Guest Post, Desirae Matherly: Some Notes Toward an Essay on Simplicity

SimplicityIt’s mania when I begin to eye the furniture in my home and plot its disappearance. Once, when I was two and twenty, I so vacated my home of objects that my best reading spot was a plastic lawn chair with a blanket cast over it. To have something temporal meant freedom; I could give it away without sentiment. I sold two-thirds of my books that year. Three comfy chairs and two thrift store sofas gone. Cleaning house is easier when there’s nothing in it.

A year ago I discovered Marie Kondo, and her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. My son, a lover of all things Japanese, quickly absorbed her minimalist wisdom. We agreed that it felt better to let go of things from our lives than to hoard them. Before long the two of us were folding our clothes into perfect rectangles, our closets emptied of clothes that didn’t “spark joy.” I’ll admit I failed when it came to clearing my books.

Blessed with a large office, I fill it with volumes. After combing through for expendables, I recycle the paper stacks and folders of the previous year. I strategize how to teach classes without requiring paper assignments. Student lamentations of their printing woes at the front of my mind, I make every assignment digital. It used to be simpler to take pen in hand and scratch away at paper wherever I might find myself; now, it is all about erasing the physical memory of each class and keeping the evidence of my lost time in a cloud.

When I touch paper and books it is similar to touching chalk. My hands itch, I feel that I can’t breathe, I want to rinse them. It’s the dust, a real allergen to be sure. But most of it—the bulk of it—is in my mind. I’m tired of touching what is spent.

The expenditure of time. I don’t want to think about it too much. Occasionally I drive the forty-five minutes in silence to the college where I teach. I enjoy music, audiobooks, and podcasts. But sometimes the silence is all I can tolerate when trying to clear my mind. Not that I’m any good at meditation. I’m frightfully bad, actually. Meditation is only possible for me in movement—walking, running, yoga. But in stillness I begin to panic. There is so much to do, so much time wafting away.

I worry about time wafting, how it drifts into piles then disappears in a swift gust of excitement. Ideas drift like that, which is why I like the silence. I also like numbered lists, and constrained word counts in essays. I like the illusion of control, however tenuous, that comes of numbering things: points I’m trying to make, lists of things I want to remember, essays I want to write, paragraphs, lines . . .

They all go away.

I hear the voice of my teacher–unmistakably his, even when it comes through me–when I say to my students in a workshop: “This is an essay about neurosis.” Obviously, obviously. I recognize students doing what I have done, cauterizing narrative with lyric, and falling down through the tubes of some memory that’s only partly open.

Yesterday I noticed the dust on my dashboard and I knew myself to be existing, to be driving my car mindful of speed and direction, yet also, perfectly still. I said aloud to myself, “Time is vertical, you Dope.” And I laughed because I’d had that thought so many times, each one of those moments, the same moment . . . yet another phase state.

I need the simplicity (I think) because it’s the order apart from what always breaks down. It’s my own conscious awareness of non-jettisoned junk, the still-necessary, the reminder of what I have yet to do in order to accomplish the next task. I have tasks stretching into the horizon. The concrete steps need patching and painting as do the porches and foundation and there sits the paint. Books to my right form two stacks. When my manuscript is done I can take them back to my office shelves. When my manuscript is done I can write an essay about something else. When  . . .

Simplicity means shopping for and finding only what I need. Simplicity means windows that are new and free of grime that open easily when the air conditioning quits working for the third time this summer. Simplicity means simply not using the bathroom sink until I can afford to repair the leak that seems to emerge upward impossibly from the floor around the pipe. Simplicity is sometimes not thinking about the broken things I cannot pay to fix and the debt that I whittle away over endless years.

There is no thought to dating, because the order of my life would be visited by new chaos and questions of what this new person brings and what they take from my life.

There is no time for smoking, though I’d like to have a cigarette very much. There is no money for frivolity. Unless it is for my son, who wants a four-dollar coffee. He is a teenager, and I worry over him catching my illness that counts pennies before ever saying yes.

Simplicity is choosing between three colors from my closet: black, grey, and blue. The first two are in preponderance because they always go together. Simplicity is in my cabinets, when there’s only soup and noodles. I’m overwhelmed by my mother’s fridge which teems with leftovers and expired salad dressing.

The fantasies I have are of less things, not more, and I dream about a tiny house on wheels or an RV when my son goes away to college, which is why I don’t need the couch, the desk, another book shelf. My home is already a tight 773 square feet of entropy, built in the 1940s. I’ll be lucky if I can sell it at all, but I push this thought away.

Simple means having four things to worry about instead of twenty. It means pronouncing no more curses under my breath because everything I touch goes smoothly. In short, I think of simplicity as a kind of chronic peacefulness. I’m sure this is what defines the aesthetic for people who voluntarily undertake simple living as part of a spiritual practice, or those who retreat into the woods, going off the grid.

“Simple” is used to market foods assumed to be organic and whole. It sells magazines and skin products, recipes, financial plans, cell phones, lifestyles, fashions, cleaning products, and is sometimes an acronym. “Simplicity” is a term found in theology, philosophy, and photography. In the popular imagination, simplicity could be cross-listed with happiness or peace of mind. See also, elegance and minimalism, though simplicity is a word that behaves itself impeccably, no matter the context. Simple and simplicity might sometimes depart from one another, aside from being adjective and noun, though I’ve never thought too much about it.

Harder, when I must read simplicity as austerity, when I must choose the beans and rice because I cannot afford to eat more richly. When the choices narrow to one and that’s the option with the sparest design. When all menus point to side dishes and when a boiled egg is my only breakfast.

Counting calories require simplicity, and the best diets push us toward streamlining our choices lest we are taken in by the complexities that beckon. Exercise must be simple else it pushes us away: as simple as putting on shoes and stepping outside, or a bike path at the end of the street. It cannot require too much of us with regard to time or equipment or we won’t do it. Routines that are too complex will never be routine.

Routine is simple. I get up, do the set things I must do every morning, and my day moves slowly through the harmonies of work. I return home and what I most long for is simple: a beer, a couch, a show, my laptop, and the dishes done. However, one night I must meet a friend for dinner and that is never simple. I get home too late to wash the dishes which pile around the sink. My morning will be fraught with cooking pot puzzles and dirty travel cups. I will wash a spoon in order to use one.

Simple is silverware that matches; what my family never had and what I secretly wanted. I bought new silverware almost twelve years ago and I still have every piece. Simple to protect when the rule is they never leave the house. Simple because they are too heavy and cumbersome.

Some people use the word “simple” to denote a person who does not move at the same pace as everyone else. People are simple-minded (simpletons) if they do not engage others easily, if they are withdrawn, slow to word or thought, or even content with staying in the same area where they’ve always lived. I must be simple because I am Appalachian and I choose to live in my home town. I must be simple because I love mountains more than city skylines.

I am a backpacker, and planning for a two- or three-day trip is an exercise in existential simplicity. I know the weight of everything to the gram and I keep a spreadsheet which I update each trip. I’ve weighed everything beforehand so I am careful to pack no more than twenty-five pounds. I carry about ten pounds of food and water. I endlessly ruminate on how to carry less, and whether or not I can dispense with anything in my pack, in my ideal and ritualized unburdening.

A hike is meditative with the comfort of having everything I need in my bag and nothing to do but walk. Simple means essential, or being able to make do, without luxury. Simple is grateful for serendipity and the kindness of others, and simple dreams under the great vault of Heaven.

Simple is tracing the backbone of a 480 million-year-old lifeform, and recalling Dōgen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra.” He could not have been the first one to say that mountains belong to all those who love them, or that mountains walk, or flow. “You should study the green mountains, using numerous worlds as your standards,” writes Dōgen. I study the mountain every day on my way to work and back, wishing I was there and not driving.

Simple is a hot cup of tea, right now, in my hand. It’s also a way of centering.

I keep coming back to “numerous worlds,” and wonder why we need so many.

Simple is the yoga I haven’t done in a few days, because my life has been too complex. James Richardson writes that “Our lives get complicated because complexity is so much simpler than simplicity.”

In a lecture decades old, Baba Ram Dass reminds that the ego will impede all attempts to liberate consciousness. I find mine does everything it can, ultimately siding with laziness, the sheets tangled around my legs, pillow between my knees, my back supported.

It’s always quiet in the dark of my room, and every morning that perfect silence comes undone as the room lightens.

This too, is simplicity.

Guest Post, Desirae Matherly: Some Say In Ice

Two degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter, is unusual for East Tennessee. In fact, our city’s school system has closed out of concern for the safety of the children at least twice this winter because of extreme cold, with mornings beginning somewhere near zero. But today, the school is on a two-hour delay, and my eleven-year-old son is indignant that we are walking to the bus stop, given that the precedent has been set for closure just days before. Today is proof that people adapt, and no doubt the school board has finally succumbed to the suspicion that the cold has settled in, and we should simply accept it and get back to work.

Desi Matherly's Some Say In Ice

My son and I are bundled up: layered pants, shirts, two coats each, balaclavas and scarves, gloves. He has grocery bags over his tennis shoes to protect them from the snow and we walk arm-in-arm so he doesn’t slip in the grass beside my steep, icy driveway. I’m wearing the shearling boots and fleece mittens I bought when I lived in Ohio. There I had learned about cold and snow beyond what Tennesseans normally experience. There I had learned that during a “Level 3,” a driver might be arrested if found on the roads for anything other than an emergency. In Ohio, I made my first snow tunnel after the 2003 President’s Day blizzard left us with five-feet-high snowdrifts. In Ohio I saw frozen grass, and pavement glazed with half an inch of ice in January of 1999. And since then, I’ve also seen balmy Decembers, unseasonable sixty-degree January days, and heard thunder cracks in February. Weather events like these remind me to take nothing for granted.

I muse to my son that ours might be an everyday walk to the bus stop for kids in Minnesota, and that we should be glad for the experience, to appreciate our mild winters better. My son isn’t convinced, and merely grumbles, “My face is cold.” He doesn’t remember the Chicago winter, but then, he was five when we left. He doesn’t remember subzero afternoon walks (with windchills of twenty below), to the grocery store after days of being shut inside, or stepping into university buildings to warm up every ten minutes before moving on. After I relocated home to Tennessee, whenever I heard anyone say “it’s cold,” I rolled my eyes dramatically. Eventually I learned to bite my tongue before saying, “When I was in Chicago . . .” and accepted that everyone has his or her superlative account.

Even so, and no doubt because of its proximity to Lake Michigan’s winds, Chicago offers its residents a Biblical experience of winter. Biblical like a curse to painful childbirth; like razed cities and plagues taking firstborns. Biblical like deluges and apocalypses of sundry sorts. The first time I traveled to Boston, I experienced something similar. Walking to the subway with blistering gusts throwing snow into my face, I turned to look at a bareheaded student with what looked like frozen tears on his wind-scalded cheeks. My students and I were walking into the wind at an angle, and one arctic blast made us retreat for a moment of cover, as if we were being shelled. I could see the rail station when I peeked around the corner, so we readjusted our hoods if we had them and soldiered on.

Poet Robert Frost, who lived across the river in Cambridge but died in Boston, knew “enough of hate” to write “that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” When Frost was my son’s age, his family moved from San Francisco to New England after the death of his father. Frost took a turn in Michigan too. I’m sure for him all winters were Biblical: a literary metaphor for the ways that human beings lose their memory of safety, security, or warmth, and yet trudge on, with only their faith to guide them. It’s no surprise that in 1940 he bought a house in Miami and spent the rest of his winters there.

Though I like “ice music,” and have claimed that I’d like to attend the annual Ice Music Festival in Geilo, Norway, I doubt I ever will. Watching the instrument makers craft the ice into cellos, horns, or xylophones inspires me, but then the idea of ice is much easier to consider than the reality. How do they play the instruments without shivering? How can anyone listen attentively? Truthfully, I would rather listen to a recording or watch a performance on video. Taking the art of ice further, I realize that “ice hotels” in Scandinavia or Canada–though magical–will never be more than a hoped-for day trip, my nights booked in a brick-and-mortar inn with a fireplace. For most of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated with Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, but I can’t actually imagine booking a trip to any of these places in the winter. I blame so much on my cold nature, my sometimes anemia, my fear of enduring another attack of chilblains. I feel old in the winter, soaking my feet to warm them.

Despite all of this, I’ll admit to enjoying the cold some. When I’m armored against it with wool, or sheltered in a tidy, tea-rich kitchen, I can appreciate the stillness and the solitary beauty that snow brings. I don’t think I could ever live somewhere without a winter, but I used to believe that I could live somewhere without hot, muggy summers. Since then I’ve made my trades. Extremes of temperature and humidity (or its opposite) do nothing but keep me inside all day, a sad animal. Whether I dream of the vernal garden trowel, or the deepening shadows and blue sky hikes of autumn, the transitional seasons still strike me best. To inhabit the climate that calls to one’s nature, and to remain as long as the season welcomes–this seems the very mantra of writers and migratory birds. I look at my weather monitor on my desk and find that in the span of five hours, the temperature has risen thirty degrees to the edge of freezing. I ponder a walk, just before pulling my blanket tighter around my legs and settling in.