Sunday Scribblings #61: Simple


As the years roll by, what will sociologists make of us?

I find myself pondering that question sometimes when I think back to “the way life used to be” even in my lifetime. I find myself pondering that question today having spent some time reading the entries from my fellow participants in , many of whom write about a desire to live a more simple life.

What does that mean?

There is no simple answer, it seems. I visited dictionary.com to read the actual definition of the word. Random House’s Unabridged Dictionary provided 29 different meanings. Even the word “simple” is not, as it turns out, so simple, i.e., “not complex or compound” (meaning #6). Roget’s New Millenium Thesaurus cites “uncluttered” as the second adjective describing simple, including terms like absolute, austere, classic, clean, folksy, humble, modest, plain, unaffected, uncompounded, unfussy, unostentatious, unpretentious.

The generations in my family were separated by many years. My grandfather was born in 1875 (the same year the telephone was invented) in Norway and emigrated to the United States in 1893. My grandmother came to the United States when she was eight years old. The year was 1889. She, too, came from Norway, traveling with her mother only after her father had worked here for seven years to earn enough money to send for them. She used to tell the story of getting lost in New York City with her mother, who did not speak English, of course, and finally making their way to the south Dakota prairie and the sod hut that my great-grandfather had erected upon the 160 acres he received from the United States government. I assume he also got the mule.

My mother came along in 1916, ten years after my grandparents married. She was the sixth of eight children, three of whom died before she was born — one was stillborn, one lived a few hours and the girl born immediately prior to my mother lived about three months before dying of pneumonia. My grandparents did something that most people today would never dream of doing: They gave my mother the exact same name so that she not only lived in the shadow of a child lost, she also bore the same identity. And hated seeing a tombstone in the little cemetery alongside the Lutheran church that bore her own name.

By anyone’s standards, these people lived a simple life:

My mother, Ethel, is on the far left, standing next to (left to right) her sister-in-law, father, mother, and grandmother. Her older brother is sitting on the fender. I’m not sure what year this photo was taken, but would guess that it is the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. It was taken on the family farm in rural South Dakota next to the house that replaced the original sod hut, but never did have electricity or indoor plumbing.

I was born when my mother was forty years old. We moved from South Dakota to California when I was only six months old. Why? My father was in search of a simpler life that did not require him to work sixty hours per week as an auto mechanic in the Buick-Chevrolet-John Deer dealership, in addition to being on-call with the tow truck. Oh, yeah … he also farmed “on the side.” California looked like Nirvana: No snow, no tow truck and unionized car dealerships where he would be paid by the hour, not on commission, and work “only” forty hours per week.

My parents’ dreams were simple: To earn an honest living, raise their girls well and see them finish college, and own their home “free and clear.” They accomplished all of it. And anyone who knew my parents could tell you that the adjectives about describe them. They were folksy, humble, modest, plain, unaffected, unpretentious people.

And yet … in their lifetimes the world was transformed from the simple, small environment in which they grew up to a complex, complicated place. I remember well the look on my father’s face as he sat glued to the television screen watching Arthur the “Scud Stud” something-or-other reporting on the Gulf War. He simply could not believe, even in that post-Vietnam era, that he was watching the war unfold before his eyes on a 25″ screen. He was fascinated. After all, his letters home from Australia and the Philippines took weeks to reach my mother back on the prairie and gave no comfort as to his well-being on the day they finally arrived.

What would my father think about all the electronic gadgets that reside here in the house he built? Would he be tickled or annoyed by the fact that his living room now hosts two computer desks, two pcu’s, two monitors, not to mention the scanner, printer, digital cameras, cable box that connects us to hundreds of different channels and allows us to transmit information around the world in milliseconds? Would he be fascinated by the technology or horrified by the way in which the simple world he knew has been transformed?

And what does the concept of a “simple life” mean for the people who reside here in the house he built? How do we define and shape that concept to give context to our crazy twenty-first century lives?

Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” With all due respect, Confucius did not live in an age of mass communication within a celebrity-driven culture where medical science has advanced to the point that average human beings find themselves baffled and overwhelmed by the decisions they are called upon to make.

With all due respect, Confucius did not have to deal with his personal land line and cell phone ringing concurrent with a call coming in on his business cell phone and e-mails requiring attention popping up on the screen in front of him. But that is a typical day for me … and probably for many of you. That is the world in which I reside. And sometimes, especially when I pull out old pictures like the one above, it perplexes me.

Still, pondering the notion of a simple life while looking at the photos of my ancestors, it seems to me that our lives are more similar than they might, at first blush, seem. We are the same in many ways … our core beliefs, moral centers, ultimate priorities. Although we may conceptualize and worship the concept of “God” somewhat differently, we still believe essentially the same things. They were honest, hard-working, tax-paying Americans motivated to provide for and make the lives of their children more comfortable and successful than their own. What was their utmost priority? Family. So, you see, when you evaluate life on its simplest terms, we are the same.

But what I have an abundance of is something they were not offered and could not even imagine: Choices. From that perspective, I think Confucius’ observation was timeless. It is the choices laid before us that complicate our lives. Hindsight will compel sociologists to conclude that it isn’t the advances in technology, science or communications that make a difference in our lives. It is the choices we make about how we will respond to, cope with, make use of and, ultimately, accept or reject the trappings of the world in which we exist that will define us, not the world itself.

When I consider the idea of a simple life from that perspective, it is less murky. When all those phones are ringing and the e-mails are popping up, I must prioritize. My choice? When the call coming in on my cell phone is from one of my kids, it is simple. That call takes precedence and I choose to turn off or block out all other distractions. That reality unites me with all the prior generations no matter how different the backdrops and surroundings in the photos are.