Is it too early to start thinking about New Year’s Resolutions? It’s not something I usually get to until the holiday insanity is over and the next wave of media bombardment starts pushing gym memberships and Nutrisystem packages. Though I filter out most of the blah blah blah, I do get to thinking about how to best use this gift of a new year.
While procrastinating online a few days ago, I came across an article, “Five lessons learned from living in Paris.” I was struck by its epigraph, a quote from Hemingway’s letters, where he writes, “Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America.” Hemingway’s quote and this article on Jennifer L Scott’s new book,”Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris” are both indirectly about Americans’ hunger for beauty and grace in a commerce-driven culture that sometimes doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for either.
Two of Scott’s ‘lessons’ resonate with me as I reevaluate my life and habits at year’s end. First was her observation that “Parisians often turned mundane aspects of everyday life into something special.” She recalls how her host father made an event of savoring a bit of his favorite cheese every night at the end of dinner; it was just routine enjoyment of a cheese course, but he was so passionate about it that it became a special ritual whose memory Scott savored after she returned to American life. Meals tend to be something we rush through in the US, a pit-stop refueling on our way to getting done more of whatever it is we are always rushing to get done. It seems if we’re looking for anywhere in our lives to slow down and satisfy a spiritual hunger along with our physical hunger, mealtime is a worthy candidate.
She also comments on the European tendency to take more pride and care in one’s dress while at the same time owning fewer clothes and accessories than Americans tend to, which simplifies the process of making oneself presentable each day. This calls to mind web projects like Project 333, one of many movements today exploring the benefits of ‘voluntary simplicity.’ Owning fewer things doesn’t only save you money, it also frees you from having to care for and about heaps of stuff, so that you have more time and energy to indulge in things like Scott’s first point: really enjoying and being present for life’s smaller, even routine, pleasures.
OK, so none of this is anything new. Oceans of ink have already been spilled on these topics (sorry, Ms. Scott). And yet we still make New Year’s resolutions, and we still hunger and struggle, in all sorts of ways, to be better (whatever each of us decides that means), to improve the world around us. Which is why at New Year’s I find myself looking to accounts I’ve come across of people closer to home who decided to devote their year to some sort of radical reevaluation of the way we live (like a New Year’s Resolution on steroids), and the lessons they learned from it.
Two of my favorites in the ‘less is more’ genre are Judith Levine’s “Not Buying It: My Year without Shopping” (fairly self-explanatory) and Colin Beavan’s “No Impact Man” (which became a movie in 2009- he and his family sought to live (in NYC, for a whole year) in a way that made no environmental impact). For giving more consideration to the sacred place of food in our lives, I think of Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” her account of eating only in-season food produced by or close-by her Virginia mountain farm for one year. Two other works I might get to this year are A.J. Jacobs’ “The Year of Living Biblically”(in which Jacobs, an agnostic, tries to take literal direction from the Good Book and considers the place of the sacred in our lives) and Sara Bongiorni’s “A Year Without ‘Made in China’: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy“ (in which she walks the walk of the ‘Buy American’ talk).
While I don’t see myself devoting my year to anything requiring quite this level of discipline (baby steps!), it is inspiring to live vicariously through these authors and reflect on what they gained from their projects. They and their families forged meaningful new traditions and found a new sense of community that arises when one disconnects a bit from the mainstream economy (potlucks instead of takeout, preparing a fresh meal as a family instead of popping a frozen meal in the microwave, sharing communal resources instead of everyone needing to own and maintain their own whoziwhatsits). If you’ve got the money, it’s easy to escape to an exotic foreign locale to feed your need for beauty. But it’s possible if we take them more to heart, these authors’ efforts can challenge us to find a beauty in our own communities that can leave us all a little less hungry in America.