Occupy Downtown

Every year at this time, I find myself thinking about how to make the holiday season simpler and more meaningful. More joyful and less stressful. A reflection of our family’s values and what really matters to us, rather than a last-minute scramble to make sure there are enough wrapped packages under the tree.

Last weekend, while checking things off my to-do list downtown, I suddenly had a revelation: I am so lucky to live in a town where there still IS such a thing as “downtown.”

And that’s when I decided that, much as I appreciate the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, my own theme this holiday season is going to be: “Occupy Downtown.”

My hometown is still a place where you can buy organic vegetables or a snowblower, a cup of pea soup to go or a fair-trade basket from Peru, art supplies or plumbing supplies, antique linens or a toy for a toddler, a hand knit hat or a pair of hiking boots, local honey or imported cheese. You can browse at the Toadstool, attend a poetry reading, eat lunch at the diner, stroll through an art gallery, and go to a movie. Or you can drop off your dry cleaning, pick up batteries and trash bags, bring a load of cans to the recycling center, and get your oil changed. Chances are, wherever you go, someone will know your name. The bag boy at the market will carry your groceries out to your car. The owner of the clothing store will know it’s your birthday month and what size jeans you wear. The clerk in the bookstore will have saved the last copy of Joan Didion just for you.

This is the way small-town life is supposed to be. This is my definition of the good life. It is also a way of life that is vanishing before our eyes. If we want our downtowns to survive, we have to inhabit them.

“Out-sourcing” is not just something big corporations do, it’s a habit I’ve fallen into myself. How often do I click a button and order from Amazon, instead of buying from a shopkeeper right here in town? More often than I like to admit. The truth is, I can buy every single thing I need or want locally. And yet too many of my dollars end up elsewhere, in the well-stuffed pockets of huge corporations that have no connection with my everyday life.

Well, I’m done. I care about the place I live and I care about the people who make this town the lively, vibrant, inviting community it is. These folks don’t live on air. They depend on cash register receipts. Their stores can’t continue to exist just for my idle sight-seeing and window-shopping pleasure; they need me — they need all of us — to walk through the doors and open our wallets.

And so, I vow here and now to Occupy Downtown this holiday season. I’m shopping in my own back yard, and no where else. I may buy less, but I’ll feel good about where every dollar lands. I’ll take time to chat with the shopkeepers and let them know how grateful I am that they’re here. Simple. Meaningful. Stress free.

I invite you to join me. Occupy your own downtown. Swear off one-click ordering, and go out and see what that funky little shop on the corner has to offer. Our dollars have power. When we spend them locally, we put money back into the towns we love — for city services, road repairs, schools. We support the businesses that meet our needs and desires, that hire our neighbors, that donate to our causes, and that enrich our lives. And we connect face-to-face with real people instead of interfacing with computer screens and feeding the coffers of anonymous corporations.

A holiday gift for you!

I’d love to send you a Christmas gift from my town. Leave a note here and share the “Occupy Downtown” message someplace else — Facebook, Twitter, a blog, whatever. I will draw a name at random after midnight on November 23 to receive a special gift from my town.

And speaking of independent bookstores. . .

My dear friend Ann Patchett is doing a pretty amazing job of occupying downtown herself. When the last independent bookstore in Nashville closed its doors, she decided to open her own. But she’s under no illusions; even a bookstore owned by a best-selling author can’t exist without customers. As she says, “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode. If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

Here’s the whole story — page one of today’s New York Times.


For years my friend Maude has been saying that we should go to her little cabin in Maine. Somehow, although we talk about it every summer, we’ve never actually managed to set aside the time to make the trip. Leaving home means finding someone to water the garden, tidying up the desk, answering the emails, making sure that kids and husbands and dogs and all other commitments are covered. Easier to murmur, “someday, maybe,” and put the adventure off for another year.

wilderness - Version 2I’m so glad that this time, when she asked, I just said yes. It’s a five-hour drive door to door, a journey from civilization into remote wildnerness – dirt roads, moose, rugged mountains, vast lakes. Maude warned me that we’d be roughing it — no plumbing, no phone service, no internet, no “amenities.” But nothing could have prepared me for what we got instead of an indoor toilet and wi-fi: the wild beauty, the stillness, the sensuous pleasure of a wood-fired sauna, skinny dipping under the stars, drinking hot tea in bed together late at night, sharing stories.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” naturalist John Muir wrote, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I am just back from the woods, still assimilating the memories of this sacred, rugged place. But already, I find myself yearning to return. A taste of wilderness has whet my appetite for beauty as well as bread. Stripped down to bare essentials – food, fire, water, air – I experienced what it means to simply be a receiver. Open, unbounded, receptive to all kinds of knowing and seeing. Leaving conveniences and distractions behind, it is easy to rediscover what is of real value: our own vulnerable, wild souls and our membership in the vast web of life. The timeless dance of sunlight and shadow, earth and sky, water and mountain. The cries of loons, the gift of friendship, the pleasure of a hammock strung between trees, simple food, good conversation, a sound sleep in a bed at water’s edge.

Home again, I find myself cranky and out of sorts, feeling hemmed in, burdened by the “stuff” of my life. I wonder if I can find a way, even here in the midst of busyness, to stay in touch the silence inside? How disciplined would I have to be to reduce the distractions in my life, to begin to honor and protect my connection with my own hungry spirit?


“Tug on anything at all,” naturalist John Muir once wrote, “and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

I sit alone at my kitchen table on this April Monday morning, waiting for the sun to slide up and into full view. I watch a pair of chickadees trading places at the feeder. And then I type these five words — “tug on anything at all” — and wonder, is it really that simple, is everything really connected to everything else? Am I but a single strand of thread, inextricably woven into some billowing cosmic fabric?

It is hard, given the pace of our lives, the needs of our loved ones, the demands on our days, to give ourselves the time it takes to sit still and go deep. Carving out even a few moments of such quiet time means attending to our thirst for contemplation, creativity, and solitude — a thirst that is all too easy to ignore when there seem to be so many other more urgent hungers and priorities competing for our time. I’m always amazed at how long it takes me to transform my own mundane, everyday experience into some kind of narrative that makes sense enough for other eyes to read. And not a week goes by that I don’t question the validity of what I do. Is this particular reflection worth sharing with anyone? Why bother? And, really, who cares?

More often than not, when the choice comes down to writing or attending to some necessary, concrete task on my list, I choose to do what seems truly “productive”: pay the bill, vacuum the floor, clean the fridge, check up on a sick friend. But I am learning to heed the quixotic call of quiet. Without much of an agenda or plan (oh, I’d much rather have a plan!), I allow my fingers to begin typing, just to see what I have to say.

Writing, staring out the window, writing some more, as the hours roll by and the dishes sit on the counter and the weeds multiply in the garden. Writing because it is the best, the only, way I know to investigate myself, to figure out what I think and how I feel and what matters right now. Writing because I do need to connect with some inner “me” and, even more, because I also need to reach out a hand and tug at something ineffable, something “out there” beyond my own orbit of thoughts and feelings and perceptions. Writing in order to remember that I’m part of something mysterious and vast and eternal. Writing to remind myself that, yes, I am connected to everything else in the universe.

You and I may not have met face to face, we might not even recognize one another on the street. And yet, I’m convinced that in certain ways that truly matter, we know one another. Our lives are indeed intertwined, our journeys shared, thanks in part to the power of the written word and the wonders of our wired age. Somewhere out there, you sit before your own screen — at a desk in a crowded office, perhaps; or on the sofa while a baby naps nearby; or in an attic room above the fray of family life; or hunched over a table in a coffee shop, waiting till your latte is cool enough to drink; or propped up on bed pillows for a stolen moment before sleep — and you read a few paragraphs on a blog written by a stranger who somehow feels like a friend. You are reminded now, as I am, that we’re all in this together, come what may. And that, much as the details of our everyday lives may differ, when it comes right down to what resides in our hearts, we have so much more in common than not. “We read,” to paraphrase, C. S. Lewis, “to know that we are not alone.” I think I write for exactly the same reason.

This week over a hundred of you answered the question “How do you simplify your life?” Your responses are creative, surprising, moving, and immensely practical. Check out the comments section for inspiration.

Here, just a sampling:

*Make simpler meals
*Adopt a less-is-more attitude
*Listen more
*Say “no” to the things that don’t nourish us
* Say “yes” to opportunities for togetherness
*Walk more and drive less
*Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff
*Mark off calendar time just for family togetherness
*Turn off the TV
*Get rid of smart phones
*Read out loud
*Let the dishes wait
*De-clutter daily
*Savor ordinary moments
*Limit activities to one per child
*Ease up on expectations

I will notify the two winners of the book give-away tomorrow. In the meantime, thank you all for your heartfelt notes, for sharing your lives with me, and for a wealth of wonderful suggestions and insights. As Kelly wrote: “My lesson learned is to embrace the moment and let the little voice inside you guide you. Trust that you really have the answers.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Mother’s Day is May 8. Need a gift for a special mom in your life? I am signing Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of an Ordinary Day for Mother’s Day. Click here to order your personalized, gift-wrapped copies.

Simplicity Parenting and Books to Give Away

I can’t recall how many times a reader has written to say,
“I wish I’d found your books years ago, when my children were young.”

I had that same feeling myself, reading Kim John Payne’s very wise and beautiful book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids.

So many of the books I did read when my own sons were small left me feeling confused and inadequate. What I wanted was a calm friend on the page, someone who would reassure me that I was fully capable of giving my children what they needed. Someone who would also remind me that, in fact, my two small children didn’t actually need very much.

In a culture of competition, noise, distraction, and excess, it is hard to tune in to a place of inner knowing. And it’s harder still for me to hear and to trust my own inner voice — especially when that voice is advocating for such elusive qualities as emptiness, silence, stillness, intimacy, simplicity, and faith.

I have discovered a spiritual friend, and a mentor for both motherhood and for life itself, in Kim Payne. Even now, reading his book as the parent of two young adults, I find myself underlining passages, realizing that our need for quiet time and simple pleasures does not end with childhood. Again and again, I have to be reminded to stop, to rest, to realign my life with the values I hold most dear.
Relationships — whether with a toddler or an eighteen-year-old — are not sustained on the fly. In fact, they are best nurtured in those very moments when not much else is happening. Whenever I turn my attention away from the world’s distractions (and there seem to be more of them then ever!), and focus instead on the beautiful souls of my own loved ones, I am rewarded.

Anxiety usually means I’m reacting rather than listening, doing rather than being, fixing rather than trusting. Each time I pause to be quiet, to create space, to slow down, I release my grip on a moment that can’t be held anyway. I stop struggling. I reconnect with what I know. Awareness deepens. Gratitude for what is edges out fear of what may be.

Kim Payne reminds me who I am and how I want to live. He writes:

Imagine your home. . .

* as a place where time moves a little slower.
*becoming less cluttered and more visually relaxing.
*with space, and time, for childhood — and with time for one another every day.
*as a place where play and exploration are allowed and honored.
*having more ease as you begin to limit distractions and say no to the stress of too much, too fast, too soon.
*as a sense of calm and security take hold.
*becoming a place where those we love know it, by virtue of our attention, protection, and appreciation.

This is where I want to live. Don’t we all?

As Mother’s Day approaches, I am delighted to give away two special gift packages, each containing a copy of Kim Payne’s Simplicity Parenting and a signed copy of my book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF TWO SETS OF 2 BOOKS EACH, just leave a comment here. If you’ve found a way to simplify your life, I’d love to hear about it — and my guess is that many others would be grateful, too. But of course you may simply say, “Count me in!”

Entries close at midnight Monday, April 25, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.


• Buy “Simplicity Parenting” now
• Buy “Mitten Strings for God” now

P.S. Many of you have asked about ordering signed copies of The Gift of an Ordinary Day as Mother’s Day gifts. I would be honored to sign and personalize books for all the special moms in your life. And, of course, Mitten Strings for God makes a wonderful gift for a new mother or a mom with young children. Your books will be signed, gift wrapped, and mailed from my trusty local bookstore. Just click here: Order Signed Copies

Living the good life

  I parked my car on the dirt road, slipped through the handmade twig gate, and followed a winding path through the frozen garden just as the first snowflakes began to fall.

Thirty years ago, the owners of this remote bit of countryside had two young sons, no money, and a dream. They wanted a good life, a house of their own, a piece of land on which to grow food for their family.

When I met Bill and Eileen for the first time last summer, I was struck most of all by their joy.  And then by the improbability of their secluded paradise–twenty-five resplendent acres of organic vegetables, exotic trees, berries, poppies and peonies, and a wealth of rare ornamental plants–all hidden away at the end of a long dirt road on a wooded hillside.  The overall effect was at once sacred and exuberant; the garden as sanctuary and playground.

I fell in love with it at first sight.  And I’ve returned a few times since that hot July day when poppies and day lilies ran rampant and raspberries approached their peak.  “Come whenever you like,” Eileen had said, “just close the gate behind you.”  And so I took her at her word, and visited the garden in the fall, just before frost, and again in the barren chill of early winter.  Wandering the empty paths, listening to the whuush of wind through the pines, sitting on a bench and allowing the stillness of this lovely spot to work its magic on me, I wondered about the people who had created it.

Finally, this morning, I went back to get properly acquainted.  We sat in the kitchen, cozy and warm near the old Waterford cookstove, as snow fell thick and fast beyond the window.  The beams in the cabin, Bill told me, were all from oak he’d felled right here.  He and Eileen had cleared the woods themselves, cranked the stumps and split the logs with an ax.  They dug a cellarhole, mixed cement in a wheelbarrow, and built a foundation of rocks extracted from the earth beneath their feet.  And then they built their cabin, as well as a small outbuilding for their teenaged sons, with their own hands, learning as they went.

Meanwhile, they practiced self-sufficiency for a year in a rented house down the road, to make sure they had what it takes to live the simple life they envisioned:  no electricity, no telephone, no running water or flush toilets, no refrigerator, no central heat.  By the time the cabin was closed in, Eileen and Bill felt they were ready too.

After thirty years, and two sons grown and gone, the novelty of going to bed with the sun and rising at first light has long since worn off.  And what began as a great experiment in subsistence has evolved into a deeply cherished, profoundly satisfying way of life.   Bill was delighted to show me his ingenious plumbing system and his hand pump in the basement — ten minutes of vigorous pumping in the morning yields enough water for the day.  Eileen led me into the “tub room” for a peek at her hand-powered wringer washing machine and a deep old-fashioned bathtub surrounded by candles.  I admired the jars of food put by, beans and tomatoes arranged neatly on pantry shelves.  I paid a visit to the composting toilet, admired the cabbages wrapped in newspaper in the root cellar, and felt a twinge of envy as I scanned the floor-to-ceiling book-lined shelves, the beginnings of a jigsaw puzzle on a table by a window, the hammock hung high between two posts in the living room, the pair of reading chairs set side by side in the bedroom, where Bill and Eileen begin each day with books and mugs of tea.  Such intimacy. Such quiet. Such peace.

“Most of the other back-to-the-landers from the seventies ended up getting divorced,” Eileen said, laughing.  “Or else they got a little money in the bank and traded up — to the kinds of comforts we  decided we could do without.”

And yet, comfort is exactly what I experienced as I sat with these two brand new acquaintances who felt, immediately, like dear old friends.  Friends and mentors, I should say, who know in their bones what it means to live in the moment, in harmony with the seasons, with a deep, abiding love for what is.

“Your life is your practice,” says Zen writer Karen Maezen Miller on her daily blog.  I’ve been been absorbing the truth of those words for a week or two now.  This morning, I understood.