Wednesday, March 24, 2010

essential (noun)

wheat flour, water, salt., 2010

They walked up the road together to the old man's shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Do you ever think about what you would own if you kept only your essentials? Only the basic, indispensable, and necessary elements of your life? It is something I think of often.

I'm not a very religious person, but I once spent several days in an Italian monastery. I traveled alone. My spare room housed a single bed, writing desk, and one window looking out onto a courtyard. The courtyard was a clean open space with a few large terracotta flower pots. I believe those pots held red geraniums. It was one of the most beautiful spaces I've spent time.

Days were quiet. While I was there I only met three English speaking individuals, one nun and two retired physics professors. It did not matter. This was not a place for idle chatter. It was a place for contemplation. The monastery was located in the mountains and I hiked every day. What to eat? never crossed my mind. Our two meals per day were served in a large dining hall during set times and we were not involved in menu planning.

Each morning a staff member would circulate around the breakfast tables with one pitcher of hot coffee and and another with rich steamed milk. We drank red wine with dinner each evening. For dessert we passed bowls of fresh whole fruit.

Following dinner, most of us leisurely strolled the grounds before contentedly retiring to our rooms. After 9:00 pm we were to remain in our rooms, respectfully quiet.

The monastery had a small shop that sold postcards, rosaries, and locally made hazelnut chocolate bars, you know, the essentials. I treasured each night, sitting propped up in bed reading, writing postcards, and eating chocolate, taking breaks every so often to look up from my book and appreciate the moment.


  1. that story took me back to my travels in Italy nearly 20 years ago now.
    Funny, I've been thinking of what is essential in my life and what can be jettisoned off.

  2. sounds like some of my fond memories of living in a monastery in switzerland...

  3. I too have thought of what is essential. Your experience sounds so wonderful and peaceful...actually quite amazing. I loved all the special details you shared.

  4. Wow, that sounds like an incredible experience. I spent a month in Spain doing a house exchange and the only book the family had in their home was The Old Man and the Sea. I must have read the story four or five times while I was there. Hmm, I had forgotten about how those words were my companions there, and now will re-read it as soon as I can.

  5. Wow, what an amazing experience. Working on getting rid of the "stuff" and trying to get my boys to appreciate the little things. It's a tough go in today's world.

  6. I have always had such an attachment to my things. I have a lot of things. Since I met Mr. Yonder it has been easier to get rid of things. Probably because he is such a tidy person and wants lots of space. After Astrid was born my things seems less important. I still have some miles to go before I'm down the only a few essentials...but I'm getting closer.

  7. it sounds perfect really. i always want to downsize but somehow i realize that we continue to bring more into our home. hoping a big spring clean will eliminate some of the clutter. thanks for the post. such a joy to read and think about.

  8. I only need the people I hold most dear.

  9. Mmn hazelnut chocolate. Sounds like a wonderful get-away from the world. I'd like to experience something like that. I hope you have been able to keep that feeling with you.

  10. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. It's true that we usually surround ourselves with so many things that it just clutters our minds. What a great reminder!

  11. i read this post about ten times and i think i'll read it at least 6 more. such simplicity seems me.

  12. Thanks for sharing your experience Denise. Simple pleasures, gratitude, time to reflect and appreciate the basics. Wouldn't it be lovely if everyone in the world did this. As a family we certainly try to be environmental with 'things' and only use the basics, however our lives are still too fast paced.

  13. oh denise! thank you. it was so beautiful read of this.

  14. Just reading this is calming. The only clutter I want in my life is people. I love my home and the things in it, not because they are intrinisically valuable but because in one way or another they make us and the people who come here feel welcomed, calmed, loved. A warm blanket, a bowl of fruit, a generous glass, a beautiful plate, a fire in the grate.

  15. What a beautiful scarf pattern you found! I am printing it off as we speak. You can totally do it too! Lace is not the enemy! :) Good Luck!

  16. I can't even tell you how many times you have told me this story.

    Each time you tell it I know you get to relive it. Each time you tell it I get to imagine that I had been there with you.

    But that would be a different story.


  17. wow that sounds incredible. what a great treat to have time to enjoy and reflect without all the clutter. Love the old man and the sea - one of my favourite books!

  18. Oh, Denise... Your words and then Chris'... You both have made me a bit teary this morning...

    I've been really thinking lately about what it is that I really need... and what its is that my family really needs.

    That's all, I guess. Maybe we need to go camping for a few days. Be with the wild things and simplify. Similar to the monastery experience...

    much love,

  19. my daughter lived in ethiopia in 2006 in very spare circumstances, i visited and traveled for a month with her. the country and the people were beautiful and impoverished-it was a good lesson in living with less.
    and somewhat shocking to return to the states and all our stuff.

  20. that was a good good memory to read. thank you. I love that you remember the food so clearly, and perfect food at that. off to dream of italy now, good night!

  21. Wow, that sounds pretty amazing.
    I often feel completely cluttered and I find that feeling unnerving.
    But I must admit that at times I find great pleasure in filling my days observing strange objects.
    What a nice time that must've been...thanks for sharing with us.

  22. Christine--RHP, I hope it was a nice journey back in time.

    RW, Actually living in a monastery is far more interesting than my few days. I want to read your story. I'm sure those memories are fond.

    alexandria, Thank you. I've experienced a bit of information overload today and am back to thinking of this topic again.

    Tumbleweed Woman, What an interesting experience. I bet the characters in the book feel like old friends to you.

    Jane, If you are appreciating the little things and your boys are watching, I bet they'll get there. It might just take a little time.

    life in yonder, It's something I'm always working on. I still possess many silly sentimental belongings that I will never cast off. We don't want to get rid of it all, right?

    shari, Yes, spring cleaning. Somehow mine keeps getting delayed.

    Tracy, So wise. So true.

    Maija, It was the right time and place for that chocolate. I'm not sure if I'd love it as much if I had it right now, but then, it was perfection. Yes, I return to those feelings often.

    Roysie, Yes, I'm always reminding myself.

    counting dandelions, Wow, that is some compliment. I'm blushing.

    Through My Kitchen Window, Keeping a nice easy pace is difficult in our current culture. It really takes a lot of effort, but isn't it nice when we are able to get there and feel just right? Those moments are the best.

    the t time, Thank you!

    Lickedspoon, I think you have it exactly right. Your priorities are lined up perfectly.

    IslandFun21, I hope it turns out well. It is such a pretty pattern.

    chris, Are you trying to charm me? It's working.

    Elsa May (Annie), Yes, a wonderful trip and a wonderful book.

    Maria, That Chris... I know what you mean about considering what is needed. I'm always considering such things. Journeys into nature--camping, a hike, paddling a canoe--all very helpful. I hope you've had a little time with the wild things.

    Hungry Girl,

    nancy at goodfoodmatters, I'm sure that was an experience that made a huge impact on your life. Sometimes, busy in the day-to-day, it is easy to forget that there are so many ways to live a life. Our way is just one of many.

    elena gold, It is an especially clear memory. I believe it is so clear because I was alone and the environment was so spare and simple.

    abby try again, I'm right there with you. Sometimes the clutter is unnerving and sometimes I'm so lost in observation I don't even notice it. It depends on the day...

  23. Wow. That sounds amazing.
    The closest I've ever come to an experience like that was years ago when I stayed in a monastery converted into a hostel in Paris. Not quite the same thing, but I when I looked out over the courtyard, I could imagine what it must have been like years ago, when actual monks stayed there.

  24. You're making me want to re read Hemingway! I love how he uses verbs instead of adjectives...genius...completely different feel to his work! Too bad the genius ended in a drunken stupor...but alas such is life.

  25. giddykids, Yes...the drinking. Sad, but true.