Monday, May 9, 2016

Simplicity - the key theory

My cousin Paul used to say that the complexity of one's life could be measured by the size of your key ring. When I examine the sizes of my respective key rings at home and in France, the difference is quite shocking.

What is this mess? Work IDs and key fob, classroom keys, file cabinet keys (rarely used) home keys, 2 bike lock keys, rental house keys, car key, Eric's car key, way too many rewards tags, and a couple unidentified keys that I can't quite bring myself to toss until I identify them.

My key ring here? Building key and apartment key. Plus a mailbox key (rarely used) and one rewards tag.

Is this an accurate measure of the changing level of complexity in my life? In a way, yes. The absence of work keys is a very clear sign of greater simplicity in my life. I do not miss the grading, the staff meetings and obligations, and I especially do not miss the chaos of standardized testing and the mind-numbing boredom of proctoring. And yet, in the age of internet, I'm not entirely free from all obligations. We're implementing a new IB curriculum next year, so I'm still involved in that process, as well as professional development requirements. The absence of house keys means a break from the seemingly endless home-maintenance projects in older homes, but in terms of the rental house, unfortunately they do not run on auto-pilot. Clearly we cannot leave it all behind.

Admittedly there are several aspects of life here that are more complex. Opening a bank account, paperwork, gathering documentation for visas, paying rent, getting money orders, fixing the internet when it's down – all of these things are far more complicated than they would be at home. But the simplicity of the key ring does mean that our lives fall into a simple rhythm. We walk or take public transport since we have no car. We go to the market or grocery store more often since we can only carry small loads. We have no junk mail. I brought only 4 books. Beatrice has only a handful of toys. (When she misbehaved the other day and we took away her small collection of playmobil, I heard her in her room and wondered what she was playing with. Turns out she had rifled through the recycling and was playing with cardboard boxes. Points for creativity, I guess.) As long as we keep up with tidying the library books and Bea's homework and art projects, our apartment is relatively clutter free. (At least for us.)

                     Ah yes, the simple pleasures of playing with boxes. If she's
                                good, Pa says she might get a cornhusk doll for Christmas. 

I would love to continue this pattern of simplicity when we return home. Some of my friends have recently read Marie Kondo's book about simplicity and have launched impressive purging and organization projects. (When my friend Lindsay told me about Kondo's theory of only keeping the things I cherish, I teased her, saying: “So every day I'm supposed to look at my contact solution and decide I don't 'cherish' it enough to keep it, but then I need to buy new contact solution.”) I love clean homes, but I have to face the facts – I am not a tidy person. I do 'cherish' things – perhaps too many things. I can't bring myself to throw away things that have an emotional value to me, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

You may have noticed the single rewards card on my key ring above. The other day in that very grocery store, I had a realization about simplicity. I had just successfully understood and answered someone's question about where to find the spices, and was feeling pretty smug. I felt like a local, so I was shopping like a local. And, I am a sucker for BOGO offers – I mean, buy one, get one FREE? Who can resist that? But as I was looking at the the BOGO deal for dishwashing detergent (and considering how heavy it would be to carry 2 big boxes home), I looked at the label. The box was for 40 loads. We are here for a little less than 3 more months. For a while, the time seemed to stretch before me like an amorphous continuum. Now it was distilled into the number of dishwasher loads that remain while we're in France. It was spelled out concretely. We run the dishwasher every 2-3 days. We will not be here for 40 more loads. I do not need two boxes of detergent. Then I realized, even if I were home, should I really buy two boxes? Why do I feel the need to stockpile so much stuff?

Before we left, we did try to clear some space for our renters. And that did result in a pretty impressive purge. For at least 2-3 weeks, I tried to buy nothing but milk and fresh vegetables. Otherwise, we launched in on the great “eat-down.” I can safely say that by the end, we were all quite sick of pasta, veggie burgers, canned goods, and bread and vegetables with slight freezer burn. This process taught me about the need to buy in moderation, to eat things while they're fresh, and appreciate the simplicity of eating simply. In France, we have to go to the grocery store far more often. But this also means that nearly every Saturday we enjoy the simplicity of a picnic lunch with cheese, fruit, and fresh baguettes. They don't keep long, so we buy one fresh the next day. I know that I won't go full Kondo when I return, but I am going to try to avoid the lure of the BOGO.

I am fully enjoying both the simplicity and complexity of our experience here, the richness of all we see and do. But for my daughter, she is yearning for a different type of simplicity. I often have to remind her of how lucky we are. We have seen the Eiffel tower, the Anne Frank house, beautiful calanques, ancient castles, monuments, museums, and countless other impressive things that I never dreamed of when I was seven. But she is done with monuments and museums. She wants to run through the sprinkler, draw with sidewalk chalk, set up a lemonade stand, have spontaneous play time with neighborhood friends, riding bikes and digging in the sandbox. But we have no sandbox, no yard, no bikes, not even our own sidewalk. And I'm pretty sure that the French government would require a vendor's license for a 7-year old to open a lemonade stand.

When I return, I will try to appreciate both the simplicity and the complexity. I will enjoy the simplicity of bike rides, watching my kid play and talking with our lovely neighbors. I will try to simplify my life by doing some purging (laundry basket of socks that need matching or mending – I'm looking at you) but I will also try to cherish some of life's complexity at home. Yes, it can be overwhelming to keep up with never-ending house projects and my person-v-nature gardening efforts which I always lose. But this means that I have a home and a garden which I love and cherish. It's frustrating to try to find a time in our busy schedules to meet with friends for a beer, but this also means we're leading rich, full lives. I will cherish many of my weekly commitments – to students, to music, to soup night, to yoga, and yes, even to Bea's music lessons and soccer games. Essentially, I'll try to find that balance – weeding a few keys from my key ring, but learning to appreciate those that remain.

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