into the place where they have coffee, in search of some information - and found the people to be quite desperately short of Sunday School teachers. So I said I'd help out.

This is just personal news rather than thorts - so, sorry if you came looking for thorts and there are none here: it's just that all thorts are being poured into my Lent book right now (and most of my time as well).

Just waving, then, and saying hi to you my friends.