Reviewed by Lis Bertolla
This is not the first book I have read on the subject of simple living, but it is as yet, the only one which tackles the psychological implications of making life changes in as much depth as the practicalities. We all have some resistance to change, especially when the outcome runs counter to the attitudes and values prevalent in our materialistic society. To summon the energy and willingness to do this requires both awareness and effort (qualities which the author has aplenty). So, if you are willing this book could be a useful companion.
We read on the fly-leaf that Marian Van Eyk McCain worked as a transpersonal psychotherapist and was a workshop leader and health educator and that she also writes poetry and short fiction. All of these skills are evidenced in the book, which has an unusual structure (for a text-book, that is,) which alternates between passages of practical exposition and lyrical descriptions of the author’s much loved garden. It is in these latter that much of the wisdom of the book is encapsulated however, and indeed it is the frogs and their life on the eponymous lily-pad that lead us through the thesis of the book.
Marian describes our high-tech, frenetic society with a colourful simile: ‘we are’ she says ‘rushing around like grasshoppers on amphetamines.’ Her seven steps to simplicity form the main body of the book, with a chapter devoted to each. It is impressive that she understands so very well how we, as humans, contrive to sabotage our own good intentions with endless mind-games and hang-ups At the same time she acknowledges that our motives are not always conscious ones. We are often prevented from achieving change by our deep-seated, but unrecognised needs. I found her concept of ‘need-holes’ (see Chapter2) most enlightening. Simply put, our unsatisfied needs from childhood – for unconditional love and recognition – will continue to trip us up throughout adulthood. At times of stress or vulnerability we can fall down a need-hole and struggle to reappear (my interpretation, not the author’s). Such areas of unresolved need cannot be filled, we cannot go back to being the children we once were: ‘the problem is, whilst you can fill a hole in the ground, you cannot fill a hole that only exists in memory – a historical hole. Trying to fill a historical hole is like trying to fill a leaking bucket.’
We may attempt to fill up our empty spaces with material consumption: retail therapy and, in some cases, addiction to drugs and alcohol, but we are inevitably left with an emptiness inside. Recognition of this dilemma, whilst not effecting a cure, can at least offer us the chance to manage our compulsions and, perhaps, to make more rational decisions whilst pursuing our intentions.
So the usual strictures I have learned to expect in books on the simple life—such as, eat vegetarian food, clear the clutter in your home and use your car less, whilst given a mention are not seen as being as crucial as the assault on the detritus of the mind: ‘Simplicity is not and never should be a hair shirt. It is merely the embrace of a new kind of joy’. This writer is more interested in our inner processes and posits that, without such inner change all our outward attempts may come to nought.
I mentioned earlier that Marian chronicles throughout the book the life of her garden and the lily pond with its teeming wildlife. I particularly enjoyed reading of her night-time excursions, crouching by the pond with a torch and observing the nocturnal activities of its inhabitants. It is an image that will cheer my winter nights for many a year. And I should also mention at this point the many sensitive and witty illustrations by Iris Hill who captures the pond with its layer of dark green duckweed and the frog whose life-cycle is spent there. She also provides us with miniature jumping frogs at each turn of page.
These excursions into the author’s inner world are a welcome, but not irrelevant digression from the more didactic content of the book. They give us a window through which we can peer at the simple life as it is lived They bring us closer to the author on the long journey she has made to get where she now is. They act like a meditation that both slows our pace and increases our enjoyment. This is a woman who writes, as she doubtless lives, truthfully and with understanding.
I will end where the writer begins with the following passage: ‘It is becoming increasingly obvious that if human beings – particularly those in affluent, Western industrialised countries who are mainly responsible for the twin problems of over-consumption and pollution – do not learn new ways of being and start adopting them now, most forms of life on earth will come to an end.’
Within the covers of this relatively slim book, the crucial steps of the journey are simply described. Here is someone who not only practises what she preaches, but who seems to garner enjoyment from every moment.