The Simple Life

I am sitting in one of those West coast coffee shops that sells T shirts with phrases like “Death Before Decaf!” emblazoned on the front, and I just noticed, in the bathroom, this great 1950s-style mock movie poster that’s advertising a fictitious movie whose plot is that under-caffeinated people are so lethargic they can’t save the world. Okay, coffee shop, you have made your point. A few months ago I mostly gave up caffeine, but the past couple of mornings I’m dragging so low I’m starting to wonder if a relapse is in order. A good strong latte might just solve all my problems.

Why am I so wiped out? Hmm. I’ll get to that in a minute (I’m at that stage in this blog post where I have two distinct ideas rolling around in my head, and I’m trying to draw a few threads between them before I lose everything).

A couple of months ago I had the good fortune to hear the great poet Gary Snyder read with Larry Ferlinghetti in North Beach, in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti is the more famous poet, but to my mind Gary Snyder is the more lasting and brilliant. A devout Buddhist, at age 81 he lives up in the Sierra Foothills, off the grid, where he has to haul water and shovel snow and fix generators and probably harvest his own food. In the course of his telling his audience about this at the reading in November, an audience member yelled something like “hooray for the simple life!” and Snyder said, “The simple life? Don’t call it that until you’ve tried it. The simple life is living in a studio apartment above a deli, with a big bag of dope.” The crowd roared. I did, too, because it was funny–but it was also undeniably true. Living off the grid in the mountains is anything but a simple life–I know at least one reader who does it, and the busyness of her days could boggle the mind.

And yet, lately I get why one would think to call living out in the sticks “simple.” Here, in the northern California city where I live, we have a car, a washer and dryer, trash pick-up, electricity, heat…all kinds of things to make life comfortable, easier, safe. But life in the city doesn’t feel simple at all lately. My head is so…full. L is having trouble at daycare, again, and I have been trying to make some very non-simple decisions about what to do about it. This entails two to three visits a week, to other daycares and preschools, plus emails and phone calls in between. In the meantime I am in the midst of a last revision of my book, a revision I swore I would not do until I went to proof it for typos and encountered some nagging doubts about its viability. This has me deeply exhausted, quite frankly, in a very complex and non-simple way–it’s an emotional and logistical stress, hard to explain, really. Then there are the acupuncture appointments, the babysitting co-op meetings, the earthquake preparation groups, three+ playdates a week, friends’ performances to attend. And then there is our attempt to live the “simple” life; we cook every night, we have a garden, we generate so much damn compost and recycling, we feel guilty about using the dryer, we walk to the store, we try whenever possible to leave the car at home and bike L to daycare. And school hasn’t even started yet; in two weeks I have sixty students to attend to, plus all this other…stuff.

I have lately found myself wishing that I lived in a studio apartment above a deli where I ordered in all my food and sent out all my laundry–or even on a farm in the Catskills, where I had to milk the cows every morning but didn’t have to write this Goddamned book and there was only one preschool to choose from (if that). I’m not complaining, I’m just noticing. I think a good 2012 resolution for me would be this: be less busy. Say no more. Get off that earthquake committee. Give yourself a break from the book if you need it. Or start drinking coffee again.

Here is a Gary Snyder poem for today. It’s about the simple life, don’t you think? I find it terribly romantic and wonderful, but then, you know that’s the mood I’m in today.

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

(From Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, edited by Robery DiYanni (Random House, 1987).



It would take a thousand photos to really explain a year of Covid. We had one slideshow. New Year's Eve, 2021. We...


  1. slowmamma

    Lovely poem. As you know, I’m drawn in that direction as well – more difficult for sure but, at least in some ways, more simple. I think that less busy is a fantastic goal. Trim it down and stick to the best stuff – and the stuff you just can’t escape from. Still, coffee is one of mankind’s greatest discoveries!

  2. Linda Mason

    Keep it simple like you said. When you have a child, you hunker down and raise the kid.
    He turns 18, you raise your head, and say “Holy moly, what happened?” Stay less busy –
    its one way to slow things down. To me, you and Ben are doing a magnificent job
    of having good times and there are delightful memories in the making.

  3. An Honest Mom

    You’re right! And that guy is right! Simple is the wrong word. But maybe slow is. I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectations that this culture places on productivity and pace. I’ve been on a pretty large-scale slowdown overhaul over the last 4 years or so…I sometimes relapse back into multitasking, which feels exhilarating in the short term but ultimately leaves me feeling empty and wondering, “to what end.” For me, this is ultimately a spiritual question…and trying to believe and live into my belief that there is enough. Enough time. Enough money. Enough love. And that actually, if I slow down, I’ll find what I’m looking for.



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