13 February 2007

Simple Gifts

Some years ago, I threw a barebones party for my younger daughter: park, children, string cheeses, orange wedges, juice, and cupcakes. A Quaker friend of mine turned to me and said, "This is a really simple birthday party."

I didn't know enough about Quakerism then to know that she was paying me a high compliment. Yes, it was a simple birthday party. I had three young children, including a baby, and I was also homeschooling and working 30 hours a week. Simple was all that I could manage.

Over the past 6 months, I have come to realize that simplicity is probably my major contribution to my Meeting. I find this somewhat surprising and somewhat ironic. I never imagined that I would become known for my habit of paring down plans for Quaker events to make them more manageable. Indeed, I might prefer not to have to continually look for ways to simplify my life.

The Great Woodworker has other ideas, and I look back to see how this "gift" for simplicity has been trained in me. I am an engineer by profession, and there's nothing like working with things that can break to convince a person of the value of clean, simple, elegant designs. I have four children, and there's nothing like mothering to force a person to focus on the essential rather than the merely necessary.

Simplicity, though. I've never been completely comfortable with the simplicity testimony. Life is complex, life is diverse, life is downright messy. For every complex problem, there exists a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong. I've always been a person who delights in seeing the whole spectrum rather than neatly dividing experience into black and white boxes. I love color and variety: birds, flowers, trees, clouds, spices, people. Simplicity seems so stark and comfortless, a white cell scrubbed clean with only the merest of necessities.

I can only wrap my mind around simplicity when I shift my focus to the essential. When I fix my mind and heart on the essence of my faith, I can see that simplicity allows me to clear away the clutter to highlight the essential. It lets me cut through the dross to the heart of the matter, to cleave to the substance and not the form.

It's a continual challenge: to focus on the essential and not to get pulled off my path by all the distractions eager to absorb my time and attention. To turn away from the computer and give my attention to my youngest child. To stop in the rush to get to work and take the time to breathe and pray. To interrupt the flow of shopping lists and appointment reminders and really connect with my husband. To take the time to appreciate the young woman who carries out my groceries. To sit in silence and stillness waiting on the will of God.

Some years ago, I explored the meaning of negative space in art and in my life. I became convinced then that less is often more, that by creating emptiness, we clear space for new creation. I thought of this in terms of housework, in terms of free time for my children, and in terms of creating various spaces in my own life.

This then is my gift: nothing. I can give you an emptiness that you can fill. I can see where we can take things away to create more space. I can make dirty dishes clean and sweep debris from the floor. I'm a sort of spiritual cleaning lady.


Elizabeth said...

I love this, Heather. Though I chuckled at the ending--it reminded me of the comic that shows the Dalai Lama at his own birthday party, opening an empty gift box, and exclaiming, "just what I wanted! Nothing!"

I just touched on the topic of simplicity in a blog post of my own before reading your post.

Liz Opp said...

This post gets to something that is sometimes slippery about the Quaker faith: the discipline of removing all that is not God so we are left with more that is of God.

Thank you for sharing your gift and ministry of simplicity in this way. Your words resonate with me.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Robin M. said...

Thank you, well put!

This question of stripping away the inessential to make room for or at least to make it easier to see the essential is my new theme in household management. I've done a lot of work in that field on my self - my time, wardrobe, etc. But clearing away the outward clutter seems to come in opposite waves from clearing out my inner clutter, like six months on one, six months on the other, and then I have to go back and clean out the first realm again.

And I find that simpler birthday parties are less likely to produce tears, in the birthday child and guests, as well as the parents.