Making Life Simpler

It’s happening. Every day I get closer to living my ultimate dream of what I call spiritual simplicity. What it really means is I’m getting rid of “stuff” and focusing on what really matters to me…people, service, experiences and learning.

Did you realize that U.S. consumers are parents to only 3 percent of the world’s children, but we blessed American dads and moms purchase forty percent of the world’s toys? That statistic boggled my brain. What toys do kids need these days to experience a happy, creative, rewarding childhood? We took baby Nellie to the park this past weekend and all she needed was the great outdoors. She played with a stick. She found joy in the swing set, the ducks, and a dog that happened by. When the malamute attempted to steal her stick, Nellie was having none of it. She became the dog and stuck it in her mouth and dared us to wrestle it from her. Nature and her imagination. You can’t buy those two things at any toy store.

       That got me to thinking how joyous life is when we keep it simple. The happiest people I know are people who pull the car over to look at a sunset, or weep at the budding of a flower, or roll up their pants to run into the ocean waves. People who aren’t too rushed to pay attention to other people. They have time to stop and “chat” with a neighbor. People who are curious. People who bend down to speak on a child’s level. People who sing along to the radio. People who dance when the music starts. People who create. People who take God at His word.

       I’ve been reading a lot about Thoreau and his quest to “live deliberately.” We mistakenly believe he went deep into the woods to get away from the din of society. Not true. Emerson’s little piece of property where Thoreau took refuge sat on the outskirts of town.

       We don’t have to go far. We don’t have to spend much. We don’t have to cave to advertisers telling us what will make us happy. We’ve got an inner voice that speaks the truth and guides us to true happiness. The problem is we’ve also got a crowd of other voices and they all speak louder. They all have opinions about how we should live.

       Silly us.

       We’re responsible for the quality of our lives. We’re responsible for our own happiness. Tomorrow I’ll make another bag of “stuff” and donate it. That makes me happier than going to the store and bringing another bag of “stuff” into our home.

       Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe the kids should take me seriously when I tell them to pick up their “stuff.” Whatever is going on, I’m glad life is getting simpler.






A Quarter Christmas…a story I never wanted to tell

Don’t ask me why Santa looks like he got his outfit from Cruella Deville. But do ask me about the little girl in the photo. It’s me when I was seven or eight.

The only thing I wanted that Christmas was my photo taken with Santa. He was making a regular appearance at the local grocery store. I’d go in there and stand back in the bakery, watching parents and kids making memories. That’s all I wanted.

But it cost a quarter and we didn’t have a quarter to spare.

So I got inventive. I went to the local pet shop and told the owner I’d clean cages every day after school, and all day Saturdays, if he’d pay me a quarter before December 24th.

Mr. Aoki struck a quick deal.

Back then pets weren’t regulated like they are today. There were lizards, snakes, ferrets, weasels, hamsters, rats, a couple of cougar kittens, a litter of raccoon kits, all kinds of dogs and cats, fish and birds, and a cage jumping with monkeys.

I fell in love with all of the animals, but never lost sight of my goal.

December 24th came and I put on red pants and the closest thing I had to a red jacket and went to work. I cleaned until 1:30 p.m., knowing Santa’s run at the grocery store ended at 2 p.m.

I pestered the pet shop owner, a kind Japanese man, for my quarter. I followed him to the register and about died when he didn’t give me a quarter, but handed me an entire dollar bill. I grabbed it and ran, praying Santa would still be there.

He wasn’t.

The line was gone. Even the sign was gone. And it was still ten minutes until 2 p.m.

I almost collapsed with disappointment. Then I caught sight of his Dalmatian hat and red suit and zipped down the dairy aisle, begging Santa to stop. The elf with him, lugging the Polaroid camera, urged Santa to keep heading toward the back exit, but he stopped, sat on a couple of wooden orange crates, and I got the Polaroid picture I’d so desperately wanted. But then he caught me off guard with a question: “What do you want for Christmas, little girl?”

Just the photo, I thought—and a pet monkey. But that’s not what I said. I leaned into his scratchy beard with a reply that shocked us both, “I want my mom to stop drinking.”

Santa let out a long, exhausted sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, embarrassed and suddenly all teary. I would have darted away, if I didn’t have to stay and wait the 90 seconds for my Polaroid to develop.

I don’t remember what else Santa said—something about not being able to deliver every gift kids asked for. All I know is that I buried the memory of that day for a very, very long time, and I’m not sure why. Then this year I came across that Polaroid, and snap…I was that little girl again. I could smell the pungent scent of Aoki’s Pet Store, and feel the sodden newspapers at the bottom of so many animal cages. I could hear the screeches and the meows of so many animals. I could sense the scratch of Santa’s beard. My heart ached  to comfort and congratulate that freckle-faced little girl who dressed herself, did her own hair, and forged a way to make her dream come true.

I was getting all-nostalgic, all heal-your-inner-child, when my brain stopped all the sappy stuff, and conjured up the real question: Whatever happened to my seventy-five cents in change?

Yes, You’ve Had An Acorn Experience…remembering it will help you heal

It wasn’t the first time someone called me dumb.

But it was the first time I believed I was dumb.

Friday afternoon my kindergarten teacher, Miss Wagner (pronounced Vag-nur), reiterated to our class how vital it was that come Monday, each student must bring acorns for a class art project.

It made sense to me. It was October and mighty oak trees were littering the ground with acorns. Just not anywhere in the concrete city where I lived.

My mother, a single mom and a nurse that worked weekends, not to mention a very active alcoholic/addict, was my only hope of getting to the nearest canyon (an hour away).

That night I begged, “Please, Mom.”

“It’s too far.”

“Please, Mom,” I begged Saturday morning. “I have to have acorns.”

“I have to go to work.”

“Please, Mom,” I begged that night when she arrived home.

“Ask me later.”

Sunday morning I peered into her room to beg again. She was gone. I called the hospital. She wasn’t working which meant that she was out drinking. This wasn’t unusual and I did what I could to manipulate the situation for my benefit. I cleaned my room. I scrubbed the bathroom and vacuumed the living room. I refolded all the towels in the house the way Mom liked them folded. Then I waited. And waited. And watched the sun start to sink along with my heart.

That’s when I heard her Mustang lurch into our driveway.

I didn’t have to beg. Mom opened the door and hollered, “Come on, let’s go get some #%&!! acorns!”

“You’re drunk.”

“Do you want to go or not?”

My anxiety level accelerated with the Mustang’s speed. I puked twice on the windy drive up to where Mom was sure the mighty oaks grew. By the time we got there it was dark and she used the car’s headlights to shine into a shadowy grove of trees, their bare branches were goblin fingers reaching for the night sky.

“Stop your sniveling and get down here with me on your hands and knees,” she ordered. “Rake through the wet, rotting leaves with your fingers. Just be careful not to grab a deer turd or a snake.”

After an hour or so, we came away with a total of five acorns, plus two more we assumed were mutant cousins. Still, they counted and because Miss Wagner had not specified a number, I was thrilled with seven, though secretly afraid that my classmates would out-acorn me.

Silly me.

Seven was the top number of acorns anyone in the class brought.

Because when I walked in, exhausted but exhilarated, I was the only student with any acorns at all. Every other classmate had brought just what Miss Wagner had instructed—egg cartons.

That afternoon when I explained to Mom why I brought all seven acorns back home, her face went all puffer-fishy.

“How could you be so##*&@ dumb?”

“I misunderstood,” I sniveled. “Miss Wagner said it’s okay.”

“It’s not okay! Acorns and egg cartons don’t’ even sound alike!”

“Miss Wagner’s from Germany. She talks funny.”

The slap to my head made my eyes sting.

“What was that for?”

“I was seeing if you’ve even got a brain to rattle—you don’t.”

At this point in the story we come to a screeching halt to make one thing clarion—I’m not sharing anything to elicit sympathy. Not even close. I’m trying to rattle your brain back to your own defining moment when somebody called you dumb. Back to your own acorn experience when you believed that you weren’t smart enough or good enough or whatever enough.

As excruciating as it is, I want you to own the tears and snot, the fury and humiliation of that moment. Remember how you felt and say a forever goodbye to that feeling because you’re not dumb. You’ve never been dumb. And by all that’s true and holy, we’re going to prove just how not-dumb you are.