Stephanie Mills’s “A Simpler Than Average Life” [August 2002] made me angry. Never having read a copy of Utne Reader, which hailed her as “one of the world’s leading visionaries” in 1996, I have to wonder what world they were talking about.
I think Mills has spent too much time away from her own species. I found myself reacting to her essay with thoughts like: Great! Here’s another rich kid playing poor! Or She’s burning the trees to keep warm!
Terms like “bioregional” and “voluntary simplicity” aren’t a part of my vocabulary (or that of anyone else I know). Mills seems to be part of an elitist group of people who take pride in referring to themselves as “countercultural” and letting the rest of us know how “good” they are (almost saintly) because they eat tofu, drink herbal tea, talk to bugs, listen to owls, and gaze at the stars — people of “superior consciousness.” My gut turned when she wrote of her husband “bringing home the tofu.” I don’t think her type should co-opt a good old working-class phrase like “bringing home the bacon.” (Yes, I eat it!)
People who choose her lifestyle are just copping out, because the real challenge lies in living among the “polluters and destroyers of the earth,” working with us, and educating us.
I did love it, though, when she said, “I seem to be having a good time on the eve of destruction.”
Stephanie Mills responds:
I regret that the excerpt from Epicurean Simplicity angered Ms. White. Within my limitations and predilections, I do my work with the best of intentions and hopes for a better world. This is no guarantee against striking someone as being a presumptuous countercultural elitist. My purview and my work are of course limited to my circumstances. At times my blind spots infuriate me as much as they did Ms. White.
Throughout the larger work, I was at pains not to claim any moral superiority or even great attainment in simple living. I also strove to acknowledge my privilege and to stress that involuntary simplicity, aka poverty, is unjust.
Among the points I try to make in the book is that, whoever we are and wherever and however we dwell, our mundane choices have physical, ecological, and therefore moral consequences. The inadvertent, sometimes inevitable harm we do to other beings by these choices calls for some ethical scrutiny and active response.
Not everyone gets to be a Jane Addams, Simone Weil, or Dorothy Day, working in cities or factories to make things better. Not everyone should. “Different roles for different souls,” says my friend Hazel Henderson. For my part, I am trying to do good work as a writer.
Stephanie Mills’s essay on living a simple life is a wonderful confirmation of my own experience. After reading Thomas Merton, I began to emulate his life in the monastery in Kentucky. I downsized and stopped driving three days a week. With no TV, radio, or newspapers, I can find total quiet here in the pine barrens of Long Island, an island with more than 7 million people.
Stripped to the bare necessities, life could not be more authentic. Each moment is a mindful, wonderful experience. The word recreation doesn’t have any meaning anymore. Pure quiet is recreation. Hanging out the wash, scrubbing the floor, washing the dishes — all offer opportunities for meditation and prayer. It is reassuring to know that others are choosing to live more authentically.
I want to thank Stephanie Mills for her sensitive and enlightening response [Correspondence, November 2002] to my angry letter. Her reply proves that she is a class act, whereas my own working-class struggles and lack of formal education make me reactionary and rough around the edges. The bottom-line is: I truly admire people who work to make this world a better place, and I resent that the circumstances of my own life have made it impossible for me to contribute to such worthy endeavors.
Please tell Mills that if she thought my response to her essay was bad, my response to the conduct of corporate crooks, corrupt politicians, and hypocritical religious leaders would be unprintable.
Give in to the temptation. We love getting mail.
(Of course, we reserve the right to edit.)