Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Search for Radical Simplicity

A little more than a decade ago, my family was a standard suburban family. I was a lawyer in a big city. My husband had a good office job too. We went to work everyday and acted mostly like everyone else. We paid someone to look after our children, clean our house, mow our lawn, and wash our windows. Evenings and weekends we ran from place to place, activity to activity, store to store. Several nights a week, I'd be too 'tired' to figure out something to cook, so we'd eat out, or get takeout or heat up some kind of frozen 'food.' We rarely stayed still, but it seemed normal, whatever that is. In fact, we seemed to be a bit less preoccupied and over-busy than most of our compatriots.

I always tried to make sure we weren't shallow, artificial people. I worked from home a lot. I always tried to get my kids "healthy" frozen entrees. I insisted that the processed child kibble my kids ate and called cereal didn't have too much sugar or too little fiber. We watched a lot of PBS and read books aloud, and went for walks and made homemade play-dough, and did embroidery together, and baked and decorated our own Christmas cookies.

People would sometimes comment that they didn't know how I could do it all. I would beam with pride about being the quintessential modern woman. I could go to work and disembowel an opponent in a legal case and come home and make life-sized papier mache sets of a Babylonian temple for the church play.

But I remember at one point starting to feel like it wasn't working. I didn't know why, but I knew it was growing more and more difficult to pretend like I belonged in my own skin. I remember longing for something, and I didn't know what it was. One time, the series 'Frontier House' came on PBS. It was a show where families went and lived for a summer as if they were in the 1880s frontier. They had to prepare as though they were trying to survive a winter, and got graded at the end. I watched it religiously. I felt a strange pull to that life--the chopping wood and carrying water and growing food and cooking over a fire.

My restlessness grew, and I longed to move away from the city, to stop practicing law, and to live more simply. Eventually we did. We sold our house and I closed my practice and we moved to a tiny rural town sandwiched between corn and soybean fields. We ran a couple of businesses, and got to know just about everyone in town. My girls went to a school where K-12 had about half as many kids as my high school graduating class. I remember going around for a couple of years on Cloud 9 about how much simpler everything was there. People seriously didn't lock their doors; merchants opened accounts for you and would bill you for the merchandise you bought. When someone's house burned down or someone got cancer, people held fundraisers to help them and donated furniture for them to get back on their feet.  Everyone knew you and expected you to act right. It had the effect, mostly, of making people live up to that expectation.  Phase One of the Radical Simplicity Experiment complete:  You can be happy with less, and people can take care of each other.

Then it became clear we would have to leave. Four years after moving to Iowa, my husband got a job offer that was too good to pass up in another city, and we were headed off to become suburbanites again. I worried that the burbs would suck us back in to the harried and hurried lifestyle. But we've changed. If anything, coming back to the suburbs has made us cling together even more. Our family sits down at the table and has a home-cooked supper nearly every night. We get up early so my husband and I can do yoga and I still have time to make everyone a good breakfast every morning before I drive my girls to school.  I'm "wasting my education and earning power" by staying home and taking care of my family.   I pick up fresh milk from a farmer who names his cows and goats.  I grow an organic garden year round with the help of a homemade greenhouse that drives the homeowners' association types absolutely nuts.  :-)

I make yogurt and cheese.  I'm learning to cook Indian food with the help of You Tube videos and a couple of my kids' friends, who are from there.  Last fall, when my youngest needed a suit for debate competitions, but was too small for juniors' sizes, we ordered fabric and a vintage pattern and  for about $60, we made it--together.  This spring, the fabric and pattern has been purchased for a 1950s style retro prom dress--$50.  The 10 or 12 hours we'll spend sewing and pinning and fitting (and tearing out mistakes) will be priceless. 

Back in Burb-land, there are more malls and restaurants close by, but oddly there's little there we feel like we need. We like our home-made food and our weird little homespun life. In fact, this year for school shopping, I introduced my kids to a hip little consignment store that specializes in young-person clothes, and they did 90% of their clothes-buying there, and got twice as many clothes for half as much money as if we'd hit the mall. As a bonus, we didn't contribute an extra dime to mass-manufacturer exploitation of twelve-year-old third world sweatshop workers.  My elder daughter is probably the only young person in our city who works in a fast food place but takes homemade organic vegetarian meals with her and refuses to eat what she serves to the eager masses.   Phase Two of the Radical Simplicity Experiment complete:  You can be in a world, but not of it; you can resist the temptations of what "everyone" does and be happy.

We're strange people, by modern standards, and all of that is well and good. But lately, I've been feeling the pull again to simplify some more. We had always thought that when this gig ends, we'd go back to our little Iowa town--and we still might. But I keep looking at rural real estate--really rural.   I keep imagining having a tiny, cozy house with a very small contingent of nice, multi-purpose things, and some land to grow a big garden and a small orchard for fruits and vegetables, some chickens for eggs, and a couple of goats for milk and cheese. And dogs, just because dogs seem to make me a better person.

In my mind's eye, my life would be much like those old episodes of Frontier House--growing a garden, canning the surplus, buying only what we can't make or grow ourselves.  I realize that it won't be nearly as much fun on a cold winter's morning to feed animals and gather eggs as it looked on TV in a nice temperate summer day--but I also know that I'll connect with that "hardship,"  just as I have with being the tie-dyed, organic weirdo in a community where having a Lexus, a Hummer, and a 6,000 square foot house is the ultimate way to say you're a more worthwhile human being that everyone around you.  Somehow, I view the "hardship" of not being like that as something that's not all that "hard."

So, I'm watching and waiting--checking out cabins and little old farmhouses on 10 or 20 acres, somewhere where you can grow a garden, but they don't do much commercial agriculture (too many chemicals).   I've got a catalog of chickens, so that I'll be ready to pick some when my time comes.  And I'm going to help a small-scale organic farmer this spring and summer, to learn some more tricks of the trade. 

And I know that soon, the chance to put it all to use will be here.  And my experiment in radical  simplicity will begin Phase Three. I've got to go--I must find some old episodes of Green Acres to watch.  At least I make better coffee than Lisa.

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