Saturday, March 11, 2017

Simplifying Life

I was leaving the lap pool just as she was arriving. She smiled at me.

"Have a good workout?"

"Yes! Made it to an hour of non-stop laps today!"

She gave me a thumbs up. "Isn't it wonderful to be able to make the time to do good things for ourselves, after all those years of putting others first?" she said.  "We're simplifying our lives to focus on our own health and well-being...and it feels wonderful!" With that, she slipped into the pool, breast-stroking down the lane with energy and gusto.

I thought about her words, about how life changes for so many of us as we age. It isn't a matter of becoming self-obsessed oldsters, but of paring life down to the essentials and letting what no longer fits, what no longer matters, fall away.

I've noticed interesting, small changes in the routines of our lives. After giving me a handmade knitted trivet, our next door neighbor Judith, so talented with hand crafts, asked "Remember what this is for?  I no longer make assumptions. So many people here don't cook anymore."

She's right. I recall Bob's moment of disappointment when I brought home a single-serving bag of frozen brussels sprouts (Bob's favorite) and he noticed that the bag wasn't steamable, that the vegetables would have to be taken out of the bag and placed in a microwave-safe dish for cooking. I remember, too, recently being at the local supermarket and tempted by a ready-to-eat package of hard-boiled eggs. I was brought back to frugal reality by the scorn of our neighbor Marsha, standing there watching me examine the package. "Oh, for heaven's sake!" she said. "Just buy a dozen goddam eggs. I'll boil them for you if you want. Paying for pre-cooked eggs is just plain crazy." I agreed reluctantly...thinking to myself that the concept of pre-cooked, pre-peeled eggs in a convenient zip-lock package didn't seem quite as crazy to me as it did to Marsha, who happens to be considerably younger than I am.

I've noticed meal-time routines changing. Many of us no longer have big formal meals, but smaller meals (or bigger snacks) throughout the day. Many eat in their lounge chairs or off t.v. trays or the coffee table instead of convening in the the dining room. In my friend Mary's house, she and her husband still say grace, still talk and laugh with love as they sit together in the living room with their meals.

In some cases, our homes have changed. Some friends have decluttered -- giving away family heirlooms now rather than later and throwing out or donating the items that no one wants. Some are downsizing. My friend Tim has moved from a spacious suburban house to an urban studio apartment -- and loves the change. He no longer owns a car and walks to his nearby office, to church, to shopping and to visit friends and family. He has lost weight in the process and is enjoying improved health and energy.

Some of us are simplifying by eliminating habits and routines that used to feel essential. For some of us, makeup, panty hose and fancy dresses have given way to pantsuits, shorts and capris. Even for those who wouldn't dream of leaving the house without makeup, hairstyles have shortened and simplified for easier care.

Some of us have tamed the alarm clock habit by listening to our body rhythms and getting up when we feel like it or, if alarms are still necessary in our lives, opting for the gentle vibrations of a Fitbit silent alarm or a musical wake-up.

We don't care as much what others think of us -- casting off the burden of being trendy in favor of embracing what we like and prefer.

We're less likely these days to get unnecessarily immeshed in the lives of others with hurtful gossip or with unsolicited advice. This doesn't mean that we've stopped caring about others. We've simply learned that there are two sides to every story, that gossip accomplishes nothing constructive and that adult children, more often than not, prefer to handle their own problems and life decisions on their own. We're scaling down our need to be directive and becoming more supportive of others in our lives.

There are fewer names on our Christmas card lists and, perhaps, fewer birthdays to remember as the generation before us passes on and even a number of same-age friends are deceased. This less happy simplification of life does have a quiet upside: we're treasuring the family and friends we have left even more.

When we were younger, it seemed that we -- and those we loved -- would live forever. Now we know that we all have limited time to enjoy each other. With the family and friends we still have, we have new motivation to say those loving thoughts too often left unspoken and to give of ourselves in ways we always meant to but were just too busy, too distracted or too embarrassed before.

As times marches on, we're learning when to be quiet and when to speak up -- not complicating our lives with hurt feelings over pointless arguments. We've learned what is worth a fight and what can be let go.

There are so many advantages to simplifying in our own individual ways.

Cutting down on the needless tasks, clutter and routines in our lives gives us more time and energy to concentrate on what matters to us. What matters is a very personal decision and insight. You may find that certain people in your life matter more than ever. You may find, on the other hand, that impressing others matters much less. You may have found peace in letting go of dreams of extensive travel and now savor chances to grow and learn where you are -- perhaps by enjoying online courses from around the world or by simply listening to the experiences and insights of those around you.

Caring less what others think of us gives us the emotional space to think of others more, to listen instead of planning a response. It frees us to be ourselves in new ways, to grow in self-acceptance and self-awareness.

Simplifying today enables us to tidy up our lives before the next generation has to. This may mean looking ahead and making our own decisions while we still can: signing advance health directives, updating wills or trusts, making our final wishes known (preferably in writing) to close family members or friends. It may mean cleaning out those closets and attics, giving away heirlooms now, pruning our belongings to the ones that matter most to us. Doing all of this can lead to our own peace of mind and free us to not have to think of all of these matters again. It can also be a gesture of love and generosity to those who follow us.

Simplifying life can also give us time to reflect on what our lives have meant. When no longer dashing around trying to do it all and be it all on a daily basis -- a gourmet cook, a globe trotter, an all-around impressive person -- we can eliminate a lot of the noise and distraction to notice the themes, the challenges and the triumphs, both large and small, that have made our lives uniquely meaningful.