the gamut apr16
illustration by Carla Wilson
It is a good thing, on certain days—days often, but not always, touched with a kind of melancholy or uneasiness—to stop and consider something natural, something indifferent to the this and that of one’s daily life. I don’t expect I’ll encounter many dissenting voices shouting “nay” to this observation.
And so it was one gray day not long ago when I tilted my gaze upwards, not to the low-ceilinged canopy of stratus clouds packed dense and unyielding as far as I could see, but to a stubborn leaf, dry and unliving, clinging to a half-dead oak in my side yard. The day was gusty, and the rapid-fire bursts of wind made this leaf dance and twirl on its branch, a frenetic, unchoreographed ballet of stick and shifting cells, freeform and jazzy like an expression of joy.
“ It’s so simple,” I said to myself. And despite the fact that a variety of scientific forces were at play in the making of that moment—from biology to physics to maybe even theoretical mechanics (who can know?)—I can think of few things simpler than a leaf dancing in the wind. When I finally pulled my gaze from that happy, little leaf, my mind snapped back to the matters churning the thick stew of anxiety residing in my gut. Into my head popped the driving chorus of a modern pop classic: “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” (You know it.)
That is, I feel, an excellent question. When did the basic function of carrying out a human existence become so complicated? I’m asking this question from an uncommon (though hardly unique) position, having shucked a great many modern conveniences some years back in an attempt to gain perspective on complication’s counter-concept, “simplicity” and apply it to my life. But I’m still asking, because I don’t know.
“ If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity,” says Annie Dillard in her seminal work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.” It’s a wonderful idea, though I must add that, as a person whose annual income sits substantially below the national average, I’m not so sure poverty and simplicity are natural bedfellows. Being poor can get really complicated.
The notion, however, that drives Dillard’s comment (which, if memory serves, functioned as a metaphor—Dillard, a nature writer with a philosopher’s stare, knows the value of a little leaf) is undeniable: Learn to love the small things, for the world is filled with small things. A recent stroll through a big-box department store revealed plates, towels and other household sundries promoting a return to simplicity; ironic interpretations aside, the basic idea has merit. Things have gotten really complicated. Why?
“ What is the use of complicating the passwords that have stood the test?” asks Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. I’ve seen so much complication of the passwords—the basics, I mean, the work to eat to live to love—in my short 38 years on this earth. To illustrate this point, I’ll share a personal fact about professional me: I get a lot more work if I label myself a “Specialized Content Provider” than simply saying “I’m a Writer.” The difference is a 300 percent markup of character real estate on the screen and/or page and literally nothing else, but I profit by overcomplicating a role that, until very recently, was well-understood (Walt Whitman as a Creative Content Producer—just imagine that).
I feel like maybe our culture has become addicted to these senseless complications, as they reward people with a false sense of accomplishment when they gain an understanding of underlying meaning: We know the passwords. The obvious sacrifice, however, in interpreting this baroque list of societal expectations is simplicity, which, now piled beneath boisterous jargon and empty superlatives, we genuinely miss and desire in our daily life. It’s not a cycle so much as an anxious, ideological dichotomy subconsciously fostered every time we punch up that resume.
How do we simplify, then? Well, I think we need to choose joy.
Oh, that’s trite, I know, but it’s important. Please don’t confuse the euphoric relief gained through knowledge of the ever-changing list of passwords with simple joy—that’s survival. But just look at this word: “joy.” Three letters, two phonics. We don’t need to call it a “stimulus-triggered release of reward chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain.” It’s just joy. It’s simple, and that’s what we so desperately want.
So let’s do it—let’s simplify. Maybe someday we’ll get those job titles shortened or create a financial system that’s navigable by people without advanced degrees in economics, but the first step isn’t nearly so complicated. The first step is right out the door, to that tree you love but always forget about. Pick a leaf and watch it dance in the breeze. For the time you see it, forget about your workplace anxieties and financial concerns. The leaf is simple, it is basic, it is joy and, in that moment, it is everything.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.