No matter how much so many of us have done to lead a simpler life, we haven’t done very well, it seems. Our efforts have been too contrived, too outside-in, and thus contained in themselves the problems of complexity. I don’t think one can try to live simply any more that one can try to be spontaneous or try to be oneself.
Take me, for example. I have been a long-time admirer of the active Thoreau, and have emulated him in many of my “simplify-my-life” efforts. (The passive Thoreau is not so easy to follow.) I have lived in a log cabin by the river, in a tree house in the woods, in a thatched chickee in Florida, in an inner city flophouse in Detroit, in a VW van all over hell, in the back seat of my car in Appalachia; I have become (and un-become) a vegetarian, a fruitarian, a berry-arian; have divorced my way out of a tangled marriage; have fasted up to ten days at a time; have shit in a hole in the ground for six months running. I have signed off from society in every way possible (and then signed back on when the inconvenience could no longer be borne); I have striven for non-possessive relationships with friends, children, and lovers (and died a thousand jealous deaths in the privacy of my heart); I have forced myself to sit still and meditate without much notion of what that word meant or what meditation was supposed to achieve, only that it reputedly lay down that mysterious path in the direction of the simpler life.
But when all is said and done, the problem is precisely that — the simpler life can’t be had by saying and doing. It can’t be “had” at all. It is a matter of being, and everything that we say and do in the name of simplicity will only further complicate our lives, at least on the inside where the substance is. A simpler life, like heaven (we are told), cannot be attained through efforts, because a simpler life is simply the fruit of a more innocent life, and really nothing more or less. It seems the more we say or do in the name of innocence or simplicity, the less innocent and more subtly complex we inevitably become. Life’s quite crazy that way: whatever we strive for recedes in proportion to our efforts to attain it, until one day we stop trying and it all catches us up from behind.
Petersburg, West Virginia
We’ve been married thirty years: I, a neat, organized, efficient, methodical person whose slogan is, “Simplify, simplify!” — he, a volatile, disorganized, temperamental, helter-skelter maniac who leaves confusion in his wake. I, who would love nothing better than to sit quietly, contemplating a blade of grass hour after hour, am married to a capricious tornado who starts out to clean the garage, then rushes to fix the rain gutter (leaving it disassembled), then darts about hauling junk from one place, then piling it up in another. And, while I calmly finish my little projects, wrapping them up into neat, ribboned packages, he rages around, leaving his scattered about, unfinished, in a state of what I call “chaos,” but what he calls “work in progress.”
But he has a plausible reason for what he does, and it makes perfect sense to him.
He is certain that once you finish your projects, you die. Only if you leave yourself in a state of disorder, incompletion, confusion, will you be sure to stay alive because you will be required to finish what you started. He says that it’s when you wrap things up like I do that you make the announcement, “My work is done; I’m ready now to go.” As he explains, he can’t possibly go and leave such a mess.
Now, how can I argue him out of that? For all I know, he’s right.
Park Forest, Illinois
Once, in a large and busy backyard, a branch on an old oak tree grew weary of life’s complexities. “I shall set out to find a simpler life,” said the branch. “For years I have endured the detailed and arduous tasks of being a branch. I have provided homes for countless birds, squirrels, and insects. Each winter have held tons of snow and ice; each summer I have borne treehouses, ladders, and old tires suspended by rope. Whenever called upon I have assisted in the intricate work of making the wind audible. On top of all this I have dutifully performed the painstaking and infinitely elaborate labors for which I was designed: the propagating of leaves, the photosynthesizing of sunlight, the production of oxygen. But I am fed up with these burdensome responsibilities. I must simplify my life, make time for leisure, learn to relax.” And with that he broke away from the oak tree and set out.
After many days of walking and dragging behind him the wilting twigs and leaves which he once nourished, the branch came to a large and sparsely populated field. He saw that it was quiet and this made him glad. “Here I shall lie down and begin my new life as a dead branch!”
For several weeks the branch had a simple life. He went to bed early and rose with the sun, then spent the day reading or idly contemplating. Often he would watch the sun pass over and reflect how wonderful it was that he no longer had to expend the time and energy brewing chlorophyll or coughing up endless whiffs of oxygen. “Finally my life is simple!” he said.
But one day a nest of termites moved in. Their number multiplied rapidly, and soon they attracted a family of noisy woodpeckers. The woodpeckers quickly pecked out a home next to the growing food supply. Before long the happy oak branch was spending a great part of his time feeding termites and housing woodpeckers. When two fat groundhogs moved in beneath him, the oak branch realized that his simple life in the field had grown tiresomely complex. “I’d better move on before these varmints finish me,” he said, “or else I won’t be fit for lumber even!”
He wasn’t finished yet, though. Surely there’s a way to have a simpler life,” he said. Then he had an idea. “That’s it! I’ll become a pile of lumber. Then I can lie in the sun all day and not be bothered by anyone.” So he went to the nearest lumberyard and was made into a pile of two-by-fours. It suited him immensely. Now he had more free time than he had ever conceived. He began to read all sorts of books: history, languages, mathematics, science. He especially liked physics. For hours on end he would sit like a knot on a log, studying voraciously. His knowledge grew greater and his perceptions keener. He began to notice little things that earlier had slipped his attention, things like teensy molecules and cells that lived noiselessly all through his innards — and all over his outards, too. He grew increasingly obsessed with this miniature world until one day he became aware of the minute subatomic levels of reality. Here he found a world of incredible complexity: electrons with split personalities, quarks and hadrons that slipped through black holes into other universes (then back into this one through white holes), even particles that moved backwards in time. This was more than a stack of two-by-fours could comprehend. “Again my life has grown wildly complex,” he cried, “but this time it came about because I had too much time for leisure! What ever shall I do?”
Fortunately the stack of two-by-fours was bought that same day by a man who was building a house. The man used the two-by-fours as rafters in his new house, and soon the oak branch — what was left of him — was busy holding up a roof. It was a full time job, of course, and the branch learned many new things. He experienced first-hand the mathematical complexities of tension and compression structures, obligingly memorized the moisture-evaporation rates of various woods, even picked up a point or two on the aesthetics of modern architecture. At night he dabbled in the occult art of making houses creak. And of course by day he worked hard at his new job. All in all he was happier than he’d ever been. Life was as complicated as ever, but he learned to live with complexity, and eventually to savor it. One day he overheard some shingles on the roof talking to one another. “I must set out to find a simpler life,” said one shingle to the other. At this the oak branch let out a hearty chuckle among the rafters. For a moment the attic echoed with his knowing smile.
Johnson City, Tennessee
For the past two months I’ve been traveling around the country with:
1 tube of toothpaste
1 envelope of Traveller’s Checks
6 pairs of socks
1 bathing suit
1 Bach flower remedy
1 packet of post cards
3 small notebooks
2 folders of writings
1 pair of long pants
1 turtleneck shirt
1 longsleeved shirt
2 pairs of shorts
1 down jacket
1 sleeping bag
Along the way I accumulated a few items: a yarmulke, a Rastafarian newspaper, World of Wonders by Robertson Davies and a plastic token mounted on a pivot, which shows a donkey having sex with an elephant when it’s spun. I rolled up the down jacket in the sleeping bag, and arranged everything else in a nylon traveling bag in a strict hierarchy: clothes on bottom, then writings, then whatever food I had. I never wished I’d taken more (though at times I longed for a shower cap).
It sounds pretty minimal, but it still qualified me for the Bourgeoisie Of The Road. Richard Petty, whom I met on the street in Las Vegas, New Mexico — and whom I nicknamed “Menth” because he like to hustle Menthol cigarettes — has been traveling for thirteen years, and carried only the clothes on his back.
Should I pay exactly what I owe in taxes or should I cut a few corners? Deciding to manipulate my tax return would complicate my life instantly. Consider: wouldn’t that be cheating? Well, I could rationalize: “It’s my money, I earned it,” “I need it more than they do,” etc. But after all, isn’t it still wrong to break the law for my own profit? On the other hand, everyone does it, so if I don’t fib a bit here and there I’ll end up paying proportionately more than others. Wouldn’t I be a fool not to cheat a little? Yet I enjoy thinking of myself as an honest person. Can I cheat a little bit and still be honest? Suppose I only cheat the government, does that make it okay? How much should I go for? If I only fudge a little, even if they notice it they’ll let it slide, because it must cost the IRS a lot of money to go through an audit. But if I only squeeze out a few bucks, what’s the point? Am I going to give up thinking of myself as an honest person for a few measly dollars? Maybe I should lie big to make it worthwhile. With the right deductions I could save some real money. But then if they audit me what will I say? Or suppose I never get caught; will I wind up kicking myself for not fabricating even more outrageous deductions?
I have reached the conclusion that my life will be simpler and my mind will be more peaceful if I pay exactly what I owe. Similar reasoning has convinced me that to keep all the other areas of my life equally simple and straightforward I have to deal fairly and honestly with everyone. This means being my best (most virtuous) self all the time. Knowing that I always intend to be entirely just in all things saves endless mental wheelspinning and it’s not hard to do: one may not always know what course is best, but anyone with a functioning conscience can tell what feels wrong.
Virtue is its own reward. So if the clerk or waiter mistakenly undercharges you, pay what you owe; don’t call in sick if you really aren’t; never seek unfair advantage at someone else’s expense. Honesty may never be as popular as cheating on one’s taxes, but it will simplify your life by putting your mind at ease.
La Puente, California
Life can be too simple, so devoid of basic tangible and intangible necessities that it can only be called an existence: when one has no career, no lover, no money, no stable place of residence, no friends either, because they’re scattered far and wide. The quest for an ascetic, mainly spiritual and intellectual life can delay the realization that certain complications are needed in order to feel real, and really live. The worship of literature and Eastern philosophy, although fulfilling to a degree, does not suffice. With only that to live for, my life is so simple externally that I just exist. I need some material things as well, a few luxuries, human relationships. The ideal was to live like Siddhartha, but the reality is that being able to buy a knick-knack now and then makes me feel more human; eating red meat at least twice a week improves my health; frivolous socializing makes me feel more alive.
Years of poverty trained me not to want much. I could window-shop and view desirable objects dispassionately. I owned two Mexican ceramic owls and one imitation oriental vase, which symbolized and substituted for the myriad antiques and art objects I could not hope to possess. Yet the moment I temporarily became more prosperous, the dam burst, and I bought and bought and bought, deriving tremendous pleasure from each spree. Mindless consumerism is equalled only by love, creativity and art in providing a lift for me; I’m not proud of my proclivity for that cheap and expensive thrill so long denied, but always luring, and lurking. I can’t be totally convinced that killing off one’s desire for things is how to live; in a way, it feels more like death — although saying that feels like heresy to the idealistic, non-materialistic values I like to think I still hold, and to the Buddha’s noble truth. I’m ashamed.
Here’s how I have made my life simpler, but more unliveable: any man who tried to get close was summarily discarded, on grounds of suffocation. I threw away my journalism career to run off to New York, spurred by the silly romantic notion that I had to do that to be a writer. Denying my Southern roots, my background, I roamed Manhattan dressed like a junior bag lady to avoid muggings. It was the wrong kind of simplicity, a negative instead of positive egolessness. I was just drifting. Yet once I returned to the South I fell into apathy, and couldn’t get myself to do anything except watch soap operas and read. Penniless, I decided to be supported by the state for a time, and went to live in a reform school for people who need to be “motivated.” I did get motivated — to get out of there, because some women threatened to beat me up and throw me out the window.
Instead of going to Paris, I look at picture books of France; instead of having a love affair, I experience love vicariously. A vicarious life is simpler, but is it life?
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Sometimes I think I’d like to join the Catholic Worker’s hospitality house in New York and serve soup to the derelicts, of whom I might be one but for the grace of God.
Michael Harrington had all his clothes stolen when he lived there, so I’d leave my leather jacket and wool pants at home. If the things I brought went, I’d wear what came in the poor boxes.
I’d quit smoking because if the homeless saw me with cigarettes, some of them would ask for one. I can’t afford to supply them with cigarettes, so I’d give them up myself.
Dorothy Day once wrote that seeing so many lives destroyed by liquor had made a teetotaler out of her. It would probably have that effect on me, too.
Instead of craving this thing one minute, and something else the next, I’d forget my mundane ambitions and concentrate on being kind and patient.
When I left New York and came home, I’d write a book about my experiences which would be a bestseller and make me a lot of money.
However good my intentions to continue leading a simpler life, I’m afraid that among my first purchases would be some nice new clothes, a bottle of J&B scotch, and a carton of Trues.
I am a post-menopausal woman. Nature, or the evolutionary process moving in its mysterious direction, simplified my life. Woman is the only animal to experience menopause.
No more tampax, no more birth control in my purse. That leaves room for something else. Or better still, just a lighter load. A load of light.
I can forget about my children. They don’t want my help. They like making their own mistakes. I can forget about the mistakes I made. There’s no going back.
What do I do now? I meditate. I shed my ego. Pain is second nature to me. I don’t take a lot of shit from people about professionalism and expertise. I am an expert at my own life.
Where am I going? I farm my land. I read less. I write instead of read.
Growing up in the city, I never had to look far for entertainment. There were movies, concerts, plays — lots of vicarious experiences. I learned to be a watcher, not a doer. After graduation, I went to college in an Idaho town of about 9,000 (most of them students). There was one movie theater. Plays and concerts were few. I had no TV. There was nothing to watch but the sky.
At dawn, the horizon began to take on color — desert browns and reds pure in their intensity. The sun rose defiant and I threw back my head and cried out, and knew why the Indians worshipped the sun. The daytime sky was brightly blue and the wind whipped the clouds into mares’ tails. There were thunderstorms, and we all rushed out of our apartments to see the lightning and feel the air crackling with electricity. We weren’t afraid. The weather was a living thing that drew us to it and loved us in its fierce way.
Evening came and the sun drew the fire of the day down with it as it sauntered behind the mountains. The moon hung ripe and low. I saw a shooting star for the first time. It went right over my head and I felt like some blessing had been given — I had the approval of the universe.
One night there was a commotion in the courtyard. People were pointing upward and calling out the names of colors. I thought it was some sort of game until a few minutes later when I saw the northern lights, something I had only read about before then. Away from the city lights at last, I learned how it felt to look up and see an eternity of stars. I felt incredibly small, but at the same time I thought, “I’m made of that stuff!”
I am back in the city now among my city friends. Sometimes I feel a vague uneasiness, and I look overhead and think, “Something about this place is wrong. . . .” I know what it is; the sky is dead. Gray, polluted, flat — no stars at night. Mild weather, few storms. I get a little melancholy. My friends think I am lonely. How can I tell them I am tired of the culture, tired of the frenetic pace of technology, tired of all the things clamoring for my attention. How can I tell them I am lonesome for the barren places?
I remind myself that simplicity isn’t reactionary, that it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own anything or use anything.
It’s an easy mistake to make in a world where people love styrofoam cups because they make things “simpler.” Simplicity means consistency, harmony, and intentional actions, not reactionary asceticism or convenience. Styrofoam cups have become a symbol to me of the discord of our own culture.
Once I was at a vigil at the site of a proposed hazardous waste dump in Illinois. A man said something which was important for me. “Of course we don’t want this hazardous waste dump,” he said. “No one wants a hazardous waste dump in their neighborhood. We need not only to make those responsible accountable for this dump, but we need to claim our own responsibility and live in a way that produces less hazardous waste.” He went on to talk about how almost all industrial processes involve hazardous waste to some degree.
“Only connect,” my teacher says. Living a physically simpler life is part of the same process as working for peace. When six percent of the people use forty percent of the world’s resources, materialism leads to imperialism.
So I try to carry my own cup around with me. It isn’t always convenient, and it’s certainly not easy, to lovingly tell good people at the peace meeting that styrofoam isn’t cool, but it’s simple because it’s consistent with my vision for a better world.