The Richness of Simplicity
THE buzzword for what I am doing is downsizing.
I am moving from a large space to a small space, from a two-story house in one of the established neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Fla., - quiet streets, tall old shade trees, high ceilings, storage space, kitchen and baths that sprawl spaciously - to a small beach cottage on Anastasia Island, near St. Augustine. We built the cottage more than 20 years ago as a weekend getaway. Skeptical friends say, "Don't do it. A weekend house is not a home. What about your things?"
Oh yes. Things. They are the rub, sure enough.
When the time came that my mother should have moved out of the house where we all grew up, she wouldn't hear of it. She said she couldn't leave because of her things.
What would she do with her things? At the time I thought, things! She's in bondage to her things. So now it's my turn, I reflect, and I'm in bondage to my things - and here's the funny part, some of them are the same things.
There is the dining-room furniture, for instance.
After my mother died, when we were closing her house, I wondered whether I wanted the dining-room furniture. Yes, my husband said. He asked: Can you look at that table and not see your father there, at the head of the table, carving the Thanksgiving turkey?
My husband was right, of course. The table held too many memories, too many years of memories, to let it go. And now, I look at it again, almost 20 years later, and it is heavier still with memories, memories of my husband sitting at its head, carving Thanksgiving turkeys, and after he was gone, memories of our son taking his place, and memories of a new grandchild - a new generation - gnawing on her first drumstick at the old mahogany table.
So, memory and history blend, turn to glue, stick our things fast to our affections or our sense of duty to the past, to our real or imagined obligations to our ancestors and origins. Eventually, sure enough, we're in bondage to our things.
I have a wonderful stoneware bowl that I found years ago in a junk shop in Hartsfield, Ga. When I spied that heavy old bowl in the shop, grimy and fly-specked, I saw, in my imagination, a country woman beating biscuits in it. It didn't seem right for her bowl - something from the heart of her family - to be stacked with a lot of worthless gimcracks in the back of a junk shop.
I redeemed the bowl for a couple of dollars. A good soaking and a run through the dishwasher took care of the grime and fly specks. It's perfect for potato salad or holding a summer day's harvest when the tomato plants are at peak. As I write, it is full of ripe temple oranges, just the size of baseballs and almost the weight, their pebbly hides shining and pure gold.
When I look at that bowl, I know the season by its content - and I see me exploring a dark, cluttered shop near Hartsfield, Ga., on a particular autumn afternoon. I remember that we listened to a Glenn Miller tape all that weekend. And, I remember that we had quail for dinner in a plain little Main Street diner where the old man behind the pass-through window between counter and kitchen understood to a perfect turn the art of fowl and the blending of rosemary and thyme and a subtle trace of something els e I never quite identified. Oh yes, that bowl has a history underneath its pitted glaze.
Of course, bowls and the like aren't really a problem when it's time to downsize.
It's your father's roll-top and the piano that are a problem. It's Granny's bed and Auntie's good china which, counting your own good china, your mother's good china, and your mother-in-law's good china, makes four sets of good china that are a problem.
So, that's easy enough. Simplify.
ISN'T that what we are always taught?
It's good advice, but those who teach us these things don't often have good china and roll-top desks that need to be sheltered until the kids outgrow sleeping on futons in faraway lofts. They have already simplified, chucked the good china, and we don't hear much of their kids. What we hear from them is advice - simplify.
I do it.
I throw away. I give away. I pack away. I leave that downright historic dining-room table and all those sets of good china for my son and his wife and child. We'll see how it works out, we say to one another. Nothing permanent. Nothing legal. Not yet. We'll try it for the winter. We'll see.
The windows are open, and I sleep in the sound of the ocean, suspended in it, aware of it even when I am asleep. I think it is like the sound of breathing.
At night, when it's clear, I sit on the deck. I do this all through the winter, even when it is very cold, and I look up and realize that I haven't seen the stars in years, not really, and I haven't given the moon much more than a passing glance.
I have not looked up often enough, and when I have looked up, there were trees and houses everywhere and all that city light leaking into the night. The lights are beginning to sneak up on the cottage, too. I remember, 20 years ago, sitting on the deck in the middle of the Milky Way. No more. But what is there is there, and I am in it again.
The names of the constellations begin to come back to me, as if I am recalling the names of old friends at a college reunion. Orion, his belt pointing the way to Canis Major and Sirius, the brightest of all stars. Taurus. Gemini. Little Lepus. The sweet Pleiades.
One night my granddaughter, barely 3, and I climb to the crow's nest of the deck. We are wrapped in an old quilt against the wind off the ocean, and our mission is to see the first star. We watch the sky for almost an hour after sundown, chatting comfortably about all we see and whatever else crosses our minds. Finally, we spot the first faint twinkle through the thin curtain of buttermilk clouds between heaven and earth.
"There it is," I say.
"I want to say it," Jessica says.
"You say it," I agree.
"Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky," she says.
"Awesome," I say.
I had not even known she knew the verse.
"Awesome," she agrees.
And it is. Awesome, all awesome, granny and baby, earth and ocean, sky, poetry, ritual in that quiet hour waiting for the first star.
No one is more prone than I to depend on television specials and the science section of the news magazines to acquire information about the universe. It's easy to get too busy to look up. I depend on astronomers to tell me about the Big Bang and the galaxies, the black holes and the white dwarfs - I can't see them for myself. I must take someone else's word for what is there.
But, I know an old woman who has little education, probably no more than a country grade school offered 70 years ago, who believes that the moonwalks most of us accept as routine are actually staged events.
The moon cannot be made of stone, she says. If it were stone, it could not float. Obviously it floats. She can see that for herself, just by looking up at the moon. It floats in the black sky above the earth.
There is a scene in "Huckleberry Finn" in which Jim and Huck sit on the edge of their raft as it floats down the Mississippi and look up at the stars and wonder where they came from, how they got there, whether they're put there by purpose or whether they just happened. Huck believes they just happened. But Jim's got another idea. He says the moon laid 'em. And Huck reckons that might be true - he's seen frogs lay that many eggs all at a sitting.
WE marvel at the Aztec calendar and the precision of the ring at Stonehenge at measuring the movement of the planet. We scratch our heads and wonder how the ancients figured it all out without computers.
It's simple. They watched. They were just as smart as we are, and they looked up at the stars for years and years and years until they began to discern the patterns of the stars and planets and their movements.
The Aztecs and the people who built Stonehenge had their names for the stars, other names than the names I have begun to pass on by the simple act of pointing to that galactic cluster of stars on Taurus's shoulder and telling Jessica, "Pleiades. The Seven Sisters."
"Pleiades," she repeats.
Downsizing? I think not. I have by no means moved from a large space to a small space. On the contrary.