Tuesday, December 01, 2009


i've been going on and on about simplifying my life for nearly two years now. clearing out the junk, paring down, eating locally-produced food, spending less on gadgets [gasp!], making do with what we have. long ago (before i realized how much i hate flash), i even bought a bunch of books on the simple life. i was so not ready to actually do it, that i felt i had to acquire something in order to even ponder it. and strangely, i never really read those books at the time (except for barbara kingsolver's animal, vegetable, miracle). but over the past week or so, i've begun reading them. i think i was ready at last.

i found that i did a pretty good job of selecting a good range from the theoretical side to the WAY out there living in a hut in the woods side to the incredibly annoyingly, preachily written to the practical, down-to-earth view. and i've realized a few things:

~ we're quite a lot farther along than i thought. in thinking and in action.

~ thinking is at least half the battle.

~ things change quickly: judith levine's reason for her year of not buying (2004) was the mad rhetoric of the bush administration which suggested that the best way to defeat the terrorists was to get out there and buy something. i think my main reason for wanting to do this, other than living more personally mindfully, is a desire to be kinder to the environment.

~ simplifying doesn't have to mean suffering. it's more about mindfulness than self-denial. which may be why i feel i'm a lot closer now than i was when i bought the books last year.

~ i think i'd rather think of it as living more consciously, that seems more palatable and somehow less like a cult or  a religion to me. i have a feeling that the notion of voluntary simplicity or radical simplicity has been fetishized a bit too much for my taste.

~ i realize my own dad, who has never set foot in a wal-mart, has been "not buying it" for years (of course mom and us girls more than made up for it over the years). sometimes it takes years to learn the lessons your parents try to teach you, but i think i'm catching on at last.

~ the simplicity project is much easier outside of the insane consumer culture that is the united states.

~ while there is cultural pressure to keep up with the hansens next door here, it's on a much more even keel and keeping up doesn't mean a two hummer garage.  (granted, i'm not sure it means that in the US anymore after more than a year of economic crisis - but these books are all pre-crisis.)

~ our ancient toyota is a great example of how we resist the cultural pressure to have a nice shiny new car. and i've long found that rather charming about us. :-)

~ i think i'm ready to commit to my own year of not buying in 2010 and am already thinking of the ways in which we should execute that as a family.

i'd love to hear what you all think. have you simplified over the past year out of economic necessity or environmental concerns or because you saw one of those awful programs about how the chickens are treated? what do you think it would take for you to spend a year not buying anything more than essentials? what would those essentials include?


Molly said...

Can I have a quick dig at you and comment on how you clearly weren't ready for the concept when you went out and bought 8 books to learn how to simplify :)
Maybe these days you'd borrow them from the library? Or donate these to your local library when you've learnt what you can from them so that others can re-use the resource?
Looking forward to following this journey of yours and learning from you on the way.

Polly said...

I think I'm getting there. For a while it was very, very hard to simplify, there are things that I simply don't want to live without, like buying books or coffee at Cafe Nero (we have an okay coffee machine at work, you see), but I have now managed to get to the stage where before I buy a book I first check if I can borrow it from any of the libraries in the area.

For me the problem with simplifying is the lack of tangible purpose. I can't say I'm not buying because I'm saving for that trip to Tanzania next year because that's not what simplifying is about. It's about not having too much - full stop, am I right? And if I am, then that's hard, doing something without a tangible (more tangible than green Earth for our children, especially that I have none) reward is hard...

I must read that Judith Levine's book. I'm going to check if they have it at Holborn library.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

There are so many exciting benefits to simplifying one's life:

* first and foremost helping heal and sustain our dear planet

* setting an example for our children

* being debt free

* reclaiming your time and energy from the process of planning, purchasing and maintaining the goods purchased

* the excitement and pleasure derived from seeing how you can be creative and make something (a meal, a gift, an outfit) from what you already have

I'm sure there are a gazillion more but that's it off the top of my head.

Great post!!!

Amanda said...

I love the part about how it is all in your mind and how you think about things.

I have been trying this simplify thing for about a year now. I do things like only buying things when something else NEEDS to be replaced...fix things instead of throwing them away and buying new at Target...we buy things that are better for our environment...
we are just simply more conscious of the decisions we make.

I too wonder how different this will be for you by not being in consumerism abounds America.

*jean* said...

ooo good for you and your family! i, too, have been looking for ways to simplify our life...footprint and all that...

i have always been a second hand shopper...i do spend on functional shoes, merrill jungle mocs being my shoe of choice...backup sport shoes needed just in case leaves me with two pairs of shoes and usually a pair of sandals for summer...big change from my younger years when shoes were a passion...

we also keep our cars as long as possible, shop locally from spring to fall, grow a garden, make presents, buy handmade, recycle everything and compost.

and i agree with you, the lessons from parents may take a while but they are worth it...my parents were depression parents...they had 5 kids and hardly a home and car...we always had a garden, one present at xmas...shoes for school and plenty of time to use our imaginations...

...we also use our public library now instead of buying books...saves us a lot of money! hubbie and used to go on dates to the book store...now we all go to the library...

one of my favorite free things is to listen to pandora radio....we are hooked as a family and it is slowly replacing the tv....

best wishes in your quest, dear j.

Char said...

i also recommend Walden by Thoreau in preparation for a simpler life. i adore some of his prose in that book and re-read it every few years.

i'm getting better at it - part of it was out of necessity over the last year and now i find myself not wanting to go back to excessive ways.

d smith kaich jones said...

I am one of those folks who simplify because I don't have the money to do otherwise. There is no change re: the economy, and there is no change re: the environment because I don't believe in manmade global warming, etc., etc. (ClimateGate proving me right). I'm just not rich enough to afford all the things that many people agonize about. The reality is that even in Europe you don't need iPhones, you want them.

I live in a place where people can take care of themselves - Barbara Kingsolver mentions in one of her books an aboriginal quote "The more you know, the less you need". I have that quote tacked to my wall. My goal for the upcoming year is to learn to make fire without matches. My neighbor makes his own ammunition. Friends hunt and eat what they kill. We grow food and we've always fixed things when they break, even those friends of mine with lots of money. And on top of that, we read, we are political, we write, we are artists, we question. I am reminded of the uproar when it was made known that Sarah Palin could kill & skin a moose, and how horribly people treated her, not for her politics, but for her personal life. I'd rather be stuck on a deserted island with her any day than one of the so-called "intellectuals" who made fun of her. A survivor if ever I saw one.

Sorry for the political rant, but simplifying ain't hard. Not really. You just slip out the back, Jack. Just do it.


http://howtobecomeacatladywithoutthecats.blogspot.com said...

I tend to be a hoarder, which makes my brain feel jumbled. My sister used to complain to my parents that they should call e-z-way refuse service and have them back their truck up to the window of our room to get rid of all my junk. I think she was right. A good clean out would make me feel better all around. I have enough "stuff" in my house to last me for the rest of my life. Just need to pick up a few groceries and I'll be set. The library offers free books for entertainment and walks are always free. So I'm actually living a life of abundance!

Eliza said...

I need to read those books, and embrace the idea. At heart, I am a tree hugging, yoghurt weaving, lentil knitting hippie, but I forget this fact when faced with everyday life.
I've cut my hours down at work, so 2010 will be my year to save, to not buy, to reduce, reuse and recycle.
I can't wait to hear how you get on!

Anonymous said...

i am really trying to live simple...thanks for the reminder.

rayfamily said...

Love this post! We've been on this journey bit by bit too. Determining what is really needed, what we can make or do ourselves, how we can reduce our impact on the environment. I'm happy to see so many comments of so many like minded indiviuals. We have some close friends here who are on a similar journey and it is so helpful to have people to to bounce things off of. Thanks for posting!

Mari Mansourian said...

well i'm one of the fortunate females who hate shopping... i only go to the stores when i absolutely need something, grab it and run out... i know plenty of people who spend the day at the mall... see pretty things that they don't need or have the use for but purchase it anyways... why?? momentary joy...i guess, most of that stuff ends up at the end of the closed or the next garage sale anyways... i agree... too much consumption.. we all need to get out of the mind set that having new shiny things can make us happy,
great post J, good luck on your adventure :)

Monica said...

Dear Sister,

Before you embark on Not Buying anything in 2010, I want to ask; Are you feeling the clock ticking on 2009? Are you frantically searching for a cutting-edge gadget to acquire so that you can calm the consumer beast that will sit heaving restless sighs in your subconscious corner?

We've run spots on our locally-owned radio station for years, begging people to shop locally. You know that dollar (ruble, dinar, or whatever it is you're using in Denmark) you spend in town stays in town for 5 more spending cycles before it leaves. But when you spend it elsewhere, it's gone forever. And those pennies you're charged for the local option sales tax here in Cedar Rapids? They might go toward rebuilding a local building after the flood.

I say "Screw all that!" I'm doing my Christmas shopping this you almost exclusively on Amazon. Free shipping. No sales tax. I don't have to leave my kitchen table. Spend locally? To hell with that, I just saved like $890 million dollars!

And for 2010? I'll go ahead and keep consuming. And when I jailbreak my new iPod Touch in order to run all sorts of fabulous stolen, non-Apple-approved apps, I'll laugh in the general direction of your restless Consumer Beast. And I'll see you in 2011. :p

Sandra said...

We are not consumer oriented. I long ago lost the urge to 'keep up'. If I were not spending an enormous amount of money keeping my horses fed I would not be spending much at all. I don't have gadgets or electronics. You would be horrified. : )

I wonder if this urge to simplify will continue if the economic situation turns around. I think in America, it will not. It's like we have a consumption gene.

This is an interesting topic.

will said...

Please don’t misunderstand because I think the ideal of simplicity is more than honorable, it’s an absolute necessity especially as we continue to over populate the planet. But, there’s both the micro and macro scales of living simple.

The concept of living simple gets complicated when comparing what is simple for a healthy, reasonably affluent Western minded person and that of a Third Worlder living with poverty, disease and violent warlords. I suspect a malnourished person, living in an unheated slum would love to have just a few of the goodies being discarded by eco-enthusiasts in modern cities and suburbs.

On the macro scale there’s plenty of 1000 pound gorillas. That is, the non-simple worlds of militaries with all their toys, mega corporations doing whatever suits their desires and the squander of such places as Las Vegas, DIsneyland, Atlantic City, Monte Carlo, etc. ... The voracious appetites and consumption of these makes my frugality not much more than spit in the wind.

On the micro scale, if we (each and every citizen on the planet) can reduce our dependence on cars, on petro based products, if we demand more and better public transit systems and if we can increase the amount of renewable energy sources instead of nuclear and hydroelectric - maybe then the simple life will come easier and more natural.

But as long as we continue with planned obsolesce of consumer goods, maintain a voracious consumption of technologies using rare metals and other nonrenewable natural resources, rely on gasoline driven car engines and we perpetuate all the other wasteful productions which have been the norm since the beginning of the Age of Industrialization ... if we don’t accomplish a paradigm shift, we’re in a world of hurt.

BTW, there’s fast developing trend towards high-efficiency single unit houses with smaller footprints with 1000 or less square feet. One has to live simply in smaller homes, that’s a given.

Bee said...

A couple of years ago, some New Yorker friends of ours created a life experiment for themselves called The Year of No Impact Living. (The book just came out, and is now sitting on our kitchen counter . . . I say in the same spirit of self-aware irony as your photograph!) I'll let you know when I read it . . . or maybe I should bring it to you, because I think you are further down this path. Even though we have made huge strides in recycling, and using less energy (our house is freezing!), we are still buying too much. My attempts to clear out the overwhelming amounts of paper last week proved that fact!

BTW, I was thinking about the Kingsolver book tonight as I was reading the Harvest chapter in Farmer Boy to Camille. Growing your food is simple in some ways -- but terribly time-consuming!

Best way to spend less? (for me) Stay home.

kristina - no penny for them said...

i like the idea of thinking twice before spending money on things we may not need, and of being more conscious of what we do in general.

but i can't help but feeling that your point about this "simplify"-idea having turned into a bit of a hype is true as well. i'm finding it not that easy.

for example books. i easily agree that there's a lot of stuff out there that really needn't have been published, frankfurt bookfair is a scary reminder of that every year.

but that being said, i've been working in publishing for a very long time and love books and make books with a lot of passion. i've seen many friends of mine in publishing losing their jobs this year because of the recession, and i have felt the effects myself. i'm not so sure lending books rather than buying them in general is the answer. i personally do both. the same goes for buying in general. to stop buying, full stop, will inevitably cause loads of other problems. i just find it very tricky and try to figure it out myself. no conclusion yet... :)

i admire you for your courage and passion - you have inspired me to make rather than buy everything this holiday season with your creativity posts. so best of luck for your adventures, i'll stay tuned!

Unknown said...

We're so in tuned! I've been thinking about bringing back my "Think before you buy" challenge from last year. I want to start in January (this will exclude anything wedding-related, I want to simplify my life not make it more stressful!)
For me, although I've considered the environment, etc. the goal is definitely a selfish one. Lately I've been feeling suffocated among all my stuff. It's not making my life easier, only more complicated. I imagine myself travelling the world, and yet, I have so much stuff that the simple thought of moving house stresses me out! I'm (very) slowly trying to get rid of things that I don't need/use/love. It's not easy but I'm trying!
Good luck with your personal journey, I think you're definitely more ready now than when you bought all those books. :)

rxBambi said...

I've never really considered a year of no buying, but I'm kinda intrigued. I saw a tv program about it a few months ago, but I'd say I'm no more prepared than when I first heard of it. Keep us posted on your progress, both mentally and in reality.

Sande said...

Living simply has bought me so much freedom!!! You are so right when you say that the battle is pretty much a renewing of the mind rather than any action or protocol we can implement.

Choosing to live on purpose and to choose what I will look after and spend my time on has given me more time for a whole heap of things I didn't believe I had the time for.

Unknown said...

I am trying to simplify my life as well. I have long suffered anxiety and feel overwhelmed and guilty when I consume too much. I feel more in control of my life when i have routine and a basically simple life. I feel good when I have not purchased anything by the end of the day, and then when I do I enjoy it more. Good for you!

mel said...

I enjoyed this post so much! My guy & I have been in a big re-eval period (Not sure what else to call that? 1/3 life crises? Do those last like 5 years?!) We were solidly on the whole "American Dream" path for a long time. And all that really got us was a big ass pile o' debt, a lot of guilt, and clouded judgment. We've been steadily paring down over the last few years after we finally realized that the mountain of stuff we'd accumulated wasn't doing it's job of making us happy. Now we're much clearer on what we want out of life and what we need in order to stay connected/foster our creativity & growth (yep, still have all the techie stuff, likely always will) but still have to operate in everyday&work life in an incredibly commercial environment. I'm sure there's a balance in living this way and sharing it in such way that it doesn't come off as pushy or self-righteous, but I'm struggling with that part a bit. And in the meantime, it's so nice to have folks online who get this and write about it so well.

Book and music buying along with tech stuff are always going to be vices for me I think - I could do the no-buying thing - even with YARN (b/c I have more than I could knit in a year!), but not with books/music. I know I would fold at some point. I've completely transitioned to digital media for music so at least it's not another tangible item taking up space, but books are harder because I love the physical volumes so much! But most of our spending now goes to consumables (Real Food!) experiences (Live Music! a little Travel!) and intangibles. And I appreciate your take on this all being about more conscious choices - what's meaningful and what works in your own life rather than (yet another) unttainable ideal... I feel happy and comfortable with where we're at here especially given where we've come from, and I guess that's the point! Thanks for writing about this and giving me a chance to think & reflect on it.