Simplify, simplify …

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.  ~  Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever felt, as I have, a strangely wonderful sense of liberation when you pack for a trip?  Limiting yourself to only what will fit into a suitcase or backpack really makes you think about what you really need to carry with you while you’re away from your familiar environment.  For me, it usually turns out to be surprisingly little!  And that always makes me surprisingly happy.

Seventeen years ago, I enrolled in a month-long yoga teacher training (YTT, as we call it) at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.  The main building at Kripalu used to be a Jesuit monastery so the rooms are cell-like (though windowed) and the bathroom is down the hall.  Unless I wanted to spring for a big increase in my tuition to upgrade to a single room (I didn’t), I would be sharing this space with another student and all our stuff.  For.  Four.  Weeks.  Yes, I was assured, there was laundry on premises and a large sliding drawer under each bed, but room for hangers, fugetaboutit.  We would have, my roommate and I, two drawers each of a very small four-drawer chest.

Since March is cold in the Berkshires and I knew I would want to get outdoors, I wondered where I would find space for the jackets, sweaters, warm socks, hats, gloves, and a pair of boots I planned on bringing.  Yikes!  True, we would be spending most of our time in class (in fact, we didn’t get a day off or visitors for two weeks) so I knew I would need to bundle up and get outside to avoid cabin fever.

Summer camp with the ample footlocker for little more than shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits was nothing like this.  So, there I was, age 57, fronting the fact, in my best Thoreauvian guise, that I had too much stuff. I had only to spread it all out on the bed to realize that half of it wasn’t going anywhere but back in the closet or chest.  I got a quick, necessary lesson in the art of layering for warmth. Fortunately, yoga clothing doesn’t crush — I wear it outside of class even now for this reason — and is eminently packable and quickly washed and dried.  And as meditation master instructor, Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, the laundry.

DSC01587When I remember how much better I was able to focus on my yoga training when I didn’t have a lot of choices about what to wear (and no hairdryer or makeup), not to mention all the time I saved for more worthy activities, it takes my breath away.  Even as a couple who enjoys our comforts, we’re hardly shopaholics.  Our kids know better than to give us stuff without a lot of careful thought, so when they do, it is almost always an in-the-moment treat like a terrific assortment of special teas.  Birthday or holiday gifts tend to be certificates for a massage or to an interesting restaurant. When you realize how full of redundant things your life is, a fun exercise is how much stuff you can pack into donation bags for the Vietnam Veterans of America who come right to your door to pick them up.  Even so, in moments of mindfulness, we know we’re living a far from simple life.  We travel; we have a huge library of books; we’ve failed the 100-mile food challenge.  We like our AC, our Internet access, our smartphones.

From a planetary perspective. I believe simplicity is a vastly unrated strategy for dealing with the materialism that we Americans have adopted as a lifestyle and are so busily exporting elsewhere.  Or even worse, creating working condition we would never endure domestically, in distant factories that churn out so-called ‘cheap’ clothes and the stuff that clutters our homes.  The mantra, “recycle, repair and reuse,” is merely the choice we’re left with when we couldn’t resist buying whatever it was in the first place.  And the three R’s are no match for the wanting that comes naturally to us as humans, but is sharpened to a fever pitch by, well, the endless pitch.  This isn’t news to you, but here’s an example: a moment ago, I wanted to find the name of a book I have stored on my Kindle app in my phone.  So I click on it, and up pops this message:

Stay Connected.  By enabling notifications, we’ll occasionally send relevant book recommendations, tips, and other updates to help you get more out of reading.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I am on a 30-day trial because I need (or want?) to refresh the music playlists for my yoga classes.  When I’ve accomplished that, we’ll part company.  No wonder The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo soared to best-seller heights, despite the truly terrible writing (or translation, perhaps).  In the middle of a Joseph Goldstein talk on You Tube, he asks the audience how many could resist pouring through a catalog because, surely, there must be something here I want. Embarrassed laughter.

Wanting (aka craving) is one of the instinctive responses our ancestors needed because their survival depended on getting enough of what was often difficult to get, or in short supply.  In times of crisis, humans often resort to these behaviors, witness the fights breaking out in the refugee encampments or when potable water is delivered to a rural area in the developing world.  Advertising appeals to that primitive part of our brain by creating desire or manufactured need. Voluntary simplicity suggests that we don’t have to be slaves to wanting, that we can override these behaviors, and learn — as the great UU Minister, Forrest Church, put it, “to want what we have.”  As our planet struggles to absorb the end result of our rampant materialism, this sounds like very sound and timely advice.

Transition, With a Side of Homemade Yogurt

making yogurtNeeding a break from the ups and downs of doing Transition, I decided to take a page out of Rob Hopkins’ book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, and make yogurt this weekend. Both are about changing the culture, after all.

I wanted to bring the principles of meditation practice into the process and be more mindful, so I was aware that my automatic choice was to consult the Internet rather than a cookbook of which I have many.  Results: three pages, 10 links/recipes on each, before my search ran aground.  Most of the recipes seemed unnecessarily complicated, so I went with the simplest one from @thekitchnn — the language was kind and supportive, too.  I like that.

Yogurt has been eaten by itself or as an essential ingredient in many world cuisines for centuries, and today it is enjoying perhaps the greatest popularity since Dannon first began diversifying its product, with such innovations as fruit in 8 oz. servings, “stir-from-the-bottom.” In fact, yogurt was declared the official snack of the State of New York in May this year, the successful conclusion of a campaign begun by 4th graders. The latest craze, so-called Greek Yogurt, was also a featured story in The New Yorker (October 30) that describes how Turkish entrepreneur, Hamdi Ukylaya, built his company from 0 to $1 billion in five years.

I’m a sucker for rags-to-riches stories, but I’m in this for the probiotics, the practice, and what it will teach me about patience (a lot). Homemade yogurt is like many fermented foods: it takes simple ingredients – in my case, a half-gallon of organic 2% milk, ½ cup of plain Dannon yogurt – and transforms them into something exceptionally nutritious and tasty. I had the requisite stainless steel pots and bowls, a thermometer to keep an eye on optimum temperatures, and plenty of time (4-5 hours total).

Making yogurt isn’t especially labor intensive, but you do have to be mindful of things like the temperature of the milk at different phases. It is a good reminder that yogurt is derived from a living culture and it will only thrive under the right conditions.  The same could be said about any one of the many grassroots alternatives to the status quo among which Transition, Voluntary Simplicity and co-housing are the most promising.

Johnny Cash was singing from Folsom Prison while I stirred the milk over a medium-high burner (to keep from sticking) until the thermometer read about 185°F.  Mine clips to the side of the pan.  Some little bubbles had begun to form around the edge at this point.  Cooling the milk to about 112°F – the wrist test familiar to mothers – can be speeded up by plunging the pot and contents into a bath of iced and water. Or you can just wait.

It’s important to use a good quality, additive-free, plain yogurt (or you can use a starter). Whisk in half a cup into a cup of the warm milk, then add it all back into the main pot, whisking until it is all blended in. At this point, I had to deviate from the recipe because my electric oven doesn’t have a pilot light, perfect for holding the temperature steady.  A slow cooker might come in handy for this step. I heated a larger pan of water, about 2-3 inches of it, to about 120°F, removed it from the burner, and put the stainless bowl with the yogurt-milk mixture into the pan. Covered it with the lid – you can also swaddle the pot in towels for warmth — and forced myself to walk away. Well, I did sneak a few peeks, like the mother of a sleeping newborn. But the yogurt culture isn’t asleep although nothing much seems to be happening. It is quietly doing its astonishing thing. The longer it sits undisturbed, the more tart it becomes.

I went off to watch 60 Minutes, riveted by the Malcolm Gladwell profile (promoting his new book about underdogs, David and Goliath) and a terrifying story about live volcanoes. Back in the kitchen, about 10 pm, I lifted the lid. The yogurt was a firm, creamy mass ready to be transferred for final cooling to the refrigerator. It can be packed into sterilized glass containers now or later. It will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator… I doubt it will last that long in my house.

This morning, with sliced mangoes and granola – simply heaven!