One of my literary heroines is Gertrude Chandler Warner, the former first grade teacher who wrote The Boxcar Children series. The book, originally published in 1924, features four orphaned siblings named Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny. Afraid they’ll be split up in an orphanage, they steal into the forest, constructing a makeshift home in an abandoned boxcar. They eventually meet and move in with their grandfather, a rich steel magnate who has a super fancy mansion and moves the boxcar into his gardens.
I read that book over and over. I was enthralled with the idea of their life on the lam, willing to make any sacrifice to stay together. Warner described the boxcar in exquisite detail. The milk jug placed in the river to keep it cool. The scavenged dishes from the nearby dump. The bed of pine needles. Watch, the adopted stray dog. The simple dinner of blueberries. They were resourceful and plucky, more than willing to eschew material comforts to simply be together.
Why was I so enamored with a story that romanticized homelessness? Partly I was drawn to the idea of living without adult supervision; what child doesn’t secretly believe they would be better off without the dictatorship of parents and teachers? I was also thrilled that they end up taken care of, both emotionally and financially (the book has actually been criticized as a capitalist fairytale since the children work hard and are ultimately rewarded with more money than they can ever spend).
What I was really drawn to though was the simplicity of the orphans’ lives.
Our world is anything but simple. We over-schedule our days. We over-fill our bellies with food, our minds with worries and our homes with unnecessary material goods. We’re constantly feeding an insatiable hunger for more. Life becomes what we do and what we have rather than who we are.
Every January I choose an overarching word for my year. My 2018 word is less. The word less comes from the old Middle Dutch word lise, meaning gentle and from the Greek loisthos meaning lasting. Doesn’t a gentle, lasting life sound like the antithesis of our normally stressful day to day? My default setting is more. But I look at a calendar as bloated as my closet and really just want less. A softer, gentler life of not so much. Just the essentials. I want to mitigate my desire to consume, remove the superfluous to take back control of my life. I look at my schedule, my pantry, my stuff and feel shameful and imprisoned. I desperately yearn for a simpler life, but don’t know how to climb out of the hole I’ve dug.
I figure if I want to live simply, then I start simply, by closing my eyes and focusing on my breath. A simpler, more peaceful life can only arise from the internal, not from the external.
To practice less, I needn’t give away all my belongings or go live in an ashram. It isn’t about just de-cluttering, which is a lovely means to an end but not the end itself. Living a life of less is a constant recalibration, a mindful decision to be a more conscious consumer of what I think, eat and allow into my life.
I’ve been living the last few months in a place of yes, overwhelmed with agreeing to anything offered. Yes to more projects, more travel, more food, more crap made in China. The more I eat, the less I taste. The more I own, the less value anything holds. The more I do, the less well I am doing.
Just. Make. It. Stop. Fantasizing about eating blueberries for dinner out of junkyard dishes is a sign of a larger self-inflicted ennui. It’s time to trim the fat in my life, literally and figuratively.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this mindless overconsumption has coincided with a meditation dry spell. The busier I am, the more I am apt to eschew my meditation practice, even though that is when it’s most needed. It’s a lesson I keep learning, forgetting and relearning. Meditation seems like an easy thing to mark off my to-do list.
You see, the voice in my head is kind of a jerk. She always wants more. Something different. Something newer, faster, shinier, more exciting or delicious. Something else. She chatters at an unturndownable volume. The voice tells me that more will make me happier, prettier, smarter, more fulfilled, more loved, more valued. The voice is a liar, a well-meaning but scatterbrained ding dong who feeds on distraction and compulsion. Meditation helps to quiet that voice. Intentional silence helps me hone in on my true priorities for a simpler, more meaningful life. When I clear the clutter in my mind, I create clarity and space in the other areas of my life.
So when you see me at the grocery, don’t ask me how I’m doing. Ask me about my meditation practice. That will almost always tell you everything you need to know.