The Innermost House Facebook page is a favourite haunt of mine, a wonderful place for discussions and meetings of minds.
Recently, someone had asked about Diana Lorence’s culinary habits (she has just one cast-iron pot in which all the hot meals for Michael and herself are cooked).
Diana says she can't cook. Never could. She couldn't stand recipes for meals or patterns for sewing or anything else like that when she was growing up, and she always got frustrated trying to do the step-by-step things that came easily to others. She did choose to prepare their meals through all the years before IH [Innermost House], but she says it always felt like an interruption.
She says when they first moved to IH her cooking got WORSE. I don't mean it didn't taste good or anything like that, I mean it FRUSTRATED her more. HAVING to simplify made it HARDER.
So Michael just quietly took over, and replaced the FEW things she was trying to do in place of the MANY things she used to do, and just did ONE thing instead. ONE pot. ONE bowl. ONE beautiful piece of fruit, or whatever. Well Diana wasn't going to stand that for long, so she took over the cooking again. But she was able to stay with the ONE idea, and she has truly enjoyed "cooking" ever since.
This account stopped me in my tracks, and sent a shaft of light shining through into what had hitherto been an area of confusion.
“Less is more,” they say, but it’s a question of breaking through.
To have many things is burdensome but is a solution of sorts. A mother’s approach to the challenge of accommodating a growing family with all their toys and hobby gear and sports equipment and kitchen paraphernalia and electronic gizmos and books and clothes and shoes etc etc might quite understandably be to move to a bigger house. To do that the family gets a bigger mortgage and to finance this the mother needs to take a job. In order to go out to work she needs a car, a child-minder, formal clothes and shoes, a briefcase, and an inexhaustible supply of tights. Tired at the end of the office day and after carrying out her second career as a taxi-driver to take the children to and from all the activities that either allow her to be out at work or that simply seemed a good idea now she has a car, she turns to ready-meals and take-out pizzas because there is no time to cook from simple basic ingredients, or even shop for them. She has to join Weight-Watchers and a gym because she has put on so much weight spending her entire life behind a desk or the wheel of a car eating principally pizza. There is certainly no time to clean at home, so she employs a cleaner, and begins to offer financial incentives to the children to tidy their rooms and meet school achievement goals, since there seems no other way to motivate them. She gets more and more tired and always lives out of credit cards and an overdraft.
The Many has swollen into a tyranny.
She looks at the possibility of Less. Cut back on take-out meals and stop the cleaner, to save some money. Wear one pair of tights over another when both are laddered. Less is not more. Less is exhausting and horrendously complicated. Now she has to cook like a chef as well as run a taxi-service and manage a business and juggle the childcare. Oh, and sex! Marriage! Remember that?
But if Less makes life so difficult, surely the solution is striving for More – achieving by some means the Many.
And then she decides, on what looks at first like a dangerous whim, to choose the One. To just be a home-maker. She does the arithmetic and it dawns on her that her entire salary went on the car, the smart clothes, the activities compensating for a parent with no time to play in the woods or by the sea, the expensive take-out meals, Weight-watchers and the gym, child-care and the cleaner, and bribing her children.
Opting for the One, she discovers a world of freedom and creativity. She discovers it is entirely possible to house their family comfortably in a much smaller house, provided they don’t try to house a load of clutter as well. She finds to her surprise that the occupation of a home-maker on one income requires all the ingenuity, strategy, intelligence, planning and intellectual activity her office job ever did, and more. Far from being intellectually deadening, it requires every brain-cell she can bring to the task – and faith and prayer as well.
This is not an anti-feminism rant. It’s just an example from modern life of the Many, the Few and the One. I'm not saying every woman is called to be a home-maker, I'm saying feel along the threads until your fingers find what is the One for you, and let the others go. The Many is a modern solution proving unsustainable; it’s destroying the Earth and eating human souls away from the core. The Many is the solution of Mammon.
The Less feels like deprivation – trying to do too much with too little. But if, instead of back-tracking from the Less and reverting to the Many we push on through to the One – at that point we find peace; we learn how to make the singing bowl sing.
The teachings of Jesus are often taken to be primarily doctrinal points, where I think He meant them on a more practical level than we have commonly applied them.
For example, when He says: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things! But one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her,” He is sometimes represented as meaning “paying attention to religious teaching is better than doing housework”. But I think it’s a teaching about the Many, the Less and the One. Martha has opted for the Many; she wants Mary at least to get off her backside and engage with the Less. But Jesus knows the value of the One; it is the pearl of great price.
The parable of the Pearl of Great Price is indeed another example of the same principle, a man who traded in the Many (“all he had”) not for the Less (“goodly pearls”), but for the One (“the pearl of great price”) that can satisfy.
Beleaguered by the exigiencies of debts, commitments, physical ailments, wrecked relationships, impossible demands of budget and schedule, and ecological doom-scenarios, the modern world concedes that in the Many it has bitten off more than it can chew. It looks hopefully to the Less for workable compromise – consumerism, yes, but eco-consumerism; or ready-meals, yes, but from the budget store not the high-end. But the Less is often a no-mans-land of drudgery and deprivation.
The vision of simplicity is about pushing on through the Less to the One. That’s why I find Innermost House so exciting; because I have come across very, very few people with the clear sight to discern the way let alone make the journey: but Michael and Diana Lorence have.
In choosing the One, we do not (have to) become sadhus and reject the material world, or choose ugly utilitarianism over beauty, far from it. It’s not about asceticism, not the Skellig Rock Party.
Choosing the One is about looking deeply into our circumstances until we discern the melody of possibility within them, the fountainhead of grace and effectiveness.
The ancient Greeks had two understandings of time. One is Chronos (the god who ate his own children), the relentless face of time – “doing time”, packed schedules, over-commitment, harried and hurried, pushed from pillar to post time. Kairos is the other kind of time, wu-wei time, being in the right place at the right moment doing the right thing – effective time. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu says, “In action, watch the timing”. It’s about finding our place in the dance of creation, learning the steps of life’s pattern and choreographing something beautiful in the everyday.
A favourite passage of the Tao for me and lots of other people is Chapter 11:
Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Finding the way to the One involves giving permission for space and emptiness to arise – leaving room for the light to shine in.
At the Laundromat, the assistant often urges customers, “Don’t pack the machine so full; you have to leave room for the water.”
Choosing the One leaves room for flow in a life.
All men will come to him who keeps to the one,
For there lie rest and happiness and peace.
Passers by may stop for music and good food,
But a description of the Tao seems without substance or flavor.
It cannot be seen, it cannot be heard,
And yet it cannot be exhausted.
(Tao Te Ching Ch.35, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)
Sigh. This idea is so big, and so dominates my life, I am painfully aware I have expressed it badly. It is my One Sky, but how to put the sky into a box so I can make it my gift to you? Look at the blue is all I can say. The blue will maybe teach you; it did me.
I don’t really like throwing things like this away, because wise thrift finds a use for such odds and ends. There’s a Victorian rhyme my memory has now lost the threads of about someone heedlessly chucking out a heel of dry bread, and then at some later point descending into poverty and living to recall with regret the crust they threw away; an approach to daily life that shaped my upbringing and remains powerful as an inner motivation.
But prudent provision slides all too easily into hoarding clutter - a heaving tide of flotsam and jetsam retained “just in case”.
Wishing neither to keep nor throw away such debris as is pictured here, I packed them up together with fellow bits and pieces into a large parcel and Freecycled them as a craft kit for bored children to make things with in the holidays. Unlikely I know, but some harassed parent was actually grateful for these and the rest of the oddments in the bag.