Category Archives: Simple life

Simplify, simplify …

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.  ~  Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever felt, as I have, a strangely wonderful sense of liberation when you pack for a trip?  Limiting yourself to only what will fit into a suitcase or backpack really makes you think about what you really need to carry with you while you’re away from your familiar environment.  For me, it usually turns out to be surprisingly little!  And that always makes me surprisingly happy.

Seventeen years ago, I enrolled in a month-long yoga teacher training (YTT, as we call it) at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.  The main building at Kripalu used to be a Jesuit monastery so the rooms are cell-like (though windowed) and the bathroom is down the hall.  Unless I wanted to spring for a big increase in my tuition to upgrade to a single room (I didn’t), I would be sharing this space with another student and all our stuff.  For.  Four.  Weeks.  Yes, I was assured, there was laundry on premises and a large sliding drawer under each bed, but room for hangers, fugetaboutit.  We would have, my roommate and I, two drawers each of a very small four-drawer chest.

Since March is cold in the Berkshires and I knew I would want to get outdoors, I wondered where I would find space for the jackets, sweaters, warm socks, hats, gloves, and a pair of boots I planned on bringing.  Yikes!  True, we would be spending most of our time in class (in fact, we didn’t get a day off or visitors for two weeks) so I knew I would need to bundle up and get outside to avoid cabin fever.

Summer camp with the ample footlocker for little more than shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits was nothing like this.  So, there I was, age 57, fronting the fact, in my best Thoreauvian guise, that I had too much stuff. I had only to spread it all out on the bed to realize that half of it wasn’t going anywhere but back in the closet or chest.  I got a quick, necessary lesson in the art of layering for warmth. Fortunately, yoga clothing doesn’t crush — I wear it outside of class even now for this reason — and is eminently packable and quickly washed and dried.  And as meditation master instructor, Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, the laundry.

DSC01587When I remember how much better I was able to focus on my yoga training when I didn’t have a lot of choices about what to wear (and no hairdryer or makeup), not to mention all the time I saved for more worthy activities, it takes my breath away.  Even as a couple who enjoys our comforts, we’re hardly shopaholics.  Our kids know better than to give us stuff without a lot of careful thought, so when they do, it is almost always an in-the-moment treat like a terrific assortment of special teas.  Birthday or holiday gifts tend to be certificates for a massage or to an interesting restaurant. When you realize how full of redundant things your life is, a fun exercise is how much stuff you can pack into donation bags for the Vietnam Veterans of America who come right to your door to pick them up.  Even so, in moments of mindfulness, we know we’re living a far from simple life.  We travel; we have a huge library of books; we’ve failed the 100-mile food challenge.  We like our AC, our Internet access, our smartphones.

From a planetary perspective. I believe simplicity is a vastly unrated strategy for dealing with the materialism that we Americans have adopted as a lifestyle and are so busily exporting elsewhere.  Or even worse, creating working condition we would never endure domestically, in distant factories that churn out so-called ‘cheap’ clothes and the stuff that clutters our homes.  The mantra, “recycle, repair and reuse,” is merely the choice we’re left with when we couldn’t resist buying whatever it was in the first place.  And the three R’s are no match for the wanting that comes naturally to us as humans, but is sharpened to a fever pitch by, well, the endless pitch.  This isn’t news to you, but here’s an example: a moment ago, I wanted to find the name of a book I have stored on my Kindle app in my phone.  So I click on it, and up pops this message:

Stay Connected.  By enabling notifications, we’ll occasionally send relevant book recommendations, tips, and other updates to help you get more out of reading.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I am on a 30-day trial because I need (or want?) to refresh the music playlists for my yoga classes.  When I’ve accomplished that, we’ll part company.  No wonder The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo soared to best-seller heights, despite the truly terrible writing (or translation, perhaps).  In the middle of a Joseph Goldstein talk on You Tube, he asks the audience how many could resist pouring through a catalog because, surely, there must be something here I want. Embarrassed laughter.

Wanting (aka craving) is one of the instinctive responses our ancestors needed because their survival depended on getting enough of what was often difficult to get, or in short supply.  In times of crisis, humans often resort to these behaviors, witness the fights breaking out in the refugee encampments or when potable water is delivered to a rural area in the developing world.  Advertising appeals to that primitive part of our brain by creating desire or manufactured need. Voluntary simplicity suggests that we don’t have to be slaves to wanting, that we can override these behaviors, and learn — as the great UU Minister, Forrest Church, put it, “to want what we have.”  As our planet struggles to absorb the end result of our rampant materialism, this sounds like very sound and timely advice.

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Like Water For Avocados

After an announcement about a possible shortage of Hass Avocados caused near panic (and perhaps some welcome publicity), Mexican food chain, Chipolte, tried to soothe its fans with an announcement that there is no “guacapocalypse” in the offing.  Really?  Avocados are a thirsty crop, second only to another California favorite, the endangered almond.  According to Mother Jones, it takes 74.1 gallons of water to grow one pound of avocados as opposed to strawberries (9.8 gallons) or lettuce (5.4 gallons). For the time being, the California Hass is big business for the state: “… about 80 percent of all avocados eaten worldwide and … more than $1 billion a year in revenues in the United States alone.”  (California Avocado Commission).  

Headlines like this one from Newsweek 3/13/15: NASA: California Has One Year of Water Left, should be setting off alarm bells in the Congressional denialist camp on the basis of the economic impact alone, with the nation’s food security right up there next to it.  So it’s particularly bad news for all of us who love avocados — heck, like to eat regularly! — that Senator Ted Cruz now heads the Senate Science Committee, and that he has told NASA to stick to space and drop its climate investigations.  We need to pay close27_smap20150224-16 attention to what happens next.  After all, budget cuts that could threaten programs like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Soil Moisture Mapper (SMAP)  — a satellite that can improve weather forecasts, monitor droughts and predict floods —  will hurt us all, now and in the immediate future. Maybe we should take a page from Senator Snowball’s playbook and start jamming the inboxes of legislators of his ilk with our favorite guacamole recipes.  This sounds like a job for Beautiful Trouble, fearless artist/activists.  Hi-jinks and hackery that exercise our creativity and even soothe our souls.   

It’s great to learn that Al Gore is newly optimistic that we can bring ourselves back from the brink, but yesterday on World Water Day, I couldn’t help thinking about what ordinary Californians are doing about a drought so severe, it has its own website?  Not nearly enough, according to figures from January this year which showed that conservation of water dropped from 22% to 9%, possibly spurred by an end of the year rainy period.  We are so addicted to short-term — or maybe it’s magical — thinking!  No wonder we are so easily distracted by shiny new things, blockbuster movies, and gossip about people we’ll never meet or particularly want to.

So I decided to ask a friend who lives in Huntington Beach about the water crisis, and she assured me that although some of her neighbors still have lawns (and presumably, have not as yet been prohibited from watering them), she has embraced a more desert scape, that is, rocks and succulents.  OK, it’s something, and granted, this is a minuscule sample.  But isn’t this typical of a common mismatch between the complexity of the issues we face — economic, health, safety, civil society — and the response of too many people like my well-meaning friend, as well as those in positions of power?  California officials, writes Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are “staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

Although drought isn’t an issue for Florida at the moment, we have our own water challenges: a rising sea (flooding, coastal erosion, threat to infrastructure and property) and the migration of salt into the agricultural water supply.  So much for the idea that California’s agricultural losses might be somewhat mitigated by Florida’s food growing power.  For more on this including the Sea Level Rise Symposium 2014, see my blog posts from last July, Water: Next Capitalist Tool? and November, Raising Fields.  Not enough water or the wrong kind — none of this is good news for living things.  But compared to what many see as the threat of water wars in the not too distant future, these issues are a drop in the bucket.

What can we do?  First, recognize that climate change is with us here and now and that we humans have no history or experience with the kinds of change it will likely produce in our lives.  On a beautiful, cool morning in South Florida as I write this from my patio, it’s possible to imagine that we have a decade or two before we are forced to adjust, to take action, or possibly, flee for higher ground. Even if that were true, it’s cold comfort for our children and grandchildren. Second, cut your consumption: repair, reuse, repurpose, skip the upgrade, minimize air travel, and make do while these are choices we can still make freely. Third: ask yourself to imagine a world without your favorite food (yes, avocados), a beloved bird, flower, tree, pollinators in general, a particular beach, a cherished vacation spot, a life experience you now take for granted (hiking a pristine trail, growing vegetables, access to a wide variety of fresh food, taking a hot shower, feeling safe on my streets and in my home, are all on my list).  What would you do to preserve these ordinary treasures, for yourself and those you love?  Do it.

See also: The Dark Mountain Project and Movement Generation

Throwback 70s: My Decade of Change

Naomi Klein [This Changes Everything] writes: “… if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.” Who else remembers that place/time? Seemed like a very good life to me.

I posted this on Facebook recently and it resonated with a number of FB friends. That started me thinking more about the 70s and I realized that the “Me” decade, the oil crisis decade, the decade that saw the flowering of feminism, the first Earth Day (April 22) and Jimmy Carter’s solar panels, cardigans, the creation of the Department of Energy and a national energy policy, as well as Kent State, Three Mile Island, and the completion of the world’s tallest buildings, was also a decade when everything did change for me. It began with Father Knows Best and ended with The Brady Bunch.

The SeventiesI sorta missed the 60s by getting married and starting a family, so it wasn’t until the 70s that the Summer of Love and all that it meant caught up with me. Or maybe I’m just a late adopter. A traveling show of the musical, “Hair,” came to my town (Philadelphia), and overnight, it seemed, I wanted the Age of Aquarius and San Francisco with flowers in my Afro more than I wanted cocktails at 6 sharp and membership in The Junior League. In the 1970s, I stopped shaving my legs, went back to school to earn two degrees, and changed life partners. Some standout memories:

1. Flashback, New York City, 1965: I am reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique while recovering in the hospital from the birth of my first child (three days was normal then). In walks my OB/GYN. “Hmmm,” he says, “Isn’t it a little late for that?” (I didn’t much like him, even before that, and No, it wasn’t.)

2. Montclair, NJ, 1973. We’ve returned here after a career misstep that temporarily uprooted us to Pennsylvania, and are now ensconced in a wonderful classic Dutch colonial on a tree-lined street: 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, big basement and backyard, separate garage (with mismatched doors), to the tune of $60K. Back in the day, a young couple could afford the $40K mortgage payments, taxes and upkeep, on one modest salary. We have one utilitarian pre-owned car.  We do not suffer from auto-envy or any other kind.

We moved to Montclair for the schools,  family (pillar of the community in-laws), and commuter service to New York City extraordinaire. With one school-age boy and a 4-year-old girl in part-time nursery, I had more energy and time than I knew what to do with. Who knew skipping the beauty salon and shaving razor would free up so much?

One day, The Montclair Times delivered my salvation: news of a generous ‘re-entry’ program for older adults at Montclair State College, formerly a teachers’ college, currently a Ph.D-granting university. I went for an interview the same week and was accepted into the program. I also made a life-long friend while there.

3. MSU was 10 minutes drive from my home. My professors would have been stars anywhere, but the job market for Ph.D’s being what it was, there we all were: on a hilly campus in suburban New Jersey, with a clear night view of the lights of New York City on the horizon.

My earlier education had been undistinguished, so I surprised myself by graduating with honors in 1976. Yet it was without a clear path to future employment while my children still needed a mom around the house. So when the Department of English offered me a teaching fellowship that enabled me to earn an MA gratis, and also provided a small stipend for teaching in the writing lab, I grabbed it. In 18 months, I was able to save enough to purchase a used Volkswagen bug that I drove up to the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont for the summer session in my final year.

4. Community life on Buckingham Road. In the summer months, some of us grew food, mostly New Jersey tomatoes like Rutgers’ Early Girls and Better Boys (an instant nostalgia point for me), and this also nurtured a culture of sharing: in addition to an exceptional tomato harvest, tools, labor (moving heavy furniture, hedge trimming, small repairs), child care, backyard barbecues, car pools and rides, recipes and advice. I didn’t know the political leanings of my neighbors, or care to, and the idea that one only socialized along those lines would have been laughable.  Hello Transition Street before its time?

Both my adult children – the eldest turns 50 this year — are nostalgic for the walkable, bikeable, friendly, green, safe community they grew up in: badminton in the backyard, Frisbee in the parks, neighborhood friends, and best of all, the freedom from constant parental supervision. Maybe it really does take a village.

And I feel nostalgic for the 1970s in a small town on their behalf, and not only because eggs were cheaper and life simpler (and you got to go to sleep-away camp) but because between then and now, the decades of ‘shop until you drop,’ ‘greed is good,’ ‘Made in China,’ and ‘upgrade everything,’ brought us to where we are today.  Is there a way back to the future? Perhaps.

Naomi Klein again: “…if there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered communities, this is it.”