The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Quakers on simple living

Dandelion fluff
"But the wonderful thing about simplicity is its ability to give us contentment.  Do you undersand what a freedom this is?  To live in contentment means we can opt out of the status race and the maddening pace that is its necessary partner.  We can shout 'No!' to the insanity which chants, 'More, more, more!'"
--- Richard J. Foster, 1981.

As Everett once wrote on his blog, voluntary simplicity is far from simple.  It's tough to wrap your head around why you might choose to embrace simplicity in your life, and equally tough to figure out how to be simple when mainstream society considers simplicity Garter snakeclose to a sin.  On the other hand, when I achieve simplicity in bits and spurts, I understand the importance of the measure --- the word "simple" in the phrase refers to the peace you feel when you've cut that cord to consumer culture.

Despite believing in the philosophy, I haven't done much reading about simplicity because writers like Thoreau generally make my eyes roll.  But when a copy of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)'s Faith and Practice: First Reading (2012) fell into my lap, I flipped through the sections on simplicity and found some helpful advice.  Here's an example:

"For Friends, the purpose of a simple life is to remove the distractions that interfere with our conversations with the Divine....  John Woolman reduced the size of his business three times because it had grown so big that it took too much time away from his being with God....  A simple life style is useful in this connection since the pursuit of excessive material wealth or power may entail exploitation of others....  StriderHistory has shown that when a future outcome, however noble, seems of greater worth than the human being before us, any means, any atrocity, is possible.

"We need to think of simplicity not as an impossible demand, but as an invitation to a more centered, intentional, and fulfilling Spirit-led life.  Simplicity flows from well-ordered living.  It is less a matter of doing without, than a spiritual quality that simplifies our lives by putting first things first....  This does not mean that life is to be poor and bare, destitute of joy and beauty.  Each must determine...what promotes and what hinders the compelling search for inner peace...."


Long-time readers will be aware that I'm not religious, but it's pretty easy to replace "God" and "the Divine" with whatever's most important to you.  Of course, the hardest part for many who seek non-religiously-affiliated simplicity is figuring out what you want to replace mainstream culture with.  Mark's goal is always to find more time, while for me, the objective is to end up with the mental energy and space to focus on what I care about.  I've noticed in my own life and in the lives of people around me that many of the worst aspects of modern living are intentional distractions that prevent us from having to decipher our own passions.

Frog amid duckweed

I'll close with one last quote found in Faith and Practice:

"Too many of us have too many irons in the fire....  Quaker simplicity needs to be the structure of a relatively simplified and coordinated life-program of social responsibilities."
--- Thomas R. Kelly, 1941

Raspberry flower

What do you think about voluntary simplicity?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Anna, this is a beautiful post. A great thing to read here early on a sunday morning as I sit with my coffee ( after having fed the chickens, cats, amd checked onnthe garden of course!). i AM a person of faith and found these words quite lovely. There are only a few things that are really important. Living simply means being intentional about those few things, and letting the rest go by. There is a certain peace that comes with this, and I think we can find great joy in it. But I dont say it is easy in our current culture, and for families with children, alot harder than for folks like us whose kids are grown and gone. Voluntary simplicity does involve being content with both our " status" ( or humble lack thereof) and also whatever simple tasks are required of us day by day. That comes out of knowing what is truly important and acting out of that.

It is said that Saint Augustine was working in his garden one day, and someone asked this great cleric, " if you knew that today was your last day on earth, what would you do with it?" To which St. augustine replied, " i would finish hoeing in the garden." I have always loved that anectdote, as I think it describes a life lived in great contentment. If the task of the day was working in the garden, then that was doing God's work, and nothing more was required.

Comment by Deb Sun May 19 09:44:09 2013
"I have been suspicious of men who extol pure self-reliance ever since I discovered that Henry David Thoreau brought his dirty laundry home from Walden Pond to his mom." --Ellen Goodman
Comment by WendP Sun May 19 11:20:33 2013
I live in an area with a lot of Mennonites, and I've always admired their lifestyle. I don't know too much about the way Quakers do things, but I have found that a simple life tends to be a good one. As a Buddhist, this philosophy is highly prevalent in my belief system, and I would replace "God," etc. with "peace."
Comment by Angela Sun May 19 14:38:35 2013

Kelly's quote about having too many irons in the fire zapped me like a little electric shock. I am still pondering the bit about a program of social responsibilities.

Deb, I think you are quite right about it being harder to simplify when you have younger kids. Although I feel like I have a powerful motivation in having my kids watch my decision-making, I also struggle when I am making decisions that affect how others will see them. Case in point, should I send my kids to school in patched uniforms? I have no problem at all wearing well-worn clothes myself; I've given up caring what people who judge me on my appearance think. But kids (mine, anyways) are at a different point developmentally. I too would definitely have minded standing out among my peers in that way when I was in school; I was already embarrassed wearing Value City clothes, much less if they had been patched...! But when my son comes home for the second time in a week with a hole in the knee of his khakis, I'm caught between my frugal, practical impulse to patch and my status-conscious, consumerist impulse to just order a couple more pairs. Living simply is indeed not always simple.

Comment by Heather Sun May 19 15:12:56 2013
Loved the excerpt from Faith and Practice: First Reading, it is how I have been feeling for a long time now.
Comment by Tommy Sun May 19 20:36:45 2013
Thanks for this post, Anna. If anyone wants to know more about Quakerism or has any questions, I would be very happy to help. Just give them my email address.
Comment by Sheila Sun May 19 21:16:54 2013

I think simplicity is a state of mind. It's about strength of character. Having kids can challenge your ideas about simplicity, but I don't think they necessarily push someone away from simplicity or make it more difficult to achieve. Just like having an illness that requires constant medical therapy (type I diabetes, for instance) doesn't mean you can't live simply, or that you aren't living simply because you have to incorporate complicated things into your life.

Simplicity for me is flexibility. It's about being prepared to accept life as it is, and of course knowing how to prioritize what's in your life at the moment. A clear, decisive state of mind is what it takes. I disagree that simplicity is any more difficult for people today than in the past. The most complicated things in life, in my experience, are social demands. Those are always present. If it were so easy in the past to achieve simplicity, then all of the philosophies and religions that have preached it throughout history would be unremarkable. We certainly wouldn't be discussing them today.

For me, I have to be careful of mistaking stinginess for frugality. Sometimes I think I am being frugal (and thus enjoying simplicity), but instead I am merely being stubborn and stingy. It hinders me. Because of that, I've learned that material measurements aren't a good way to examine simplicity.

I imagine life in prison is materially simple, but character determines whether or not a person in prison can achieve what many of us hope to gain from voluntary simplicity.

Comment by Sara Mon May 20 11:55:25 2013
I've been reading here for a year, but never felt the urge to comment before (love the blog- you have been so helpful to us as we are starting our 3rd year of homesteading). I agree with earlier comments that simplicity, or, decreased materialism, is tougher with kids. We live in a fairly affluent area of New England for a variety of reasons I won't go into. Our family & friends tolerate, even enjoy, our homesteading and simple way of life. We have a 3 year old & a baby, though, and I can see it getting harder as they get older- being so different from their classmates. Homeschooling is not an option, and there just aren't people like us around here. Already, the preschool teachers find the homegrown snacks we bring odd (like baked kale), and I anticipate exactly the sort of dilemma one poster mentioned- do you patch the pants or buy new ones so your kids fit in? Kids can be so cruel, despite the ever-present anti-bullying campaigns that are in school these days, and I'd hate for my kids to be turned off to a simple way of life because they were ridiculed at school for it. Perhaps, though, if they are truly content, it won't matter what the other kids say? I just think it will take developmental maturity for that state of mind to occur & I don't want them to have too much distress while they get there. It's something my husband & I have talked about, and we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. But I do think living the simple life is harder these days, depending on where you live, if it is hard to find like-minded people near you, with whom you can physically interact on a regular basis.
Comment by Anonymous Mon May 20 14:25:42 2013

When it comes to kids, solving the problem of knee patches and such, I don't think there is one solution that is simple (patching)vs one that is not (buying new). Where I live, I can find nice second hand clothing and uniforms that don't need patches. Something has to be done for the kids, and buying new pants isn't always frivolous.

When I first started homesteading, I envisioned going off the grid and possibly living without electricity. Later, I found that living without electricity is technically considered neglect of children, and can get your children taken away from you. I don't feel like making the choice to live with electricity and buffer myself against that possible outcome actually impacts my choice of voluntary simplicity. There are still many other areas in my life to simplify.

That's all I am saying. Having a strict view of what is simple and what is not, and then saying that there is a gradient of simplicity based on material examples is like saying one is not a gardener because they use technique ABC instead of XYZ. It doesn't make sense to me.

I have seen very simple people occupy large homes because that's what they have and they don't feel the need to downgrade. I have seen very excessive, impulsive people occupy marginal homes and live meager lives because of their choices.

Going to the extreme, I don't think homesteading or homeschooling are necessarily choices that advance cimplicity. In my youth, I would have much preferred traveling with a suitcase and bumming off of others. It was simple. I survived. I felt free and ecstatic. That's just a different type of simplicity. I wouldn't do that now. I wouldn't feel content with that.

Comment by Sara Mon May 20 18:02:55 2013

Being simple is easier for some than others, depending especially upon personality. I am a Quaker who struggles with bipolar consumptive symptoms that trigger compulsions to buy that are not about keeping up with Jones at all but feeding a food addiction and wanting to be comfortable and a bit narcissistic. I too would love to be contacted to talk about this.

I am Anna's sis and we both grew up in the exact same place. She was nurtured by the farm longer as we moved in town so soon after I popped out alive.

I mean to read more of the comments. I also want to say hi to Sheila who I love and am holding in the light.


Comment by Maggie Tue May 21 02:10:35 2013
The word simplicity confuses me lately. When I was a stay at home mom, I thought that I was the definition of simplicity. I did my chores, worked the garden, took care of my family, but yet, I still had time to read and drink my tea for at least an hour a day. But now, I own a business with my husband and we work that business 50+ hours a week each. Is my life still considered simple? I'm not sure. I still do all the things I used to do (except now I have accepted that a perennial garden is the way I need to go in this season of my life) but I have added a 50 hour work week to it. I'm with my husband, so that we are working together and not separated through the day. I pick up my son from school and we eat our meals together everyday. I feel like I'm in a limbo from "traditional" simplicity and a weird configuration of simplicity. My life is clearly different, but in the base of things they are the same. I also have a hard time differentiating between true simplicity and money simplicity. I used to choose to bake all our bread, now I have to bake all our bread to meet our budget. I lose contentment when I think about money and how much farther we need to go to make sure we'll be ok when we get older. We have no debt except for our house, but retirements need to be set. Being concerned for future finances... is that living in simplicity and contentment or just a natural by product of being an aging woman? Yes, simplicity itself is clearly not simple for me! :)
Comment by kim Tue May 21 17:18:14 2013

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