Sarah Ban Breathnach Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe
To have the joy of reading a revised edition of Simple Abundance for the women we are today was, for me, enough to bring a deep sense of pleasure to the end of 2019, but to be invited to ask Sarah Ban Breathnach all the questions I had as I devoured the new book, the kind of honour I could only have imagined when I sat down to create BrocanteHome fifteen years ago, wholly inspired by a woman who had already changed the course of my life with a book that spoke so completely to my heart.
Today I am thrilled to share that interview with you, in the hope that Sarah’s answers to my questions will further add to the bliss of us all being able to enjoy Simple Abundance all over again, and that my questions are those that you too might have asked her were you able to…
I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are so very grateful to her.
A. Sarah, one of the first things that really struck a chord with me as I began the book was how eloquently you defined what we woman are experiencing daily in terms of the sheer overwhelming nature of the demands on our time and sense of self in the twenty-five years since you wrote Simple Abundance and how very willing we have been to accept our way of life now as the “new normal” when as you so rightly point out, there is nothing “normal” about having our very souls torn apart by the endless expectations and obligations of modern life. To what degree do you yearn for who we used to be, or are you able to wholly align who we are now with what we must now do to bring about a sense of simple abundance all over again?
S. There is always a danger to our sense of well-being when we linger too long in the past, no matter how idyllic it was or seems to have been in rear-view mirror of memory. And we all do this, especially when we have encountered a traumatic loss. I have always been moved by the
challenge of Lot’s wife in the Bible who was warned not to look back at her home as an angel guided her family out of danger and towards a future that was unknown. But Edith, as she is called in some Hebrew texts, did look back and she was turned into a pillar of salt. It is only
now that I understand the deeper meaning of a pillar of salt which was formed by her tears and her sorrow of what could have been, a love lost, a life gone awry or the death of a dream.
But yearning for what used can be a blessing if our wistfulness now be re-created or re-imagined. I always loved Emma Bridgewater Christmas crackers. I still do which is why I order every year. It’s a wondrous thing to realize our soul has been guarding the embers of passions past to be used as the rich potting soil for a new life.
A. When I think back to who I was when I first discovered Simple Abundance, I feel as though I have lost much of the innocence that I had then, not because of age, but due I think to the slings and arrows of the society we now live in, and as I read the new version I was astonished by how you were able to both acknowledge those of us who have been along for every moment of this twenty-five year journey, and those who might be discovering you for the first time. That you managed to write so beautifully without any element of the cynicism I think the fast moving arena of the internet now inspires in all of us, strikes me as quite the loveliest of all the gifts to be found in the new book. How did you balance speaking to who we used to be (with all the same intimacy of the most meaningful of conversations with a friend) with who we have become?
S. Yes, we all have lost our innocence and the moment or series of moments that change us forever, are very much like fairy tales. And by fairy tales, I’m talking about the original ones, the 17th century French cautionary tales meant to give us a head’s up. Simple Abundance is an intimate book. It’s really just a conversation between you and me as we meet on the page. And just like meeting up again with that old friend you haven’t seen in a while and suddenly you’re laughing or ending each other’s sentences, we can have that on the page. And then the lull in the conversation when we begin to talk more softly about “where” we are in our life today. While the circumstances surrounding each of us are personal our experiences as women are so profoundly universal that we become a composite echo of each other, which is very comforting to me.
A. Like all of us, I know that you have described, endured and survived much that challenges the very concept of “Simple Abundance”, but I wonder if, like it has been for me, it is a philosophy that has kept you sane in the most trying of times? That even when you were in the heady midst of both success and sadness, it was your understanding of what really matters, that in the words of Joan Didion, shored against your ruin?
S. Oh, yes, but it was really learning how the mystical power of Gratitude is only truly revealed when our hearts are broken and our dreams are dashed. But let me just say, this would not have been my choice of the spiritual curriculum! And so the only way that I’ve learn to defend myself against life’s losses is through the amazing graces of Simple Abundance. We start with Gratitude, giving thanks for all we have, especially what we have escaped. This is why I suggest my reader to just concentrate of Gratitude in the beginning and in two months, your inner life will not be the same. Simple Abundance is a very organic, creative, artisanal path. Gratitude fills you up, then Simplicity arrives and helps you pare down because the soul divests what you don’t need anymore. When Simplicity is ready to leave, Order arrives. I think Order is miraculous, primarily because I don’t have any right now.
A. At the end of each chapter, in among the much anticipated and dearly loved “Joyful Simplicities” are instructions for creating your own “Caution Closet” aided in part by the delicious company of Mrs. Miniver – a place to hold “everything we might need if forced to evacuate our homes quickly”. Do you think the world is not as safe as it used to be, or was the inclusion of the Caution Closet, simply recognition of the fact that we are all living in an age of rightful anxiety, and that by ritualizing the stocking of essentials in this way, we will find comfort in its organization?
S. Well, I live in California now. To deny the fire dangers, or earthquakes would be foolish. Rolling blackouts in fire prone areas are common now. Venice, Italy is underwater and I recently read a story about a lighthouse being moved because the coast it was to protect is disappearing. The Caution Closet is my way of being prepared. Does it hurt to have a digital and paper copy of my important papers? Of course not, and if you have ever known a woman whose life changed in an instant, they would never complain about being ready to evacuate. They would share how grateful they were that their loved ones, both human and animals were safe and having that precious memento or photograph. For me, the Caution Closet gives me a sense of control over circumstances of which I have no control. I recently took a CPR course, so if I was ever in a situation where someone needed help, I would know what to do. That’s what I’m encouraging all of us to do for ourselves, comfort sometimes looks like a can of cat food in the cupboard when the lights are out and an old-fashioned can-opener that doesn’t require electricity.
A. The publication of Simple Abundance and its enormous success must have changed your life in ways you could never have imagined, and I’m wondering to what degree that success changed you as a writer, and how difficult it was to re-write the book as a woman who must now be in possession of a different outlook on life to that which you may have possessed twenty-five years ago? How has gratitude shaped the woman you are today?
S. That’s a very interesting question. For me, writing has always been a refuge as much as a spiritual quest for answers to my soul’s questions. I write for one reader and try to always tell the truth about what I am experiencing in that moment of time. A very influential editor in my early career told me that if a writer is blocked, it’s because she’s not telling the truth. Whoa. So I’m always surprised when I read what I’ve written because I certainly didn’t have that awareness that’s now on the page when the writing began. My creative process has not wavered or changed if I was in a ‘successful’ season, as the world and balance in my checkbook declared it to be. But my wardrobe certainly benefited from those seasons.
But I believe I am a better, deeper, more readable writer from the years of experience. I’m also a re-writer. I can do 20 drafts on an essay. The words become musical note sand when something sings on the page, I know I’m done. I’m also a very disciplined writer. I wasn’t in the beginning; I’d wait until the Muse appeared like every young writer.But then newspaper deadlines taught me discipline very quickly or you were out of a job. So now I’m writing between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm, every day and the Muse knows where to find me. My books speak of the full journey of my soul, the happy and sad of it, as a way of sharing with other women this one message; you are not alone especially at the moment you believe you are. And of course, the truth, that this too shall pass. This doesn’t mean that you won’t emerge unscathed from your skirmishes with Life, but you will be transformed. And there are just some heartbreaks we will never get over because we are not meant to. We will get through it, but not over it.
Gratitude has been my lifeboat, my best friend and truth teller. I can see each night on the page if I have spent the day in the light or the dark. But the ritual of being thankful for the joy or losses of the day, keeps me tethered on the side of good.
A. In the same vein, I’m wondering what gifts age has brought you? As a reader I sense your wisdom has been even more finely tuned and I rather think, you are now in possession of the ability to read my mind and to unpick even the most tangled elements of the woman I now am in my late forties! Was age and the passing of the years in which you have experienced so much more of the muddle we call life, a blessing in the refining of your most precious messages?
This question made me laugh. I pray for wisdom, discernment and grace every day. For me, aging is a strange phenomenon. I feel it is a construct that society puts on us. Of course, we all had our initial turn at bat, but why is there the feeling that older women need to step back from life? I’m ready to hit the ball out of the park this time. Internally, I feel the same inside as when I was younger, writing the first version of Simple Abundance. My hopes and dreams, may have changed. The world around me has changed and I find that there are many days I am not camera ready or Instagram worthy. I also don’t believe I am alone in these feelings. We all become wise by understanding the decisions and choices we made or didn’t and at some point, the wisdom really does kick in.
I love this observation from the novelist Ellen Glasgow who wrote in the 1920s “In the past few years, I have made a thrilling discovery … that until one is over sixty, one can never really learn the secret of living. One can then begin to live, not simply with the intense part of oneself, but with one’s entire being.” That’s why I’ve created a new description of women—all of us—we’re Mid-Century Modern. Now that should end a lot of questions and start some thrilling conversations.
A. In your meditation for April 3rd, you tell us with much passion that authenticity is about growth, not re-invention and this was the whisper my soul so very much needed to hear. For aren’t we all so endlessly driven to believe that with this course or that diet we can become not the woman we were meant to be, but apparently someone else altogether?! How in these testing times are we to resist the pull of the new in and lean in to divine growth? What do you believe it takes for us to understand that we have deep work to do that cannot be aided by anything we can order online, another meaningless Facebook meme, or endless empty discussion in one of the myriad of communities we join in the hope that we will find our most authentic selves among the crowds?
S. Well, I gently try to coax my reader away from the computer screen and the constant social media mirage and that’s just what social media has become, a mirage and a circus funhouse with those frightening mirrors that distort our images and the result is that we’re distracted, bewildered, anxious, overwhelmed and emotionally overwrought by our culture’s accepted “New Normal.” Virtually every woman I know admits that she awakes already weary and on edge. We are living through extraordinary times, but there is nothing normal about what’s unfolding every day. And the only way to safeguard ourselves and those we love is by acknowledging that technology, while informative, must have its limits and we are the ones to set them.
A. And on October 12th you reflect on how for so many of us, we do not truly begin to live, to see joy, erect much needed boundaries or dare to be who we really are, until we are faced with the notion that life is not a given and that it can be taken slowly, as in the kind of cancer that stole a woman as wonderful as Gilda Radner, or as in my own lovely Mum’s case with no warning at all, via a heart attack. Is a sense of our own mortality something any one of us is capable of embracing and using as a force towards authenticity, or will our instinctive and protective sense that we are going to live forever, always stand between us and acting for ourselves in any meaningful way?
S. For me, when I am thinking about the inevitable ending of life, I hope I have been a blessing to my family and through my work. It is shocking to lose someone we love or admire, and it is a good thing sometimes that we don’t know when our days might end. That’s why it’s so vital to seize the moment, not just the day. How we are living each day, be it slaying the dragons or being the mother of dragons, is the gift we are given. Feeling passion, excitement and for me most importantly, peace of mind is where I find comfort. This is why daily rituals; reading an essay, having tea in a china cup, and leaving work at work, turning off the computer by 8 p.m. are the practices that are so powerful for me personally. But in my prayers I admit that there are so many dreams still waiting for their cue to become center stage, that I have to hope I live until I’m 100.
A. The breadth and accessibility of inspiration available to you while updating Simple Abundance must have felt overwhelming at times now that we have the internet at our disposal, and I as read and bookmarked a multitude of things I wanted to do, read and consider, I wondered how you managed all the references, websites and quotes you have collated on each page of this lovely book. In my head I visualized you with a Commonplace book of your own, veritably stuffed with joy, and wonder if that is something you consider as the same blessing as a writer as I do as a reader?
S. Oh, how I wish for a Commonplace book. The truth is I love books and to read. I relish in the stories of women who have gone before and their heroic adventures. There is so much truth of life when we can see through another’s eyes and marvel at their journey. For the adventures of Women with a Past inspire me and I want to share their wisdom on the page and on the path. I hope that I have honored their journey by sharing their extraordinary passions with women of all ages. I have my writing saints and I always go back to them: Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Laurie Colwin, Mary Cantwell, Merle Shain, Julia Cameron. But here’s a writing quirk of my own. When I’m working on a new book which can take several years, but in this case only one, I don’t read any contemporary fiction and only non-fiction that I need as research. I guard my imagination and my voice, which took me decades to define and hear by not listening to other writers.
A. When you sat down to consider the re-writing of a book so many of us hold so very dear, and indeed consider a manual for life of sorts, did you feel at all frightened that you would be unpicking something we have as an audience become rather possessive of (as only the readers of truly important books become) or were you completely confident of the gentle shift in your message, this place and time necessitates? Was it scary or were you sure that now was the right time to speak to all our hearts all over again?
S. Well, the truth is I thought the project would be straightforward. For several years I’ve been receiving messages from younger women—Generation X and Millenials—who wondered if I could update Simple Abundance for contemporary women. I thought it would really be about refreshing the Joyful Simplicities. But when I started and got in there, it was like redoing an old house—the painting will come after we’ve shored up the foundation. I call this the “Need to Know” factor.
Ha! That’s how the Great Creator gets me all the time. There was an inspirational scrim pulled over me until I’m well into the project. Simple Abundance: 365 Days to a Balanced and Joyful Life was a marathon. I was on the tightest deadline I’ve ever known because I knew this book was needed and had to be out here now 2019. To do that I had to work flat out. At the same time, I’d moved into a new apartment, but there wasn’t time to open any of the boxes, so there was a path through brown cardboard from the kitchen to my bedroom which I shared with my computer! The bed and the computer are about 10 feet away from each other. It was a daunting task, but I approached it much like my readers. One day, one essay at a time. Of course, some days were harder than others, but I had no choice, I was in it now. When I write I always pray to get myself out of the way, show up every day and let the writing speak for itself.
A. One of the things I most appreciate about Simple Abundance is how very often you dare me to believe that there exists inside me so much more than I am currently giving myself credit. And I truly believe that the reading and re-reading of this edition will inspire another generation of woman to see that they do not have to conform to the Instagram perfect expectations of modern society and can instead embrace who they are, challenge themselves further to be the woman they are meant to be and expand their own horizons by not letting the dumbing down of women as a whole on the internet, become their reality. To what degree did your precious message to us all strike you as at odds with contemporary culture and how can we as women determined to excavate our true selves counteract the more insidious mores of a world that seems to want us to bleach the very life out of who we could be, simply in order to fit in?
S. I was compelled to write 21st Century Simple Abundance because of the intolerable dumbing down of women’s lives. The internet shows us the best and worse selves, but we are not that, in real life. I like to think of Instagram as a litmus test on how a friend might be doing, but a snapshot is not any of our truths. The danger is in distraction and going over the proverbial cliff with our emotions. We are fragile human beings and need to provide a buffer between the crazy attempts to fill 24 hours of time. You can’t search for your Authentic Self and get caught up in the scrolling and clicking of other people’s lives. Living by your own lights is just that. Turn on your Light first.
A. And finally are there favourite joyful simplicities you have incorporated into your own routines and rituals? Little somethings that shape your day and define your sense of home? How are we as women fair demented by busy-ness (even when it only exists in our own heads!) to make time for the joys that really could layer our life in simple abundance?
S. I am happy to say I have shared my joyful simplicities with you all. I start each day quietly in prayer and meditation, so my loved ones know to call me after 11 to discuss the real world. I brew a pot of tea, feed my beloved kitties. I have a playlist of music for different activities. I write to movie soundtracks. I won’t turn on the news until 5 pm. If I shared all my idiosyncrasies at this stage of my life, I would have earned the title of being eccentric. My Gratitude Journal is sacrosanct, I have learned to text because it is my daughter’s preferred mode of communication during her busy days. I love throw pillows and tea towels and vintage ribbons. I love just about anything British especially period movies. Last but certainly not least, my very favorite website for calming down is Brocante Home. I especially love your Puttery Treats. You have such imagination. Thank you, Alison May for all your love over the years to all of us. You are irreplaceable. Keep on, but nurture yourself first…
Make 2020 a Simply Abundant year by committing to a joyful life the Sarah Ban Breathnach way. Start your day by reading the Simply Abundant essay for the day in Simple Abundance, and end it by using The Simple Abundance Gratitude Journal to create a bedtime gratitude practise: for as Sarah says, after a few months of giving thanks for all that teaches us what matters: whether that be the teeny bliss’s, or the lessons that are sent to try us, you simply won’t be the same person.
*Please note this post contains affiliate links: this simply means that when you follow a product or book link and go on to make a purchase, I receive a percentage of the sale. In this way you support BrocanteHome and help me to keep it online for years to come. Thank-you so much.