The Underbelly of Simple Living

February has been a difficult month – the frequent dreary skies have mirrored my weary and restless soul. Mark and I have taken turns being ill or fighting illness the entire month. Our two weekend programs this month were cancelled – one because of our illness, the other because of climate change.¹  Because of physical illness and psychological weariness, daily chores and work have felt particularly burdensome.

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A dreary fall day – pre snow!

This is by no means my first hard season, yet this season is still a first. It’s my first time going through a time of inner isolation, a sense of lost purpose, and pervasive weariness while immersed in this simple way of life. In some ways, this lifestyle has made my felt experience of this season much more difficult. Naturally, I’ve been tempted (and I’ve given in to the temptation) to blame our way of life for my inner restlessness. If only our life was easier and more convenient, I wouldn’t be so lonely, foggy and grumpy. If only I had a bigger home, then I’d be happy. Ha! How short and feeble is my memory! How quickly my mind forgets similar seasons living in a four-bedroom house in the middle of town thinking, “If only I was living closer to the land, then I’d be happy.” Or “If only I had a husband to take care of me, pull me out of this state, etc.” Happiness is not a consequence of environment.

I adamantly reject the idea that more convenience would make me happier. However, I am discovering that living simply requires me to feel my unhappiness at a deeper, more raw level, hence making the felt experience more difficult. This way of life, you see, makes it very, VERY hard to check out.

I’m really good at checking out. It’s my go-to response to stress. When the outer world or my inner world feels like too much for me to handle I reach for Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix. Living without electricity or internet has made it painfully difficult to check out in my favorite and easiest ways! Even though I haven’t binged on Netflix since the fall and I haven’t been on Facebook at home since December, I still feel an inner tug to find something to mindlessly consume when my weariness overwhelms me. My cellphone gets 3G in the yurt (I have to smoosh my body up against the front door to get service, but I get it) and it’s been revealing and humbling to discover how much I find myself in that spot hunched over my phone looking for distraction and relief from my inner woes.

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Beech leaf tenacity

For Lent, I “gave up” accessing the internet when I’m home. At least, I’ve been trying to. It’s only been two weeks and an embarrassing number of my conversations with Mark start with, “Confession: I checked my email, but let me tell you about this message we got!” So often the miracle of my existence, the love Mark and I share, and the infinite wonder outside my door does not seem to be enough. I do not have the eyes to see, so I crave the distraction of what’s happening anywhere but where I am.

It’s not just the removal of distractions that can make it harder to check out of simple living. It’s also a lifestyle that requires regular action for our daily needs to be met. When I don’t have access to the internet – the means to endless abstracted distraction – my next favorite way to check out is sleep, or general mopey slothfulness. In our off-grid 20-foot yurt, I can only be so lazy. We do not have the luxury to distance ourselves from the elements by a mere flip of the switch, reserving contact with the natural world and our bodily needs to times when we’re feeling robust, invigorated and fully alive. On even the worst days, wood needs to be brought in and the fire needs to be stoked if we’re going to stay warm and fed, the ice in the ice box needs to be changed out if our food is going to stay fresh, water needs to be hauled if we’re going to stay hydrated, a 100-yard hill needs to be walked to reach our front door, and our small space needs to be cleaned and organized if we’re going to stay sane.²  Sometimes engaging in these necessary chores plunges me further into my isolation and grumpiness, but more often than not they serve as tiny sacraments – marks of grace – inviting me to be present with the moment, present with the task at hand, and – what is always the most difficult for me – present even with my despair.

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A mid-winter ramble following one of the streams that flows through our property

In our culture of consumerism, we have been trained that negative emotions can be placated, ignored, or even fixed by changing our external circumstances. It’s no coincidence that changing those external circumstances almost always costs money. It’s easy for me to fight this temptation during one day of weariness, but when the fog carries on for days, weeks, or months my mind starts looking around to see what’s wrong. The longer the weariness continues, the harder it is to admit that the fog is probably coming from within me. That perhaps instead of more space or things in my house, I need to restart my routine of walking by the stream each morning, or recommit myself to our rhythm of prayer, or spend a few days in silence and solitude, or pray for eyes to see the infinite beauty and wonder around me. Most likely, I should do all the above.

When the fog of weariness lifts a bit, I am reminded of what I know to be true. A weary and restless heart is almost always not the disease (or dis-ease). It is a sign and symptom of a deeper dis-ease, of something in my inner life keeping me from total freedom and happiness. When hard seasons arrive, they are not something to escape or check out of. Escaping through distractions or sleep may seem like it’s making things better, but it’s only numbing the underlying pain, medicating a symptom without removing the source of the unease.

The hard lesson I’m (re)learning this month is that seasons like these are opportunities to be led by grace into ever greater freedom and a more abundant life. This is the nitty-gritty, the underbelly of this radical simplicity. It’s not always fun and easy. Though the land of the infinite may be within and among us in each and every moment, it doesn’t always feel like it. My trust in this experiment is that, to the extent that I refuse to check out and embrace a life of simplicity, prayer, and love – and all the good, bad, and ugly it reveals – the life and love of the Divine will infuse more and more of my being, giving me eyes to see that even in the hard times, the infinite is at hand!

¹ The uncharacteristic heavy thawing and freezing created very icy conditions in northern New Hampshire, making cross country skiing and snowshoeing difficult and travel on the dirt roads dangerous. Hence, a weekend with Dartmouth College students promising hours of winter play was cancelled. Late winter just hasn’t been wintry enough.
² Of course, chores are not the only way to create obstacles to checking out. Mothers and fathers get the ultimate cred in my book for leading lives that require presence and action no matter how one is feeling.

9 thoughts on “The Underbelly of Simple Living

  1. Brittany Spotts

    Thanks for sharing this vulnerable side of things. It’s almost comforting in maybe a at least I’m not alone sort of way. I will say though- while most days you’re right that being a parent forces you to be always present… that should be edited to say being a good parent forces that presence. I’ve hit a slump this February too. I wondered if I was depressed more days than not… but I’ve managed to distract myself a few of those days even with kids… using screen time in the morning (generally a no in our house) has happened so I could just curl in my bed for an hour. There was also that day I hid in my room for 3 hours because I knew Andrew would put them down for a nap when it was time… without telling him. These are not moments I’m proud of. I just want to point out that the “cred” really goes to you for not having the distractions. Xo

    -Brittany

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    1. I totally understand how this can be comforting! It’s so easy to think we’re the only ones who have bad days… or weeks… or months. It’s so hard for me, but I’m slowly learning to expose my “not-togetherness.”

      As for the parenting, I hope you’re not too hard on yourself! (Remember, I don’t have little ones running around and I freely take those late, lazy mornings when I need/want them.) I think the first step is to notice when we’re checking out and the next step is to be gentle with ourselves. The great thing about being in relationship with a loving God is ultimately our growth in these areas is not our doing.

      We’re all in this together. xoxo

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  2. Oh bless you, I wholeheartedly agree that we turn to distractions to avoid unpleasant emotions. But like you say, this distances ourselves from the natural world and this is the lowest point of the year – spring hasn’t yet begun and cold and winter seem endless, bleak is what it is and maybe you are feeling the emotion that reflects the nature all around you.
    I struggle this time of year myself, I have been trying to practice self compassion. Self compassion is not judging how we feel – it is about accepting that we feel sadness at times when nothing needs to be fixed or is fixable – we simply feel. Self compassion accepts this and we are guided to ask ourselves ‘what do I need at this time?’ Hot chocolate, warm blankets, a cuddle all these things are simple comforting pleasures. Just being stroked releases oxytocin – it is the brain chemical strongly associated with a sense of wellbeing. Just gently stroking the back of your hand would be enough stimulus for your body to produce this.
    There have been a lot of studies about Vitamin D – lack of it is associated with depression and low mood as well as many other health problems. I tend to take it as a supplement at this time of the year with low light levels most people are deficient. You could try that.
    I hope you give yourself lots of self love, life does have its ups and downs, even nature has its low points – take good care of yourself. Nothing remains the same, our moods change and this won’t last forever, just be gentle with yourself.

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    1. I started taking my Vitamin D religiously when I moved to Vermont! 😉

      And THANK YOU for these thoughts! I appreciate what you wrote about self-compassion – this is good and necessary. I think the important distinction between acts of self-compassion (cuddling, hot chocolate, massage, etc) and acts of distraction is just what you said – “we simply feel.” Checking out is an attempt NOT to feel the unpleasantness.

      I think self-compassion goes a long way, but I also believe that sometimes our unpleasant emotions are inviting us into a greater freedom. Sometimes our unpleasant emotions are a result of us being more present to reality and things getting stirred up in us as a result. We must always be gentle with ourselves, yes, but there are also times that what we think we need – something soothing – is not what we actually need for growth.

      I’m realizing I could devote a whole post to this – it’s awful subtle stuff! I’m wondering if I’m making sense to you, Fred the Needle?

      Thanks for prompting the thoughts and conversation!

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      1. You are totally making sense! Unpleasant emotions are invitations to a greater freedom, maybe removing the labels ‘good’ or ‘bad’ might also lift the guilt associated with them. There is no ‘terrible stuff’ and your honesty invites greater courage from those who read your blog, because if we all stay silent about the not so great things then we all suffer alone.
        I believe we should embrace our emotions, feel them fully and try to find out what messages they bring with them. We seek connection with nature, maybe its at the time when nature feels bleak, sleeping and resting make so much sense. Our modern disconnected world – encourages us to push harder to work regardless, but nature, invites us to to do.
        Allowing – without judgement is a step we can all take.
        Sending you blessings x

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  3. How did I not know about this? (The blog I mean). This is what I’ve wanted all along… to get a peak into your lives!! I feel so much when I read this post but I’m not sure I can process it properly in a comment. First, thought I’ve never lived in Vermont in a yurt, I feel what you feel. This is partly due to your lovely writing, and partly due to our Bolivia experience. I love the title. Let me tell you, it’s a mighty big underbelly. Love that you chose to write about it. Perhaps by now, this is all a vague memory as your world greens up. Looking forward to hearing more about all the details of your life. Even if it seems daily or mundane to you, it won’t to me!

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    1. I think I need to delete an old email address I have of yours — you probably have an email about this blog sitting in an abandoned inbox! 🙂

      It feels like our hill has greened up over night and oh how uplifting it is!! I’m so grateful for the seasons – they give me permission to explore all my emotions and parts of myself!

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