On December 30 I wrote a draft of this for myself. I was not going to post it. This changed my mind: The Joy of Quiet, published the same day in the New York Times

Today, 38 years too late, I grasped an important fact. I seem to be living on some sort of a different planet. I am here in body (more or less, depending) but somewhere else, in my soul.

I am on holiday - at home, but away. Blissful weather. The sun rose and shone and fell and rose and shone again, for days. Apricots and raspberries blushed and were eaten. I burned my neck, and tanned my nose - and am luxuriating now, in plentiful summer rain.

All day it has rained, quietly. When I woke in the night, it was pummelling on the roof and the porch and everywhere. Instead of dust, parched grass, leaves hanging like limp rags, there is new growth on the trees, dew in the morning, and silence - respite - from the killing wind that every other year has blown the solstice in and out.


Rhythm and rhyme in the morning. The pussycats and I take sun and fresh air on the porch. I wander out, pyjama-clad, to feed the chooks and pluck a fat handful of raspberries - sugar them, crush some, leave them to rest in their juice. I try a little 'yin yoga', my favourite practice, this, of all that I have tried. It is simple, and slow: not onward, to the next pose, but staying for a while, in this one.  

Later, breakfast. A scalding mug of excellent coffee, thick yoghurt, the raspberries.

Part of the day is gone. It does not matter. It has been clean, and simple, and quiet. I am very still inside.

It is the ultimate luxury of enough - enough money, food, space, time, gentle weather, physical health, solid ground under one’s feet - the important things, with which so few are blessed and even fewer seem to want.

I can think, in this space. I have slept, I have stretched, I am feeding myself. The night it rained, I’d dined on freshly dug boiled potatoes, butter, white pepper, salt. That is all, but I had dined.

On a whim, because I could, I spent Christmas at Pahaoa. I was alone, but less lonely than I ever feel in a crowd. I had skylarks for company, an empty beach upon which to walk barefoot, and I did, all afternoon. I wore no watch; I followed my heart and my feet where they led. Then I came home again.

That day was a gift. I was happier than I have ever been - at Christmas time certainly, but also, I was free, in a wild and beautiful place, the sun shone, and I did find joy and peace, goodwill, all that stuff, but not under the wilting Douglas fir.

The television is off. It would shout in the silence. There is not silence, there are birds, and Mary-Ann (the chook) complaining about stolen eggs out the back, and I live in town - it is peaceful though, all the same. I am rested. I am reading.

Alexander McCall Smith, former philosopher and lawyer, whose stock in trade is morals and values, writes simple, slightly silly stories - lately, the adventures of Oedipus Snark MP, the “only nasty Liberal Democrat”, who is arrogant and lazy and finds himself in the CERN Large Hadron Collider, having his atoms accidentally but satisfactorily rearranged. After, instead of selfishly using others, he thinks of their feelings.

This could never happen, in real life.

It could never happen, because the stories are always about this: everyone is civil in them (except Oedipus Snark). Everyone has or makes time to think before they act, to think of others, and perform small acts of kindness and care, with their meals, and in life.

Who among us has time to do this? These are imaginary morality tales.

And I am Tweeting poetry: one a day, for my former English teacher who, rather than trying to “teach” us poetry, would read us one at the start of each class, just for the love of it. That was 20 years ago, but I remember him, often, and always will - and so, here is a poem.

Remembering Ophelia, it is called. It is an odd, shy, awkward poem, but if you sit with it a while, it grows on you, until like Ophelia it is “almost ready to say hello”. I like it very much.

2011. A tumultuous year, in many ways. I learned some things, about people and myself, about what I want in my life and what I do not.

Spontaneous gestures of kindness and friendship and acknowledgement left me touched. They were small things, but they mattered, so much. I opened my heart. I took risks. I let myself be hugged, and something imperceptible changed.

So, in 2012, in whom and what will I invest?

  1. In simplicity, but quality, of life.
  2. Beauty - mostly, taking the time to notice it, for there is plenty of it about.
  3. More poetry in life - metaphorically, probably, but the real thing is also good.
  4. The contentment of good plain fresh food, that just tastes of itself.
  5. Well-written prose. Good journalism, less tele.
  6. Less noise, more tranquillity. If the silence must be broken, let it be by bird song.
  7. More hugs?

I will defend freedom, and wildness. I will follow the kindness, and try to practise it, imperfectly, myself.

And I know already that among the biggest challenges I will face in 2012 will be trying to hold on to any part of this, in 10 days’ time, and not see it broken and trampled all over by what the rest of the world calls life.

So this is my question now. When did simplicity become a luxury? Has it been ever thus, that you had to go away, and not be part of the world - the yogi on the mountain top, the cloistered nun - to grasp the truth of it?

Comments (16)

by Claire Browning on January 01, 2012
Claire Browning

Also, this: "don't get lonesome, stay glad, keep hoping machine running" ... Woody Guthrie's 1942 resolutions.

by XChequer on January 02, 2012

Nice article Claire. Was going to reply because your piece really hit home to me. Instead you actually spurred me into writing again. Thanks and have a happy New Year.

by XChequer on January 02, 2012

P.S More Woody - "Dream Good". I might nick that one for myself.

by Claire Browning on January 02, 2012
Claire Browning

Well. I am glad I posted it then. Thank you for sharing your post. I think Woody Guthrie was a dude. I decided this ... yesterday. After reading his resolutions.

by Claire Browning on January 02, 2012
Claire Browning

Oh - and you may like to know that there was another line in the first draft.

"Others have been less lucky," it said.

"If you live in Christchurch: <3".

by Viv Kerr on January 02, 2012
Viv Kerr

I would guess simplicity (if that means rest in a comfortable environment with few demands on one’s time) has always been a luxury.  To be alone with nature , to have time for reflection without having to think about other people’s needs  and not to have to compete or wait for the things you need to get by is a rare thing in any society now and in times past.

“It is the ultimate luxury of enough - enough money, food, space, time, gentle weather, physical health, solid ground under one’s feet - the important things, with which so few are blessed and even fewer seem to want”

You are correct when you say few are blessed, but I would disagree that ‘fewer seem to want’. That almost sounds snobby, suggesting that most other people are unable to recognise the important things in life. I’m sure you don’t mean to be. People trying to make ends meet, dealing with the demands of small children, caring for dependent relatives, cleaning up after floods or earthquake damage and so on would want the luxury of simplicity if they could have it.

2 years ago I was given the book “Voluntary Simplicity- the poetic alternative to consumer culture”   a collection of writings edited by Samuel Alexander, published by Stead & daughters ltd.  www.steadanddaughters.com    You may already know it, For those of use lucky enough to have choices about the way we live, I recommend it.

I enjoy reading your posts and I hope you can continue your essential and valuable work advocating for the natural world and that you can retain the feeling of peace and appreciation for the simple things that really matter when life gets busy in 2012.


by XChequer on January 02, 2012

Woody does have style and a wholesome grace.

Thanks re: the Chch thing. Was another rocky night but as the legs were complaining again, couldn't be bothered rolling out of bed as I'd only have to expend effort to get back in!

by Martin Wilson on January 02, 2012
Martin Wilson

Thank you, Claire. What you wrote is so important; so vital that we 'get' and experience  that essence of life that occurs most wonderfully in the quiet gaps between all our busyness and non presence. Where we simply Be ( present) ...... from which we show up as we Are - more joyful, peaceful, free, and connected - as opposed to who we think we are ( a crazy old mix of our conditioning ). 

PS: "More ( italicised ) hugs?". I am taking that is rhetorical. Yes, Claire, "More hugs!" :). The happiest New Year to you.

by XChequer on January 02, 2012

@ Viv


"suggesting that most other people are unable to recognise the important things in life."

Sure that may not pertain to you, Viv. However the fact that that Claire wrote the article, as well as Pico's that she linked to in the precept, shows a need to highlight what people seem to forget.

Bhuddist monks would, perhaps, say that they disagree with you - that we continually miss the important things in our busy western world. After all, that which is necessary is never un-wise. Therefore it can't really be snobby if people continually miss it.

I'm not defending Claire here - she is well capable of defending herself - however the fact that others read this piece and take something away from it surely proves your comment false.


@ Martin W


Nice comment :-)


by Claire Browning on January 02, 2012
Claire Browning

Viv, thanks so much for the book reference. For others who are interested, here's a review of it.

Poetry is mentioned in the sub-title [! - Ed]. This presumably echoes Thoreau’s use of the term poetic. For Thoreau,  as quoted in the book, the vocational dilemma was “how to make the getting of  our living poetic! If it is not poetic it is not life but death we get.”

Poetry! How about that?

Also Gandhi: "Live simply, so that others may simply live."

"That almost sounds snobby, suggesting that most other people are unable to recognise the important things in life. I’m sure you don’t mean to be. People trying to make ends meet, dealing with the demands of small children, caring for dependent relatives, cleaning up after floods or earthquake damage and so on would want the luxury of simplicity if they could have it."

Truly, "snobby" - or superior? - is the last thing I felt or meant. I am acutely aware that my life is ... emptier ... than most people's.

Some of this is about good fortune - luxury, as I said. You might say I'm just trying to find merit, any merit at all, in the rest of it!

But also, some of it is because I just literally do not function any other way.

My question was about society, not the people making their way as best as they can within it. But I also think that people's choices - when they're given a choice - do speak, and mostly I see people going for more, not less, always more and further and faster.

Which brings me back where I started. Yep, I could just ... go away. Somewhere. Get off the treadmill, if I can't keep up.

I may be clutching at straws here, but the NYT comforts me, a little. Not all alone with this after all. This is an actual thing, about us.

by Viv Kerr on January 03, 2012
Viv Kerr


My comment was not meant as an attack on Claire at all. Maybe I’m oversensitive to perceived suggestions that busy people are only busy with trivia and miss most of the important stuff.


@ Claire

You are right, our current culture is too focussed on more, more stuff, more celebrity news, more crap. Commercial TV & similar media push endless ads to encourage people to buy, buy, buy and then they end up stressed out, over worked and in debt, trapped on that treadmill.

We all end up in different places at different times in our lives, sometimes we will live with other people, sometimes we will live alone. The world you describe in your post is not empty, it is beautiful  and  peaceful.  I hope you don’t go away, we need you, we need your passion for the natural world, your articulate and informed writing and your help in trying to get more people to take a break from their TVs, computers and phones, to look around them and realise what ‘business is usual’ is doing to our world.


by Shaun on January 04, 2012

Claire,   you ask : "So this is my question now. When did simplicity become a luxury?"

The content of the article and your piece is addressed by a German philosopher Josef Pieper, author of Leisure: the basis of culture (1951).

He made the following statement which resembles this theme:

Leisure is essentially non-activity: it is a form of silence.  Leisure amounts to that precise way of being silent which is a prerequisite for listening in order to hear for only the listener is able to hear.  Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in reality; an openess of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of mental labour can ever achieve  (Leisure and its threefold opposition).    

To attempt an answer to the question:  The expectations for how people look and move are type of market force. Perhaps the general demand is predominently for the visual element (which is material, since it relates to the body), whereas thought and contemplation (which involve use of the mind), are immaterial and require more effort to break free from conditioned behaviour.  Consumer 'demand' is able to be further stimulated by commercial forces in society. 

The article appears to say that these forces are driving people to seek out opportunities for silence. Hoteliers offering TV-free rooms have realised there is a gap 'in the market'.  Pascal was right.  One version of his statement is The problem with western man is this.  He does not know how to be content in an empty room.  

In his book, Pieper felt strongly enough to express his desire that western society "regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity"  and substituted what he termed true leisure for "our hectic amusements", otherwise humans would "destroy our culture and ourselves" (front endpaper).

by David Savage on January 05, 2012
David Savage

Great article Claire, I shared widely on FB with great feedback from friends.

RE 'Simplicity' and enjoying those moments, I resonate with the Taoist thought where opposites define eachother, for example rough defines smooth, light defines dark ... and so perhaps we appreciate simplicity all the more after experiencing complexity, each holding their own intrinsic value, and we travelling from one to the other in cycles.

Very best for 2012!

by XChequer on January 05, 2012

Wow Shaun. Nice!

Everything I wanted to say but haven't read enough books to quote. As David says re: opposites defining, Pieper has had to have experienced the "hectic amusements" to appreciate the difference. And consider the swelling in volume of said amusements between Pieper's 1951 and 2011. Further consider what its doing to us as a species. How are we changing - not just socially but physically too?

For me, the salient point of Claires article was that she was alone - not connected on FB (there is a slight irony there David), not jacked in, plugged in or wired up. Remember how to be comfortable with oneself.

For me at least, environment is key. Sure, I can meditate to some degree but isolation does lend itself to a release of introspection and ego and an embracing of what the world offers us.

I like the fact that there are people willing to talk about such things - it gives me hope that we are not just the sum of our marketing, products of the adidas academy and scholars of brand awareness. But people who like being........ people. 

by Fleur Hirst on January 05, 2012
Fleur Hirst

It is beautiful, thank you for sharing your words with us Claire. I too luxuriate in summer rain!

by Judy Martin on January 12, 2012
Judy Martin

Still pondering your final question. I'm not sure if this is as far as you want to go, certainly not quite for me, but here is an example of simplicity raised to an art form


Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.