Goldilocks gets it right
Getting older now, and perhaps a bit more mature, it’s finally time (I’ve decided) to get rid of the accumulated clutter of a life lived long and well – so far. The children are no longer children, and so life can get just that much simpler: less distracted and more content. The arc of life has crested, its long climb is done, and a gradual dnouement is just beginning. There’s supersizing and there’s downsizing; this, however, will be about rightsizing. What’s enough is what’s sufficient and what’s sufficient is right.
There was a legendary fellow in ancient Greece named Procrustes, famous for forcing his guests to fit his procrustean bed by stretching them out if they were too small, or cutting something off if they were too big. The term was popularized by Edgar Allen Poe (in The Purloined Letter) to indicate the violence that comes from tailoring something unique to fit an arbitrary standard.
I’ve long intended to live according to what Transcendentalist William Henry Channing called his symphony: “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
It’s time to let go, to let things move along. Boxes of deferred detritus, ephemera and memorabilia, have filled rooms I no longer use. One box in particular, long overlooked, turned out to contain a stack of audiotape pancakes – the sort we used at KPFA on enormous broadcast quality Ampex tape machines the size of refrigerators, back when I was living in Berkeley in the now-distant sixties. Here, imbedded in tape, was a voice from the past, a priceless souvenir of who it was I used to be – now brittle and shot through with toxic molds, and utterly useless, even if I did have access to an Ampex.
Looking at it, I was reminded of the workmen busily rehabilitating the old buildings of Jack London Village, who come by my cabin occasionally with something they’ve found to ask “is this of historic significance, or is it simply old and ready to be thrown away?” So, we slowly find the skill of discerning what is to be kept, and what to do with what is not kept.
We’ve been taught in the past to be practical, to set things aside for later on, “just in case”, and so we’ve gotten ourselves into the bad habit of amplitude and magnitude – learning to budget for spoilage and pilfering, for leaving time to get lost on the way to an appointment, for buying clothes to grow into, and so on. We’ve learned that if some is good, more is always better. And we all know the problem with building more closets, only to see how quickly they become filled.
The idea of frugality is terribly misunderstood today. It does not mean the mean austerity we think it means. The word comes from the Latin term frugalis, which means economical, useful, worthy, and that equally misunderstood term “temperate,” by which means we are resilient, and have vitality. The word in fact is related to fructus, having to do with fruitfulness, and the pleasures of labor rewarded.
A story by Leo Tolstoy called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” tells of a peasant who was given the opportunity to own as much land as he was able to circle in a day’s walk. He walked farther and farther afield as he discovered more and more land to include in his peregrination. “The further one goes,” he thought, ignoring his growing fatigue, “the better the land seems.” Finally, noticing the sun begin to set, he turned to hurry back to where he had begun – where, exhausted, he collapsed, and died, and was buried; and as Tolstoy says, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
I ache to know that what I have is enough. I want enough air and light in my life to move with ease, and without limitation. There was a time when the idea of abundance was popular – now the idea of adequacy is gaining respect. Though the cosmos within which we swim may constitute an infinite eternity, we find we are only responsible for a small portion of that great sea: here and now. It is a relief to know there is a place just our shape and size in this world, and this life, in which we already fit.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.