Ready or not, I will write about simplicity.
But are you ready to read words on simplicity by a woman who lives in a 7-bedroom farmhouse on four-and-a-half acres?
Because even if I explain that three of those bedrooms are on the third floor. That they don’t all have closets. That the ceilings slope against the eaves of the roof so that it is hard even to stand up in places; even then, I am describing abundance and not simplicity, aren’t I?
Here is where you might expect me to say that simplicity is a matter of the heart. It’s what’s on the inside that counts!
I am not going to say that.
True simplicity does reach all the way into our hearts, but it is also very much about our stuff. Our houses. Our land. Our clothes and cars and gadgets and machines. Our credit cards and bank accounts and pantries. The number of bedrooms, the size of our kitchens, the bins stuffed with toys.
All of it.
Why did Jesus tell so many, so often to get rid of their belongings? To store up a very different kind of treasure?
He wanted us to live like flowers. Like birds. Free of everything that would weigh us down.
It isn’t only my freedom at stake.
I recently found an old shirt in my closet. The label said Made in Bangladesh. I remembered the garment factory fire. I remembered how only a few months later, another garment factory collapsed. I wondered if the hands that had made this shirt were still alive, still sewing clothing for western consumers hungry for bargains. How had those hands suffered?
My desire for stuff, and the choices I make when I spend money have far-reaching implications.
You know this. I know this. But who has the time, the energy, the knowledge to make only perfect choices?
It’s all so complicated. So hopelessly complicated. When what I want is peace. What I want is simplicity.
Of course, there is one easy answer. One simple way to begin: live with less.
Don’t buy it (even though it’s cheap). Give it away (even though I might need it some other day). Let it go (though I wonder who I am without this possession).
I think about letting go, and I suddenly remember something important. How could I have forgotten? It was letting go that led me here. Here, to this abundance of bedrooms and growing gardens.
I let go of a career. I gave away the dream that had fueled my living for so long. I cast my bread upon the waters and what came back was the bread I longed to eat. The bread I could break over and over and give away: seven bedrooms (every one of which will be full this weekend) and ground to cultivate (food to eat, food to share) and words of life (my book coming to you next February).
So much wisdom on living in simplicity begins with giving stuff away. Clean out your closet, purge the toy bin, carry it all to the thrift store. Feel yourself breathe.
But I never understood. I am not a born minimalist. I like stacks of books (the more the better), I like pretty bits and bobs with sentimental value. I like knowing I can throw a party for a crowd with the contents of those three drawers.
Giving things away also felt like cheating. Isn’t it much harder to stop accumulating things than to give them away once I have?
But giving things away is like a muscle in need of exercise.
Give away the clothes, the toys, some books.
Give away the car, the job, the dream. Break the bread. Spill the oil. Keep giving until you wake up one morning and realize you have given away your life.
Because that is the morning you begin to live.
I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.
“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.
The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.
It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.
Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.
Because no dream lives that has not yet died.
Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.
I prefer to call it planting.
First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.
That is the seed.
Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.
We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.
Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.
This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.
This is how we live with dry bones.
Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.
T.S. Eliot warned us:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.
But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.
On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.
It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.
Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.
We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.
Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.
Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:
Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.
I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.
And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.
Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.
“It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.”
(Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament)
We are, all of us, so hungry.
My children dream of sugar, and I crave hot, buttery toast. I spied the first white flowers in the strawberry bed, and now all I can think about is warm, rich red.
We hunger for food and drink. Not once or twice but every day with regularity, like well-loved timepieces. Our hunger is new every morning.
We hunger for touch and for love and for happiness. We hunger for purpose and meaning and beauty.
But we are so terrified of our appetites. So afraid of our hunger. Desire is a dirty word.
Maybe we are terrified by thoughts of sin and shame and selfishness. Maybe we are haunted by a fear of scarcity. My hunger is too big. There can never be enough.
But the Bread of Life has appeared to us, and he has told us: Do not be afraid.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
Our constant hunger bears the image of an even greater hunger. A beautiful, generative, truly terrifying hunger. This is the hunger that gave birth to spring. To stars. To nations.
Within the small boundaries of my own backyard fence, this hunger birthed wild, waving forsythia and two spinning daughters. Unleashed, this hunger envisioned nodding daffodils and wild violets that pour themselves out like a river.
This hunger spoke a tree so shocking, so pink, it burns my eyes like a sun.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
The sour cherry tree beyond my kitchen window is in bloom. The flowers are dainty. They are white ghosted with silvery green.
But the smell … it is nectar and roses and honey on the wind.
The air, like the breath of God himself, teases us. Tempts us. This is purposeful scent. This is devious scent. We can close our eyes and stop up our ears. We can harden our hearts with walls of fear, but the breeze slides past all of it.
And nectar and roses and honey say what are you hungry for?
What is your heart’s desire?