For many folks, the phrase “voluntary simplicity” conjures up images of Henry David Thoreau living the simple life on Walden Pond. With a reverence for nature and seeking time to write as well as to distance himself from people, he lived in a one room cabin in Concord, Massachusetts for just over two years, from 1845 to 1847. His cabin had a single bed, a writing desk, a fireplace and a couple chairs for visitors, the ultimate simple living. Today, our idea of simple living might include a few more things.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote in Walden, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
This thought of reaching the end of life only to realize we have not lived fully, is a sad proposition, prompting many of us these days, to embrace various levels of voluntary simplicity. To live with greater consciousness and intention means living deliberately in all aspects of our lives.
While many admire Thoreau for his choice to live deliberately in the woods, writing about his adventure in Walden which was first published in 1854, many contemporary writers have continued to expand on the benefits of voluntary simplicity. This has created a resurgence of interest in getting in touch with what is really important in life and the freedom that comes with that discovery. Simple living means different things to different people and each of us need to decide for ourselves what that means and what steps bring us closer to living more intentionally. For many people a major life change can spark just such an interest.
Author Wanda Urbanska has published nine books including The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life. She has been enlightening people about simple living since 2004 when she brought Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska to public television. It was the first national series advocating simpler living and ran for four years on PBS stations across America. Her shows can still be viewed today on Hulu.com and she is as delightfully humble, authentic and down to earth as she appears on PBS. Today, she is living simply in Raleigh, North Carolina, and although she has stepped away from simple living advocacy in a national way, to take on work as President of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, she says simple living is in her DNA.
My definition of simple living
“My definition of simple living is, if it is a tabletop it stands on four legs: environmental stewardship, thoughtful consumption, community involvement and financial responsibility,” says Wanda. “These four main areas are interlinked. Environmental stewardship to me is at the heart of simple living because you are concerned with your impact on the planet and being mindful of your footprint. People feel like it is too big an issue to make a difference, but it’s better to take some small step.”
Something as simple as a birdbath can have an impact. There are multiple and overlapping benefits to simple living that can be as small as organizing your home, balancing your work and home life, becoming more frugal, or being more conscious about what you bring into your home. Thoughtful consumption is connected to environmental stewardship. It is really thinking about what you buy before you buy it.
“Buy used if you can. Buy locally if you can. Sometimes that means paying more for things. Establish a relationship with providers,” she advises.
Wanda recently gave her mechanic a copy of her latest book. “I know he will be looking out for my best interest. When we interact it’s a point of pleasure. We have a wonderful relationship, not just a monetary interaction.” This is community building. Community involvement is about making connections with people and developing relationships. It is about creating community in that moment as well as longer term communities that are established with neighbors, co-workers, etc. That’s a part of simple living. Community is one thing that may have been neglected when a loved one has been ill. Reestablishing bonds of friendship and community are important as a part of simplifying life, but also in finding much needed support in the wake of loss.
The fourth leg of the table is financial responsibility. Wanda chooses to drive an older model car and so she finds herself going to her mechanic more often. Transportation choices have multiple and overlapping benefits whether taking public transportation, purchasing smaller cars, or used cars.
“I really think that Americans are understanding that possessions possess you,” she says. “More is not better. Our culture is moving into more of a sharing economy rather than an individualistic one. We begin to realize, ‘I don’t need all this stuff to be happy.’ We are seeking a better understanding of what is meaningful. People are on a quest for meaning.”
The Europeanization of American life
“I call it the Europeanization of American life. And what I mean by that is, the simple living I advocated in my book and show is not moving to a teepee but taking what we have in modern life and tweaking it, making spaces smaller, not using shopping for recreation, etc. I love the word ‘Lagom,’ it’s a Swedish word for ‘enough.’ I am impressed with the Scandinavian and Polish cultures with regard to a way of living with smaller spaces and fewer things,” Wanda says.
It seems that we need to develop a better understanding of what is enough. And in doing so, we tap into what is meaningful in life and a way of living that is conscious of the earth, of each other, balanced, non-consumeristic, and just plain simpler. Wanda has found herself in a transitional sort of place that calls her to tap into those simple living roots and honor not only the changes in her life, but the opportunity the changes present.
Over the past several months, Wanda has dealt with the loss of a pet, a broken engagement, caring for an aging mother, cleaning out her home and relocating her Mom hours away, and moving herself to smaller space.
“I had been planning a life with a partner and suddenly find myself without a partner and alone,” she says. Her Mom, Marie had been living with her in a property they purchased together in 2010. They shared dinner every night, but had their own private living spaces. Now Marie is hours away. “We miss each other terribly,” says Wanda. The cat she had for 13 years was given away when she got engaged, because her fiance’ was adamant that he didn’t wants pets. And Wanda is now living in Marie’s little old cottage on the three unit property moving from 1800 square feet to 800. She has no regrets about the relationship, although she does regret losing her cat.
“This new situation and letting go of past realities is giving me an opportunity to live in a laboratory of simple living. To try to bring into play the principles and mechanisms that I believe are transformative,” she says.
Right-size your living situation
“I feel like I’ve right-sized my living situation. People really resist this for a lot of reasons. Downsizing and letting go of precious possessions can be daunting. But it represents the opportunity to recreate your life.” (Wanda admits that her organizational skills still need to be tweaked as she temporarily misplaced her notes for this interview.) “I’m actually living the way I’m advocating, smaller, greener. These new changes in my life have sad elements but it also represents a chance to re-charge my life on my terms, doing things my way, setting up a life that embodies the principles of simple living.” One small thing she does is saving organic waste and burying it in her backyard for compost, and recycling, a practice her fiancè had no interest in.
“There is a sense of freedom in being able to embrace what is true for me. It’s exciting. There is liberation in being able to steer your own ship. Especially if you are doing it in such a way that aligns yourself with your own core values. It forces you to dig deeper (to recognize what those values might be).
“The take away for a widow/er is, even if they loved the person deeply, they were still part of a couple. As such there were two people making decisions. Now is an opportunity to focus on your philosophy and how you want to live.”
Wanda is a passionate advocate for living in smaller spaces. “The tiny house movement is very much a reflection of the change in societal values and the re-evaluation of our consumer society. People are saying, ‘We don’t need all this stuff.’ The stuff owns us rather than us owning it. It forces us to be thoughtful about every item that comes into your space.”
Curate your life
Marie is a clutterbug and she keeps things forever. So when it came time for her to move, Wanda curated her life, going mindfully and sensitively through each item. “You can’t assume loved ones will want these things when you’re gone. You are doing them a favor to curate your life. Think about every single thing that comes into your life. Ask yourself, ‘Do you want it? Do you need it?’ If not, pass it on to someone else who might. It was a great joy for me to donate a mountain of books when I moved. Then we gave about 600 books away to local library from Marie’s collection acquired as a retired professor, reader and writer. I’m happy that someone might want it and can raise money for local libraries.”
Voluntary simplicity is not about living on the cheap, or living an impoverished existence. It is about being mindful about how we want to live our life, and making choices that bring us greater fulfillment, greater authenticity and more meaning. Consider how you spend your time, your resources, your energy and if what you discover leaves you longing for something more, consider making life just a little more simple and a lot more meaningful.
The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life by Wanda Urbanska can be found on Amazon at: The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life