Prompt 173. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
What we gain from letting go and Barbara Becker on Thoreau's old wisdom
Since returning to New York City, I’ve been living out of a suitcase. I left behind almost everything—books, tchotchkes, any and all clothing that was not soft and fuzzy. I don’t miss any of it. Since learning that my leukemia is back, everything familiar has been razed. I’m reeling, sad, and scared, but I also feel weirdly liberated. I’m living in such deep uncertainty that I can’t have any expectations or see very far into the future. I can’t do anything the way I used to—which means I must imagine my life anew.
Just the other day, I had the pleasure of a visit from my beloved friend Behida Dolić, who’s an artist, milliner and clothing designer (she has a beautiful shop on Warren Street in Hudson, New York) and happens to be the most stunningly creative, resilient human I know. She was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and during treatment, she began painting some of the most gorgeous, poignant images I’ve ever seen. As gifts, Behida brought me one of her hats, a hand-knit sweater, and a huge easel that she set up in the bedroom of the borrowed apartment where I’m living. Then we walked to a local art supply store and bought the most gorgeously vibrant tubes of paint, which felt so enlivening.
That night, when I woke up at 2AM and my mind was spinning and I couldn’t fall back to sleep, I got up, lit a candle, put Billie Eilish on my headphones, and began sketching something, part self-portrait, part figure from a dream. I kept at it for hours, until just before the sun came up. It was so joyous. I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll become a painter.”
So much is revealed when we are stripped down to our simplest, barest selves, when we lose the life we thought we’d lead. When we lose our habits, our routines, our oh-so-precious things. And that’s the subject of today’s prompt, from the author Barbara Becker. She meditates on an old piece of wisdom from Henry David Thoreau and asks us to consider what we gain when we let go of things.
Covered in paint,
P.S. I had the great pleasure and honor of hosting Lena Dunham for a Studio Visit on Friday—and she was absolutely brilliant. She gave us insights on asking for what we need, the spiritual dividends of pain, and inspiration for journaling on New Year’s Eve. Become a paid subscriber to watch the replay here!
P.P.S. We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual writing hour—it’s this Saturday, December 18 at 1pm ET. We hope you’ll join us! For more info, click here.
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173. Simplify by Barbara Becker
My brother and I were sitting on the floor in our parents’ living room, surrounded by piles of objects: the contents of their closets, paintings from the walls, stacks of books, pots and pans. Our task that winter weekend was to clear out the entire house to get it ready for sale.
It was a job neither of us relished. Both of our parents had died earlier that year, within weeks of one another. That, of course, made this project especially charged. It felt that every object we picked up was imbued with a memory of them, and we struggled to sort them into our neatly labeled boxes… “Keep,” “Toss,” or “Donate.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to part with any of it.
Then I reached for my father’s dog-eared copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I opened right to a page heavy with underlining. There in the center of the page was Thoreau’s exhortation to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” My father had even put a penciled star in the margin next to those two words. It seemed nothing short of a visitation from these two wise men, Thoreau and my dad: a reminder that by paring down the complexity of life—whether that be the material possessions or the clutter of unnecessary busyness—we will arrive at what’s truly essential.
With this repeated word guiding me like a mantra, I turned back to the task with new resolve and a bit more ease. Truthfully, it has never left me since.
Your prompt for the week:
Simplify, simplify, simplify! If you were to let go of three things before bedtime tonight, what would they be? What would you gain by letting them go?
Barbara Becker is the award-winning author of Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind. She is a mom, a perpetual seeker, and most recently a breast cancer survivor. As a hospice volunteer in New York City, she has shared time with hundreds of people at the end of their lives and sees each as a teacher.
On asking for what we need, the spiritual dividends of pain, and journaling on New Year’s Eve
If case you missed it‚ we’ve posted a video replay of the Studio Visit with Lena Dunham. Along with the recording, you’ll find notes from the conversation, including the advice she’d give to her 20-year-old self and a creative assignment. It was powerful, even revelatory—and not to be missed!