Home Sweet House: Voluntary Simplicity and Home Ownership

One of my favorite movies of all time is “House of Sand and Fog.”   To give credit to the author of the book upon which it was based, Andre Dubus III, I’m sure it’s a wonderful book, but I was introduced to this story through the movie, which starred Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley.  Jennifer Connolly plays an alcoholic young woman, who, because she was simply irresponsible and not paying attention, lost her home to the bank.  Her father, whom she adored, had built that house, and it was all she had.  She had no family, no career, no relationships.

The person who bought her house was a military official who was ousted from Iran.   He was hoping to rebuild a life for himself, wife and teenage son.  The house appealed to him because, with the crow’s-nest type of deck he built on the roof of the house, he could see the ocean, which reminded him of the home he left behind on the Persian Gulf.

The meaning that this little wooden-framed home gave these two people was incredibly intense, and the drama and the plot of the story is driven by the memories and hopes of both the American girl and the displaced Iranian family.   It’s an incredible story.

It made me think of how important our homes are.  Not just the idea of “home” (where the heart is, so to speak), but the actual, physical, structure that serves as the setting of our life drama.  Most people want their own home.  The home might be a big one, a small one, a mobile one, or a multi-family one, but there’s something about the feeling that your home is YOUR castle.   It is an emblem of what you can do for your family in a very deeply-rooted sense.

While there are some simple-living people who abjur ownership of any kind, and who are happy to pay rent for the freedom it brings,  most have that primal yearning for a home of one’s own (which calls to mind another great movie with a similar theme:  A Home of Our Own with Kathy Bates).  Doesn’t  matter where you might be on the simplicity bandwagon.

I have been reading the works of Dorothy Day, that great American Catholic convert who is veering on beautification I believe.  She started out a socialist, thinking that politics were the way to class and socio-economic equality.  She came around to a belief in the power of the individual powered by Christian faith.  But even this one-time socialist and Christian activist took a windfall she got from the sale of a novel and bought a little cottage on the beach in Staten Island.

What is it that drives this need for the fistful of dirt that Scarlett O’Hara held up to the gods with a vow to “never be hungry again,” while her childhood home, Tara, glowed in the background?   The American Dream is built on the notion that each of us has the right to drive our stake in the ground, and protect it, with arms if necessary.

Yet, the property we own is really an illusion, in many ways.   Many families are certainly learning that now.  As they become upside down in their mortgages they  realize that they are still in their homes by the grace of Bank of America and their faith in their ability to continue paying the mortgage.   The Jews in Germany during the thirties and the bourgeoisie in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution learned that home ownership can be an illusion. There, the political climate shifted radically, and property deeds were suddenly not worth the paper they were written on.   And speaking of climate, just let a tornado rip through your town, or a a hurricane rip through the levees, and the home in which you may have lived your whole life will be a memory in a moment.

Home=security to most, and maybe that’s the draw to home ownership–even though it might be a false sense of security. Could you emotionally detach from your home if you had to?  If you were forced to leave, how would you react?  How hard would you fight for whatever it is that your home has come to mean?  At what cost?

Or maybe through a turn of events, or winds of change,  lies the lesson that the security we have built inside the four walls–the nest we call our own–is not what we think.   Maybe those walls–whether made of straw, wood, or brick–are as transient as sand and fog.  If we knew that to be true, how might we live our lives differently?

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What does Tax Day have to do with Voluntary Simplicity?

successful-manI missed posting yesterday because of two converging deadlines–one at work and one imposed on me by Uncle Sam.  True to form as a world-class procrastinator, although I had diligently prepared my taxes on QuickBooks and had begun the filling out of TurboTax screens, I still had a couple of hours of work ahead of me yesterday.  I finally pushed the button at 10:37 p.m.–fulfilling my annual requirement as a citizen in the nick of time.

Unfortunately I owed money this year–I started a consultant business in May but didn’t set enough aside along the way to cover my tax liability. 

Thinking about how nice it would be to not have to write out that check, I started thinking about the many people ahead of me who opted out of paying taxes as an act of Civil Disobedience, such as Thoreau.

Other more contemporary folks have conscientiously (and legally) opted out of paying taxes to make a statement about intolerable social conditions, such as homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing and the environmentalist Jim Merkel.   They did it by choosing a life of voluntary simplicity.  So voluntary simplicity can be many things:  a way of life, a political statement, a spiritual journey, an antiwar protest, an act of solidarity among our poorer brothers and sisters, or a pact with the earth to protect and defend it.

The term “voluntary simplicity” is attributed to Richard Gregg, a Quaker who wrote a little pamphlet called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936.   The pamphlet is published by Pendle Hill and can be downloaded for free here.   In it, Gregg describes what it is:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. For example, the men who tried to climb Mount Everest concentrated their thoughts and energies on the planning of that expedition for several years, and in the actual attempt discarded every ounce of equipment not surely needed for that one purpose.

Not surprisingly, his description ties in perfectly with the path to simplicity outlined half a century later by his fellow Quaker, Richard Foster the book Celebration of Discipline.

In addition to Richard Foster’s classic, another classic was born in the 80s–the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Although he was inspired by Gregg’s writings, Elgin’s orientation to his own book on the topic is little more focused on the cultural and the collective vs. the more individual approach, while at the same time challenging us to accept our personal responsibility for the state of the world.   This book became THE definitive work for the volunatary simplicity movement of the post-Vietnam era.

I met Duane Elgin last year when he spoke at The Open Center in New York City.  The topic was “The World at the Tipping Point:  A Big Picture View of Our Future”–a program that he takes on the road.  It was quite positive and optimistic, and I was thrilled to get a chance to be a part of this pretty interactive discussion.    It was inspiring to hear his take on the future, which is filled with hope for the human race.  While he stresses that it is the individual choices we make which will prod the world into a transitional, transformative epoch, these choices have to start from a place that we may not even know exists for us:

To act voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).  We must be conscious of both choices and chooser if we are to act voluntarily.  Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner.  But who is the “self” making the determinations of behavior? … The point is that the more precise and sustained is our conscious knowing of ourselves, the more voluntary or choiceful can be our participation in life… The more conscious we are of our passage through life, the more skillfully we can act, and the more harmonious can be the relationship between our inner experience and our outer expression.

So, if you are really looking for a way to legally reduce your tax liability to the Federal Government next year, one way to do it is to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity–deliberately choosing what will feed your purpose in life, and discarding all the rest.  That may be the best tax shelter there is.

Lent: A Tool for Simplifying

As Lent approaches, let me talk about how this time can be used as a wonderful tool.

First of all, I just want to mention that I am a lapsed Catholic. I do not participate in any other Catholic rituals, other than occasional visits to Mass and Weston Priory. There may be a time when I feel a call to return, but for now, I am what I consider to be a non-denominational spiritual seeker with strong Christian and moderate Buddhist leanings.   

But I have always found Lent to be a highly inspirational, instructive, and sometimes life-changing opportunity for spiritual practice. By making one small part of our lives change for the better for this period of roughly 40 days, we have the opportunity to become stronger spiritually, and set the behavior into our daily lives for good.

Last year, for instance, I gave up high fructose corn syrup.  A few days before Ash Wednesday, I picked up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the airport while on a business trip. I won’t go into why this book provoked this 40-day experiment. I would rather recommend you read this fantastic book, but as a direct result of this serendipitous pick at the airport newsstand, I had the opportunity to learn something valuable and life-changing.

By the time Easter arrived I had:

  1. Successfully eliminated HFCS from my diet for Lent. I now am much more conscious of labels and still feel that we are better off eliminating manufactured additives such as HFCS from our diet. Long-term change: Drastic reduction in consumption of HFCS.
  2. Greatly expanded my ability to cook with healthy foods. Because of the ubiquitousness of HFCS, I was literally forced to cook from scratch most of the time. Long-term change: Dare I say it? I actually enjoy cooking now. 
  3. Learned about all the local farms in my area and visited most of them. Much of these learnings came from great local food sites such as www.sustainabletable.org and its partner site, www.eatwellguide.org These two sites are fantastic resources for learning what’s available in your area, what foods are in season and when. Long-term change: I now have the resources and more knowledge so that choosing local foods is not a big mystery to me; I now plan trips to the farmers markets and local farms on a regular basis. 

I will talk more about food and this particular experience in later blog entries. But for now, I would like to set the stage for the next several weeks. To continue on the purgation theme already begun, this year will be the Lent of Letting Go. My goal will be to:

Reduce personal consumption and the number of my possessions and increase my mindful release of negative emotions such as fear, worry and anxiety, to allow me to be able to focus on the True North of my life: greater communion with God, family and friends, nature, and meaningful contribution to work and society.

That’s the journey. I will post the pathway on Ash Wednesday.

I’ll be drawing from the works of others who have  

  • Learned to thrive with less
  • Developed philosophies around voluntary simplicity
  • Have written works which both motivate and instruct. 

This means authors such as Richard Gregg, Duane Elgin, Jim Merkel, and Richard Foster. There are so many teachers to learn from in this area!

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.  Next post:  Wednesday, February 25.