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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Do You Have the Time?

April 11, 2011

Last night, a few hours after our April Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a passage in Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that perfectly expressed some of the ideas we had discussed during the meeting. This month’s topic was time, a subject I addressed here only a couple of weeks ago. In the passage, Murakami describes how when he was thirty-three he reordered every aspect of his life around his focus on writing novels. He started going to bed early and waking up with the sun. He realized he could concentrate best in the morning, so he decided to write during that time. He ran and did errands in the afternoon and spent his time in the evening relaxing, reading, and listening to music before bed.

Murakami didn’t just revamp his private, working life, he reconsidered his social life too. He writes, “We [Murakami and his wife] also decided that from now on we’d meet with only the people we wanted to see and, as much as possible, get by not seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.” He had been running a jazz club for seven years; for seven years he had had to greet whoever walked in the door with “a friendly smile” on his face. So, you (well, those introverts among us, at least) can see why he would want to cut back on his social visits.

Yesterday our Voluntary Simplicity group didn’t talk specifically about “this modest indulgence.” But we did talk about finding time to cultivate our most important relationships. Sally shared a story about spending time with her daughter. She has started driving her fourteen-year-old daughter home from high school in the afternoons. When they arrive home, her daughter makes the two of them a cup of tea, and they sit together in the kitchen and talk or read for a while before the planned activities of the evening. This daily ritual was Sally’s daughter’s idea—one afternoon she asked Sally out of the blue if she would like a cup of tea—and over the past few months it has become a mainstay of the family’s routine.

Such rituals don’t always come so easy. Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” A few of us in the group occasionally feel out of balance (which is probably why the Voluntary Simplicity group appealed to us in the first place). It can be hard to find consonance in your life when odds and ends and responsibilities and social pressure start piling up. They can distract you from your initial purpose. Murakami endeavored to reduce the noise and set his own priorities. What I like about his story is he leads a simple, deliberate life without identifying it as such. He just lives the way he wants to live. We should all be so lucky.

Although most of us in the group occasionally feel distracted or rushed, we all also enjoy moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls “flow,” or the “state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. . . . We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between past, present, and future.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this; I’m sure you’ve been so immersed in a task you’ve lost your sense of time. For me, this feeling comes when I run or write or sew; Helene once found flow in a two-day art class; Sally, a teacher, has encountered it in the classroom; Judy and Bernice experience flow in their gardens; Nan finds it in the mountains, on a hike. (Several in the group experience flow while cooking or baking, but I find I lose myself more in eating and in the conversations that come when friends or family—or just Channing and I—gather around a really good meal.)

I pulled a couple of lessons from our discussion yesterday. First, we all have only twenty-four hours a day, and it’s up to us to make the most of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean packing in the experiences until we’re used up and burnt out. It just means savoring as many of those moments as we can. Second, the hobbies, the work, the relationships that, as Jay Bookman put it in “Caught in the Current,” “pull together the various pieces of our fragmented self and focus them again on a single purpose, a single goal, a single activity”—they are what’s important. And we should take every opportunity to bring them into our lives.

The whole group was there this month! Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for the thoughts and stories that found their way into this post.

Reclaiming Time

March 23, 2011

When Melissa and I started this experiment, Helene and Jim assured us that we would have more free time. For me, this prediction has been true to a certain extent. I rarely run errands at lunchtime or after work these days, and my weekend errands are limited to trips to the farmers market, grocery store, and library. I haven’t seen the inside of a clothing store, big box store, or mall since December. I don’t have any new pants to hem, I make only one shopping list a week, and I spend very little time in the car traveling to and from stores. And yet my days seem filled to the brim with activity.

I’ve been taking notice of all this activity since our first Voluntary Simplicity meeting in January. Even without the extra time spent in cars or in crowds, I still manage to feel harried and irritated at certain points during the week. So, I’ve started taking small steps toward eliminating draining chores from and introducing more meaningful and productive endeavors to my life.

1. I’ve started walking to work.

I had been walking home from work pretty regularly since I began my new job a year ago. On my walk-home days, I would catch a ride with Channing, who passes by my office on his way to the toll road, in the morning. About two months ago, though, I noticed that the morning rides left me feeling rushed. I was on Channing’s schedule, not my own. Plus, the various ranting dude podcasts Channing listens to in the morning usually make me irritable.

Walking to work, in contrast, is ridiculously pleasant, even in chilly weather. My pace is leisurely and the views are fabulous. My route goes past a lake, through the neighborhood shopping center, then past a soccer field and elementary school. Thanks to Reston’s pedestrian tunnels, I have to navigate intersection traffic only once. I notice the trees and the birds (tons of cardinals this winter) and the pattern of ice on the lake. I wave to my neighbors. I occasionally stop at the shopping center for a cup of tea or hot chocolate. The best part is I get to choose my own soundtrack. So, I arrive at work not only feeling more happy and relaxed, but sometimes laughing, singing, or smiling (as was the case after I listened to Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’ story on the Moth podcast a couple of weeks ago).

I do have to leave the house earlier, which requires a little extra planning. I try to make my lunch and set out my clothes the night before. I wake up a few minutes earlier now—mostly to accommodate my running/swimming schedule—but the early alarm also helps me get out the door on time. These are only tiny changes to my daily routine, and they are worth it.

2. I reevaluated my regular activities.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of a freelancing project that caused me to cancel all my social appointments for two weeks, I spent a few minutes writing down my regular, free-time activities. The list was pretty simple and included things like running/training, freelancing, blogging, and attending Voluntary Simplicity meetings. I listed eight or nine activities and decided I could cut one entirely (freelancing). Of the seven or eight left, I established a couple priorities (running/training and blogging). The rest I’ll continue to enjoy when I have time. Cutting freelancing alone has opened up a ton of time (ten to fifteen hours a week), but still, I’m planning to reexamine the list in a month or so—maybe swap a volunteer activity or two for one of my other hobbies.

3. I am phasing out my long-term to-do list.

I have a to-do list in my head that includes tasks I’ve been meaning to complete since December. Yikes. Last week I crossed one item off the list when I finally hemmed a pair of pants I bought last November. I’m also making steady progress on one of my outstanding Christmas gifts—a knitting project (my first knit-in-the-round project!). I should wrap that sucker up this week.

In the last month or so, I’ve made a concerted effort not to add to this long-term to-do list. Right now, I plan to finish up the last few tasks on the list and not start a new one—ever. Of course, I will probably take on multiday projects in the future, but I’m hoping to see each such project to completion before I undertake another one. Also, I love lists and imagine I will still make short mental to-do lists of tasks I can reasonably accomplish in one day (the key word here is “reasonably”). But I hope never to have a long-term list hanging over my head again.

 

When It Rains Indoors

March 16, 2011

Some serious unpleasantness struck the Kimmelhorn household last week. Around 2:30 on Thursday morning, we awoke to the sound of a steady stream of water dripping from above the bedroom closet door. Only the one area of the bedroom appeared to be affected, but on further investigation, we also discovered a puddle forming along the back wall of the living room downstairs. Yikes! Thirty panic-stricken minutes later we finally determined the source of the flooding: our upstairs neighbors’ busted water heater.

Eventually the deluge behind the walls subsided, and we were able to get some sleep. When the sun rose Thursday morning, we assessed the damage: Upstairs and down, the carpet, though soaked, appeared to be salvageable. Some obvious wet patches had appeared in the ceiling in our bedroom and in the living room. And, aside from some dampness on the arm of our couch, all of our furniture was fine.

Clearly, it could have been a lot worse. Well, tracking down someone to help us was a bit of a chore. Our landlords had left for Morocco the day before and had not told us whom to contact in their absence if we had trouble. But, eventually we got a handyman out to the house to appraise the situation and determine a course of action. By Saturday afternoon we had carpet padding air-drying on the deck and three of the loudest fans on earth targeting the remaining problem areas.

Nearly a week later, the incessant noise from the fans has us both on edge and things still aren’t quite dried out, but I’m counting my lucky stars. The last time this condo flooded (late fall 2007), our landlords gutted the place. They bought new carpet, new drywall, new appliances, and new light fixtures. This time around we should be able to save almost everything from the landfill. The ceiling will need some patching, and the landlords may want to replace some portion of the carpet padding, but Channing and I have escaped this mess with all our stuff functional and intact.

Keeping the rules of the experiment in mind, I’m not sure what we would’ve done had a dresser or couch been ruined by the flooding. Found a used replacement on craigslist or in the Old Lucketts Store? I would’ve had a hard time convincing Channing that we could make do with someone’s leftovers—or that we could make do without a dresser or couch at all. And what if the landlords had had to replace the carpet? Could I have convinced them to choose something repurposed or recycled? What choice would I have had as a tenant?

Channing’s Thoughts

While the deluge remains an unpleasant distraction from the tranquility of home, it has brought my attention to a few things that make our lives more pleasant that I would not have otherwise noticed. First, when it doesn’t sound like an airplane hangar, our home is very quiet. Yes, we can sometimes hear our neighbors, but despite being surrounded by other people, it’s one of the quietest homes I’ve ever known. Second, I have no interest in owning a condo. From what I’ve been told by owners, condo fees are a headache, but dealing with a neighbor’s busted water heater is an altogether different beast. I’ll never want to handle both. Third, the event caused us to change the layout of our bedroom (to accommodate one of the fans). I like the new arrangement, and it gives me reason to go through a chest that holds many of my clothes. I’d like to Freecycle the chest so we have more room, and I think I can give away or donate many of the clothes inside.

 

Making a Living

March 9, 2011

In the right sort of economy, pleasure would not be merely an addition or by-product or reward; it would be both an empowerment of our work and its indispensable measure. —Wendell Berry

On Sunday our Voluntary Simplicity group met for the third time to talk about work—specifically what we do, why we do it, and whether our jobs (paid or unpaid) add value to our lives. To open the discussion, we each answered the question, Is work a factor in your self-image? For me, the answer is yes, absolutely. I’m an editor—and not just between the hours of 9 and 5. I’m the friend who corrects your grammar, answers your questions about punctuation and spelling, and reads personal essays for grad school and work applications.*

I was surprised to find that not everyone in the group felt this way about their chosen profession. Mary, in particular, has not identified herself with a job in twenty years, since she left her career as an attorney. She found herself in law school almost as a fluke, after years of trial and error in various academic programs. Now that her kids have left home, she volunteers her time and skills to several nonprofits. She says her sense of self is defined more by the educational experiences that led her to her numerous, varied work experiences.

The readings for this meeting included a handful of stories like Mary’s in which a person found a productive, fulfilling work life without the forty-hours-a-week commitment. In fact, the forty-hour workweek is a fairly new concept. For most of human history, people have worked only two or three hours per day, just long enough to tend to chores necessary for survival, such as hunting, foraging, and growing food. By the nineteenth century, though, the Industrial Revolution had consigned men, women, and children to factories for fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Work’s purpose was no longer simply to meet basic needs; it was to make money to fuel the new material culture. In the twenty-first century, this industrial age model still holds, and despite the successful efforts of labor unions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the average American works 350 more hours per year than the average European.

Clearly, finding and keeping a stable, full-time, paid job has a number of benefits, including financial security, a sense of purpose, and, if you’re lucky, access to affordable health care. But the full-employment model isn’t for everyone (nor is full employment readily available in this economy), and there are other options out there. The keys to finding those options seem to be thoughtful deliberation, creativity, and courage—courage to be true to your individual nature, to live with less (if necessary), and to close the door behind you in order to commit to a new path ahead.

Whether you love your job or hate it, here a few things to keep in mind: Work is not simply paid employment; it is any productive or purposeful activity. And work is not separate from the rest of your life; it is a major part of your life—your personal contribution to society. Enjoy what you do and make it count.

*But please don’t count on me to edit my own writing.

Thanks to Helene, Judy, Mary, and Nan for sharing their ideas and stories.

 

Living More with Less

February 10, 2011

Melissa opened our Voluntary Simplicity meeting on Sunday with a three-minute meditation, a perfect way to transition from our lives’ hurry-scurry to a discussion about “living more with less.” For the last couple weeks, she has been meditating for fifteen minutes every day—most of us had trouble sitting quietly for three!

The discussion topic, “living more with less,” specifically meant living more with less stuff, a concept we are clearly interested in. Judy, our facilitator, opened the conversation with the question, Is the idea of living with less attractive to you or does it cause anxiety? For me, one month into the No Stuff Experiment, living with less is extremely attractive. I purged my closet and dresser of items I no longer wore or had multiples of the second week in January, and for the first time in months (or maybe years), I don’t feel lacking for clothes.

Perhaps this has something to do with what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” Essentially Schwartz argues that the overabundance of choices we face as American consumers has caused our happiness to decline, via paralysis in decision making, escalation of expectations, and shift of blame for imperfect outcomes to the consumer. (To hear his argument in detail, watch his TED talk.) Because I have eliminated the option of buying new clothes, I no longer find myself stressing over the number, quality, or style of items in my closet. I not only have to make do, but I find myself better appreciating what I have.

Others in the group have similarly found freedom in minimizing their stuff. Nan gave away most of her possessions when she moved from Virginia to Colorado in spring 2009. Being able to fit her life in her car has allowed her to visit friends all over the country, some for a week or two, some for a few months. Judy recently moved all of the furniture out of her living space so that she and her husband could install new flooring. She loved the openness of the space so much that she has moved very little back in.

Although none of us are ready to give up the variety of choices we currently have in the marketplace, we are hoping that Voluntary Simplicity will provide us a practical means of approaching the abundance. Again the word “deliberate” surfaced in our conversation. We talked about shopping in a more deliberate manner, taking inventory of what we have, thinking about a purchase before making it, and recognizing the true cost of material goods. (If you haven’t already, check out The Story of Stuff.) Early in our discussion, Mary pointed out that there are many ways to disengage from consumer culture. By the end of the meeting, we’d determined that there are many ways to engage thoughtfully as well.

Thanks to Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for all the great ideas and stories they shared on Sunday. Many found their way into this post.

The Meaning of Simplicity

January 26, 2011

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” —Hans Hofmann

Our enthusiastic mentor, Helene, has organized a discussion group to support Melissa and me during our six-month break from shopping. The eight of us will meet monthly to talk about readings from the Northwest Earth Institute’s Voluntary Simplicity course book and any problems (or triumphs!) we NSEers encounter along the way. Our first meeting was on Sunday; the topic of discussion was the meaning of simplicity.

Each of us in the group has spent time over the years paring down and organizing our possessions, but decluttering physical surroundings is only one aspect of voluntary simplicity—and, for us, it isn’t the most difficult or pressing aspect. What several of us are struggling with is reclaiming our time and establishing priorities. Life in Northern Virginia is cluttered with opportunities. There are service and political organizations of all stripes, sports leagues, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, galleries, libraries, and parks—all before you cross the Potomac into D.C., where a whole host of other events and attractions awaits.

Henry David Thoreau escaped to Walden to eliminate these distractions, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” We in the group either do not want to move to the woods or don’t have the means to do so. For us, slowing down, setting priorities, and living consciously will involve negotiating the hustle and bustle of an ever-growing metropolitan area.

This negotiation can, of course, be tough. On top of the wealth of opportunity in this area, the pace of life here is ramped up. Driving anywhere in the car is stressful, never mind the “get out of my way” mentality you encounter once you arrive at the store or the office. Courtesy and community are the first casualties when so many folks are short on time.

Add to this the numerous conveniences we partake in to free up some of that time: buying bottles of water, eating fast food, choosing the car over walking, biking, or public transportation, to name only a few examples. These quick and easy options are not simple, though, because they create unnecessary waste. To practice voluntary simplicity, we will have to be more aware of this waste and start making choices that better align with our values. (We will also have to realize that these choices may initially seem counterintuitive to our friends, family, and colleagues, and that is OK.)

The words that kept coming up during our discussion on Sunday were “deliberate” and “intentional.” We are not forsaking beauty or art or opportunity or even luxury. We are embracing all elements of life in a deliberate way—“sucking all the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau put it. Making an intentional choice—to walk to the store, cook from scratch, read a book, or help a neighbor, for example—is a positive action. The pleasure of simplicity will come from choosing what we want to do and then experiencing it.

Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, and Melissa for their contributions to this post.