I have to warn you in advance: This is going to be a long post, and no, I don’t have a definitive answer to the question posed in the title. But it’s something I think about a lot. And now that the issue of what I mean by “the simple life” has already been tackled, we can get straight to the question of HOW to live it. And why it’s not always that simple.
Often, when I tell a friend or an acquaintance about the kinds of projects I write about here — be it fiber crafts or food preservation or gardening — they respond: “Oh, I would also love to do something like that, it’s just that…” Usually, what keeps them from engaging in such projects is one of two things: being a parent of small children, or having a very demanding and stressful job. Often, it’s both. Yet others are under a lot of pressure struggling with health issues, caring for a disabled or elderly family member, or having to work two jobs to make ends meet.
Those deterrents, that sense of being overwhelmed by what one already has on one’s plate, is real. I don’t have kids, but I dare say I speak from experience when it comes to a demanding and stressful job. In the last few years, I’ve routinely found myself working 70-80-hour workweeks, so I know what it feels like to be chronically sleep-deprived and gasping for breath in trying to meet what feel like impossible demands. It is in such times that my commitment to a low-consumption, home-made lifestyle has been put to test the most. And often, I’ve succumbed to the shortcuts that convenience culture provides us, simply in order to get through another day: buying a ready-made meal, taking the car instead of the bike, ordering something online rather than making it myself — or making do.
Let’s face it: it takes time to cook from scratch, rather than pull one of those quick and easy meals out of a box. It takes time to search for some necessary item used or produced locally, rather than ordering it with the click of a button online. It takes time to forage for nettles that grow nearby and blanch them instead of picking up a clamshell plastic box of spinach grown in Mexico. It takes more time (often, though not always) to ride a bike or public transport rather than take the car. It takes time, and care and imagination, to really be present for one another rather than tune in to some pre-packaged entertainment that is just the press of a button away.
The busyness epidemic is a topic much larger than what I can hope to address here (or, frankly, what I’m even qualified to truly address). So many of us are constantly living in overdrive; being frazzled and over-committed and pressed for time has become the norm rather than the exception. I’m really starting to think that if we want to examine and reduce our ecological footprint, THAT’s where we need to start. The culture of busyness is what keeps us trapped to the vicious cycle of convenience and consumption.And it is a cycle, because in order to be able to afford the convenience and consumption, we need to earn money, which again keeps us busy, which is why we go for the convenience and consumption… You get the point.
I don’t want to belittle how very difficult it is to start changing these patterns, resisting the expectations and pressures (both internal and external) to do everything, to say yes to everything, to be “on” all the time. But I want to suggest that it’s not impossible. The key is taking small steps, one at a time, being very patient and forgiving with yourself, and realizing that the reward — a better quality of life — is so utterly worth whatever bumps on the road you may encounter along the way. There are two books I’d recommend for anyone who feels trapped by the seemingly overwhelming demands of everyday life: How Did I Get So Busy by Valorie Burton is a fairly straightforward guide for anyone who finds herself constantly running against the clock. If you’re ready to question the very basis of the culture of overwork and commodification, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes is fantastic. It gives real-life examples of people who have chosen to live on less in order to have more time (and consequently, end up consuming less).
Although I myself have a long way to go, and my job continues to be demanding, I’m happy to say that I’m increasingly finding ways to carve out space and time for the other things I’m passionate about. But it does involve a conscious choice, a conscious effort. Although I don’t yet have the definitive answer to the question, “How to live the simple life when life is not simple?,” here are some nuggets of grace that can make it all seem a little less impossible:
- Start small. Pick one thing, and focus on that first. If you want to start growing your own veggies, for example, don’t try to grow everything the first year. There’s a steep learning curve, and you might get discouraged. Start with some herbs, lettuce, and beans, all of which are easy to grow.
- Accept that your transition is going to be a gradual one. Homesteading, for example, is not a competitive sport. I really appreciated this preface to Alana Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry:
I do not make all of these recipes every week—not even close. I do my best to keep my family eating the best foods possible. Some weeks are filled with all sorts of experimental and lovely treats. […] But some weeks are different, and I’m sure you know the kinds of weeks I’m talking about. Then I have to prioritize, and only the easiest and most important recipes warrant my time: yogurt, granola, and snack bars for the ride home from school.
- Not all aspects of the low-waste, low-consumption lifestyle are really all that time-consuming. Recycling and composting, for example, take virtually no time once you’ve set up a good system. If your work commute is reasonably short, riding a bike might well be faster than driving when you factor in rush hour traffic, parking, etc. When it comes to cooking from scratch, you can make a lot at once on a weekend –- e.g. a big pot of stock or soup, lasagna or other casserole dishes –- and freeze some of it for a quick and wholesome meal for sometime later.
- Prioritize. If having a tidy, organized home was important to me, I probably wouldn’t have the time for half of the things I do. But it’s not high up on my list. I also don’t really watch TV — I’d rather spend that time doing other things. But again, these are choices, and you need to decide what works for you.