Writing Life: Simplicity, Luxury, Refinement

inside text of a book and a coffee cup

This morning, I grabbed my usual cup of coffee and my current read, and headed out to the balcony. This is how I start my days, with coffee and books and music. Today I cued up a playlist of opera arias and visited the English countryside with Wilkie Collins’s mystery novel, The Woman In White

Listening to the classical music while reading paragraphs like the following sent me into a pleasurable swoon: 

“I must have been hard to please, indeed, if I had not approved of the room, and of everything about it. The bow-window looked out on the same lovely view which I had admired, in the morning, from my bedroom. The furniture was the perfection of luxury and beauty: the table in the centre was bright with gaily bound books, elegant conveniences for writing, and beautiful flowers…the walls were hung with gaily tinted chintz, and the floor was spread with Indian matting in maize-colour and red. It was the prettiest and most luxurious little sitting-room I had ever seen; and I admired it with the warmest enthusiasm.” 

I couldn’t help but notice the terrible discrepancy between my actual surroundings–a concrete-floored balcony with one straggly basil plant in a pot and plain, brown plastic chairs hubby bought at a big box retail store while I was still in Maine–and the pretty little sitting room conjured out of words on a page. I tried not to let it bother me, but I couldn’t help but ask myself, why does that description of landed gentry surroundings appeal to me so much when I intend to pursue simplicity and minimalism?

After awhile, I put down the book and began to ponder in earnest the good life and what that means for me.

Each of us creates our own “ideal” good life. What gives me pleasure and comfort might irritate and discomfort you and vice versa. Additionally, I’m often conflicted within myself, wanting at once simplicity and rooms filled with books and art and gorgeous draperies overlooking a lovely view. It’s easier–and less expensive–to be simple. Yet, those objects, romantic and desirable, call to me. How do I resolve this conflict? How can I crave (and have) both at the same time? 

Jeff DeGraff, PhD, wrote about complexity and simplicity in a Psychology Today article entitled, Complexity First, Simplicity Last, stating, “When Leonardo da Vinci said, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ he didn’t mean take a short cut down the path of least resistance, balance your work and personal life or set more attainable goals. What he meant was engage the chaos, look for patterns, make sense of the intricacies and elaborations and adjust and refine ad infinitum. Do the work!”

DeGraff went on to reiterate the concept of embracing complexity. While our world is ever more complex and is often disconcerting, that complexity solves problems for us. He asks us to think about innovations in communication and health. Be uncomfortable within the complexity, he suggests. Then pare away what you don’t need to reach what I’m going to call “the simplicity of the useful.” 

This brings to mind that old William Morris chestnut, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” 

As a rule, it’s hard to beat. The hardest part is saying “no” or “I’ll think about it” when tempted to buy something–a book, a sweater, a chair, a plant pot, a gizmo. But that’s what I’m doing. I’m training myself to say “no” or “maybe later” first and considering if this object is truly something useful, beautiful, and fits in with my vision of the good life. Of course I fail. We all fail. (Hello graphic novel from the Year of the Rat festival a few weeks ago; I wanted to support the author, but did I really want the book? Nope.) But we do better next time.

The same concept applies to our everyday activities. We are overwhelmed with complexity of choices. Which tv shows to watch. Which movies to see. What gatherings to attend. How many social media platforms on which to engage and for how many minutes a day. What career to pursue. None of these things are “bad.” Having choices isn’t the problem. Learning how to wade through the complexity and choose is the challenge. Learning how to say “no” and “maybe later” is key here, too. Again, we sometimes fail, but that’s okay. 

Perhaps we need to rethink this pursuit of simplicity. We don’t need to give away all our worldly possessions. Neither are we chained to the clutter and noise of advertising. Instead, we can make choices based on our needs and aesthetic pleasures, letting go of the extraneous and the course, gradually refining our lives until they are a shiny reflection of our individual values. 


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  1. It’s interesting I’ve come to that place where I want to downsize. I’m surrounded all this bric-a-brac that I’ve accumulated. Looking back I ponder why did I feel I needed it? Aidan’s motto, is if it isn’t useful than I don’t need it. My quandary is- what do I do with it? I’ve been taking things to Goodwill that are just things. But I’m not sure what to do with some of my treasurers that at one time did mean something. I’ve even been paring down the library. I’d like to think the choices are becoming easier and I feel that I spend more times saying “no” than I used to- so there’s progress!

    1. Hi Mary Ann! It’s so easy to fill our spaces, especially if we stay in one place for a long time. When I moved every couple of years, I naturally tossed out stuff I didn’t need. I know your pain! When it came time to get rid of most of D’s toys, I was sad. I took some pictures of them! Some things I let go after sitting with them awhile. (I’m still a little nauseated about selling my wedding china; however, I rarely used it and it wasn’t my ideal. Still, memories.) Now it is easier to say “no” because I remind myself that a few years down the road I might have to get rid of it….so why bother! But I’ve been buying books again. I can’t help it. I’m an addict.

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