Saturday, 4 February 2012


A subtle, hard to define aspect of simplicity is what I think could be called “the unobtrusive life”.

When I was growing up my mother would admonish me fairly frequently not to draw attention to myself.  I was raised to an idea of modesty that was not only about refraining from advertising one’s sexuality, but refraining from advertising oneself at all.

As a teenager I worked among nuns, and discovered they had the same take on life.  I remember remarking admiringly to Sister Kathleen that she had lost weight, I being about sixteen at the time.  She laughed and turned the suggestion adroitly aside.  I felt puzzled at the time since she clearly had lost weight – but when I (years) later recalled the event I understood; she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Between my mother and the nuns and despite my own compass being set to an inevitable magnetic north of social gaffes and awkwardness, I internalised the concept of the unobtrusive life.   This involves doing things quietly – blowing your nose, closing the door, putting cutlery in the drawer, setting logs down on the hearth quietly; ideally with no noise at all.  It implies rising from the chair and slipping out of the room in such a way that nobody notices you’ve gone.  It means never advertising your skills or achievements, down-playing your emotional reactions, never stealing someone else’s thunder, eating silently, patiently waiting for the dawn to reach the point where your husband finally wakes up and it’s okay to turn on the computer because it won’t disturb him.

The unobtrusive life may allow others to find it, but never promotes or advertises its presence.  It resists the intrusion of personal remarks, it never flirts, it goes in search of those it wishes to address so as to speak to them quietly and privately, not shouting across the street to attract their attention.

The unobtrusive life is diffident, humble, hidden and unremarkable.  It is what William Penn called “retired” – withdrawn from the public gaze.

As a lifelong habit, it certainly creates its challenges when it comes to taking responsibility for promoting one’s books – making that, in fact, almost impossible.  Nobody recognises, remembers or notices me!  I like it that way and work hard to keep it that way, but I’m a publisher’s nightmare as a result.  Who?  Oh, her! Oh . . . no, I don’t think so.

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you . . .” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 NIV)


365 Day 35 (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here)

What?  Receipts?  Can that be categorised as a possession to ditch?  Oh yes, my friend!  I have been known to hang on to every single receipt that comes into my hands, just in case, stowing them away carefully in purses, envelopes, the margins of my underwear drawer; shoving them in handy crevices alongside the shelves where the files are kept – so that if ever the Inland Revenue needed proof or the food blender broke or the package didn’t arrive at its destination, I would be ready with just the little piece of paper to save the world.  Now, I don’t care.  Life’s too short.  I bought a Casio Unisex watch for £9.99?  I’ll get rid of the receipt and, just for good measure, the watch as well.  But I am impressed by the information that watches can be sexed – you never know these things, do you?  I always imagined they were just some kind of machine.



maria said...

This is truly one of the most poignant post you have shared Ember!

Living this way has taken me through many hills and valleys. I, on the other hand, was taught to be noticed. To do, and say, and wear what will bring the most amount of attention. If you are not noticed, then you have not reached your goal.

As I became a follower of The Way of Christ, the less I want to be noticed. If I get too many compliments, then I have slipped somewhere. If I do something that will bring forth a great deal of accolades, then they are seeing me and not Christ!

I am still learning.

Great post my friend...


Pen Wilcock said...


Anonymous said...

I got excited reading this post as it reminded me of a story I'd read about a woman who wasn't noticed and disappeared and I was going to share it with you ...then I wrote it! ;-)

E. said...

That sounds...amazing. To be that soft.

I've never managed it, not sure I ever will. I'm loud, opinionated, can never _not_ say anything that I feel is _wrong_ or doesn't make sense. I want to know _why_ and I can't stop searching for an answer 'til I get one that in some way makes sense (to me).

I have a short temper and I explode whenever I've run out...!

I have _tried_ to not take place, to be noticed, yet I seem to be one that people See - even when I desperately wish to disappear...

I think...perhaps... I'm not meant for your kind of softness. Perhaps there is a purpose for me being Me. :) But, I'm still searching for that Purpose that'll show me my Way...

Thank you for a VERY lovely post!

( )

Pen Wilcock said...

Heh heh - yes, Deborah - I hide too (like the woman in the story!)

E, people don't find me soft - usually kind of intimidating and abrasive - or else very calm - and I don't know why some think 'calm' and some think 'scary' - but I do like to be quiet.

Penny said...

Thanks for this post, Ember. A good reminder for me at this time of facebook contemplation etc!

We become less.
He becomes more.
And in this he is noticed by others and we are noticed by the only one whose opinion really matters.

Penny said...

Loved that image too, by the way.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Yes, the painting is by Vilhelm Hammershoi, a picture of his wife - his work is so beautiful.

Linda said...

I have come to a very interesting part of my life and it has to do with this very thing.

My mother must have been the same. I am very much into closing doors quietly, same with cutlery in the drawer, setting down logs like you say. Yes all those things.

I find it hard because my husband makes banging noises. He is the one working in the kitchen, not me, so I get the banging. It is a constant frustration.

There is also another addition to this, all the things to do with not bending over and all those things. Not yelling out like you say. I found I would nearly rather die than do that.

We were renting in 2003 and I had a one year old baby. We didn't bring the change table so I changed her on the floor with a mat. I have found since that my whole flexibility changed from not being so ladylike. It is still excellent at 48 despite having back problems.

I live back in the country again after 25 years in a middle sized town of around 20,000. When I go there, no one yells out to people. Here everyone does it. It is like being back on the farm again maybe, I have found myself being very casual when I visit the larger town. I enjoy myself, and people do notice. :(

Facebook, well. Oh boy. It is really challenging the whole thing. But drawers and things, I will remain impressed with quiet and people who still do that.

As for the husband thing, yes, I think I did things like that for about 25 or more years, I think it is time I stopped. Not speaking up things like that.

Penny I just noticed you mentioned facebook as well. :)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0D Yes, Penny is on Facebook and is in process of setting up her author page there for her excellent books for children.
Husbands? I have the privilege of being married to the noisest man in the world, born with his own personal sound track! We are very good for one another!! "Sorry!" he saus, "so sorry!!" when I say "Darling I must tell you that if you continue to whistle through your teeth like that somebody will kill you, and not necessarily me . . ." He is extraordinarily patient and humble - he has to be; he lives with me!

Elin said...

I am the total opposite, I am LOUD!!! I bang my feet against the floor, I throw cutlery into its drawer, I have a naturally very powerful voice (very useful as a teacher, I don't need to scream) and I tend to take up too much space in every way. I know this, and I tend to back down sometimes because I do not want to parasite on other people and take up their space. One part of me love the attention I get but the other part find it challenging. I love being the center of attention but not if it makes other people feel small.

I do love silence though and I can be quiet for long periods of time even if I am in the company of others. I love going for a walk alone where I can just be alone and let the mind flow freely.

Pen Wilcock said...

Elin . . . I do so enjoy your comments!

Linda said...

My husband is a teacher, so yes it is important to be able to speak in a clear voice. He is perfectly suited to it. :)

Pen Wilcock said...


BLD in MT said...

Having been raised in the more standard western philosophy of promote myself and my individuality I have been having a bit of time adjusting to a more modest, quiet lifestyle. But, it what I feel called to more and more, even if I do feel at odds with my peers. I just do what the spirits moves. More and more I've found that I don't want to be noticed as I used to, I just want to be. Like the grains of wheat lose their identity to become the loaf of bread....

Pen Wilcock said...

I can relate to that Beth - like dancing to the music instead of marching to the band :0)