Simplicity – an open letter to a friend

When photographer Ken Williams shared his photo gallery link with his friends, Cliff Bisch pondered what the concept of simplicity means to him as he viewed Ken’s eclectic images of rural America and living a simpler way of life, especially the photo triptych and blog post Pioneer School, Clark, WY.

Cliff wrote Ken a response that touched me so much, I asked Cliff if I could have his permission to share his thoughts with you. He kindly granted his wife permission.

Simplicity is a bit too hard to explain nowadays. Some of my favorite memories include laying down in 3-ft tall grass, throwing green oranges in the orange groves, the smell of fresh plowed dirt, digging tunnels in the dirt, and climbing in old pepper trees. It was all about the smells, even the smell of a campfire at a State Park campground when real wood was the fuel.

I do remember the smells of the classrooms, the gym, the sweaty gym clothes, the semi-warm milk cartons, the fresh mimeo machine prints in the morning; it’s the smells that really link out past, and the digital world has no smell. It wisks by at the stroke of a key. People are deleted from our lives, and likewise they have little lasting impact. They can be erased from the pictures, and replaced with a digital shrub.

My life is looking at this screen all day, every day. One keystroke and it is all gone. I have been longing for adventure in the real world. Sailing would be good, travel good in any form. But little stuff is OK, too. I really enjoy sharpening the blade on a hand plane so it cuts paper with no effort. Replacing a bearing so a motor does not howl. Adjusting a handlebar so that it is comfortable. Discovering how hard to hit a chisel so that the wood slices rather than tears. Finding new uses for tools that I never really understood.

Discomfort is not fearful.I like the morning mist on my face, rather than trying to fend it off. There is a certain reward in the rain soaking through my shirt. Getting uncomfortably chilled affirms that I was there to do that. The sore muscles are really a reward and proof of life. I am not wanting everything soft and perfect. True, a warm fire sure beats a dank room with a baseboard heater, but moisture sweating down the inside of the boat hull at night does not invalidate the slap of water on the hull and the echo of cormorants across the water at dawn.

Every wood has its own unique smell and taste. Birch and maple look remarkably similar, so the taste will tell them apart. Birch is Tinker Toys and Popsicle sticks that you used to chew on. Maple is dead and flat, without that marvelous twinkle in the flavor. Yellow cedar is intoxicating when you plane it; almost necessitating that you open the windows for the abundant sweetness. Real mahogany is as suffocating as a dust storm, though easy to work with and gorgeous when all tarted up.


Read more on L.E. Erickson about Ken E. Williams, Photographer.

A Handful of Clay

Many years ago, I spotted what looked to be a delightful vintage book buried under a stack of other retired books on a dusty shelf in the back of a used bookstore. It was The Blue Flower by Henry Van Dyke, published in 1902. The parable, A Handful of Clay, became one of my favorite stories; a story I have shared over the years with students. It is a beautiful story about pride, expectations, humility and the greatest of all treasures. While checking through files stored on miscellaneous CDs from years gone by, I came across my copy of A Handful of Clay, making it easy for me to share with you here. Perhaps it will touch your heart and become one of your favorite stories, too.

There was a handful of clay in the bank of a river. It was only common clay, coarse and heavy; but it had high thoughts of its own value, and wonderful dreams of the great place which it was to fill in the world when the time came for its virtues to be discovered.

Overhead, in the spring sunshine, the trees whispered together of the glory, which descended upon them when the delicate blossoms and leaves began to expand, and the forest glowed with fair, clear colours, as if the dust of thousands of rubies and emeralds were hanging, in soft clouds, above the earth.

The flowers, surprised with the joy of beauty, bent their heads to one another, as the wind caressed them, and said: “Sisters, how lovely you have become. You make the day bright.”

The river, glad of new strength and rejoicing in the unison of all its waters, murmured to the shores in music, telling of its release from icy fetters, its swift flight from the snow-clad mountains, and the mighty work to which it was hurrying–the wheels of many mills to be turned, and great ships to be floated to the sea.

Waiting blindly in its bed, the clay comforted itself with lofty hopes. “My time will come,” it said. “I was not made to be hidden forever. Glory and beauty and honour are coming to me in due season.”

One day the clay felt itself taken from the place where it had waited so long. A flat blade of iron passed beneath it, and lifted it, and tossed it into a cart with other lumps of clay, and it was carried far away, as it seemed, over a rough and stony road. But it was not afraid, nor discouraged, for it said to itself: “This is necessary. The path to glory is always rugged. Now I am on my way to play a great part in the world.”

But the hard journey was nothing compared with the tribulation and distress that came after it. The clay was put into a trough and mixed and beaten and stirred and trampled. It seemed almost unbearable. But there was consolation in the thought that something very fine and noble was certainly coming out of all this trouble. The clay felt sure that, if it could only wait long enough, a wonderful reward was in store for it.

Then it was put upon a swiftly turning wheel, and whirled around until it seemed as if it must fly into a thousand pieces. A strange power pressed it and moulded it, as it revolved, and through all the dizziness and pain it felt that it was taking a new form.

Then an unknown hand put it into an oven, and fires were kindled about it–fierce and penetrating–hotter than all the heats of summer that had ever brooded upon the bank of the river. But through all, the clay held itself together and endured its trials, in the confidence of a great future. “Surely,” it thought, “I am intended for something very splendid, since such pains are taken with me. Perhaps I am fashioned for the ornament of a temple, or a precious vase for the table of a king.”

At last the baking was finished. The clay was taken from the furnace and set down upon a board, in the cool air, under the blue sky. The tribulation was passed. The reward was at hand.

Close beside the board there was a pool of water, not very deep, nor very clear, but calm enough to reflect with impartial truth, every image that fell upon it. There, for the first time, as it was lifted from the board, the clay saw its new shape, the reward of all its patience and pain, the consummation of its hopes–a common flower-pot, straight and stiff, red and ugly. And then it felt that it was not destined for a king’s house, nor for a palace of art, because it was made without glory or beauty or honour; and it murmured against the unknown maker, saying, “Why hast thou made me thus?”

Many days it passed in sullen discontent. Then it was filled with earth, and something–it knew not what–but something rough and brown and dead-looking, was thrust into the middle of the earth and covered over. The clay rebelled at this new disgrace. “This is the worst of all that has happened to me, to be filled with dirt and rubbish. Surely I am a failure.”

But presently it was set in a greenhouse, where the sunlight fell warm upon it, and water was sprinkled over it, and day by day as it waited, a change began to come to it. Something was stirring within it–a new hope. Still it was ignorant, and knew not what the new hope meant.

One day the clay was lifted again from its place, and carried into a great church. Its dream was coming true after all. It had a fine part to play in the world. Glorious music flowed over it. It was surrounded with flowers. Still it could not understand. So it whispered to another vessel of clay, like itself, close beside it, “Why have they set me here? Why do all the people look toward us?” And the other vessel answered, “Do you not know? You are carrying a royal scepter of lilies. Their petals are white as snow, and the heart of them is like pure gold. The people look this way because the flower is the most wonderful in the world. And the root of it is in your heart.”

Then the clay was content, and silently thanked its maker, because, though an earthen vessel, it held so great a treasure.

A Child’s Home Library

Some of my lasting memories of childhood include some of the beautiful books I received as a young girl; some I still have and enjoy to this today. So, even before my children and later my grandchildren were born, I’ve collected children’s books for mine and their libraries, and present them as gifts on special occasions. I share my children’s picture book library collection with my 4 year old grandson and 1-1/2 year old granddaughter whenever they come to visit. They love books!

My daughter, Effie, saved her own books from childhood and began collecting vintage children’s stories during high school. After her daughter was born, Effie and her husband, Dirk, began reading to her right away. They continue to make trips to local second-hand shops and used bookstores such as Smith Family Books to find books ranging from the classic Dr. Seuss to newer developmental board books their child could handle and not damage.

They have also made it affordable to build a library by shopping online with They regularly buy books beyond their daughters developmental age that they read aloud while she’s snuggled in their laps and while she plays, to introduce her to the sounds and shapes of the broader world around her.

“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.” – Marilyn Jager Adams

Dirk & Sephira Reading

“Children are made readers on the lap of their parents.” – Emilie Buchwald

My daughter and son-in-law collected nearly 100 children’s books before their daughter was 1-1/2 years old. My granddaughter loves reading books more than any other activity. If she toddles off, you can be sure to find her in her room, picking books off her library shelves to read. Her first hand sign was “book”, and “book” was her first word, both at 8 months of age. At this rate, their going to need considerable shelf space to organize her books as she continues to grow.

Effie has organized their daughter’s books by putting all the large-format books on the bottom, for easy reach and handling. The next shelf up has all of her board books, Dr. Seuss and paper back picture books. The top shelf holds fragile, vintage books, so they are just out of reach for now. The other grandma gifted our granddaughter with a rocking chair… one of her favorite places to read.

One of the special books I gifted my granddaughter, and hope she treasures always, is the lovely picture poetry book All in a Day by award-winning author Cynthia Rylant. She takes it off her book shelf and brings it to me to read, nearly every time I visit.

About All In A Day

This lovely book illuminates all the possibilities a day offers’ the opportunities and chances that won’t ever come again, and also delivers a gentle message of good stewardship of our planet. Newbery Medal winner Cynthia Rylant’s poetic text, alongside Nikki McClure’s stunning, meticulously crafted cut-paper art, makes this picture book not only timeless but appealing to all ages, from one to one hundred. Abrams Books

Today’s blog post was inspired by A Children’s Librarian a Home, an article I read this morning about organizing a library at home for children. Susan’s suggestions are especially helpful for parents with older school age children with an eclectic mix of books to sort, organize and shelve.

Here is an excerpt:

“I spent a lot of time this weekend in the library, but I don’t mean the public library where I work. I was organizing my home library.

We’ve moved a couple of times, and every time the bookshelves get set up, I struggle with how to arrange the books. My children’s book collection has grown quite large and by now encompasses at least 5 bookcases.

This time when I shelved everything, I gave a great deal of thought to how my kids would use the library.” Read the full article.