Simplicity: A Very Short Mennonite Memoir
“The more we have, the less we own.”
I grew up in a simpler age, the 1950’s. We lived on a 100-acre dairy farm.
We were Mennonite.
I should know all about simplicity, right?
Of course, it’s not that simple.
Recently someone asked for advice on how to simplify his life.
In turn, I asked for advice among my wise friends.
One of them rephrased the question. Why do I want to simplify my life? What will sustain me in my quest for simplicity? Then the what question: what do I want to simplify? My consumption? My schedule? The how questions can follow.
That’s the response that dug itself into my spirit. As a result, I did something this morning that hurt a little. I deleted an entire blog post draft. It was full of practical advice about simplicity, including a lovely video for inspiration.
I’ve wasted it. Deleted it. No amount of repeating Thoreau, or singing Shaker hymns makes our lives more simple. We’ve all heard these. Profound as they are, they seem impossible to implement without becoming a monk. And if you think life in a monastery is simple, just read Thomas Merton’s journals.
In a post about simplicity, it seems fitting to strip away the practical advice to go to the essential question first.
Do you crave simplicity? Why? Why not? What does simplicity look like to you?
Have you found a way to sustain your search?
The question implies that finding simplicity is not easy and that we need each other. Please leave your questions, and responses, below.
Though I’m sure your other piece would have been good, these are great questions… lots of depth and meaning there.
You wrote, “if you think life in a monastery is simple, just read Thomas Merton’s journals.”
I say something similar, “if you think growing up as a mennonite on a farm in the 60s was simple, you haven’t met my family.”
Ha, Janet. I know what you mean. Now all I have to do is unpack all that complexity.
There is a simplicity beyond complexity. That’s the kind I am reaching for. Thanks for recognizing that.
Thanks also for starting the conversation. And, if you care to, could you say more about the complexity of Mennonite farm life as you experienced it?
Some of the complexity of my past comes from the fact that I had a turbulent home life… lots of insecurity issues which caused control and domineering issues. And it was very important that others didn’t see that junk… everything was to appear perfect to anyone outside of the family, and obviously that causes strife, not simplicity and peace.
I don’t have the fondest memory of growing up strict mennonite, because the personality issues and mennonite issues tended to blur together… but I’ve since learned (who am I kidding, I’m still learning) to separate the two.
I often turn to a book called Simple Days by Marlene Schiwy. She is a writer, like many of us, who struggled with this very question. Maybe because, like her, I don’t like the constant PR and marketing aspect of writing and teaching, I was drawn to it. Also because, like her, I love to walk and sew and eat muffins, and maybe needed someone else to say that was enough.
Enough. That word holds so much power if we can only use it more. And really penetrate its meaning. Thanks for your visit, Linda. I hope you found it refreshing and affirming of your choice to walk and sew and eat muffins. Done slowly and mindfully, these practices will weave themselves into your writing. They already have in this comment. Thank you.
btw… how do I put a picture on my profile for my comments?
Janet, have you made a Gravatar? http://tadahsocialmedia.com/2012/06/how-to-have-your-photo-show-up-when-commenting-on-blogs/
Thanks for coming back and offering a little insight about the complexities of your own childhood. I picked the Meister Eckhart quote at the beginning because, in our case, it explains a lot of what was not simple.
Your questions make me pause. Simplicity really is not easy to attain.I can’t help but think it is right in front of me- if only I will stop falling prey to all the noise and distraction surrounding me;if only I will just learn to sit and listen and stop trying to tend to every loose end; if only I will let my mind stop racing with all the things I need to do. I love your realism- we can’t all be monks but how do we find simplicity? I don’t have a lot of answers but I appreciate your questions. How brave to delete all your work. I’m sure it was great but what you have presented is profound and thought-provoking. The discussion so far has been enlightening. I’ll be interested in what others have to say. Thanks!
Yes, simplicity is a kind of peace that passes understanding. For most of us it comes only in snatches, at first. Later, if we have paid attention to what those moments have taught, we can dwell longer in the center of the stormy noise. I know you do that. I can feel it in your gracious comments. Thank you.
Why do we crave simplicity? I think our soul was designed for rest but that we have to struggle a lot before we are able to accept it. My favorite simplicity quote is credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
I guess to me simplicity is a state of mind, being at peace and seeing who I am in God’s eyes. Maybe I am off the wall…
Not off the wall at all. I also think it’s more about a state of mind… than any era, time, place, culture, etc.
Hi, Katie, I love your definition. Thanks for your comment. As Janet says, it’s not off the wall at all! I think you also are speaking about creation itself and the way in which our individual souls are restless until they rest in God, as Saint Augustine said in his Confessions.
Simplicity is a hut in northern Belize where no one is in a hurry, and getting food and water becomes the main focus of your day. Simplicity is when the electricity turns off, and your family huddles around a flickering candle and talks.
Oh good, Sonia! A very concrete image that shows the power of of the poor to instruct the rich in the ways of simplicity. And also that the best things in life are not things, as a bumper sticker I like says.
Your mentioning of the deletion of you blog message draft (complete with video) conjured within me the following thought. Perhaps being willing to throw out the first draft and explore another approach is an example of seeking symplicity.
Yes,Clif, the decision to eliminate the draft and start over with the questions resembles the process we go through as we try to simplify our writing and our lives. Thanks for making the analogy!
I thought the questions were more important than the advice, and the number and quality of responses here seem to support that hypothesis.
Sometimes a short, provocative post engages people more than an exhaustive (exhausting?) list of helpful suggestions.
But in case you’d like to see 72 ideas for how to simplify, here are some good ones:http://zenhabits.net/simple-living-manifesto-72-ideas-to-simplify-your-life/
It’s comforting to me that this question plagues not just those of us living in this cluttered, complicated, busy age. More than 50 years ago, Anne Morrow Lindbergh fled to Florida’s Captiva Island and in one of her meditations, challenged herself to find a path to simplifying her life.
One thing I’m learning is that my possessions really weigh me down. The getting and maintaining of them. I try to have a rule: If one comes in, two go out. So, if I buy a book, I give away two. The same goes for nearly everything else.
I started this when I realized how much I like the freedom from my own possessions when I’m on vacation—the airiness, the sense of space even flows into my mind allow me to think better, write better.
Thanks so much for raising this questions—which also serves as a reminder.
Hi, Lynette. Oh, I like your rules! Another friend calls this the Steady State principle. Traveling light wears well on you. And it helps you answer the why question. We can fly when we are lighter! Thanks for stopping by. Hope to connect over on your blog soon.
Simplicity is tough in the world that we live in. I find simplicity in solitude, taking long walks, listening to the early morning bird chorus, working in the garden, sipping tea while listening to fabulous music, writing in my journal where I don’t need to be careful about what I say, and preparing and eating fresh foods that I have grown or bought at the farmers market.
It’s when I’m out and about in the world at large that I crave being home where simplicity reigns. Of course, being an introvert has a lot to do with it as well. I love peace and quiet and without it, I get stormy.
You know yourself so well, Joan. You’ve given us another reason to simplify, because when life gets too complex we cannot bear the weight of it by ourselves. Great last line: “I love peace and quiet and without it, I get stormy.”
And without giving yourself all that good food and meditation/journaling time, you wouldn’t be able to name what you need as an introvert.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.
I do crave a simpler life, but I don’t think I’ve given enough thought to what I want to simplify. Those are good questions to consider!
I can say generally that, for me, a simpler life would not include rushing–moving fast sometimes, but not ruuuusssshhhing. It would involve less “keeping up” with everything that’s going on. And a simpler life would include doing more things for myself–less dependence on convenience for convenience’s sake.
You’ve given real thought to this question I can tell, Tina. Yes, the why is the most important thing to address, and it feels more like groping than like complete enlightenment.
You, too, have identified your needs and found some keys to separating them from mere wants.
And sometimes the older, less convenient way is so much better than the modern way. So true in food preparation, and perhaps in lots of other areas.
As a single mom to a toddler son, I could say it will be another 18 or so years before my life will become simpler but, in fact, having my son in my life has inspired simplicity.
I walked away from a thirteen-year elementary school teacher career to raise my son. While I don’t make nearly as much money as I did then, nor do I have the health benefits that come with teaching, I am now able to enjoy the seemingly small but priceless moments in our days.
I sleep in when he sleeps in; I sit and watch in wonder as he plays; and I lie on the floor playing cars with him any time of the day!
In its newfound simplicity, I find that my life is much richer than it was when I was making more money!
As always, Shirley, I enjoyed reading your post!
Your clarity and your joy in your son just shines through these words, Sara. Thank you for sharing this story.
You remind me that one of the questions above is “what will sustain me”?
I hope that being part of this conversation helps sustain you.
What a wonderful post, Shirley. Like poetry.
I HAVE simplified my life—I gave up farming! The most complicated, crazy, wonderful, awful, necessary human practice. As you know.
You didn’t quote Thoreau so I will:
“The farmer is attempting to solve a problem by a means more complicated than the problem itself.”
When I was farming, I realized the simple life was life in a condo. Not sustainable in the long term maybe, but far simpler than raising food.
So . . . now I teach, write, read. But my wife’s job is not simple, not at all. She’s a university president, which you also know something about.
I think we both have to retire to truly begin to simplify.
Meantime, this makes me want to reread WALDEN, one of my favorite books.
Ha! I know what you mean about farming. Do you think hunters and gatherers led more simple lives? More likely “nasty, brutish, and short” ones.
Loved the Thoreau quote and the fact that you offered one that is not as well known as “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” And that you want to reread Walden.
We tend to romanticize simplicity. “It’s out there, beyond me. I’ll reach it after ______. Some other people know the secret. Some day I’ll find it.”
I can’t think of a less simple job than that of a university president, but I can imagine you and your wife enjoying a season of life with lots of reading, writing, and silence in it. Maybe even some travel. 🙂
Here’s another of my favorite quotes, which I read in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas when I was a young mother with baby on one hip, papers to grade on another, and a dissertation waiting on the desk.
Gertrude Stein asked her professor at Johns Hopkins, William James how to simplify her life.
“Complicate your life all you will. It must needs simplify.” he told her. (warning: quote is from memory and not from the source.)
One of the reasons I chose “to prepare for the hour of my death one good day at a time” for a mission statement is that we DO all simplify if we are given time at the ends of our lives. The scale of value then is very clear. I hope to keep trying to be that clear before I die.
And yes, retirement from an academic career helps.
By the way, friends. Your comments here are very sustaining in my own search. Thank you.
Simplification is often in the eye of the beholder. If we’re making a living and raising children, what is to be removed? Mainly I think craving “stuff” and filling our lives with too many possessions is what complicates most people’s lives and doesn’t add to happiness.
Amen, Sister! And we need to help each other remember this. Thanks for helping me today.
Our staff had a conversation once with Wendell Berry and his wife, who dropped by our office. I remember a great line from that chat: “There’s nothing simple about the simple life.” He was reflecting on their experience of moving from New York City back to the family farm in Kentucky.
So true, Richard. And isn’t it wonderful just to be in the same room with Wendell Berry? Being in his presence makes one want to live a better life–so wrestling with simplicity all one’s life does yield blessings others can recognize, feel, and perhaps emulate.
Thanks so much for being the “wise friend” in the post above. Yes, I’m outing you. 🙂
Good questions. Simplicity seems scary to me. Iwould probably have to get in touch with things and places that are more comfortably left in the deep, dark recesses of wherever those places are. Then when I think about what we used to think was “simplicity” the reality becomes clear simplicity was a farse; simplicity was very complex.
Isn’t it interesting that words intended to be direct and easy become complicated and difficult just because we cannot seem to live them in their pure form?
Maybe true simplicity can only be found in the dark? That’s where paradox seems to thrive.
Thanks for joining the conversation, Joe. You added a new dimension.
I am enjoying this discussion. Thank you, Shirley for getting it started.
When I retired, I bought the little book, Living the Simple Life, by Elaine St. James. She writes about her quest for simplicity and tells of a time when she went off to a hermitage for four days with two satchels of personal items that included books and magazines, shoes and other items that she just might need.
“I lugged all this baggage up a couple of flights of stairs and into my simple room, which was suddenly no longer quite so simple.” she writes.
I often carry too much with me. This is true for me in a literal as well as a figurative sense.
So, to bring this back to one simple operational reality, today I will clean out my closet (again) and dispose of what I seldom use.
This story is so well-timed for me, Shirley. I have begun to pack my bags for twelve days in England. I am going on a pilgrimage that will include 25 miles of walking to Canterbury. I have learned that just a few items of clothing, good shoes, and a notebook are all I need.
Now, I hope to practice what I preach spiritually also. Sometimes that is even harder than travelling light physically.
every person must answer this question for him/herself, because every life has its own unique set of circumstances. There is no one answer. As one who lives with several chronic life “dynamics”, the core — my reference point, I suppose — is this: God is. I am wobbly. Simply that.
Elsie, thank you for joining this conversation. Yes, “every life has its own unique set of circumstances.” And our attempts to simplify often remind us of our unique wobbliness.
Knowing that others are engaged in the search, failing, and starting over helps us experience a kind of collective grace. I have felt that this week with all of the readers here as I tried to move through a full schedule with mindful attention to each day’s needs.
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