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Less Is More
Meditations on Simplicity, Balance, and Real Abundance
By Mina Parker, DANIEL TALBOTT
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2009 Mina Parker
All rights reserved.
Savoring Simplicity and Cultivating Clarity
Imagine you found a map hidden away in a dusty corner of the attic. It has all the requisite attributes: yellowed parchment, fraying edges, and a big red X marking the spot. Hidden treasure, and only you know how to find it. If you found that map at the age of thirteen you would step right into that adventure, doing everything in your power to find the cache of gold. If you found it today, would you do the same? I hope so.
In our adult lives we're always on the lookout for what can feel like more elusive treasures: extra time, extra money, a chance to make a better life for ourselves and our children. We already have the map, though we may have lost it momentarily in some secret back room of our psyche. The X sits squarely over the life we want to lead, the life that is free for the taking if we only take the time to find it.
To follow the paces toward that hidden treasure in our everyday lives, all we have to do is rediscover the wonders of clarity and the rewards of simplicity. Step by step, we can easily reclaim the good life through a renewed attention to the little things that matter most. Once found and claimed, that's a treasure chest that can never be pirated away.
Less and More
Fear less, hope more; Eat less, chew more; Whine less, breathe more; Talk less, say more; Love more, and all good things will be yours.
This proverb is one of my absolute favorites, and if I followed it to a tee there isn't a doubt in my mind that I would be happier by leaps and bounds every day. The first is a biggie: fearing less. My fear is often linked to an out-of-control to-do list, one that's so long it spreads onto bits of paper that travel from desk to purse to nightstand. Its unwieldiness makes me shrink just thinking about it, and I probably spend more time fretting about the list than accomplishing anything on it.
Choose what you're going to do less of today, and reap an unexpected reward of more.
So I made a commitment to replace the fear and worry with a plan—I would do one task, or take one significant step toward completing a more complex task, every day. Just one. I immediately worried that one thing a day would never be enough, that the monster list would get even longer, but I resolved to stick with it and see what happened. I put the list in a drawer out of sight for the day and focused on the task, and it turns out that when I went back to the list before going to bed I was able to cross off five things at a time— things I had managed to do on the side, as I went, without too much concentration or effort. What a wonderful feeling!
Your Magic Number
No man's fortune can be an end worthy of his being.
—Sir Francis Bacon
I'm thinking of a number between one and a million. Can you guess what it is? Many of us walk around with a dollar amount in our heads—an amount that, if we had it, would make us feel prosperous, secure, and successful. It may fluctuate week to week or year to year. It may be unconscious or it may be thought out, as in the case of the comedian Jim Carrey who, before he became famous, buried his father with a check for ten million dollars as a promise to himself and a tribute to his dad.
What is your magic number? How does it feel as you work toward it?
There's nothing at all wrong with the dollar amount you have in your mind. Making plans, relishing future success, working toward a goal are all worthy and exciting endeavors. We only have to be careful of welding our whole existence to that monetary goal. We have to keep in mind that we're not on this earth to give our money a great life piling up in the bank; the money is here to help us live better. If we can keep that subtle reminder with us every time we imagine our future fortunes, the amounts we actually have and the ones we imagine we might have one day can change, but the feeling of prosperity and contentment will be the same, and that's what counts.
What Will Tomorrow Bring?
Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.
"Hindsight is 20/20," goes the cliché. It often takes some distance of time or space to sort out the complexities of a difficult problem. But when we do, the whole thing shrinks, as if our minds and hearts have let go of the difficulty of the situation and found a clear, essential truth.
See the simple answers all around you.
Think of being right out of high school or college—full of passion and anticipation and probably some fear. What will my life look like? Who will I share my experiences with? Which obstacles will I leap over and which will block my path for longer than I might hope? Wondering what life will be may be the single most complicated question we face, and yet the answer can be nothing but simple. It will be what it will be, a sequence of events, an accumulation of hopes, relationships, hard work, and difficulties. There is no figuring out the journey beyond putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward into it, whether or not your steps are sure.
We can use Dr. Seuss's wonderful quote to remind us that the 20/20 vision we long for as we peer into the future can be accessed in the present if we just refocus on what we have, where we are now, how we feel about it, and what we can do today to build our lives. That way we can leave tomorrow for tomorrow, and yesterday to the history books, and complicated questions will lose their power to paralyze.
The Taste of Home
We all have hometown appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown left behind.
Ripe red tomatoes. Fish caught this morning. Maple syrup. Corn tortillas made the old fashioned way. Smell and taste, two of our senses most strongly related to emotional memory, can carry us home in an instant. Hometown food is simple food. It's even better unadorned because it's fresh and pure. Often, the simpler the taste, the clearer the memories that flood in: Fourth of July fireworks, a night swim in summertime, or the warm ache of legs coming off the slopes and into the lodge for some hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream.
Smell and taste your way to some wonderful memories.
When you're going through a rough time or facing a difficult problem, one of the best remedies is to take a moment or a whole day to go back to the simple life, at least in your cooking and eating. Devote some time to simple comfort food: a bowl of chili, a cup of tea, chicken noodle soup.
Bye Bye, Extra Stuff
Order is a lovely thing; on disarray it lays its wing, teaching simplicity to sing.
I recently heard a friend talking about how she had worked with someone to declutter and organize her home. The process lasted a couple of months with biweekly sessions and concentrated on helping change lifelong habits of mess and disorganization. My friend was shocked that she lost ten pounds over the course of the sessions, without even trying. She mentioned it to the organizer she'd hired and the woman laughed, "Oh, that happens all the time. I should start including it in my brochures!"
Encourage yourself to simplify, simplify, simplify and strip away what's unnecessary.
I don't know what kind of science might be behind this—are you burning extra calories heaving stacks of paper and stooping to sweep up junk? Are you replacing snack time with conscious energy aimed at cleaning and clearing out? Is it just an extension of the metaphor, that as you shed stuff you shed pounds? Is an organized kitchen or fridge a healthier one? I think most likely it's a combination of all of these, and this reminds me that we are whole beings, and what we do in one part of our life ripples into all the others.
Too Much Is Too Much
It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.
—William of Occam
I went to see a play with my husband the other evening and we both came out disappointed and underwhelmed. The production was beautiful, with lavish period costumes and a lot going on. My husband summed it up by saying, "They had too much money." It seems strange to suggest that anyone in the arts might need less money, in an environment of shrinking resources all around. But what he meant was something more subtle, and more difficult to articulate: that if there had been less money there might have been more—and better—ideas about how to spend it. The thought would have had to be cleaner, clearer, and the end result would probably have been much more satisfying.
Everything in proportion, whether less or more.
This doesn't mean that all expense is wasteful—some kinds of excessiveness can be spot on. In fashion, for example, a pair of fine, handcrafted shoes might seem excessive to some people, but the artisan who makes them has a sense of balance and the rightness of his materials and methods, and the result can be truly remarkable. In the right perspective, those shoes might be perfectly suited to a particular function, and not considered over the top in the least.
It's just as unpleasant to get more than you bargain for as to get less.
—George Bernard Shaw
Often an older generation will look at the lives of younger children and say something quaint and patronizing like: "You kids are spoiled. When I was a child all we needed was a tin can to have fun." Some of this is just a trick of memory—I'm sure that tin can could be just as boring as a video game is now, but there's also a truth there. A child who is given everything she wants immediately and without effort will soon lose the ability to motivate or regulate herself, to hold out and work toward her desires, to imagine things that are not in front of her face.
Look at a tin can and think of ten fun things to do with it, and then go back to some modern technology and enjoy that too!
It might not be very pleasant to get less than we want or have bargained for, but getting more can be its own curse, especially if it saps us of our imagination or our drive to create more, do more, achieve more. We can take it as a blessing when our wish list is not yet fulfilled, and know that the feeling of wanting something is a wonderful and positive thing. It's far better than being apathetic as we sit in the middle of too much of everything we might ever want. That seems like its own special form of torture.
Mum's the Word
I like people who refuse to speak until they are ready to speak.
A friend of our family had a child who was over two years old before he said much of anything. He would make some noises, and got very good at conveying his meaning without words, even to perfect strangers. He was evaluated by doctors and speech therapists, and nobody found much of anything wrong with him. His parents were beside themselves, worried that he wasn't developing normally and frustrated that no one seemed to be able to help them.
If you don't have anything real to say, you needn't say anything at all.
Then one morning he walked into the kitchen where his mother was doing dishes and said, "I want a piece of toast, please." Clear as day. His mother's jaw dropped to the floor and the child, a bit annoyed, repeated "toast, please!"
I don't know if he didn't speak because he wasn't physically ready, or because he felt he was being understood fine without speaking. His mother's thought, and it seems right to me, is that he is fundamentally a kind of perfectionist. That he didn't want to be caught with his tongue wagging before he knew the words would come out just right. He knew he wanted to skip baby talk altogether, so he just waited until he could.
In an age of twenty-four hour talking heads on the news and constant electronic headlines, messages, and updates, I find myself longing for people who don't say a word until they are good and ready. How refreshing.
Bit by Bit
To be satisfied with a little, is the greatest wisdom; and he that increaseth his riches, increaseth his cares; but a contented mind is a hidden treasure, and trouble findeth it not.
A close friend of my family's, a woman with whom I spent many happy afternoons when I was a child, bought a diamond ring with aluminum cans. It was not a direct exchange, of course, and it took years to accomplish. She would simply pick up discarded cans everywhere she went. This was long before it was chic—or even common—to recycle. She turned in the cans for a few cents each, and kept the money tucked away. She chose a beautiful antique ring in a store and kept it in mind as inspiration and motivation, and when she finally made enough to buy it she wore it every day, and loved telling people how she earned it. She got a real kick out of seeing their reactions.
Don't let the little stuff get you down—let it add up to something better!
Any simple action we do with a sense of purpose is multiplied through repetition. Religious teachers know this, athletes know this, even someone knitting a sweater knows this. Repetition can turn even the most mundane action, like picking up discarded cans, into something precious. Think of this the next time you're washing dishes, or writing an email, or tuning up your car. Little things can seem trivial, but put them in their greater context and we can appreciate them a bit more.
A Good Soak
I can't think of any sorrow in the world that a hot bath wouldn't help, just a little bit.
I once knew a woman who took a hot bath every day. When I met her I was working seventy hours a week at two jobs and felt lucky if I got in a shower every other day. Soaking in a tub seemed like an impossible indulgence (and, worse than that, one that would have to be earned only by completing a halfhour session of vigorous tub scrubbing, given the state of the grout in there).
A bath might not solve all your problems, but it certainly can help a little bit.
It's not that she was in some elite class—she worked hard too, but she just made taking that bath one of her priorities. I resolved to find the time to enjoy that luxury at least once a week. There is no simpler change you can make than taking the time to bathe the slow way. You don't even have to linger very long. There's just something about full submersion in piping hot water that reboots the system. After all, it's the state in which we all started life—floating, safe, and warm.
A Good Laugh
A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.
—William Arthur Ward
I don't care what kind of thing makes you laugh—for my grandfather it was jokes so raunchy they'd make Howard Stern blanch. My son has been gonzo for slapstick since he was six months old. My mother loves puns, even the silliest ones. No matter what does it for us, we all could stand to fulfill our need to laugh more often. Laughing oxygenates our bloodstream, fills us with endorphins, can even change our brain chemistry. Laughter is solace, medicine, a tension diffuser.
Do your best to crack someone up today, and give in to giggling whenever possible.
Perhaps more importantly, a cultivated sense of humor is the most direct line I know to finding balance in your life. It keeps your ego in check to laugh at yourself; it lifts your spirits to let yourself be tickled even on the darkest days. Laughing with friends gives us the chance to deepen our relationships and learn new things about each other.
It's not easy navigating through the difficult moments in our lives, and there are scores of situations in which it would seem almost impossible to imagine yourself laughing. But if you're open to the possibility of finding joy in adversity, delighting in absurdity, or just plain exchanging dumb punch lines, you'll find yourself and those around you are better off and more ready to meet the challenges you all face.
Down to the Skivvies
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Additionally, as Dorothy Parker quipped, "brevity is the soul of lingerie." Some things are just better smaller, shorter, tighter. But in lingerie as in witticisms, the fit matters most. It's got to make sense, be suitable in some way, in order to go the distance. Whether you're using humor to make a point or donning lace to entice and inspire, stretching the limits of propriety is best done in the spirit of less is more. Simple is good, but don't forget to leave a little something to the imagination. In either case, you probably get more out of the words or the undergarments when there's at least a bit of work to be done to expose the— ahem!—truth of the matter.
Excerpted from Less Is More by Mina Parker, DANIEL TALBOTT. Copyright © 2009 Mina Parker. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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