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...
--Henry David Thoreau
When I first got involved with voluntary simplicity, I heard this quote from Thoreau over and over. It was supposed to symbolize the movement, somehow. I listened and thought it sounded right, but I didn't really and truly get it. First I thought it meant that anyone who wanted to honestly simplify had to go live in the woods. After all, how could anyone live simply in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a city? I was so enamored of simplicity and so excited to get right to it that I signed up for a class on how to build log houses. My little dream was that my family would go off and live in a log cabin in the woods, simply ever after. Everything would take care of itself from there on.
Six years later I'm still living in the same house in the same city. I still look pretty much the same. But inside I've changed. And lots of little details have changed. I've edited and published a journal titled Simple Living since 1992. I have interviewed countless people who have simplified their lives in every way imaginable. I talked to dozens and dozens more for this book. I read everything I could get my hands on about the subject. And I spent a lot of time thinking about what it all meant. Now, finally, I really, deeply understand the quote. The key word is not woods, it is deliberately. What the heck does that really mean? This one word, in my opinion, is the hallmark of a simple life.
People and reporters often ask me what I think simple living is all about. They want to know how low an income they can live on. They want to know if they should keep their condo in the city. Does simple living mean giving up their car? Does it mean never traveling? Does it mean living in poverty? Do you have to go meditate on top of a mountain in Tibet to be really simple? Do you have to live in an austere house? Must you live an austere existence? Can you never go to restaurants or movies?
Simple living is about living deliberately. That's all. You choose your existence rather than sailing through life on automatic pilot. Your existence can be in the woods, in the city, as a carpet cleaner, a doctor, an office manager, a retired person, a single person, a parent of six, a person in his 20s, a person in her 80s. You could have any level of income, but you hang on to a good chunk of your income, whatever it is. Simple living is about having money in the bank and a zero balance on your credit card statement. If you want to travel, you are conscious enough about your choice that you are willing to give up something else. I've chosen to have kid's science projects, newspapers, and my sister's slippers cluttering the living room rather than living an austere existence. Someone else might like austerity because it brings a sense of peace and order. Either way, we've chosen these things consciously...they didn't just "happen." Simple living is about making deliberate, thoughtful choices. The difference is that you are fully aware of why you are living your particular life, and that life is one you have chosen thoughtfully.
As I got deeper into writing this book, the deliberate theme became so loud and clear that I even thought about changing the title from The Simple Living Guide to Yes You Can! This was because literally every single person I interviewed had consciously and with clear purpose designed their lives to coincide with their ideals. They live deliberately. They know full well what they want out of life, and they take creativity and determination to impressive heights in order to accomplish their dreams. Not one of them waited around for someone else to make things better, and not one of them blamed other people or other systems for keeping them from what they deemed important. Nor did any of them absentmindedly wake up one day wondering how their life came to be. They live consciously...deliberately...and thoughtfully. This is what Thoreau meant when he said "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..."
By scaling down your activities, you will have more time and peace of mind to enjoy the ones that remain.
--Unplug the Christmas Machine
The holiday season is one of my favorite times of the year, and it is also a time most filled with paradoxes and mixed feelings. On one hand, it is magical: the tiny flickering lights, tissue-paper fairies hanging from golden threads, those long, dark nights illuminated by candle flame, excited children, gathering with people I care about, and a time to rekindle my spirituality. On the other hand, it's a time when we say we want to spend more time with our children and other loved ones, yet we're busier than ever, shopping, decorating, and attending parties. It's a time when many of us feel that our lives and our families aren't as "perfect" as others'. We think things should be more "perfect" at this time of year. We can experience stress and disappointment in the midst of all the festivities.
And holiday season is a time when the excesses of the privileged (me included) collide loudly with the scarcity of the unprivileged. This past season I left a department store after buying pajamas for my children. As I drove out of the parking lot, I saw a woman sitting on the curb, holding a sign asking for money. What really tugged at my heart was that there was a small child huddled up next to her. It was raining and cold and the little girl was covered in a worn, thin jacket with a hood. I was about ready to go off to the next store to pick up one more gift when I turned my car around. I offered to help.
How can we keep the magic of the holidays alive for ourselves and our families and also reach out to others who have no magic? How can we experience joy and revel in our gift exchanges while also being mindful that thousands of children are going hungry at this time of year? How can we get our shopping, decorating, and entertaining done and also have relaxed, flowing hours with our families and children? How can those who feel the void of not "measuring up" create an experience that is meaningful? We can do this by simplifying our holidays. A simplified holiday can be magical, joyful, and rewarding, and it frees a little more of our time, money, and energy to be available to our families, friends, and children, and also lets us reach out to help others. A simplified holiday also helps us to lower our out-of-proportion expectations and replace them with more realistic ones.
The holiday season, like anything else, is what we make it. It can be friend or foe, depending on how we host it. We can allow it to take us on wild spending sprees and keep us exhausted from overcommitted schedules, or we can look upon it as a friend, gently reminding us to think about what is important in our lives. If you sit awhile and listen, your holiday friend may remind you that this is a good time to start rearranging your life so it has more meaning. My friend Vicki Robin summed it up this way: "When you're leaving this earthly place, which would you rather be able to say: 'I have three cars in my garage,' or 'I've left the world a better place'?"
We can create holidays with deep meaning by looking past mainstream traditions and developing new customs for ourselves and our families. As with all other aspects of simplifying, going against the grain takes a little more creativity and energy, but the results are well worth it.
A Holiday Idea List: Ideas About Your Frame of Mind
Make a list of all the things you dislike about the holidays, and allow yourself to get rid of most or all of them. This is your life: It is perfectly reasonable not to continue dealing with unnecessary, unpleasant things.
The best thing you can do to feel good is to find a way to give to others: Talk with people who come to eat at a soup kitchen; visit someone who is sick or bereaved; take a few turkey sandwiches to the police or fire station; drive a house-bound friend or neighbor around the neighborhood to see the holiday decorations.
You can decide what you want for yourself, your family, and your friends. Pick and choose what you want to do rather than focusing on what you believe others think you should do. Don't spend your holidays just fulfilling obligations.
The efforts of many people make the holidays a success; you are not solely responsible.
The way you celebrated last year (or the year before) need not determine the way you celebrate this year. Your "tradition" could be to celebrate the holidays in a variety of different ways over the years. Expectations are the greatest deterrent to happy holidays.
You don't have to accept every invitation. Choose the events that you most want to attend.
Save one day for yourself: don't schedule anything.
The holidays need not be a time of competition as to the most expensive presents, the biggest tree, the most elaborate dinner, the most extensive decorations, and so on.