Commentary : Trying to Regain the Simple Life Sometimes Isn’t as Simple as It Seems

<i> Maureen Brown is a mother of four who lives in La Jolla</i>

Tis the gift to be simple,

Tis the gift to be free ...

The 20-year-old clerk quizzed me on what I intended to do with the fertilizer.


“Are you looking for something for the lawn or the flower beds? Is your lawn sod or seed? Will you be fertilizing rose beds or fruit trees? Actually, I confided, I’m looking for that all-purpose fertilizer I bought here last month. I use it for the flower beds, the seed in the front, the sod in the back, the roses, my house plants and even the African violets on my refrigerator. The elderly gentleman reading the label for the begonia fertilizer nearby shook his head in disgust and mumbled, “Well, that’s one simple way of handling it, I guess.”

It is, thus, that I find myself searching for methods of simplifying segments of my life in an increasingly complex and hurried world. Expressions such as “quality time” and “the super-woman complex” are invading my sphere. The words “stress” and “stressed-out” have become components of my children’s vocabulary. I find myself sympathizing with the young character in the film “sex, lies and videotape,” who strives to be responsible for only one key in his life.

“You’re just experiencing growing pains,” my mother explains. “You’re getting old,” my children chide. “Here, have a cup of tea and sit down and relax,” says my spouse.

Untangling everyday complexities by searching for a simpler mode of operation has become my newest quest. My family has embraced the technological advances the world has to offer. They have introduced me to a variety of programs that our “user-friendly computer” could provide. Apparently, the home computer is capable of performing endless tasks. However, I am content to go no further with Word Perfect than 5.1. To be perfectly candid, I may never fully grasp our newest television. If I truly desire to watch a television program, I can operate the 18-year-old, and seemingly, quite friendly, model.

I loathe being greeted upon my arrival at home with a blinking red light on the answering machine. Such important calls as, “Mom, oh please, Mom, I forgot to bring that paper on my desk and, oh, please, Mom, I really need it for fifth period.” No longer does one list only home and business phone numbers, but now the car phone number is included as well.

Where did the simple life elude me? Is it feasible that one can achieve simplicity in a complex environment? A young man from Spencerville, Ind., provided me with the response I sought this summer at Interlochen, the National Music Camp. While his musical peers performed violin, piano, cello and flute pieces ranging from Vieuxtemps to Shostakovich in concerto competition, he sang three simple and unpretentious American folk pieces arranged by Aaron Copland. Two of those were songs many young children sing, “I bought me a cat, my cat pleased me,” and “Tis the gift to be simple.” What pure joy to listen to Copland’s melodic arrangements sung by this gifted Hoosier.


Tis the gift to be simple . . .

How does one attempt to simplify one’s life? Starting with the home front, I have established a few new guidelines. I have surrendered at the Battle of Clutter and Cobwebs. Perhaps, it is appropriate that I adopt the housekeeping program of the wise lady who dominated my early years. Her home was never immaculate but she always had time to sit down with a cup of tea and listen to the chatter of seven children, help with spelling words, hear a theme paper read, or discuss life. If impending company was expected or a familiar car pulled up, she would holler, “Quick, pick up the big chunks.”

Long before the term “prioritize” crept into the vernacular, my mother settled on two feats she would perfect. She straightened one throw rug in a hallway each time she passed and she kept her house plants well watered. Occasionally, the pile of book bags or shoes in the front room and sweaters and coats draping the furniture would irritate her. Never raising her voice, she would gather the clutter of the offenders, open the front door, and toss it out on the porch. Retrieving one’s belongings on the porch, or having your date step over the pile as he rang the doorbell, had a definite effect for the next few days.

Tis the gift to come down

Where you ought to be ...

My prevailing heroes are the leaders who articulate without the baggage of unnecessary rhetoric or jargon. Shirley Weber, a new member of the San Diego city school board, spoke with a group of parents at Gompers school recently. Her words ring true for all parents. She urged them to turn off the television, which they themselves bought and for which they provide the electricity, and direct their children toward books. “Books, not gold chains; books, not Reeboks; books, not boom boxes,” she implored. Her thrust was not meshed in educational rhetoric, but rather in the simple task of parents assisting children with their schoolwork.

Noting that one 9-year-old was still not clear on her multiplication tables, and realizing that she was not instinctively turning on the family computer for “Math Blaster Plus,” I bore deeply into a closet and extracted the well-worn flash-cards of her older siblings. They may not have been “user-friendly,” but they accomplished the task.

And when we find ourselves

In the place just right ...

When did life become so complex? When did those wonderful spur-of-the-moment potlucks dissipate? “Let’s get together,” never becomes an actuality in this time-precious world. What is this language “networking” and “interfacing”?

A young couple with three small children recently invited our family to their home. Having literally built this home themselves, and eager to share their newest baby, they have devised a method of entertaining while juggling dual professions and operating on a limited budget. Enter the large pot of chicken rice, beef barley or vegetable soup that they make each Wednesday night. Thursday afternoon they stop by the town bakery and purchase a loaf of bread and cookies. When the guests arrive, everyone is involved in creating the salad. These young people have perceived that their “Thursday Soup Night,” rather than a lavish and exhaustive affair, affords them the opportunity to be with friends and family.

When true simplicity is gained

I am searching for a simple life in a society that invades my home through the telephone or mail. One where an investment company in Mission Valley does not approach me on the phone on a Saturday morning. Noting with complete accuracy the bank that holds our mortgage and the outstanding balance, the voice inquires if we are interested in an equity loan and other investments. Where in a simple life does a stranger with access to this information believe that they may so boldly discuss such a matter with me?

How much more effective to approach the public in a gentle and gracious manner. Judging from last year’s requests for donations, the San Diego chapter of the Leukemia Society appreciates that their petitions frequently are to the homes of over-solicited and busy individuals. They sent me an envelope bearing a letter, a return envelope and a tea bag. Quite simply, they asked me to take a few moments on Mother’s Day and make a cup of tea for myself. While enjoying the tea, would I please also take time to think of other less fortunate mothers and to please consider sending a donation. All three requests were met.

To turn, turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

So, please stop by for a cup of tea some late afternoon. Notice how well the impatiens are blooming. Yes, you may have to step over the soccer balls and shoes in the walkway, and, yes, the small hole by the front door is where the doorbell should reside. So knock loudly, don’t mind the cobwebs--they may belong to some of Charlotte’s offspring. Overlook the “sticky finish” on the kitchen table and sit down, and chat. . . .