I’m washed in a landscape painted from a palette of minimal colors: black, white, and dull blue. Shriveled memories of summer hang from bare branches and black slits of earth protrude through layers of snow. Parallel indents guide my skis forward. Other than the occasional chickadee I spot when I slow down enough to notice, it’s just me at this particular hour on this particular ski trail.
I’d traveled north from Seward to Palmer for a few days to reinvigorate my mind with new views and fresh tastes. At the literal end of the road, Seward in wintertime can sometimes feel suffocating in its monotony and lack of variety. Some days the town is like a snowglobe enclosed by gray skies and heavy atmospheric pressure. The amount of restaurants, cafes, and other sources of entertainment are already limited in a town of three thousand people, and in the winter that reduces significantly with the retreat of seasonal workers and the closure of many businesses.
On days when the sun shines and the snow sparkles in the moonlight, Seward is a pocket of heaven with its enormous views and endless wild terrain to wander. That’s especially true for those willing to accept the landscape’s endless invitations for exploration: snowshoeing and skiing mountain peaks, winter trail running, and cross-country skiing through fresh snow on frozen lakes. There’s an intimate relationship that exists between humans and the natural world here. Indeed, you could say the same for all places, but in Alaska the link is even less concealed by the influence of modernity.
On days when invitations for exploration are less appealing or absent altogether, Seward can disintegrate into a dreary mixture of grays and dull blues that warp the mind with its humdrum of colors, faces, and things to do on a Tuesday afternoon as the rain wets the earth. My mom spent her childhood in Seward and spoke often of those days when I was young and hadn’t yet visited Alaska. Seward was just a dead-end fishing town in the years before tourists snagged their line on all it has to offer.
But what many visitors and seasonal workers miss is what I’ve come to find enchanting about Alaska: the serenity and stagnant nature of the winter season. For those who see it through and pause long enough to wonder, there are lessons on the wisdom of simplicity written against the gray backdrop of clouds and sky.
Under the palette of gray colors, my skis move in rhythmic back and forth motions as my mind meanders to a thought of a woman I met the night before. A frantic waitress danced between customers on the upper floor of the Palmer Alehouse where live music played.
“Can I sit here?” she asked, motioning at my table for six with five seats empty.
“What was that?” I asked, not hearing her fully.
“Do you mind if I sit here? I don’t want to encroach on anyone’s space or anything,” she said, seeming to carry some anxiety over from the six-foot social distancing rule of the pandemic.
“Oh, yeah, of course,” I said. “It’s just me here.”
She smiled and pulled a seat from the table. At first, quiet presence hung in the air between us. Then, as it goes, she began to offer still shot glimpses from the film of her life: Lives in West Virginia. Son in school at Fairbanks. Feels at peace in Alaska; not so much in the east. Wants to buy land. Looking while here. Has a wife; will not be moving with her. She’s concerned about boring me. Am I bored? I don’t think so. She shares a poem she wrote about birds and love and being free. Does it make sense? She asks. Not really, I don’t say out loud. It sounds complex and not yet combed through.
“What makes you feel at peace in Alaska?” I asked.
She paused for a moment.
“I have the space to be curious out here,” she said. “I can see tracks and hear sounds and tune in. I can lay in the snow and meditate.” I can access simplicity in the midst of chaos, I heard her say in the unspoken spaces between her words.
I nodded in agreement. I, too, had experienced that same pull to Alaska, and to wild spaces in particular with their absence of the clutter of modern living: twenty-four hour news streams, endless notifications clinging for one’s attention, advertisers’ consistent endorsement of consumption, and the other day-to-day demands of modern life that lead to a life of complexity.
The concept of simplicity and its wise lessons felt near to the surface of my mind. With greater clarity I was seeing my tendency to keep my life productive and my mind endlessly occupied with ideas of new (and time consuming) projects I could theoretically take on: books to write, businesses to start, brands to design. I sometimes notice myself running on a mental hamster wheel toward an unclear end, playing the hustle game and adopting its work-till-you-achieve mentality. Urges to produce and achieve sprout from fear of inadequacy, and my mind works ‘round the clock to solve a seemingly insoluble equation of success. The constant exertion for results creates knots in my life from the loose ends of mere existence.
While in Palmer I spent my couple days mostly wandering to different cafes where I sat and read a book about the Japanese philosophy wabi sabi. Its teachings, rooted in Zen Buddhism, honor imperfection, impermanence, and simplicity as the natural state of things in the world. Through the lens of wabi sabi, spiritual richness is experienced by detaching from the vanity of materialism and by embracing the beauty of things as they are, especially in their imperfection and decay. Wabi sabi acknowledges that simplicity is the antidote to a life that’s complex and driven by pursuit of perfection.
In the slow and simple nature of life we have the space to be curious about the world—to see tracks, hear sounds, and tune in. It’s through curiosity that life becomes a playground of joyful discovery rather than a race toward attainment. In the spaciousness of simplicity there is opportunity to observe, reflect, and wonder—all of which allow us to engage with the world with presence and appreciation.
The western mindset tends to approach the question of happiness by adding things to the equation: more square footage, more technology, more followers, more accomplishments, moremoremore without an end. But simplicity is the practice of subtraction.
It’s the process of trimming away the inessentials until, like washing gravel in a pan to separate dirt from gold while gold panning, what’s left are the purest and most valued components of life. Simplicity encourages us to observe ourselves and our lives and ask the question “what can I remove?” and not “what can I add?” Like a sculpture, it’s the removal of excess that reveals a work of art. In carving away all the things that don’t directly contribute to our quality of life, we discover all that makes our lives a masterpiece.
This is where I pause to acknowledge the unspoken apprehension that often accompanies a life lived simply. Winters in Alaska seem to strip life and the environment down to the bare minimum. Some days it feels unsettling rather than cleansing. On those dreary winter days in Seward when businesses are closed and the world feels confined, there’s a peculiar undertone of emptiness that’s similar to a feeling I sometimes sense in the concept of simplicity. I see it in others’ reactions to a minimalist life, too. There's anxiety attached to the idea of letting go, and fear arises in the presence of scarcity–even when what’s scarce is not vital, like rolls of toilet paper that disappeared from shelves during the pandemic. We tend to cling to excess when we sense the threat of lack. It’s why we pay monthly fees to hold our excess things in storage units, rely on food for emotional support, impulse shop online, and cling to other things and people in the face of loss.
In a way, simplicity and its philosophy of subtraction is akin to emptiness; so much so that in the midst of a busy and consumption-driven culture, simplicity feels like hunger––and to be clear, hunger isn’t a state of existence to strive for. What I’ve come to realize instead is that many of us are indeed starving but from a lack of fulfillment, just as one who consumes empty calories (found in processed foods that contain little to no nutritional value) may have access to food but still be malnourished. Eating empty calories keeps the body deceptively full: the stomach is filled, but the body is deficient of nutrients. Similarly, hunger for life is the outcome of an absence of all that’s meaningful and nourishing while experiencing a constant desire to consume: more furniture, more clothing, more aspirations, more places to travel, and more of everything beyond what we actually need. Simplicity is not the process of detaching from what satisfies, but rather the process of removing all that’s not fulfillingfrom our lives.
Each slide of my ski slices its wispy pitch through the smooth silence of the air. Everything on this dull morning mirrors simplicity, even my own soul which, lately, has yearned to shed the nonessential like leaves from a tree in autumn: to cancel the things I don’t truly want to do, to spend time with people I care for the most, and to strip away all the things that keep me from devoting time to the most nourishing parts of my life.
The woman at the Alehouse continued to linger in my mind as well. Her life seemed to be in the shape of a big question mark as she sought the unanswered questions present at this point in her life. It brought to mind all of us who have had to bushwack through a jungle of uncertainty during the pandemic. The last two years have turned many of our periods into question marks on the pages of our lives: what’s happening now, what will happen next, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what’s false, where the path of humanity is headed, and what direction our new lives are pointing. The questions have tangled themselves into knots from the threads of certainty that once held many of our lives together like tightly woven fabric.
I release the thoughts and unknowns as I look forward into the sky and the clean outlines of white mountains before me. Out here–in the quiet and curious spaces of winter where the world exists in three colors–the simple wisdoms of life reveal themselves like black rock through layers of white.
In the white and gray morning, the lessons are clear: true nourishment is to be discovered in the few but vital necessities of our lives, and somewhere within our biggest unknowns there runs a simple thread of truth.
Eventually, our unsolved and convoluted equations of whatwhenhowwhy reduce themselves to their simplest forms. With time, especially if we are brave enough to remove ourselves from the unnecessary complexities of society, life’s clean and sharp edges of meaning will protrude from the melting of everything that’s not, and like arrows they’ll point the way.
“Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices: to let things be. Even at the most austere level of material existence, we still live in a world of things. Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things.”– Leonard Koren
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INK & SOUL | E-NEWSLETTER FOR THE SEEKER OF MEANINGFUL THOUGHTS