Simplicty, simplicity, simplicity! ~ Henry David Thoreau
It’s April and our house just went on the market. We are hiking in Shenandoah National Park on a Sunday afternoon while our realtor shows the house. It’s a beautiful spring day on one of our favorite trails and I am worrying.
Fretting, really, since Frank went ahead and said this out loud: What I want is for the house to close in June and then we spend the summer in the camper travelling.
Frank has this way. I don’t know how he does it but he says these things, he bids them into reality and…they happen.
So we’re hiking, and Frank says this thing, drops this seed into the fertile soil of the Universe, and I am fretting. How would that work, exactly? What would we do with all our stuff? What about the cat? Really, though, it’s fear. Frank has an expansive courage about life. He sees the possibilities. As he’s doing that, I’m clutching at what I like about my life and afraid of letting those things go. In this moment on the trail, I see my life start fraying around the edges — my teaching and writing, my practices and my people, my diet, my fitness, and all these things that I need.
I’m afraid of not having what I need. How can I possibly ever have what I need if we store everything and drop everything and leave everything?
After jabbering about the details and how in the world would we do such a thing, I stop and tell him the truth. I’m afraid of not having what I need.
Frank’s known me a long time. He’s lived with me almost as long as my parents did. He knows me. But even so, sometimes I baffle him. Well, he says, when it comes right down to it, what do you really need? You need clean air and clean water and good food and a safe place to sleep. What else do you need?
I stopped on the trail, My tea, for one thing, I say, decaf genmaicha tea. And I need to do yoga and dance, and I need green leafy vegetables and blueberry smoothies and my friends and, and, and earrings! I need at least 10 pairs of earrings.
Frank is a sturdier soul than I. Which isn’t saying that much but still. Lucky for me, he’s also patient. And kind. He knows I just need time. And that damned tea. He knows that I’m afraid of change and afraid of suffering.
And really, we were talking about two different things: Frank was talking about survival, I was talking about the bare necessities for happiness. The question is, how far apart are those two things?
During the next few months, we talked about need and want and simplifying almost every day. We let go of piles of possessions and stored what was left in generously-offered spaces. Our neighbors took the cat for the summer. We stayed in a friend’s cottage and traveled in our tiny camper for six weeks. We found that we really didn’t need that much. A little more than Frank’s air and water and bed, but less than I thought, too.
The bare necessities. For us that included food that we love that we knew we wouldn’t find on the road – his granola, my smooties, his cinnamon tea, my green, quinoa and polenta and peanut sauce. My favorite hiking pants and boots, his Big Lebowski shirt and the memory foam mattress. We danced on the trails. I did yoga under the camper awning. I texted and emailed with friends when I could. I brought ten pairs of earrings … but I didn’t wear them all.
Turns out I needed far less than I thought. Not only wasn’t it suffering, it wasn’t even terribly difficult. It was even freeing, spacious, relaxing.
We’re moving into a smaller house now. It feels cavernous compared to the camper (and miraculous: look! Hot water comes out of the faucet!). As we unroll rugs and unpack boxes, we’re asking the same questions: what do we need? What do we want? Can we make it simpler? What are the bare necessities?
In Walden, Thoreau wrote about two years he spent in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts during the mid-19th Century. Henry David was the bad ass of simplifying. He wrote
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest.
And while Frank and I didn’t come even close to Thoreau’s level of “[sturdy] and Spartan-like” living, I understand HDT’s writing now in a way I didn’t before. Making life simpler is a practice and a gift.
And he was right, I didn’t even need my ten fingers to count my earrings.