Simple Living

'Tis a Gift to Be Simple

cup in a tiny, single-serving French press. Some mornings I rush out of the house and leave the coffee-making for someone at the office, but I usually regret this. I make coffee better than anyone I know, and my complicated ritual gives me almost as much sanity as the caffeine. I move amongst my housemates and their breakfasts to get the coffee grinder, the hot water, a spoon, or a cup.

Along with seven others, I came to Washington, D.C., this year committed to "living simply." We work and live communally—and generally get on each other’s nerves. I unwittingly committed to rooming with a morning person, who doesn’t need any stimulants to get herself up and running. I manage house finances (a task I volunteered for), and I still haven’t gotten the checkbook to balance. We have trouble keeping the house clean. We are in each other’s faces and spaces 24-hours-a-day. I have learned that there’s nothing simple about simple living.

Simplicity is heralded as a cure for the excesses of modern culture. Strip down, throw out (or recycle), make time. Often this results in complicated, involved actions such as planning ways to get to work without a car or cooking meals from scratch. Mainstream North American culture would have us believe that fast meals and sport utility vehicles make for a simpler, smoother-running life. Counterculture suggests that life is simpler and more meaningful without acquiring possessions and not utilizing all the available technology. Both hold up an ideal lifestyle that we must achieve by performing prescribed tasks.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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Simpler Than Thou

The hot word on the street these days is that we have all been the unwitting victims of involuntary complexity. Sensing that no idea should circulate without a movement, and no movement without an industry, the market has stepped into the breech. Now, along with the Thomas Moore industry, the “I Believe in Angels” thing, and the “Everything-I-Know-I-Learned-in...” series, we have the Simplicity Industry. From workshops and study groups to newsletters, audiotapes, and a list of best-sellers, simplicity was never so complicated.

Like all movements, it has a mecca, Seattle, proud parent also to grunge (the Seattle sound) and Starbucks (the Seattle java). It also has its gurus. Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, authors of the best-selling Your Money or Your Life, are credited in large part with initiating the drive to simplify among disenchanted aging boomers. In three years, the book has hauled in more than $3.5 million and sold more than 350,000 copies. Both authors live in Seattle (surprise) on only $13,000 a year.

A major player in the cybersimplicity movement is the Simple Living Network, based in Trout Lake, Washington. It offers, among other on-line services, a complete mail-order catalog, presenting the shopper with such exotic treats as “Garden of Eatin’ Vegetarian Jerky” and “New Age Household Cleaner.” Visitors to their home page are confronted by a full-color ad for Ecco Bella Botanicals, in which Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus is used to endorse a full line of body and facial care products. One can only assume that the nakedness of the famous goddess is being exalted as an ideal of voluntary simplicity, but I couldn’t help feeling that this emperor wasn’t exactly fully clothed, either.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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To Relinquish One's Possessions

The lure of "simplicity" is everywhere. Which of us does not feel his or her life is at the edge of spinning out of control sometimes, in danger of coming apart under the sheer weight of phone messages, tax receipts, birthdays, and who knows what all else to remember?

Simplicity is the watchword of management consultants who preach the benefits of KISS ("keep it simple, stupid"), of commercials that try to sell some modern product by associating it with a nostalgically half-remembered simpler life of 30 or 40 years ago, of a whole industry that tries to sell closet organizers or pocket date books on the promise that an organized life is a simpler life. A simple life is one you can control.

There's never been a shortage of books preaching this kind of simplicity in American bookstores. But more and more people, from a variety of backgrounds, are exploring a more radical approach to simplicity-the "voluntary simplicity" movement-for reasons ranging from the spiritual to the political.

Just as many of us worry we no longer have control of life's details, so many of us also have a nagging fear that we may be too busy to pay attention to the really Big Things. A morning at the park playing with the kids, a quiet afternoon walk in the country, a family dinner where miraculously everyone gets along-suddenly we're reminded that the moments of bliss are there for the taking, if we just notice them. Who hasn't wondered whether doing the day-to-day work that keeps the bills paid isn't blinding us to the abundant life we have miraculously been given for free?

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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A Measure of Compassion

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1995
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