Sometimes a person has an effect on our lives long after they have gone their way and we have gone ours. A long, long, long time ago I was enamoured of a guy in New Mexico. He was beautiful, smart, and adventurous, and I was me, which is to say, pretty cute but terrified. Still I summoned up the courage (twice!) to visit him. The first time was filled with a chain of small and apparently trivial events that forever changed my life.

It was 1979. I was 27, just out of graduate school. Most of the people I knew were lawyers or on their way to becoming lawyers. I had been working in the development office of the University of Denver College of Law and then got a new job as a paralegal in a law firm that (literally) spawned David Gorsuch. His grandfather was a founding partner.

My friends were all about things. Fancy pasta making machines, elaborate camping equipment that took the camp out of camping, ergonomically designed leather furniture, Brookes Brothers Suits, the whole litany of “Holy shit I’m a successful lawyer now!!! I can have a two-bedroom apartment! Maybe even my own condo!”

As a divorcee living on the income of a secretary, I wasn’t living like that, obviously. One day one of the law students who was clerking at “our” firm said, “What’s with you? You think you’re going to come in here one day and be promoted to attorney?”

I signed up for the Law School Admission Test.

My journey to New Mexico had problems from the start — I awoke to find a flat tire on my car. I had to wait for stores to open so I could replace it. I got a  late start. A few miles after I crossed the New Mexico border, I got a speeding ticket that I more or less flirted my way out of. I had never taken a long road trip by myself and suffered a few sessions of paranoia. I had no music in my car (a ’70 VW bug) only a tape recorder with two tapes, one Donna Summer the other Jane Oliver. Shudder.

I arrived at an empty house where the man rented a room. He was trying to get into medical school at the time and taking organic chemistry. He was a mountaineer who would make an attempt on Everest (North Face, Mallory’s route) in a few years.

There was a note on the back door, “Martha, If you come: I’ll be right back. I’ve gone to the store for groceries.” I was so late, that he thought I wasn’t coming. Back then there were no cell phones and no way to say, “I’m on my way.”

Because I’m a writer, and because back then I hadn’t found my stories, I naturally wrote everything down as if it were fiction, making characters out of the man and myself. For the sake of making it SOMEWHAT fictional, I changed his name to Charlie. We are in Albuquerque. Something like small talk has been exchanged, information about the flat tire, and we are cooking dinner…


“Let’s cook dinner.” He opened the sack which contained cheese and two cans of tuna. He handed me the cans and told me to open them, but I, who had never thought of getting my tire repaired rather than replacing it, didn’t know how to use his can opener. I suppose he thought I was some kind of pansy who had used only electric can openers, but that wasn’t the case. My can opener was even more primitive than his.

“I don’t know how to use this.”

“You don’t?”

“No. I never used one like this.”

“Here.” He showed me opening one can. “Now you do it.”

I did it and drained the oil from the tuna into the sink.

“What are you doing with all that good oil?” he screamed. “You’re wasting it!”

“You cook,” I said, and he did, winding up with a tuna casserole we ate with carrot sticks. Then, it was over. Everything had been prepared, cooked and eaten from one stainless steel pot. I loved it. No Cuisinart for this man; no fancy pasta machine. Just one pot, two knives, two spoons.

“That’s great,” I said.


“That pot.”

“It’s all they use in Nepal, for everything. Cooking, eating, shopping. That’s what I learned there. You don’t need a lot of stuff. You shouldn’t have more stuff than you need because, one way or another, you just have to carry it around with you. The best thing is a thing you can use in a lot of different ways. So, this pot. I brought back two.” He washed it. “Come on. I have to do something. You can help.” We went into what had been planned as a dining room but was now a study. He sat down at the typewriter.

Next to the typewriter was a model of a molecule. I picked it up and said, “Benzene.”

“How did you know?”

“My husband — ex-husband — was a chemistry major.”

“You’re a writer,” he said, suddenly. “I’m trying to write my application for medical school. Maybe you can figure out a good way to say this.”

“OK.” It was the first time I’d heard that I was a writer. The idea was exciting.

“I need to explain why I want to be a doctor.”

“So why do you want to be a doctor? Maybe if you tell me, you can just write down what you say.”

“I don’t know. Inspiration? Inspiration, I guess.”

Inspiration. Wow. I was knocked hard. No one I knew used inspiration as a reason for anything. Reasons were money, success, prestige. Charlie had beautiful legs, a stainless steel pot and ordered his life according to inspiration. I was very, very frightened.

“What inspired you? Write that.”

“India. When I was in India, I saw so many sick, sick people. You can’t imagine. You want to see some pictures?” he got up from the table and went to his room, and I followed like a puppy. I felt like a puppy. I’d been taken in, fed, disciplined and now I wanted to stay.

“Here.” He handed me a big book filled with pictures. I was behind him, still looking all around me. On the wall was a photo of the Taj Majal. There was the dome, some minarets, a slight haze, a reflection; water in the foreground in which beautiful curves moved, curves like the necks of swans or a woman’s arm, everything your mind visualizes with the words, “Taj Mahal.” But, the curves were the necks of camels, not swans; the water was a lake, not the rectangular reflecting pool; the dome was not centered perfectly between the minarets, but stood to one side. The photograph did everything I believe art should do, force you to turn around and look beyond your expectations.

“I love this picture,” I said with solemn reverence.

“It’s mine,” said Charlie.

“You took it?”

“It took me a long time to get everything just right.”

So, now I had to imagine Charlie sitting on an unknown dusty hill in Agra waiting for things to get “just right” so he could take this picture, develop it, hang it on his wall in Albuquerque so that I, a person he didn’t even know, would see it.

That was the end of any chance for coherent conversation between us.


“Charlie” succeeded in getting into med school and is now a doctor. I succeeded in not acquiring a lot of stuff and keeping a comparatively simplified life. It all worked out. And, though I showed up for the Law School Admission Test, in the middle of it I realized I was not the LEAST inspired to become an attorney and I walked out.

36 thoughts on “Minimalism

    • That’s true — I think the inherent complications of life are enough. It was a big relief to me to get rid of all that stuff — my mom’s stuff, stuff from my past — last summer. It leaves more room for my bike 🙂

  1. Good story, and I do appreciate the long lasting impact of some encounters. How nice to have his presence in contrast to the up and comer’s stuff version of life.

    I had a law student as a roommate my last year of med school. He was a good guy, quiet, paid his rent on time, and always either at his girlfriends or the law library. Perfect for someone who wanted to live alone but couldn’t afford to. I realized then that being a lawyer and arguing for exercise rather than really figuring out what was just or right would never work for me (not that I was inclined that way in the first place).

    • I couldn’t have done it. It seemed to me (as a paralegal) a lot of fake pressure for the sake of an adrenaline rush and the chance to “win.” I worked for the city attorney for Lakewood, so there wasn’t much litigation (thank goodness) but I did get to work on some penny-stock fraud cases that were interesting and got to take depositions of some Denver mafiosi. I’m glad for the experience and glad today I was never an attorney.

      • Sounds like a worthy experience. Its good to learn stuff and also discover what we don’t want to do. My years as a research assistant were handy that way.

  2. I loved the story. Chance encounters can offer so much especially when we’re open to them. The picture sounds pretty perfect. There’s something quintessentially beautiful about the Taj. I’ve seen pictures and wondered if it was as exquisite as it appears. Then I read a history of the making by artists…no other word to describe their incredible work.

    • I’m very grateful I got that lesson. Because of it I taught for 35+ years. I don’t count the last few because they were not good, but 35 happy years in the classroom all because of inspiration. ❤

      • I also think the best careers often happen by accident — I was promoted from an office secretary to financial aid officer, then grew through the student loan business. When I was in school, there was no such career!

        • There were so many careers that didn’t exist in our “day.” I used to say I wanted to be a boy — I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted some of those job opportunities, like being a forest ranger or an adventure tour guide! But I got to see girls I taught go in those directions and that made me very happy.

  3. I always feel I should have been something else, but to be fair, other than may a research academic, there wasn’t anything I wanted to be except a writer.

    Right now, all I want to be is richer. Not to own more, but to fix what we’ve got. Oh sigh. Nothing ever feels simple to me. All I ever see are layers of increasing complexity. Maybe it’s me.

    • Reality is pretty complex, but you are also complex so I imagine it’s LESS complex than you think. ❤ I usually is for me. I have the real gift of adding complexity to stuff that's pretty simple.

    • I like his philosophy, too. My career was teaching writing — and for 35 years it inspired me every day. The last few years, though… Aaahahhhahhh run away! Run away! I have a can opener like that now. I moved up in the world. 😀

  4. You are a writer, Martha. I loved this. I think we all get what we get and, really, what we truly need. If we stop and think about it, everything else is just fluff. And I don’t do fluff. That can opener in your picture–I have no idea how that thing works.

    • It’s a pretty simple can opener. Mine was basically the same without the comfy handles and easy to turn ergonomic turn thingy. I don’t do fluff, either, or “but it was your mother’s” — I don’t do that. But I have a soft spot for beauty.

  5. This is an incredible story – sometimes we can meet people for a very short amount of time and they leave a lasting mark on us like a tattoo, and sometimes we can see people everyday and feel nothing. Thank you for sharing this experience, it’s a great reminder to be authentic and remember why you really want to do something 🙂

    • I was ready to be impressed in that way — I guess I had a big question inside and really needed an answer. 🙂 I liked him more than he ever knew and more than I had the ability to show.

      • Isn’t that sometimes the toughest thing – we meet a soulmate at time when we can’t be with them for whatever reason, but they wake us up to a new perspective and we are never the same as a result? Still, we love them so all we want is for them to be happy, even if it’s not with us.

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