Simplicity: Seeking the One Thing

I was outside my natural habitat, standing before an art design class, but the professor, Martha Mason, builds her classes on a spiritual foundation and a belief that art is important to everyone, not just artists. My limited experience in artistic design focused on redecorating my house, a task I approached with pure mortal terror. I had decorated it once, so doing it again should be no sweat. The house was over 30 years old and I had built it myself when I first moved to Walla Walla. I designed it to support the things I love to do, including a sizable study with bookshelves all around, a dining room for entertaining, two big fireplaces for warmth and atmosphere, and a big picture window looking out to my tree-filled backyard. These were the things I knew I needed in my life, and they have sustained me well. 40 years later, I am still happy there.

Decorating was simple in those days. Walls were white and colors were neutral. I felt rather daring in choosing a spring green carpet, but I thought it was the most beautiful color in the world and thirty years later, when it was simply wearing out, I still thought so. If I could do the same thing over again, I would have, but that was not an option. Colors and textures have changed. I looked at the wall of color chips in Gary’s Paint Shop and felt overwhelmed. “I am just going to do white walls,” I proclaimed stubbornly, “they were beautiful then; they can be beautiful now, and who knows, in another 20 years they will cycle back into style.”

My good friend Eileen Greenwalt was having none of it. “No,” she said, “You can do this.” And then she showed me how. She looked outside my picture window to the beautiful sunburst locust that shaded my deck and threw a lacy spring green shadow into the living room. “You have loved the yellow green of the sunburst locust and brought it into your house. Now, you must look at the blue green of the quaking aspen and bring that into your house. You love the colors of the outdoors and have brought them inside with beautiful trees that shade the windows. You did it once with the sunburst locust; now you can do it with the quaking aspen.” And with Eileen’s parable of the trees, I got the vision: I will love this. I got direction: I can do this.

My friend did something wonderful for me. She showed me what was in my heart. I didn’t have the experience or vocabulary to see what she was seeing, but when she put it in front of me with the aid of the trees I had planted myself, she started me on a path of spiritual growth with a new way of self-expression. And she did so by showing me what I loved. That is what simplicity is all about. Find what you love. Stick with that.

Simplicity is a major principle in designing a home, but it is also a major principle in spirituality, both as a concept and a practice.[1] It is based on finding the one thing. The tough trail boss Curly in City Slickers articulates it well. He asks Mitch, the city slicker, “Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing.” Mitch asks, “But what is the ‘one thing’?” Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”

I had the key to the One Thing in what I consider to be the most beautiful color ever. This rich, deep shade of blue-green has deep roots in my soul. As we looked at the things in my house, almost everything coordinated with it already; and we found things of that same shade coming from every period in my life. We may answer glibly when asked our favorite color, but it is a more serious question than I thought. There must be a phenomenon of a personal color, one that has deep roots in the soul and knowing that simplified the task of decorating my house. Whatever went with that worked.

I read somewhere that we gain our sense of beauty and home from our early childhood. I can see how that might be working in me. I lived in New England in my early childhood and remember well the sense of dark woods and winding roads with overhanging tree branches and the colors of leaves and bark that are now a part of my house and yard. I love the sounds and smells and flickering light of a wood-burning fireplace. I love looking out my picture window at big trees, and the colors are brought into my walls and the wooden blinds on the windows. In learning about color and design, I learned some things about myself. It required a reconsideration of how I use my house, my space, and what I want it to say.

Simplicity has many things working against it. Complications in our lives arise from too much of a good thing: too much to do, too much to eat, too many things, too many options to choose from that we plunge into paralysis. Clutter can lurk anywhere—in our homes, our schedules, our daybooks, our closets, our souls. It clogs the system. And it’s not pretty. The Quaker William Penn called it “cumber.” A great word for it.[2] It encumbers our lives and destroys our sense of focus, concentration, flow, and movement that we need to live a creative and productive life. Google “clutter” and a cascade of articles will fall out on clutter and how to get rid of it or organize it. It’s urgent. We are drowning in clutter. The essayist E. B. White recounts his own struggle with clutter. He says:

It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve that permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on day and night—smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. . . . This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.”[3]

One life-raft in this sea of clutter is provided by Marie Kondo in a little book called The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up.[4] She is death on organizing our clutter. She stands firm on getting rid of it. All the organizing aids just perpetuate the problem. They give us more space to collect more clutter. When she talks about tidying up she is not talking about rearranging the doodads on the curio shelf; she is talking about making hard choices. Her process is rigorous, but she claims that if it is followed, it is final. It will get rid of clutter and she promises there will be no rebound. It is a lengthy process, taking at least six months and probably a lot more, but it means examining everything you own and getting rid of it unless it passes the test: Does this item give you joy?

Instead of deciding what to throw away, she recommends throwing everything away and deciding what to keep, what to rescue, so in the end you will be surrounded only by things that give you joy. All the misbegotten purchases and impulse buys and awkward gifts from well-meaning friends, as well as things important and well-loved at some by-gone time, or things you just might need in some imagined future disappear and you have about you only the things that you actually use and enjoy in the present.

My house has too much clutter. That is the next stage of this adventure in design. But I am not sure that “clutter” is the right word for it all. In the next year or so I will try out Marie Kondo’s strategy and see how it works. But this house has supported my life for 40 years. I see all about me reminders of travel which has expanded my horizons. Are they clutter? Does the number of them make them clutter? I have many interests and things that reflect those interests. Do I get rid of those to have a cleaner surface? That is a design question, but I am not a designer; this is my house, and I can keep what I love, even Marie Kondo says I can do that, but that requires some discernment on my part. With retirement, this is a transitional time in my life. What do I need now? What continues to hold a place in my life? What deserves a place in my house? When does something become a part of my past rather than my present? When should it be discarded? Do I need a memento of a trip in order to have taken the trip? Well, no, but still. These are some things I will be asking myself. Marie Kondo may or may not have the last word.

I remember the words of Henry David Thoreau, good American philosopher that he was: “Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity,” he says, and in case you didn’t get the point, he adds, “Simplify, Simplify.”[5] Live intensely, he says, without a surplus of things that get in the way. He has three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Well, I need more than three chairs. I am fortunate enough to have more than three friends. So did Thoreau, but he was content to let them stand.[6] He lived his simple life for two years before he went home, saying he left Walden “for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”[7] That is discernment. What is good now may not always be, and each day, each time in one’s life brings new demands. We must be alert and active in keeping up with ourselves. We are changing and growing, always with eyes on the one thing needful.

I think artists are doing the work of the Lord when they show us what beauty is. God is described in terms of indescribable beauty, always in metaphorical terms. How else can you describe the indescribable? Can we see God? Not fully; not now. He will always be a mystery. But in the eighth Beatitude, the promise of seeing God is given to the pure in heart, those who focus their attention on the beauty of God and filter out anything that would interfere with that vision. What does it mean to be pure in heart except to be focused on the One Thing with singleness of purpose and singleness of heart? Jesus said that the eye that is single is full of light (Matt 6:22), without duplicity, clearly focused, without distractions or distortion. The reward of such single-mindedness is to see God.[8]

We can all seek the One Thing wherever we are. God’s people have always done that. Jesus told us how: What must I do to be saved? Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Simple. When we seek God with all our hearts we will find him, and what can we do then but love our neighbors. That is living the simple life. That is simplicity at its most profound.

[1] See Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 1981) for a full treatment of simplicity in the Christian life.

[3] Essays of E. B. White (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), quoted in Bob Benson, Sr. and Michael W. Benson, Disciplines for the Inner Life, Rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 296.

[4] The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014).

[5] Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” The Annotated Walden (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970), 222.

[6] Thoreau, “Visitors,” 271.

[7] Thoreau, “Conclusion,” 439.

[8] Susan Annette Muto, Blessings that Make Us Be: A Formative Approach to Living the Beatitudes (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 117-128. Also, Foster, 33-51.

Beverly Beem has just retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / Patryk Specjal

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7409
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it’s the living that makes it home. TZ

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Beautiful. Helpful. Thank you.

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Beverly, I’m wondering if the blue you were looking for (guessing from the picture posted on your article) might be the Greek blue. The picture I’m posting here is of a doorway to a taverna in Hydratown, on the island of Hydra, in Greece. I took this picture in 2003.

Nice to hear from you after all these many years–remember your sojourn in Bloomington, Indiana back in the 70s? I’m afraid we still have clutter. Sirje, I think you’ve got something there. (Can’t reply, but I can edit, it seems.)

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Those colors in Greece are so beautiful: blue skies and blue trim on white stucco. Together with the turquoise blue water Greece is a paradise for the eyes. The bright pink overhanging bougainvillea paints such beauty.

It is Interesting that the newest fashion home decorating colors are neutral with grey or blue tints. They are so restful. Fifty years ago I chose very pale blue-green walls for many of my rooms and would repeat today. They never go out of style and home should reflect your personal choices.

These are not unimportant: if we want peace and quiet in our homes away from the outside world, it should be our private retreat.

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A successful artist is built on successful friendships experience with the grace of God’s creations. Seeking the one thing and up to the task connects to the invisible world of series of lucky breaks from a thousand unseen helping hands. God is always on the side of the heaviest battalions. Simplicity? Learn to let go and let God who we have become, inherently playful, open to new directions. There is no reason why the same woman should like the same colour at eighteen and at forty-eight.

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I have moved 20 times in my lifetime - 16 times as an adult, responsible for the moves. There is nothing better to determine what is important to us and what is clutter, not worthy to be moved. Each move is a learning experience - about what matters, but also determines how we are changing as we establish a new home - our tastes, our choices of activities, new friends.

While sometimes we’re forced to take stock of all areas of our lives, the one area that hardly ever gets an airing, is our religious life. We accumulate a lot of extra baggage here as well, as the years go by. We are forced to deal with that only when we’re faced with life shattering events - health issues in the family; deaths; divorces; etc. It’s at those times when what really matters becomes very clear. No longer do we care what was the beginning date of the 2300 days - or that there even is 2300 days mentioned somewhere; or, how exactly did God create the universe and how many days it took. Neither do we care if there’s a man or woman leading out in the church service, since it’s the Hoy Spirit, alone, who brings the message into our hearts. Even without traumatic events in our everyday experience, it might be good to clean the corners of our spiritual lives every now and then, and even repaint in our new favourite colours. Life is the best teacher of what is important.

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Lovely meditation. We need to better understand and learn to appreciate the relationship of beauty to the “infinite.”

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Sirje,

I can relate to all you have said. My husband and I have moved 8 times, and that certainly helps to purge things, but the last couple of moves have been more of a purge for us since we were a bit older and needed fewer things. But, still not as big a purge as we have been doing the past 3 years or so.

I’ve jumped on board with both feet to the minimalist way of living. Of course, minimalism is a spectrum, and different for different people. But, I’m determined to keep at it to rid our house of unwanted, unused stuff. Discard or donate is my mantra.

As far as spiritually, we have purged much of that as well. It was a process too, but beyond wonderful! It’s almost like crystallizing the essence of our faith and belief down to the most important thing, which of course is Jesus…the Way, the Truth and the Life. How glorious and freeing! Then allowing the HS do His work in my husband and I (and others). I think I tried to do the Holy Spirit’s work at times…for a while, but I’m more clear on that now too. I can’t!:wink:

Yes, revisiting our “stuff”, whether it is the spiritual aspect of our lives, or the material, is rewarding and freeing!

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This is such a beautiful piece…thank-you!

The themes of simplicity, beauty and God are such a winning combination any time and in any place. I was grateful to be reminded of Walden’s Pond which is a very popular place for locals and tourists alike. What Thoreau was seeking, he found there in the solitude of the green trees, blue sky and pond. We can find God’s beauty all around us if we would only take the time to “seek Him”.

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A wise and needed essay, Beverly. Thank you for this piece, and for your productive tenure teaching at Walla Walla.

Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Today we have a lot more tools.

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz probes why being able to choose is healthy, but having too much choice is debilitating. For example, research shows that offering consumers too many flavors of jam (two dozen instead of a half dozen) actually reduces sales. Beyond a certain point, too many options paralyzes: more choices means less contentment.

Schwartz describes entering a Gap store and asking for a new pair of blue jeans. The clerk asks if Schwartz wants slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit; regular or faded; stone-washed or acid washed; button fly or regular fly. He spends longer in the store than he planned and experiences “no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” At the local supermarket he finds 85 varieties of crackers, 285 types of cookies, 230 different soups, 120 pasta sauces, and 175 kinds of salad dressing. Schwartz offers these suggestions:

1. Enjoy an attitude of gratitude. (We can thank God for blessings of color, taste, space, and light.)

2. Value constraint and the power of non-reversible decisions. (Not everything is about comparison shopping. Consider a marriage commitment.)

3. Recognize you have more important things to do than ponder alternatives. (“There are a lot of people walking around, really dissatisfied with their lives, unable to put their fingers on what it is that’s so troublesome.”)

“I have learned,” wrote Paul of Tarsus, “in whatever state I’m in, to be content” (Phil. 4:11). “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

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Are there any young students who can rely on Paul’s state of contentment? This only comes with living a full life. We do not expect t youth to be content because they are still learning and reaching for that state. Age should bring the contentment of a life well lived without regrets.

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Yes, I have students who carry abiding peace with them. Moreover, they are already living a full, balanced life–along with missteps, like the rest of us.

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