Saturday, February 6, 2010

Living deliberately: how to approach simplification. USA, LLC

Lifes Simple Pleasures, originally uploaded by ThePres6.

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Simplify, simplify, simplify! Perhaps trying to identify the owner of these words, you are drawn back into an old wooden desk in a high school classroom ... English 3, American literature class. "Your research paper's topic cries for simplification," stated Mrs. Woods as she returned the tomato red manuscript.

I intensely wanted to dialogue with her and pose my burning question: "Did you substitute my paper for a placemat at McDonald's last night?"

Please remember that those were the "good ole" days in the 1960s! Students normally censored their true thoughts and asked only the politically correct questions. Like any obedient college-prep adolescent, I "simply" re-read the piece and incorporated Mrs. Woods' writing into mine so that she would mark an enormous A on this assignment.

Sorry, the quote did not belong to any English teacher. Probably only my nerdy, baby boomer peers will recall that the "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" quote belongs to Henry David Thoreau. The 19th century transcendentalist shared the results of his simplified living experience in Walden; or Life in the Woods. Contrary to popular belief, he did not write a camping manual; instead, he described a model for living deliberately that provides inspiration for 21st century nonconformists. "I went to the woods because I wished 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. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life ..." reported Thoreau. He continued, "It is not enough if you are busy. The question is, 'What are you busy about?'" (The Simple Living Guide, A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living xiii, (1)) Stop and contemplate the magnitude of these words of wisdom.

Most of us do not have the time or resources to take a sabbatical from our careers and go live in the woods for two years as Thoreau did. Unfortunately, men and women have become slaves to their possessions. "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go," stated a wise anonymous person (The Simple Living Guide, (1)). The majority of adults allow "toys" such as expensive homes, sports cars, boats, cell phones, country club memberships, etc., to dictate choices and places of residence. People relocate to the large cities, make payments on homes that will never belong to them, commute on a freeway to a job that causes stress and health problems, and eventually divorce spouses with whom they pledged to live in richness and in poverty. (Personal observation and experience now speaking!)

Since the onset of the Yuppie generation, households unsuccessfully have tried to support themselves with two paychecks; a few days before payday, breadwinners frequently pull out the credit cards and charge necessities, groceries, and gasoline. My first husband brilliantly observed that no matter how much money we made, we spent it! More money did not equal happiness. Before the oil business crash occurred in the mid 1980s, many Houstonian businesses and families lived "high on the hog." After the crash, a huge fraction of highly educated people lost their jobs and homes; the lucky ones maintained ownership of the homes and appreciated meals of "beanie weenies." In our family, the salary of an engineer in fat times disappeared at the same rate as the salary of a new Houston Independent School District (HISD) did during the lean times. When the economy improved and both husband and wife worked, the bank account balance should have grown substantially each month. Au contraire, spending habits increased proportionately to the extra income.

Could a moral exist to this story? Yes, Americans need to take the time to review Thoreau's lessons and consider simplifying their lifestyles! During the later part of the 20th century, a group of savvy folks grew tired of the rat race and began making changes in daily living; these brave hearts created a philosophy of life known as voluntary simplicity, or simple living. According to Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, "the term 'Voluntary Simplicity' ... refers to adopting a simpler lifestyle by reducing our consumption in order to help conserve the earth's dwindling resources ... it's a way to reduce the number of hours spent working for pay and increase the time spent with children, friends, family, or contributing to the community." .(What (2)).

After a person consciously decides to release oneself from the demands of mindless automaton living, one needs to focus on the strategies required to simplify life ... how does one make the changes? Do followers of this belief system return to pioneer days and reside in cabins in the woods without any conveniences of the post World War I era? Are changes made "cold turkey" or gradually? Who does one duplicate Thoreau's experiences and "live deliberately?" The answers to these questions are as unique as the individuals who answer them.

My personal journey towards simplification resembles the transformation of a cocoon into a butterfly. In the late 1980s, the pressures of life in the fast lane of Houston traffic altered my goodwill and personality. Leaving a Gem Craft, plan 19D, suburban tract home at 6:15 in the morning and then racing 60 to 90 minutes to an inner city high school with a population of 2,000-plus students, created the necessity of a daily 45-minute meltdown period during first period conference. Teachers jokingly stated that our salaries included "combat pay!" After completing a marathon day in the "war zone," an almost 40-year-old, exhausted HISD educator reentered the jungle of cars, and returned to her typical, middle class dysfunctional family of a stressed, overworked husband and two young children. Since Superwoman's costume didn't fit this body, the home front received leftovers 24/7; enduring the months and eventually the years of treadmill-type career abuse. Don, Jessica and Matt only received the few pleasantries that life hadn't robbed from me that day. The cocoon needed to be discarded, but the butterfly wasn't ready to fly!

At the end of 2000, the stress of the city life poked a hole in the cocoon; 20 years of marriage resulted in divorce. A teacher's salary and a second job could not support three people residing in a moderately priced ($1,000/month) Sugar Land apartment complex. Car insurance for two drivers, a new-car payment, an inflated truck payment, and numerous other bills quickly depleted the household funds. Truly, the possessions owned the "owner."

Weakened by the small tear in 2000, the cocoon started to open in 2001. The time seemed appropriate to take some risks in love, career and lifestyle. A new man appeared in my life; a transfer from high school French to junior high English occurred; home address changed to a cosmetically challenged duplex ($500/month rent!) and a small town about 50 miles away from the HISD school. Baby steps started the journey toward simplified living. The duplex needed painting and numerous repairs, but the yard provided peace, space, and pecans. A two-minute walk yielded an exquisite view of the Colorado River. Small town living brought back feelings of safety; fresh air replaced stale, polluted oxygen. Exploring the surrounding countryside created the urge to reside with barnyard friends. The butterfly cried for freedom.

The recurring message of "simplify" took on new meaning in 2003. Wedding bells rang on January 23; my soul mate and best friend, Ron, and I pledged to love, honor, obey and adopt a simplified lifestyle. In the summer, my husband found a tiny, 100-year-old country home near El Maton, Texas. The antique home was sandwiched on a small piece of property between pasture land and cotton fields, and rented for half the price of the duplex! A myriad of redecorating and honey-do projects (inside and out) would enhance the physical space. We added room air conditioners to help make the intolerable heat and humidity of the spring and summer months tolerable. A high percentage of Gulf Coast Texans begin using AC in March; this year, the units stayed off until June 18th! Again, fresh country air smells incredible. Since only one propane wall unit heats the entire structure in the winter, warm clothes and snuggling at night alleviate high heating bills.

Locating to a new residence inspired job reevaluations and searches for both of us. Palacios High School lost an English teacher to Bay City in June 2003; the principal offered the position to me, I gratefully accepted. The butterfly broke the cocoon's shell with that move! My HISD salary (remember the comment about combat pay?) did not match the Palacios ISD pay schedule; the difference created an $8,000 annual loss of income. After school started, the contrast between the city students and the country/ small town ones repaired the initial sting of the reduced paycheck. The well-mannered cooperative Palacios students required little disciplining which permitted uninterrupted periods of pleasant teaching experiences.

Closing three stress-ridden businesses freed Ron to explore passions and dreams. Recently returning to a home-based business that specializes in on-site photography, his daily agenda also includes caring for a garden, rabbits, and three outside dogs. By summer's end, the menagerie will multiply to include a handful of goats and a new crop of chickens to replace the two-dozen that died this spring. Other animals will join the farm as time and space permits. Reaping fruits of his labors, garden goodies provided ingredients for Ron's special hot sauce that now fill space in the freezer.

During this summer's reading of a novel for the New Jersey Writing Project/Texas workshop, a quote concerning simplification that validates Thoreau's ideas leaped off the page. Mireille Guiliano in French Women Don't Get Fat, The Secret of Eating for Pleasure (245, 246) (3), explains, "After 50, most women have the good fortune of clearly recognizing the things they truly care about. It's a time in life when we focus on those things, improve our lives through simplification, and get real about the things to be let go." As retirement (3-10 years from now) and a 56th birthday approach, simplification comes closer and closer to virtual reality ... a husband and wife-built cabin-style cordwood home sits deep in a wooded pasture; the rent-free abode invites peaceful interaction with all forms of nature; the loving couple harvest the majority of healthy food items from an organic garden and barnyard; children, grandchildren and friends frequently arrive for visits on the wrap around porches. Finally, the butterfly breaks free of the cocoon, stretches its uniquely colored wings, and soars to share its beauty with the world.

Works cited

(1) Luhrs, Janet, The Simple Living Guide, A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living, New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

(2) What, Elgin, Duane,

(3) Guiliano, Mireille, French Women Don't Get Fat, The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.



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