Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Winter’s rains have barely ended; spring blossoms are just nudging their way through the cold soil; and already it’s started—the predictable, annual speeding up of the clock. I can feel an energy in the air, like a child wildly cranking a jack-in-the-box, as if to make up for the past few months of shorter days. As much as I welcome the longer hours of sunlight and the warmth and golden glow of the sun, I’m resisting the accelerating tempo.

It’s not as though I hide away during the winter. I still go to my job as a school nurse, work every day at my writing desk, walk the dog, gather with friends, attend Meeting, carry out household chores, and fulfill my commitments to various organizations. But I do take the season’s cold and dark as permission to burrow under my comforter, sip my tea more slowly, and inhale more deeply. Then, every April, I notice a shift pushing me, like commuters elbowing themselves into a New York subway at rush hour, to squeeze more activity into my already-full life.

This year I’m considering how my springtime ritual of scheduling every minute of my day conflicts with the Quaker testimony of simplicity. Although my possessions could be whittled down, I’m not tempted to acquire more stuff nearly so much as to fill my days doing more and more. In Hunting for Hope, essayist Scott Russell Sanders summarizes well a growing yearning for me—

“…the richness of a gathered and deliberate life, letting one’s belongings and commitments be few in number and high in quality.” 

Thomas Kelly understood the breadth of the simplicity testimony. His words from over seventy years ago in A Testament of Devotion sound as though they were written yesterday. “Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and the height of tombstones… Too many of us have too many irons in the fire…pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened program of good committees and good undertakings.”

I can hear myself panting as I glance at my calendar. For years I carried a spiral-bound date book that fit in my jacket pocket. Black ink scrawls of meetings, to do lists, and tasks filled each day’s square.  Now, I track where I’m supposed to be and what I have to do on a sleek, hand-held computer I can synchronize with my laptop. As I scroll through the days this week, nearly every box is filled with strips of color for different facets of my life--bright green for work dominates the boxes, along with blue and turquoise for home, family, and Meeting obligations. Most days, very little white space remains. My computer screen glows with evidence I’ve not achieved that gathered and balanced life Sanders refers to.

Simplifying my life isn’t a new challenge for me, and it’s not that I haven’t made some progress. My schedule now reflects better than ever my priorities for regular meditation, periods of solitude, and writing. But I still struggle with Kelly’s guidance that “… a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns.” His words echo those of Caroline Stephen, whose Quaker Strongholds appeared in 1890.  She wrote, “In life, as in art, whatever does not help, hinders. All that is superfluous to the main object of life must be cleared away…a severe pruning away of redundance.”

This year, rather than unconsciously picking up my pace or pruning without thought, I’m looking deeper into the roots of my crowded calendar. I’ve developed several theories about why an empty date book raises anxiety, like groping through a dark, narrowing tunnel, rather than the sense of boundlessness of a jet stream streaking silently across the sky.  Years of striving to please others by doing, and being efficient, have kept me rushing from one task to another like a hummingbird darting to and from the feeder. Deaths of family and friends sobered my childhood and young adulthood and left me keenly aware of the brevity of life and suspicious of the promise of tomorrow and next year. For much of my life, the precision and certainty of a full calendar has given me a sense of worth and an illusion of control. It’s protected me from the unknown and comforted me like a polar fleece blanket hugging my shoulders. Lately, though, clicking open my calendar has felt less like solace and more like my Midwest childhood memories of walking out of an air-conditioned building into the wall of humidity on an August day.

While I’ve gotten better at quieting myself enough to listen for those few concerns—those main objects of life— that God calls me to, one of my challenges to Spirit-led pruning is believing that the value of those callings isn’t measured by quantity or speed. This April, I’m seeking the simplicity of unfilled lines in my calendar. I want my breathlessness to come from walks on the beach when the sun unexpectedly breaks through the clouds. Rather than tearing through errands, I want a schedule that allows for trips to the village on my bicycle rather than in the car, unhurried chats with neighbors at the grocery store, and a visit with an elderly friend. Instead of feeling guilty for not responding to the many needs of the planet, my country, my community, my family and friends, I’m committing to the few with which I can be fully, joyfully present, trusting that my own worth isn’t dependent on a jam-packed agenda. Perhaps this April and the coming months will find me closer to time—simply.

Photo credit:  http://newsworld11.blogspot.com/2010/10/when-do-we-turn-clocks-back-in-2010.html