on slowness and simplicity

Posted by on February 25, 2011

Patch of sun on a dreary winter day.

The Slow Man

by Allan Ahlberg

The phone rings
But never long enough
For the Slow Man.

By the time
The set’s switched on
His favourite programme’s over.

His tea grows cold
From cup to lip.
His soup evaporates.

He laughs, eventually
At jokes long since
Gone out of fashion.

Sell-by dates,
And limited special offers
Defeat him.

He comes home
With yesterday’s paper
And reads it…tomorrow.

* * *

I missed Poetry Wednesday this week and I wonder if anyone will read my post two days later, on a Friday.

I had every intention of posting something on Wednesday, but I had a day of disorientation in which I lost track of which day it was. This happened because I was completely engrossed in a book. Ironically, the book that had me suspended in an abstract mode, pondering ideas around the topic of time–pacing, simplicity, and spareness–was the same book which was so absorbing that I temporarily lost touch with which day of the week it was, for several days. This translated into several incidents of tardiness this week, as in the case of this post.

Thankfully I finished the book and have rejoined the realm of real time. No one would guess that the book that blew me out of touch with my surroundings this week was a parenting book. I was scrolling through my last ten or so blog posts recently and was a little dismayed at how repetitious they were. Every post seems to contain something about the trials of being home with small children, without any insight or progress or hope of a way of to make things more peaceful, more productive, or smooth. Deep within me, a voice has been saying: I need to read something. I need to find a book. I need some kind of extraordinary advice. But I don’t need just any book– a book that will cause me to feel discouraged or annoyed by presenting me with a vision of family life that is somehow deeply admirable and yet untenable.

When Esme was two and I was desperate for some advice on discipline, I read a book like that. It was by a married couple who, though not Amish, raised a large family in the country near an Amish community, emulating Amish child-rearing practices. The final product sounded wonderful: children who would listen and obey even the smallest verbal cue from their parents; children who help in and around the house and share in all responsibilities; children who are courteous and aware of the adult world, with an innate sense of what is appropriate and not appropriate.

It sounded wonderful, and yet, somehow out of my reach. I felt as if I would have to go backward in time and marry an Amish and/or countrified Grizzly Adams species of man, and reconcile myself to highly specialized gender roles, etc., in order to grow a crop of children like this. I adopted some of its advice, but most of it fell away and left me with a residual feeling of lousiness. My heart has been a little wary of parenting books ever since, and yet silently crying out for something. I really believe that there is a promise attached to seeking and knocking. That is, if you seek and knock, you will find. I don’t mean that I conducted exhaustive searches on Amazon. I mean that my heart was yearning for a solution. At last, it came to me. I found a book on accident through an only obliquely related google search. I actually did a search for something like “streamlining a child’s wardrobe,” because I have been a little overwhelmed with the girls’ clothes lately and thought that it might help to see a list of some sort showing a basic guideline for making things simpler. The truth is that streamlining and prioritizing and decision-making amidst lots of choices is not my strength. Every now and then I break down and start hunting for some help. What came up was a link to Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne. I clicked on the link and after just a few minutes looking at the description and reviews, ordered it. If books can come to you straight from God, this one came to me straight from God.

Oh, the book is so good. I want to quote it and quote it and quote it. Instead, I will just simply say that I have already made several changes in our home based on this book, and already seen major improvements all around. Right now I am able to sit down and write this post because Esme is engaged in deep, intense, imaginary play, staging a wedding between two stuffed dogs, with a care bear acting as priest. Right before that she was a pirate, using a cylindrical wooden block as a telescope. I’m not kidding. She has come up to me a few times for a little help with this or that, but other than that, she’s been happy and independent. This is our third day without her using videos as a crutch to get through the day. For quite a while we have been going in a direction I did not like, but did not know how to stop. It is a terrible feeling when your parenting style is slipping away from the grip of your deepest values and instincts. And so, I was so relieved to find a book advocating on behalf of my deepest values and instincts, and also showing me how to flesh them out in real life, and not be barraged by all the forces that would carry me away in the opposite direction.

I went to work right away while reading this book. I simplified their toys. I simplified their books. I am now even avoiding verbal clutter– simplifying the way I speak to them. The verbal simplification is perhaps the most difficult of all, but I am grateful that the book made me aware of this, just in time for Lent. My children are so clearly more responsive when I speak less. Who knew that they did not need me to explain everything to them six times, in six different ways? I am also slowing down and bringing Esme up into my world. This is hard for me to do. I have resisted it in the past. My psyche has never harbored dreams of a mama’s little helper by my side. But I notice that when I let her drag a chair up to where I am doing dishes, or where I am putting clothes into the washing machine, or let her push the buttons on the phone when I need to dial a number, or whatever, the task takes longer, but the day goes more smoothly because she is more content and the two of us are sharing the same world. Out of this connection, discipline flows easily and becomes almost a non-issue. We are doing life together, and when you are doing life together, you are on the same team, and it does not behoove people on the same team to be at odds with each other for the sake of being at odds with each other. It appears that even a four year-old feels the truth of this. But to be on the same team as a child, adults have to slow down, and with the world of adulthood going faster and faster, this takes some conscious effort.

There is a lot to this book–a hundred facets I cannot enumerate. I have a feeling that some of the more minor points in the book may turn out to be the ones that have the most profound impact on me. It is rich and profound, a voice of sanity in an insane world. I am not going to review it or summarize it here. In the spirit of simplicity, I will only say that this book is a gift which seemed to come to me at exactly the right time, and I believe that this book will be a gift for many other people, and I am very grateful that it was written.

  1. Beth
    March 2, 2011

    I am so glad to have found this post even several days late. I love that poem because if I am anything, if we are anything in this house, it is SLOW. I hate rushing around; it makes my eye twitch.

    And thank you for the book recommendation. For months now, I have been thinking that I need to pick up my Dr. Sears parenting book and it has completely overwhelmed me because I know I am doing about a million things wrong (yelling at your kids isn't a good parenting choice?). So I look forward to checking this book out. And it is true, working together, despite the flour flying all over when I am trying to make pancakes. In my heart, I know they just want to be with me but often that is hard but in then end it makes everyone happier. That is, after I get over myself. Peaceful rest of the week to you.

  2. Kris Livovich
    March 2, 2011

    I did read this last week, but am late in the commenting. This new book and the resulting calm in your house sound wonderful. I read the "Amish" man's book and could not stomach it. I know many of the habits I fall into are ugly – hearing your voice come out of your 7year old's mouth is not always pretty. Will definitely check out this book.

  3. amber
    March 2, 2011

    I ordered the book after seeing your recommendation on FB and have been enjoying reading it. It has been giving me hope in figuring out my parenting priorities. Interestingly, I told Charles I wanted him to read it too, so last night he picked it up, skimmed a few pages and the contents and said, "but we're already doing all this!" This is what comes of marrying an optimist.