Simple things, done beautifully

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about my rekindled romance with ice skating. Me + skating was full of what a friend of mine calls “new relationship energy.” I was positively giddy with possibility, and it felt amazing.


Those first-stage-of-love endorphins have died down, and a part of me was relieved to take a break from skating when we left to spend the summer in Louisiana. I hadn’t been able to skate consistently for several months, and my progress had stalled. I wasn’t sure about what kind of skater I wanted to be, and I was struggling with all the beliefs I’ve internalized about productivity and how they rubbed up against the time I was taking to do an activity that I saw as being primarily about my own enjoyment. I just wasn’t sure where I wanted the relationship to go, to the point that I was wondering if I even wanted to continue it.

Still, I returned to the ice in mid-August. The first few times were rough! I loved seeing people I’d missed, but I’d lost strength. I’d lost moves I previously had. I’d lost stamina. I made myself stay for an hour, but after only 20 minutes what I really wanted was to go home.

What a gift. For all that I know–truly!–that many of my feelings about productivity and time stem from problematic socialization, I have a really hard time doing something that’s just for me, just because I want to. The quick deterioration of balance, strength and stamina, despite a summer of hard, physical work, helped me see that skating isn’t just fun for me; it is a way for me to maintain physical functioning as I age. Because I’ve become part of a community of skaters, it also provides the mental health benefits that come from connection and belonging. It ticks off two of the seven keys to longevity that mark the lifestyles of those living in blue zones. I got off the ice my first day back more committed than I’d ever been to make space in my life for skating.

Committing to the relationship was only the first hurdle. I quickly realized that I still had to figure how to be in the relationship.

There are a lot of options for adult skaters–testing, competitions, clubs, classes, private lessons, etc. There are different kinds of skating a person might focus on–freestyle (jumps and spins), dance (solo or paired), moves in the field. I’d thought about and dabbled in different ways of skating since first returning to the ice. Exploring was good and I’m glad I tried on different goals and ways of being a skater, but my lack of a clear focus contributed to my feelings of ennui. Then, a long thread in an online forum this August full of older skaters talking about life-altering skating injuries gave me serious pause about my attempts to return to jumping and spinning. Did I really want to risk my ability to do all kinds of things I now take for granted just so I could do a waltz jump that was likely never going to look or feel the way it did 45 years ago? A few weeks ago, while talking about possible goals with another skater, I said, “I think I’d rather do simple things beautifully than hard or risky things I can barely get through.” As soon as I heard myself, I knew I’d figured it out, my new skating manifesto:

Simple things, done beautifully.

I want to be a strong skater. I want to skate with speed. I want to skate without fear. I want to skate gracefully. I can do all of those things if I’m skating simply.

At my next lesson, I shared this way of thinking about it with my coach. “You often say you don’t want to nit-pick,” I told him, “but I think I want you to nit-pick. I don’t want to just execute a move. I want to master it.” He took me back to working on basics.

I then had one of the best lessons I’ve ever had. Focusing on moving beautifully broke through a block in understanding I’d had about doing crossovers, one of the simplest moves there is. I was able to do crossovers more powerfully than I had previously, and with less fear.

That felt so good, I started thinking about how it might be to do other simple things beautifully. I followed Kate Lebo’s process for making chicken pot pie, one night roasting a chicken and making gravy, and the next roasting vegetables (using herbs from our garden) and making pie crust. The third night I put all the parts together into a pie, and it was pretty amazing. Pot pie is one of the simplest dishes there is, and Lebo showed me how to make it beautifully. Now, I’m wondering how I might apply this way of thinking and being to everything–to my relationships, to work, to writing, to making a home.

I’ve been thinking particularly about how this idea can serve me within the context of aging. My return to skating has, like nothing else, made concrete the disconcerting abstraction that my body is going to deteriorate (if I’m lucky) before it dies. I know in new ways that the longer I live, the more I will lose of the physical being I once was. Losing things is hard. It has been hard to accept lost abilities that will never return. It has been hard to lose my youthful conviction that if I just work hard enough, my body can do whatever I want it to. I know that confronting such kinds of loss this late in life is a sign of my good fortune. I’m grateful for it, but loss is still loss. I think, perhaps, that one way to find peace with it all is to think about how to do fewer things more beautifully.

Doing simple things beautifully wasn’t always an option when I was younger and in the thick of parenting and teaching, because doing things more beautifully doesn’t necessarily mean doing them more easily. I lived those years in survival mode, getting done what I had to get done in whatever ways I could manage. My life was complicated, and it was often far from beautiful. Chicken pot pie from scratch for a weeknight dinner was not something I had any capacity for.

But, now I do, at least some of the time. Again, what a gift.

It is nice, in this stage of life that can be so marked by loss, to find things we might gain. I love the paradox of gaining by letting go, of expanding what’s possible by lessening our expectations. In my first identity as a skater, I was someone who advanced quickly. I was “a natural.” My coach would show me how to do something, and I could just do it. Big goals were in the realm of possibility. I have had to let go of that identity. I am not that skater now. I’m never going to land (much less attempt) a double salchow again, and it takes me much longer to improve when learning something new, but a strong, sweeping, beautiful, simple swing roll, for example, is definitely within reach.

Isn’t that a gift, too, to be be able to find paths to growth, even as we become, in some ways, diminished? I think it is, and I’ll take it–to my garden, to my friendships, to my home, and even to my writing here.

I would love to hear how any of these thoughts land on you, and of how you do simple things beautifully.

(Tomatoes picked yesterday from our simple garden. We grow only tomatoes, a few herbs, blueberries, and raspberries.)

10 thoughts on “Simple things, done beautifully

  1. Marian says:

    This post has brought to mind the word “competency,” and I’m now thinking again of a conversation I recently had with a friend about lost domestic skills and the satisfaction that one can get by learning (or re-learning) some of those skills and becoming competent in them—or, as you’ve put it, by doing simple things beautifully. The two of us decided that the satisfaction gained by feeling competent in doing these often inconvenient and/or time-consuming things could perhaps boost a person’s self-esteem and improve their mental health. The two things you’ve talked about here—the skating and the chicken-pot-pie making—are quite different, one athletic and one domestic, but I like that you’re thinking about them in the same way and giving importance to both (especially given that society usually values only the former).

    I find the older I get, the simpler I want things to be. Next year’s vegetable garden, for example, will include only those things I know I can grow well: tomatoes, kale, and cucumbers.

    • Rita says:

      Cooking is a domestic skill I’ve never had much competence in, and it is very satisfying, indeed, to be gaining some. So, yes, I can personally attest to the benefits of gaining such skills. I think I see a difference between being competent and doing something beautifully. My competent scrambled eggs are nothing special; some eggs, cooked into chunks that are neither too dry nor too mushy. But when I do them beautifully, they are seasoned well, and perhaps garnished with fresh herbs, and I notice what’s right about them more than that they lack flaws.

      I am with you on wanting things simpler as I get older. I’d much rather have a simple, perfect thing than a fancy something that’s just OK. And I’m with you on the gardening, too. I used to have dreams of a big garden that would feed us all summer long, but that’s too complicated for me to figure out/do. I love our tomatoes and herbs, though. Also very satisfying. 🙂

  2. Ally Bean says:

    A great topic but I don’t know if I have an immediate answer other than to say that when doing anything I consciously say to myself: “how can I make this ______ simpler?” It comes from having this house built then remodeled. I learned that complexity is part of all endeavors but once you squeeze the stuffing out of it, so to speak, what you’re left with is simplicity… and whatever that is I’d describe as beautiful.

    • Rita says:

      I didn’t know that you built your house! I did once have the experience of having a lot of say in the original build and then, 15 years later, being the renovator who sometimes cursed the original owner’s decisions. I would love to know more about how that has been for you.

      I’m also wondering…do you think that are simple things are beautiful because simplicity is inherently beautiful?

      • Ally Bean says:

        The process and experience of having a house built is like no other. The things you both don’t care about happen without problem, but the things you both have BIG opinions about are the stumbling blocks. Someone has to give. Then to renovate the house later is revisiting those BIG opinions. Zen-Den got the front door the way he wanted, I got the deck the way I wanted.

        I think simplicity is inherently beautiful. But I also think you have to look for the simplicity in things, it doesn’t necessarily jump out at you every time.

        • Rita says:

          In the early 90’s, my then-husband and I were able to participate a great deal in the building of our house. I knew nothing about houses. In the late 00’s, we divorced and I got that house. Hoo-boy, were there some decisions I would have made differently! I’m glad you two both got to have what you wanted. Eventually. 🙂

  3. Kari says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately. Seeing Mike go through this convalescence has made me consider moving to a house with no stairs. It’s changed the way I see my husband. He’d never looked so fragile before.

    That pot pie reminds me of the pot pie I made last winter. I can’t thank you enough for reminding me, so pot pie will be made this weekend. Something to look forward to.😘❤️

    • Rita says:

      I knew the challenges of your experience with Mike’s injury had to be about more than disrupted schedules/routines (not to minimize those, but). I’m sorry it’s been so unsettling in multiple ways. I understand the thinking about single-story homes for people as we age, but there’s also a flip-side: Walking up and down stairs is good for you. Helps keep us functional. Stasis never lasts for very long, does it?

      Enjoy the pot pie! I’m glad it’s time for fall/winter food again.

  4. Tom Florette says:

    Rita, I identify with your skating experiences. Growing up I played hockey a lot in Buffalo. Then I moved away to pursue a career and ended up in a place where ice skating is not so commonplace: Daytona Beach. Many years later I decided that I wanted to get back on the ice to show my kids the joy of skating. I found that I was not as agile as I used to be, but that did not stop me! There is something so freeing about skating for me. Thanks for sharing your story.

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