Living Simply on Earth

June 3, 2011

On Sunday, May 22, we had our last Voluntary Simplicity discussion.* The topic of our reading for the month was “Living Simply on Earth”—or, how to incorporate the concepts we discussed in previous sessions (simplicity, conscientious consumption, meaningful work, and time management) into our daily lives and why we should do so.

An excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community set the tone for the chapter and resonated with many of us. In the essay, Berry wrote that government and corporate policy will not be enough to address the problems of global warming and environmental degradation. Each of us will have to take personal responsibility for our use of resources. We regular folks are a large part of the problem. “There are not enough rich and powerful people to consume the whole world,” Berry wrote; “for that, the rich and powerful need the help of countless ordinary people.”

Perhaps Berry’s essay resonated with me because he more or less validated the No Stuff Experiment. Over the last five months I’ve had many a “what does it all mean” moment. Has the Experiment been worth it? Have I learned anything meaningful? Berry wrote, “We are almost entirely dependent upon an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant.” One thing I have found myself falling back on when I have these moments of uncertainty is the research (however superficial) I’ve done to expose the mysteries of our economy and to determine how my choices impact the world around me. The lessons I’ve learned in this process have changed not only my spending habits but my living habits as well. Among the other changes I intend to make when I venture back into the world of the shopping is what Berry describes as limiting “economic geography” to minimize environmental impact, that is, buying locally sourced and crafted goods in order to keep our money in our community as long as possible. As controversial as this shift en masse may be, particularly for executives at Wal-Mart or the New York Stock Exchange or for the governors at the Federal Reserve, my own limited, independent study suggests it makes some good sense. But I digress…

At the VS meeting we talked about places that evoked either a feeling of community or a particularly vivid memory for us, places we could associate with collective responsibility. Not long ago, Sally visited a small-town newspaper shop. The smells of newsprint, tobacco, and mint in the air there transported her to her childhood home in New Jersey and specifically reminded her of the Sundays she spent with her family. Bernice recalled the borough where she lived in Pittsburgh as a child. Everything she needed was within a three-block radius from her home, and she and her family knew their neighbors and the local shop owners. In this close-knit neighborhood, she felt like she was at the center of the universe, in a place where she belonged. Nan talked about the neighborhood where she lived in California, home to a florist who dispensed flowers gratis to persistent children. Helene and Judy find a sense of community at Blueberry Hill, the cohousing development where they live. In each of these places, several principles of simple living are at work: deliberate consumption; conservation; time well spent on family, friends, and good work; and finding pleasure in daily life.

The last reading of the chapter, “Every Day Ought to Be Earth Day” by Ann Lovejoy, emphasized that last principle: finding pleasure in daily life. Lovejoy wrote, “It is vital to our wholeness and well-being that we do something that restores us and brings us joy every day.” The attention paid to relaxing, feeling gratitude, and enjoying life is what most appeals to me about voluntary simplicity. Plus, when I make an effort to live deliberately, I find it’s a lot easier to uncover the happiness tucked away in various corners of my life—happiness like my last morning swim before the triathlon this weekend, or spending lunch outside on the most perfect day of spring thus far, or sliding a whole chicken, slathered in butter and stuffed with dill, in the oven. Yum.

*That is, we had our last discussion of a specific chapter in the NWEI Voluntary Simplicity book. We’re meeting again in June for a potluck.

Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Nan, and Sally for their ideas and memories.

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