and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
November #4

Giving thanks for a full and not-too-simple life
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering?
Life which you wish for, you will never find.
For when the gods created man they let death be his share,
and withheld life in their own hands.

Gilgamesh, fill your belly; day and night make merry, let days be full of joy.
Dance and make music, and wear fresh clothes, and wash your head and bathe.
Look at the child that is holding your hand ...

These things alone are the concern of men.

-- From the Akkadian epic

I gave up my dream, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Unlike Gilgamesh, the ancient king who roamed the world seeking immortality, I did not dream of living forever. I simply dreamed of living simply.

Henry David Thoreau's suggestion, "simplify, simplify," has dwelled in my head since high school, when I was running around from classes, to sports, to choir, to my part-time job; and since college, when I was running around from classes, to the school paper, to membership in various clubs, to dating various guys.

Since Navy wife days, when I was moving from Florida to California to Greece, packing, unpacking, socializing, touring, and being a mother; then forward into the return to civilian life in Massachusetts, where I became a taxpayer activist.

The next 30 years were spent running from petition drives to debates to media outlets to a small, cluttered office in downtown Boston.

With Republican governors we had help with "eternal vigilance," so vacations were possible; living out of a knapsack provided a taste of living simply. I even recall with pleasure the peaceful times spent recovering from surgery, or back in Pennsylvania caring for my aging parents in their last days. Always there was "the dream" -- someday, when I lived alone, when the constant attention required by my job had eased, I would take the time to organize my house, my life, my ever-distracted mind. I would walk and sing every day. I would meditate.

Now that I work from home, there's been time for gardening and recreational reading (both, apparently a priority over meditation). But still, in the small combination office-home, there's been clutter and chaos ... until last summer, when my cat died. My visiting son removed the litter box, moved the furniture that had been arranged for the cat's convenience, then started on the boxes piled everywhere.

After he left, I continued the simplification project, enjoying the peace of living alone. In the back of my mind was a golden tabby cat. But I liked the new smell of the house -- no litter, no snubbed cat food; nothing underfoot or needing care.

Then in mid-October, a stray golden tabby wandered into friends' country yard, where other lost cats had already settled. I named him Gilgamesh -- partly because he was wandering, and partly because it's good to reflect constantly on the mortality of one's cat, lest one be upset by its natural passing.

At my age, it's good to reflect on one's own mortality as well, and to fill one's days with joy. Funny how a cat helps with that.

So the furniture is moved back for the cat's convenience, and the litter box is in the hall. Gilly hunts the mouse in the cellar, watches the squirrels from the screened porch and the birds from the kitchen table. Some of my free time is spent petting him, instead of sorting through boxes and trying to organize my life. If I try to sing or meditate, he is there -- on the lap, in the face.

I know I am not the only one who has dreamed of simplicity, of a life unencumbered by clutter, by messy relationships, or cans in the sink and litter tracked through the house. However, these things I also know:

1) My life, looking back, was always much less complicated than the lives of younger women today. I had one child, and didn't work full-time until he was 14. I can't imagine how anyone works full-time while caring for two or more children. I lived most of my life without cell phones, computers and cable TV. There were fewer choices, of everything from lifestyles to cereals.

2) Simplicity is overrated. Our ancestors lived simple lives as hunter-gatherers, and they died young.

3) There are people who are born with simplicity in their souls. No matter what is going on around them, they are serene and organized. I could have learned valuable lessons from them years ago. I could have started meditating in high school. I could have become a Buddhist. I could have bought fewer things, never had a kid or cat, and lived in a cabin in the woods like Thoreau.

4) Every year at Thanksgiving, I am grateful for everything about my life, from the occasional simple experience to the depth and richness of all of it. And, of course, I'm grateful for the simplicity dream, which is fun to fantasize but might be somewhat barren if fully realized.

Also this year, I'm grateful for my new cat. Gilgamesh and I will fill our bellies all weekend, and enjoy our lives. These things alone are the concern of men and cats.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.