Complicate the Holidays!*

Two years ago I finished Bill McKibbon’s book Hundred Dollar Holiday and received my first Center for a New American Dream‘s newsletter in my email inbox.  They both issued clarion calls to Simplify!

Today I realize, I still want urge other to contemplate something more counter-intuitive – instead – Complicate your holidays.

complicate the holidays

Here’s what I mean.

What both of these speakers want is a reduction of stuff at the holidays, particularly some sorts of technologies, expensive new clothes, mass produced cheap shit, and anything else you might buy on Black Friday.

But, they aren’t alone in those types of sentiments.  Actually, everyone wants a simplified holiday! That’s the advice on the cover of every single magazine in November and December – how to make your hosting simple, cooking easy, and workouts lightning fast, and still lose five pounds!But the real reason you’re trying to cut down on the stuff? So life can be little more complicated. How so?

Because the things we’re talking about replacing those items with are Complicated.  Things like:

  • Friendship
  • Gratitude
  • Volunteering
  • Thought
  • Celebration
  • Peace

The list of suggestions to simplify your holidays starts with something extremely personal and precious, and yes, complicated.

 It starts with giving your time.  Whereas I can always earn more money, and will, I can’t earn back any of my time.  In giving time, suddenly we find ourselves committed to drawing closer to that person.  By engaging with other deeply by sharing our time – we may find out the truth behind the easy veneer we all often paste over our messy lives.  We might be pulled in – and in the process bind ourselves more closely.

Though choosing the perfect holiday gift for someone does require some knowledge of their preferences, so often we don’t think about what we give at the holidays.  We just pull what looks good off the shelf, to fulfill an obligation.  Spending time with others instead, is a surprisingly one-size-fits-all gift that is tailor-made.

And what about using our time to make gifts, something crafted, baked, or constructed?   If we choose to give gifts made of our time and materials we will also need to redefine our values.  Especially the ones we’ve received from unceasing advertising.   We will no longer be able to stomach slick and (worse still) cheap.  We certainly can’t prize perfection, because home made isn’t mass produced with machines.  If we’re complicating things by preparing a meal from scratch, we can’t prize efficiency too much.  No one wants a microwaved TV dinner for Christmas, however fast it might be.  And, if we’re complicating things by purchasing used gifts, we had better not have too much pride.  Giving someone a gift that has been used is a little exercise in humility.

Simplifying Complicating the holidays boils down to community – which is messy, time consuming business. 

So, Complicate on folks, it’s only December 5th November 24th and there is one more month filled with plenty of complication left (and 12 more after that if you like to keep on celebrating past Epiphany as do my Anglican readers.)

*This post was originally posted on December 5, 2011 – but updated on November 24, 2013.


Common Misconceptions about Simplicity


Simplicity can be quite complicated.

I realized this when a friend asked me for some of my thoughts about it during the Lenten season this past March.  (Simplicity is one of the outward Spiritual Disciplines practiced by Christians – but it can certainly apply to others as well.  However, in this conversation, I’m rooting discussion in my faith tradition.)  I started to write him a facebook message, but stopped after it stretched on for over twelve paragraphs. I can sum up what I think Simplicity is in one sentence –

Simplicity is a life stripped of excess; excess that separates us from what really mattersIn the context of Christianity, it’s easy to define what really matters – Loving God. Loving People.

But the practical business of partaking in this weeding process can be thorny.  First off, what is a weed?  Or rather, how do we recognize simplicity when we see it?

So that I better recognize what simplicity is – I started out by identifying 5 things simplicity isn’t.

Simplicity doesn’t mean Easy.

The first thing I determined was that simplicity doesn’t mean taking the easiest route.  It is always easier to do things the way they have always been done, to not question our decisions, our choices..  It is always simple to do what is most convenient – but that does not mean it will allow us to excise excess.  It is always simple to do what everyone else is doing, but does that mean we should all be doing it?

Simplicity is not always Cheap.

If simplicity ultimately involves loving other people then in good conscience it is difficult to participate in practices that enslave other people.  Because of the convoluted and global practices of trade these days – unfortunately much, but not all, of the time it is necessary to purchase something that has been made by slaves.  One of the biggest practices of simplicity involves the work of discovering how to avoid these things – and purchase items which reflect just labor.  This is usually more expensive than cheaper alternatives.

Simplicity involves Work.

One element of simplicity is investigating alternatives to current practices.  The mental work to decide to live simply is the first step, and hard enough.  Beyond that it’s hard to rethink habits, and to try new practices.  It’s always work to discover goods that are ethically made and sourced.  Furthermore, it is mental work to say no to upgrading your goods, and sometimes forgoing labor-saving devices in the practice of simplicity.  Relevant Magazine presents one of the biggest labor saving devices which is slowly eroding the practice of simplicity and silence.

Simplicity is not the same thing as Minimalism, or Sustainability.

Sometimes I get really into all the similarities between Simplicity and Sustainable living – forgoing upgraded technology, finding locally sourced vegetables, home cooked meals, thrifted clothing, one car lifestyle. I want to be able to say that these two things are the same – and there is some crossover – but they aren’t the same – because the Discipline of Simplicity is, again, rooted in faith.

The definition of sustainability is to be sure that the current generation doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to live on the earth.  Sustainability’s goal is that people will have enough resources to continue indefinite life on this planet.  Simplicity is ultimately not about resources or goods at all, and Christian simplicity is not about this planet primarily – but about God, and People.

Simplicity is not just a state of mind.

I like what Richard Foster*, author of Freedom of Simplicity, writes –  “The Christian discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.”  Although I can think about simplicity all day long, if I don’t change my habits it is nothing but talk, and nothing has been gained. Simplicity must be but into practice with small choices implemented one after the other.

What do you think about Simplicity – or have you even thought about it before?

*I am very indebted to Foster’s thoughts on Simplicity.  I cannot recommend Foster’s book highly enough.  His book was the first I read on the topic, and I think it is the best.

You might also like this post: About how to keep Holidays Simple by focusing on People.

Your Priorities aren’t just another “To Do” list

I bit off more than I could chew and it’s been weighing on my mind for a couple weeks now.

When I calculated how much time I had at the beginning of the semester – there was an ample amount of time to study and balance work.  I only needed about 35 hours total – and there are 168 in the week.

I immediately, of course, threw out the 56, give or take, I spend sleeping, and all the time I spend with E pouring water on the floor, watching buses, fighting to get the coat on, and all the other activities of daily living.  I’m smart about that stuff – I know I can’t read textbook chapters and eat oatmeal with a toddler on my lap (or can I?)

That brought me down to about 42 hours of time per week.  See!  Look!  I’d planned for 7 hours of wiggle room no less!

Haha.  Wiggle room.

Like always – I glossed over the fact that life changes.  That I would have new ideas about the best way to live – and those ideas might involve amounts of internet and book research which also has nothing to do with class – and wouldn’t fit into those left over 7 hours.

I didn’t budget in for feeling overwhelmed and sitting on the couch watching Modern Family, and Once Upon a Time over and over.  I didn’t plan for buying new furniture, or non-routine shopping trips.  I didn’t plan for just not wanting to work some nights – or not being able to figure out what needed to get done the first time around.  I didn’t plan for planning, or questioning my decisions.

Who can plan for that stuff?

Real life takes up time – and even though people say it can be organized – (Even though I’m trying to be organized – and there are purportedly more tools than ever via apps, the internet, and experts – I get the feeling that’s not really helping anyone – it’s just kind of putting off disaster a little further.)

One Problem? These tools aren’t doing what needs to be done – they won’t tell you a single thing about your Priorities.

These tools are trying to tell us we can have it all, if we can just pull together by trying another solution, or working harder, or just smarter.

It doesn’t work like that.   You have to say ‘No’ to some things – and you have Say ‘Yes’ to the Right things.

You have to do your best, forget the rest – and then not try to fit “the rest” in later in the day.

No tool in a magazine, on the internet, in a book, or in a day planner will tell you about your priorities.

You will need to figure out your priorities on your own.

Truth be told, you should probably get help from others too.  Cause if you, and all your little wants, and all your impulses are priority one – you did it wrong.

None of those other tools, the books, planners, and resolutions, will help you when the going gets tough.  For that – you need grace – not another “to do” list.

I’ve been clinging tight to the words of advice from Proverbs 6:6 that Donald Miller reminded me of and simply trying to do one thing at a time lately – and those things that have a lasting impact.  The right things.

Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.

image via

For more of my thoughts on Priorities and Values : Check out my post “This I Believe.”

This I believe…

Artist Lynda Schlosberg captures some of the energy that I felt contemplating these ideas with her painting Matrix 10

Like so many heartfelt posts that I’ve wanted to write, this one has been written well over half a dozen times in google drive: testing, feeling, sounding out which phrases resonate with me.   I haven’t been sure whether to get really practical – as I usually do – or keep things on the level of musing, theoretical, and abstract.  In the end, emotions and ideas won out.

All during September we blogged and thought about Belief at Connect Shore, and so I got curious about what I really truly believed.  What makes me tick?  I couldn’t stop thinking about this for weeks.

As always, I found out as I wrote and tested these ideas  in ‘real world’ conversation, what I think is most shocking are instead the concepts that I talk about non-stop through my actions and facebook posts.  It’s not much of a surprise to others that I believe in these things.  But, the process of working through my core beliefs, all in one place, at one time, was very moving and exhilarating for me.

Actually making my beliefs into tangible tokens took those emotions one step further.  I literally couldn’t sleep for hours one night because I was so excited that I had made these particular beliefs so clear.  And then the next day (figuratively speaking) I was down in the dumps because even though I believe that these are the important things in life… I was worried that my actions don’t always match my beliefs perfectly.  This is something, even after making the cards and contemplating everything I still don’t have an answer for too.

Even though my created trump cards don’t live up to everything I imagined… they come close.  The idea of trump cards makes perfect sense in my head – Beliefs that supercede and engulf small waves of interpretation – like a Queen gobbling up a lowly Eight.  These are abstract principles that unify your life in all it’s seemingly – but not actually – disparate parts.  Principles that are called by so many other names like Core Values or in French – Raisons D’Etre.  These are my foundations. The undergirding of my actions and wishes to act.  They are strings that resonate throughout the symphony of my life; and I hear their tones repeated as point and counterpoint.

As I said, I didn’t want to just write a post about these things I believe, I wanted to illustrate them.

So I created a set of cards detailing six of my very most important beliefs.  I think they can be divided into beliefs that affect my inward life, and beliefs that affect my outward actions.


To sort them out I made lists of catchphrases that have resonated with me throughout my emerging adulthood.  I edited them for those strains which had lasted the longest and recurred the most times.  That is how I got six categories, and many phrases which I have repeated to myself like parables.

Inward Beliefs: Discipline, Wisdom, and Balance

Outward Beliefs: Stewardship, Community, and Hospitality

I realized that these particular beliefs for me are born out of being a Christian, and all of my beliefs spring out of Freedom within a Framework of Faith a phrase I was first introduced to at Gordon College.  I felt that I had to incorporate that somehow.  In order to represent my faith, I included the first line of the Apostles Creed, the essentials that I hold to be true when it comes to Christianity.  They also give me a freedom to practice my other values.   (I know that others can reach these values without a Christian background, but that is how I reached them.)

As I’ve been re-reading the wonderful book Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson I’ve been mindful to treat these values as  “familiar components in the response to new situations.”

I don’t think they’ll change… but maybe other beliefs will replace them over time.  I can only wait and see.

Responding to Christian Smith: Materialism and Consumption

This is Part 3 in a 5 Part Series responding to Christian Smith’s Book Lost in Transition

When it comes to Emerging Adults it seems as though the goal of life can be summed up in a few words: money, lots of it.   Although most didn’t want several houses, and a dozen cars (yes, some did), a minority seem to conceive of a good life beyond making money to support a comfortable (middle class) lifestyle or something a bit more extravagant.  When asked what they wanted to achieve in life the majority (60 percent) mentioned financial security as an important piece.

I somewhat fall into this majority of emerging adults, imagining days in the future when I can afford a car that doesn’t have a 19— on it’s registration and possibly a little extra space for a guest bedroom or a sunroom in my home.  However, I do diverge from another crucial belief of the surveyed emerging adults who hold that if you earn money it is yours to spend as you please, with no thought to limited resources on the earth, how much you already own, or how little someone else has.  In essence, they hold there should be no limits on wealth or consumption and little pressure socially or legally to donate money.

The larger questions behind these two concepts of money are, What is the good life? and How much do we need to contribute to the common welfare?

How can we begin to look beyond money, or things that money can buy?  The first step may be to turn off the television. Literally true, as Juliet Schor wrote about in her book the Overspent American; the more television you watch, the more things you want to buy.  The more people you see on TV who have plenty of money who are spending it in irresponsible ways, or have never-ending wardrobes, or simply just watching so many advertisements makes you more discontented with your own belongings.  Which means you spend more money.

Some of the other broader ways to address the issues are

:To focus on character development. Money is often a way of focusing on the outward appearances in life, but it can’t bring the same satisfaction as a job well done, a goal achieved, or an experience that you’ve worked hard for.  It is also a poor substitute for friends.

:To understand the paradox of simplicity.  First, it turns out that beyond meeting basic needs and some comforts, more money doesn’t make people any happier.  (This research is touched on in a lot of places, but I read articles most recently in Time magazine, and the aforementioned book by Juliet Schor.)  Simplicity additionally provides an environment that allows you to think clearly and see what really matters in life, much of which is intangible. Rather than be clouded by the latest thrill or gadget you are able to live with a balance of old and new, the familiar as well as the novel.   The less you have, the more you are able to enjoy others.  (Should you be interested in a Christian perspective on simplicity, I would recommend Richard Foster’s book Freedom of Simplicity)

:To focus on charity in both senses of the word.  To be charitable toward others by giving them benefit of the doubt and kindly glossing over their faults is one way of looking at this.  However, when it comes to giving money charitably, I think the best way to do it is to plan it into your budget at whatever amount is possible on a monthly basis, the same as any other bill, whether it be ten, one hundred, or more dollars each month. After all, people that give away money are happier and healthier.

Again, this comes down to the question, What is the good life? And how are we to define that? Is there any way that what one person answers should relate to another person’s answers, or can everyone define the good life in their own way, even if it contradicts?  That brings us back to the morality question.  Did you come up with any answers yet?

Complicating the Holidays

Thinking about changing the way you celebrate Christmas? Read on.

I finished reading Bill McKibbon’s book Hundred Dollar Holiday and I received the Center for a New American Dream’s newsletter in my inbox.  They both issue clarion calls to Simplify!

For several paragraphs though, I want to willfully ignore their rhetoric, and phrase things in a different way, a way that might seem a little counterintuitive.  Instead of simplicity, let’s talk about Complication.

What both of these organizations want is a reduction of stuff at the holidays, particularly some sorts of technologies, expensive new clothes, mass produced cheap shit, and anything that a fun-busting type character might point out with a dour frown, “well, you can’t take it with you.”

But the things we’re talking about replacing those items with are Complicated. Note the capital “C.”  Those are things like Relationships. Time. Energy. Thought. Care. Patience.  For example, the list of suggestions to simplify your holidays starts with something extremely personal and precious.  Your Time.  Whereas I can always earn more money, and will, I can’t earn back any of my time.  If I were to gift someone a party I would reckon that’s at least 10 hours spent on invitations, baking, and cleaning, not including attending the actual party.  That time might double or triple for teaching someone a skill (the third suggestion.)  Though choosing a holiday gift for someone does require some knowledge of their preferences, committing to spend a dozen odd hours of them will both deepen your knowledge of them and cement your relationship further.

It will also drive home some of the things that are frustrating about people.  I hate to be the holiday kill-joy here, but there are certain habits our familial relations have that are annoying.  I can’t name anything specifically about my own family, because my sister reads this blog but let’s just say my family’s not perfect either.

Complicating things is worthwhile, but it does require redefinition of some of our values.  For example, if we’re complicating things by making gifts, we certainly can’t prize perfection, because home made isn’t mass produced with machines.  If we’re complicating things by preparing a meal from scratch, we can’t prize efficiency too much.  No one wants a microwaved TV dinner for Christmas, however fast it might be.  And, if we’re complicating things by purchasing used gifts, we had better not have too much pride.  Giving someone a gift that has been used is a little exercise in humility, for the giver, and the givee due to some stigmas created in society.

I think simplifying the holidays here boils down to community, which is messy, time consuming business.  I’ve been appreciating this blog lately, and the woman who has been using December to promote community each day.  That’s complicating her life, I’m sure.  But in a good way.

So, Complicate on folks, it’s only December 5th, and there’s 20 more days for complication left (and 12 more after that if you like to keep on celebrating til Epiphany.)