Simplicity. It’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Cotton Tenants: Three Families, by James Agee, is a book I’m reading that depicts the life of three white farmers and their families in the deep south, era 1936. Agee went on assignment for Fortune magazine for the story, but Fortune never published it. After Agee’s death, his daughter found the manuscript in his home, and had it published in 2013.
It’s not pleasant. And it disproves that all white men have always been privileged, contrary to the current political narrative. It’s a story of three American farmers attempting to feed their families, and barely succeeding. Sometimes not succeeding at all. They often went to bed hungry. Their clothes were tattered. Baths were nearly unheard of because water was so scarce and difficult to retrieve. Breakfast was often something like a few teaspoons of sugar mixed in with bacon lard and buttermilk, and rarely did they eat something different. More often that not, they ate the same three meals every day, although the wives did try to mix things up a bit so the food presented differently. Roofs leaked. Wasps lived in the ceilings. The bedding and family members were both notably filthy.
That’s all the details I know thus far, since I’m only about half way through. Suffice it to say, life was hard. Harder than most Americans know these days … but it was also simple. Pictures throughout the book, in addition to Agee’s words, tell of a life when a kitchen had very minimal supplies, utensils, and cookware. In reading about the tenants, I’ve become aware of the severity of their poverty. But I’ve also become aware of their simplicity.
I’ve also become more aware of the complexity of my current life.
When I was a kid, back in the 70’s and 80’s, we lived what I would consider fairly simple lives. By simple, I mean lacking haste. Lacking possessions. More time to think and be creative, less desire to desperately seek convenience, fortune, and fun. We had fun, for sure. But the fun looked different than it does today. Our fun consisted of teaching our siblings to ride a bike on a squelching hot July day, and scobbing our knees in the process. It looked like drinking out of the water hose because we were having too much fun outside inventing games to take the time to go inside and get a drink from the faucet. Besides, it was the same water anyway. Only difference was one might accidentally end up with a cricket in their mouth.
A delightful Saturday afternoon meant packing a sandwich and chips, riding with Grandpa up in the hills to cut down a cord of firewood. Maybe riding our horse. Camping outside in the front yard and falling asleep to twinkling stars in the heavens. Butchering chickens with Grandma (gross, but we had fun anyway). Or my favorite: freezing corn or canning strawberry jam with Grandma.
Sunday was always church. Twice.
Fun these days seems to be lots of travel, carnivals, bumper cars, races … anything fast. The more adrenaline getting pumped into your system, the better. The more expensive the fun, the better. And I guess I’m just wondering what happened to simple fun. Does anyone know how to sit on the back porch with a glass of lemonade and watch the sun go down (not on an iPhone)? Does anyone know how to sit quietly, with or without a book, and just think? Does anyone know that an activity that allows one to decompress can be the funnest type of fun there is?
And food. Crikey, don’t get me started on food. I admit I have a unique perspective here, because with my stomach condition, I’ve only been able to eat three foods (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) for well over a decade. The rest I get fed intravenously, as much as I can afford. (Did you know you can’t put folate through an IV? Can’t get folate by mouth? Oh well. Guess you’re gonna feel like garbage.) Anyway. Seems to me that variety, spice, and quality of food has become a god in America. Water, too. We’re all water snobs. Drink out of a faucet? Dear God, would I live through it???
These “must haves” create more things to do, see. Because if our meals have to be, in essence, perfectly balanced and out of this world delicious every meal, not to mention organic, and if water has to be bottled directly from a supposedly sparkling clean stream in Switzerland, then we must shop. And shop. And shop some more. Not to mention haul fifty-seven cases of water in once every three months. If you live where I do, that takes a ridiculous amount of time and driving and energy, because to get things at a decent price, you have to go to a different town. Yeah, I could go down the road, if I wanted to pay double. But, hello. I am white trash and go to Wal-Mart, okay? It’s just the way the budget works.See how I complain about having to go purchase food? The Cotton Tenants would think I was bizarre, spoiled, and ungrateful. In some ways, they’re right. Oh, how they’d love to “have to” go purchase food and water! But though their life was a life much more difficult than I’d ever want to live, I envy them in some ways, because their possessions and general lifestyles didn’t reflect what so many Americans’ lifestyles reflect these days. That is, frivolity and freneticism.
And we wonder why there’s so much depression and anxiety in today’s world. Fantastic food, fast fun, and the monumental funds required to “have it all” does not equal happiness. The American Dream is a bit of a farce. We all want to pursue happiness, but too often we do so by chasing the almighty dollar, and frankly, that’s stressful. And too much stress equals either depression or anxiety, depending on your disposition, personality, and physical makeup.
Where, then, is true happiness found? I think it’s found in gratefulness, combined with intentional simplicity and healthy relationships with God, family, and friends. You shouldn’t believe my Facebook when it says I have five-hundred and some friends. I don’t. I have a few good friends, and five hundred and some other people who I’ve met at one time who happen to keep up with me on social media. Or maybe they don’t. Five hundred and ten of them may hide me from their timeline. How would I ever know?
In no way am I saying the Cotton Tenants had it better than we do. They lacked the basics: food, water, clothing, and medical care. But the question I ask is: where do we stop? How much is enough? I see Americans running themselves into the ground with their pursuit of happiness, and all in all, I think it’s safe to say the lot of us are struggling to smile with any genuineness. We’re tired, stressed, anxious, depressed, and we have bottles of pills to prove it.
One more point, and I will stop bursting everyone’s fun bubbles. The Cotton Tenant’s children? Life didn’t revolve around them. That’s the other thing I believe we are getting wrong in today’s society. It’s all about the kids. In 1936, parents worked and children helped however they could, while going to school as often as they could. Our ten month school calendar came about due to agrarian needs. Not soccer, baseball, basketball, and vacation needs. Are our children better off thinking and living as though the world revolves around them? Perhaps the number of school shootings and suicides speak for themselves, at least in some sense. Deadbeat parents are also a factor, as well as lack of respect and acknowledgment of God.
Clearly, it’s possible I am in a place in my own life where some change is needed. Mainly one that includes downsizing and anything else that would encourage simplicity. Hence the irritation and general curmudgeon-ness. But can I get one or two amens? Seems to me that the lot of us are running around like headless chickens with goofy, insincere smiles for fear of seeming not well put together, struggling, or weak. And I wish we could can that crap. The Cotton Tenants didn’t pretend. They were what they were. Who they were. They lacked funds to be anything but what and who they were. It’s hard to hide missing teeth and a three month grime buildup on a body. So I’m just thinking if we dropped the facade so easily concealed with finances and “fun”, we could get to the bottom of some of our social woes.
Just a thought.
I’m thankful the Gospel is simple. When life gets painfully complicated, I always remind myself that Jesus made the Gospel message so simple that even a very young child can understand it. In rough waters, it’s an anchor. I’ve been praying lately that however hard my physical problems get, and however hard life gets, that I would echo John Newton when he said this:
Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.
Newton said those words while suffering from dementia. I do not have dementia, but I have some terrific brain fog most days, along with persistent headaches and forgetfulness. Hence the need for a more simplistic way of life, perhaps. But however complicated and hectic life gets, my one goal simply boils down to being able to echo Newton. Writing this blog has helped me remember that goal, and I appreciate you wading through it to hear me out (provided you’re still awake).
Having said that, I still say we should bring back simplicity … even if it means we are financially poorer, and God forbid, a bit bored.