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Archive for the ‘Simple Living’ Category

My home in 1956

I wish to comment on a really wonderful article written by David Brooks that reviewed how American Christians, expecially evangelicals, have responded to “three big issues that have profoundly divided them: the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd.” David Brooks, NYT

Having read his thoughtful article, asked myself this question. Is it legitimate, as Brooks was suggesting , to blame much of the current stress in our society to the failures of modernity?

Below is David Brook’s quote that provoked me to thinking about this.

Finally, Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.

David Brooks, NYT,

To contrast the quote from Brooks, I offer a second provocative quote from years ago, and one that changed my life along with many others.

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”

Joseph. R. McCarthy, Lincoln’s birthday address to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950

When I was ten years old, my family fled a small village in rural Ohio after my father was threatened with a lynching. I remember the men coming to our door at night, threatening him. It was described many years later in a tiny little church bulletin that I found on line while digging up my past and trying to understand what really happened. For several years, my father had been the pastor of this little church. We fled the small village, leaving all behind but for a few things that we could take with us in our brown paper grocery bags that we hurriedly packed.

It was 1956 and feelings were still politically hot in our country. Although the power of Joseph McCarthy’s false accusations in the Senate had begun to fade, there still was a strongly held belief among many Americans based on McCarthy’s political charges, that there was an infiltration of communists, socialists, atheists and civil rights activists ruining our God-loving American church way of life.

I am not really certain which of these activities our little community thought my father was involved in. Perhaps all four? But in any case, it resulted in my mother, father, brother, two sisters and the family dog having to escape this small village and live in a used school bus in which we rambled the roads from central Ohio to northern Michigan for a number of months until my father found another job and our family could get our feet back on the ground again. From our point of view, my father’s transgression was that as a soldier returning home from WWII, having been in the Asia-Pacific region for almost 10 years, he was out of tune with local attitudes and practices and thought that his small community of constituents would be open to thinking about the importance of “turning the other cheek”, pacifism, racial equality, equal opportunity and civil rights as part of Jesus’ teaching. My father clearly erred.

As a result of our exclusion, this old school bus became our sole home and form of transportation, it was everything to us. Unfortunately, it had no running water, toilet facilities, closet space or communications technology such as radio, television or phone. Most of the school bus seats, but for the first two rows, were removed leaving sufficient footage for us to put down our sleeping bags. Since we had no car, we children had a choice between standing on the road and playing under trees while waiting for our parents to drive the bus to the grocery store and come back to pick us up, or we rode the bus to the grocery store with them, while hauling everything that we owned with us, on the bus.

We felt that we were an item. Our father talked us into believing that we were on an adventure, looking for an exciting new place to live while roughing it in parts of Ohio and Michigan county and state parks. Often we stopped at the side of the road and spent the night at roadside picnic stops. This went on for a number of months.

Neither of my parents had a job. So, in today’s terminology I guess we would be described as “homeless” or at least “houseless” and our parents were certainly unemployed. That year I learned to pick cherries, filling big wooden crates called lugs, along with the rest of my family in partnership with Spanish speaking migrants, to bring money for groceries. We ate a lot of bologna sandwiches with slices of American cheese on white Wonder bread while standing outside next to our bus, as we had no table. Our hands were our usual plates. Our fingers were our forks. We had a small kerosene stove that we carried with us for heating up water for oatmeal. We ate oatmeal and drank from old navy tins. We had little money, and therefore stopped often to keep from using too much gasoline while our father was driving the bus.

However, frustrating and lonely the experience might have been, it was also an eye opener. My family felt the powerful sting of what we now often call the “religious right”, and its list of proscriptions, intruding on my family’s ability to survive. In their eyes, my father’s support of racial equality and religious freedom were threatening, so threatening that we were expelled from our community.

He avoided being lynched through fleeing, but interestingly, we have never as a family ever discussed what happened to us that year. It was an incident without an explanation. It was a huge block in the road that we slowly maneuvered around while experiencing some hardship, never to mention it again. There must have been some shame for my parents associated with what happened as we never spoke of it, or even referred to it. But the threat of a lynching of our father that we experienced, the rejection and injury, and the silence that followed, shaped my life forever.

I realized, even as a child, that other people’s traditional religious beliefs were being involuntarily imposed upon us. Our expulsion was a result of Christian traditionalism telling us explicitly how to behave and that if we did not follow their instructions, we would be in danger. This same religious traditionalism wanted women to be guided by their husbands, to wear traditional clothing and hairstyles such as braids and bonnets, to reflect modesty. Women were expected to not show their bare legs or arms in public and they often wore longer dresses with long sleeves that covered their arms as a show of modesty. In our small community, men sat separately and first at community potlucks, while they waited for the women to serve them their food and drinks.

There were other important distinctions in the traditions of these local religious institutions that I observed as a child. The churches for white people in our communities were separated from churches for people who were referred to as “coloreds”. The term “colored” covered a lot of ground including people of African origin, people of Asian origin, people from specific parts of Eastern Europe and often referred to as Roma or gypsies, and people whose origins were from South America and the Carribbean. In northern Michigan, where our family visited in the summer, there were separate but “similar” churches for whites and Indian tribes. In any case, as a child growing up in the various comunities of Ohio and Michigan, I was struck with the fact that there was not one universal church for an entire community, without distinction to ethnic or racial background, or sex of person. Racial and ethnic segregation and strict differences between men and women were upheld by many churches, when I was a little girl.

As a pastor’s child, I was told by other children who were being brought up Baptist, or Catholic, that they were sorry that I could not go to heaven. They were sure that I was going to hell unless I converted to their beliefs. This is what they were being taught at that time. It was not enough to be Christian, one had to be the right kind of Christian. I wondered back then, was there a Methodist heaven, and a Baptist heaven, and a Catholic heaven? Was there only one hell where everybody else was dumped? Was it possible that a protestant could be in a Protestant heaven and at the same time in a Catholic hell? I wondered, what if no one ever introduced someone to the church, and they never heard the words of the Bible, did they go to hell too? Was that considered just? Was that fair?

My childhood did not suffer from so-called “modernity”, but from the lack of it. I confronted at a very young age, the power of traditional church proscriptions and their potential for negative consequences. I saw the traditional power of religion being used to keep people out. Traditional power was used to expel people from the church for being different, for appreciating differences, or for embracing a dialogue covering a wider range of ideas than those that were recommended by the church.

In my public elementary school, weekly, we received Christian bible school lessons. There was no separation between church and state in this little town. When my parents protested that religous teaching did not belong in the public school as all children should be welcome there, regardless of their religious beliefs, the response of the school was to expel me from the classroom and make me sit in the hall during the children’s bible school study period. I was punished and excluded because of my parents’ opinions about the separation of church and state and rights to religious freedom.

These dynamics of proscription, inclusion and exclusion that were playing out in small villages and in big cities were based on religious traditions. Church groups maintained their traditional identities and differentiated themselves through hair styles and clothing, especially women. As a child, I witnessed women who were required to cover their hair with specific kinds of scarves, hats, and white bonnets as a way of identifying their particular religious sect. Some covered their heads completely, so that no hair showed at all. In some cases, they wore long sleeved dresses. Bare arms in church were proscribed for women. Dresses were mandatory, but without knees showing. Dress pants were forbidden. In some cases, for women, there were proscriptions for wearing lipstick or makeup, playing cards, smoking in public, smiling in public, as a way of avoiding being associated with “loose” women. Not only were women dressed uniquely so as to be identified correctly, so was the church leadership. Among some groups, as a way of recognizing the religious sect, religious leaders wore long flowing robes of specific colors, special collars, scarves and patterns in order to be identified as leaders of a specific Christian sect or group.

My question is, why must we blame modernity for this fix we are in? Were we actually better off without it? What is modernity, anyway? Must it take the entire blame? Modernity, as I understand it is reflected in when we shifted from a predominately agricultural society to an industrial one, eventually recognizing a broader range of social and economic classes that reach beyond solely religious and/or ethnic identity and which open economies to some aspects of capitalism. This shift to “modernity” made way for people to be recognized according to such characteristics as occupation, economic status, and educational attainment, in addition to religious affiliation or ethnic identity. It also made way for people to be more socially and economically mobile.

I find it difficult to believe that modernity, as suggested by David Brooks and stated by Karen Prior, is the cause of our current moral drift and surging mental health crisis. Perhaps we have taken modernity too seriously and given it greater credence than it should rightfully have.

If it is true that people are suffering from moral drift, as David Brooks suggest, and that they are looking for some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning, then why not walk away from proscriptive tribalism and religious proscription, and uncontrolled narcissistic consumerism and head instead toward education, through the principles of scientific observation and mathematical reasoning and philosophical dialogue, when seeking a larger truth?

To better understand the concept of a communal belief system which many of us now desire, we might look to other cultures for ideas. For example, in the earlier practices of the native tribes who lived and worked in the Americas, many tribes were taught to respect all aspects of life including those of plants and animals including humans, and to be respectful to air, water, land and sky. The early American tribes did not embrace humanocentricism but instead, embraced a broader respect for the community of all life forms across many earths and even the universe.

Perhaps we should explore our potential for living in a post-humanocentric society, allowing room for consideration to the environment.

I would like to see narcissim, consumerism and moral drift brought under control through a communal system of public education, available to all. I believe in thoughts and ideas being respectfully shared through books, libraries, schools, universities and public media. I believe in the importance of learning how to objectively conceive of, measure and test ideas and hypotheses while offering multiple ways to present the results using respectful and objective public dialogue educating and informing us about the results. These educational activities should encourage improved questions, broader discussion and respectful comparisons of life’s many options.

Then, perhaps, we may seek and share more meaningfully, life’s transcendency.

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Home is by definition the place of our hearth and shelter. It may be as simple as a tent, or as complicated as a 20 story building, but it is still home when it offers hearth and shelter.

Since the pandemic was declared, home is a larger place than just where we stock our supplies and conduct our activities of daily living. We also go to work, to play, or to school while at home, express our joys, share our sorrows and declare our dreams at home.

Home is our atmosphere, our existence, our nook for survival. It is our island of safety and hope.

Home is where we express our despair and agonize over the future. Home is all that we have, if we are lucky, until the world learns how to manage the global pandemic.

May we never lose our homes. For those who have, my heartfelt sympathies. We must work to get them back for you.

I express my appreciation for home by painting a variety of perspectives on our little bungalow to which we recently moved, while depicting the change that we have gone through as we increasingly realize that home is the center of our universe.

We are world travelers and for us to circumlocate to such a small area as home and consider it our major place of stay, is quite a change. But adapt we must, and adapt we are. One way that I am adapting to this smaller area, is through art.

Festival House, acrylic

Perhaps it appears silly to see a tiny home drawn with Roman Columns constructed out of colorful marble, looking garish and far removed from reality. But this painting reflects for me, the home as the holiday, the celebration, the festive tradition.

Home as Safe Haven, acrylic

Home is where we hide when it is dangerous outside. It is the cool blue in the chaos of reds and yellows.

Looking through a microscope changes ones perspective on what one sees in a cell. Focusing on one’s home does something similar. It was always there for us to discover and the pandemic is increasing our attention to it.

I plan to paint many more pictures of home in these upcoming months, while looking at it anew, as through a microscope.

Evening Perspective, acrylic

Thank you home, for offering such a safe haven for so many of us during a time of panic and dread.

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Staying for many winters on a small and beautiful island of the Bahamas has taught me respect for water, energy and food supply lines. When the boats come in, we have groceries. When it rains, we have clean drinking water. When diesel oil arrives in ships, we generate electricity. When the sun rises, we see that it is our greatest source of energy, along with the tides and winds. Our agricultural lands are limited and our water for drinking is shallow. We view our great tradition of catching fish and crawfish to eat is a glorious luxury as our schools of fishes diminish.

We live in two places. In the spring, we return to our home where we are on another island of sorts, called North America. Although geographers would refer to it as a continent, I have come to see that we all live on islands. There are small ones, big ones, even some called continents. But they are still islands to me. They all defined by finite natural resources, limited water and food supplies. Our islands, all of them, confront the wild forces of nature, be they drought, storms, earthquakes, or pandemics.

We are students of islands.

On our little island in the Atlantic, when the wind blows, we feel our vulnerability as the waves roll wildly on to our beaches, sometimes ripping cliffs and taking them back into the ocean. When we step out at night and look up into the unlit sky, the stars and the moon literally hover over us. They are right there, smothering us with soft glow of light and opening up our world to the real possibility of imagining infinity.

Nature’s forces are abundant and everywhere, although often out of our reach.

On our huge island, or continent of North America, we do not necessarily sense this intimacy with the ocean the same way we do when we stand on a hill on our small island of the Abacos in the Bahamas and see the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, east and west. However, we feel the power and presence of the ocean as we wander along the beaches of the Pacific.

Yes, North America is in actuality, a well-defined body of shifting land surrounded by a shifting massive body of water, although its boundaries east and west cannot be seen simultaneously when standing on a hill, like we do in Abaco. If we were standing on the moon and look down on the planet Earth, however, we might see the east and waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans surrounding North America. We would also see that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are one body of water, not two.

SONY DSC

Our islands are on a single planet. Now, that is a different matter. The planet Earth is surrounded by other things than water, holding even more possibilities of massive immensity. This whole act of thinking about who we are and what island we are on is a humbling experience.

On all our islands, we are impacted by the immediate danger of pollution from other places, as well as our own, as the plastic and detritus roll in onto our beaches and creep into our water and air. We see that abrupt shortages limit what people eat, and determine the time they must spend searching for food. We may not see it so clearly, until something like a global pandemic comes along, or droughts, or other big shows of nature that bring it to our attention very clearly, that things might change in a minute and our life lines are fragile.

Knowing this makes me appreciate my life even more. I am surprised and awed by the fact that I even exist, midst all the other options available. These chemicals and cells comprising me could instead be part of an apple tree, or buried in sands, or drifting in a large body of water.

I could have died before I was a year old. I might survive as a person for twenty more years.

Right now, I am living on an island, as is everybody else.

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Community Spoons

The art of crafting started thousands of years ago using readily available materials such as grasses, bushes, branches, trees, rocks, pebbles, sand and the like. We can still see ancient crafting and art projects displayed in natural history museums such as the American Museum of Natural History.

Recently, our South Abaco island High Banks Arts and Crafts Group has tried to find ways to do arts and crafts on the island of The Abacos using readily available natural materials. Large parts of this island and many of its people were injured by Hurricane Dorian. Access to a variety of stores is now limited. Many things islanders use for arts and crafts are from materials, shared and exchanged with neighbors. Part of the challenge on an island is searching for the material to work with. Instead of going to stores, we often head for “the bush” and search for more readily available materials found in the nearby natural coppice.

Nearby Coconut Palms
Basket hand woven from part of a coconut frond

We take a single frond from a Cabbage Palm, or from a Coconut Palm, leaving the palm intact and ready to make more fronds. Or we find a branch on the ground, or get a piece of wood from someone who has just trimmed a tree, leaving the tree alive and growing. We cut a small branch off a bush. Or we cut a few tall grasses to use for weaving. These are the materials for our art projects.

Cabbage Palm Frond
Basket woven from Palmetto Palm Fronds

Carving your own spoon is a very basic and purposeful activity. Making your own beautifully carved spoon from a branch found nearby, while asking a friendly neighbor to help cut the branch into a useful shape before you start carving, is artistic, social and fun. Carving spoons and then presenting some of your newly carved spoons as a gift to the neighbors who helped prepare the wood, is pure satisfaction.

And it is what we call a Community Spoon.

Future community spoons
Buttonwood branch cut and shared by a neighbor
Cut with a saw into a spoon shape by another neighbor
Being hand carved by a wood carver, not yet finished

Stay tuned for more arts and crafts adventures.

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After the Storm. Watercolor on paper

Living on a small island for part of every year leads an artist to think about ways to use local and natural resources, rather than trying to purchase and import all our art supplies. It has become even more imperative now that our island has endured a terrible hurricane. We wish to do no more harm and perhaps even in the process, replenish available natural resources.

We all are thinking about solar energy. Most of us don’t want to replicate the energy uses of the mainland onto our fragile island. In addition, many of us are using these moments of reconstruction to think of ways to do our arts and craft more naturally, using locally available materials. Must we always import supplies?

What does this island have that we might use as a natural resource for our crafting and art work? Can we take it, use it for art and then have it some day return to the soil without causing any more damage to this exquisite and ephemeral island?

Poised to Sail. Water color on driftwood taken from the beach

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Many decades ago, when my husband Joe and I were in our early 20’s, we joined the Peace Corps and lived in rural, northern India for several years, during a time when our village was experiencing famine, where rains had been very limited, and nearby crops were terrifyingly scarce. 

Water source in our village.

When we moved into our new little village, several hours away from the state capital of Patna, Bihar, we tried to strip down to what we thought was simple living. We wanted to show our respect to those around us who were enduring a famine, and yet we failed to appear to our neighbors as anything but privileged.

We worked to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that we were living a minimal lifestyle and realized in the process that we needed to learn what minimal actually meant. We lived minimally, while others lived in deprivation. The difference between the two is enormous.

Our simple life with minimal consumption that we chose was still much easier compared with the stress from hunger and danger felt by our new neighbors.  We, as young Americans, had promises of future water, electricity, and food.    Our situation was temporary.  The situation of our neighbors was not.

Most of our neighbors had a simple life. They lived with dirt floors. Some had cement homes, but not many.  They rarely owned chairs or tables or much furniture of any kind.  They squatted on the ground instead, using the floor as their table.  The squatting technique was very efficient, as we never had to carry chairs with us in order to sit down and relax.  When our neighbors said, “Sit down, please.”  We all just squatted to the ground and began chatting.  It saved a whole bunch of time and money.

It turns out that we probably never did completely succeed in fooling them into believing that we were actually deprived. Because in fact, we were not. As Mohatma Gandhi taught, we were living a minimal lifestyle which is actually a relatively comfortable way to live.  While Gandhi supported a minimal lifestyle, he fought against deprivation. Deprivation meant lack of resources for even the most basic items of food, shelter and water. He fought against inequitable distribution; against the massive gathering of resources to fewer than 1 percent of the population while the rest starved. We are not deprived when we live simply. I learned this to be true many years ago. It remains true today.

Mohatma Gandhi’s simple living arrangement in Mumbai

Some families in our little community used banana leaves for plates.  Most ate with their hands. The food tasted just as good no matter what tools were used for eating.

After eating, they brushed their teeth with a stick from a Neem tree. Their water carried for teeth brushing often brought to their home in a small brass or aluminum pot, pumped by hand from the nearest tube well.  There were no manufactured tooth brushes, no tubes of toothpaste.  Just the branch, and scrubbing of the gums.

Some slept on small beds made of woven rope called “charpuoys”, often sharing the simple bed with others.  Others took to the floor, unrolling a cloth or woven straw mat on which to sleep. This was simple living.

During a famine, such as the one that we were in, almost none had sufficient food, including ourselves. This is because the markets did not sell much food. This was deprivation.

The year that we moved to our little village, there was a serious lack of rain which limited food supplies. People were thin and although I was 5’6″ and weighed 110 pounds, my nickname was “Moti Mary”, or “Fat Mary”.  They didn’t mean it to be rude that they referred to me as fat,  it was just a fact that I was fat, by their famine standards.  Powerfully fat. It was obvious that even thought we had less food than usual, our food supply was minimal; it was not deprived as was our neighbors.

We were living at the time, on the Peace Corps salary and saving half of it.  This was because there was little to buy. Supplies were limited.  Our local market sold matches, cigarettes (one at a time) , some spices, lentils, rice and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sometimes there was a basket of fish to choose from, hauled out of the Ganges River and toted the long distance to our inland village, without refrigeration. It didn’t look so good by the time it arrived.

Our villagers were weakened from the lack of food, dehydrated from the severe heat of summer, and many, including our government co-workers had difficulty walking more than a block or two before becoming exhausted. They often asked to sit for a moment by the side of the road to catch their breath.

They all needed food and water and had little. The seriousness of this calamity slowly overtook all other concerns. Mothers had difficulty breastfeeding; children had difficulty thinking about school; workers had difficulty walking to work.

Many times, as we walked from village to village, young mothers offered their tiny infants, or asked me to stop and see their baby, then pleaded with us to take the baby. There is no way to describe my sadness and astonishment to witness a mother holding her child out and asking it to be taken from her, in hopes that it would be fed. 

I was 23 years old at the time and had no way to explain to them what I would need to do to take care of all the infants in my village who were famished. I felt powerless, and ashamed that there was so little that I could do about a massive famine.   The infants’ shallow breathing and visible ribs, their frozen faces and sad, weary looks were difficult to experience. Yet, I knew that eventually I would leave and be going somewhere where there was food, shelter, wealth. My situation was temporary, theirs was not. Many of our families fled to other areas, seeking food.

We followed some of our families who had fled to the streets of Calcutta and we spent time with them to better understand what happened to them when they fled their homes seeking a better situation.  

We found our migrating villagers living on the streets of the slums of Calcutta, as a group, without proper shelter.  We found some who had made themselves a home in large drain pipe.  One of our saddest moments was finding women from our famine area who was standing on a huge pile of animal feces that had been shoveled up from the street. She was with her small children fastidiously separating the grains they found in the animal waste, one grain at a time.  They placed each tiny grain that they could extract from the waste and placed it in their basket so that they might later grind it by hand, using two stones, and make it into an evening meal. 

There was no place to run from this famine. It pervaded everywhere.

We frequently visited our local market in the early morning or late afternoon and found little to buy; perhaps a few tomatoes no bigger than the top of ones thumb; potatoes equally small; perhaps an unrefrigerated fish carried for miles from the Ganges River.  We learned that if we could put our finger through the already rotting fish, that we should not buy it.

Most of us were ill from the hot weather, limited safe water, lack of food and unsanitary conditions.  

We lived for several years in three rooms above a small cloth shop in the middle of the market. The building was made of cinder block. We had no electricity, no stove, only a small kerosene single burner, no running water.  In a tiny room in the back, there was a  hole in the floor, used as a toilet, flushed by the buckets of water we carried from a tube well shared by hundreds of families, located several blocks away.

We carried our water up the stairs and into our apartment using a bucket, using each bucket of water carefully and respectfully.  We boiled some of the water for drinking.  We might use a couple of cups of water to wash some dishes and then collect the rinse water for flushing waste down the toilet, or for mopping a floor.  We tried to use no more than a bucket or two of water per day, for all purposes, owing to how hard it was to carry the water for several blocks and up a set of stairs to our place.

Water was a scarce resource.  The water we used was not available to someone else. The lesson we learned in this little village, was that we actually owned much less than we thought of the absolute essentials such as water, air and energy. They were shared by all, shared with humans, plants and animals. We were all in this together.

One curse that we felt, was that no matter how egalitarian we tried to be, our particular kind of wealth, that is that we were people from a rich, “developed” country, was obvious. We all, as a people of the United States, consumed too much, very quickly, and without apology. It was our signature statement, as a people.

The fact that we had a bathroom in our simple apartment made us seem wealthy, to others who made the early morning visit to the fields.

But there were other signs of our wealth as well. We carried pencils and pens and had paper notebooks that gave us away.  People observed our obvious wealth when they came to visit us and saw plates, silverware, pens and pencils.  When we first arrived, Joe wore a watch.  Eventually he took it off and put it away as it caused so much distraction.

We put our things in a locked trunk  leaving only the essentials visible, such as a cup, a plate and a spoon, a pot or two for cooking, one blanket or a sheet on our wooden bed.  A pillow, a mosquito net, and that is it.

Yes, we still seemed wealthier than others.

Such a life as we led for two years, brought to our attention repeatedly, how much we had consumed, how recklessly we had consumed, before arriving in this little village.

We were amazed to learn how much we could live without.  As our lives got simpler, our needs diminished.

I will never forget how it felt when after several years, after we had developed good friends, had sat through numerous evenings listening to their tall tales, their music, their traditions and meals.  We left that little village, saying goodbye to people we knew we would never see again, wondering how they would ever survive the lack of rains, the excessive temperatures. On the day we left, everything felt so out of control because heavy rains had arrived and were splashing over the empty fields, creating great gullies where land used to be.  In a matter of a few hours, our people went from experiencing not enough water, to too much.

The day we left, cattle were swimming in the fields, backs barely showing above the water. We watched from our train windows, as  our coal-stoked train slowly crept onward towards Patna, seeing both sides of the train surrounded by flood waters, looking out at houses sinking in the water and mud.

We felt guilty and deeply saddened leaving our village, knowing we would probably never see anyone again. We  realistically comprehended how powerless we were to  do anything about their situation, given that the forces they were fighting were so ferocious and also acknowledging that although we had survived in this little village for over two years, we always knew it was temporary, that we had backup.

When I left our state of Bihar, I weighed 99 pounds, skinny and luckily still reasonably healthy.  Joseph and I were lightweight, wizened by what he had learned, and humbled.

It was our first realization of how little control we actually had over world events.    We felt deep respect for the families we left behind, and saddened by our lack of abilities to do much for them other than to reassure them that there were other parts of the world not yet in this sad state of affairs.  It was not like this everywhere, we told them.  It should get better.

We were trying to assume that “this too, shall pass.,” encouraging ourselves and them, to keep going.

And we said goodbye.  However, this too, has not passed. The unequal distribution of resources, the increased scarcity of clean air and water, the drastic growth of the human population at the expense of other plants and animals is continuing unabated.

Our memories of our villagers live on, inspiring us to live simply, in honor of these families we once knew and loved.  We have learned the importance of safe water and air, secure food supplies, and the necessity of proper distributional systems for shared resources, for education, health and quality of life issues such as welfare.  We all see what life is like without this safety net for the planet. Evidence surrounds us. We just have to look and see it, read the facts and comprehend the implications.

Our situation is not completely hopeless. We all have a little power and potential to live simply and give back to our environment as much as we can, knowing that in the future, it really could be dangerous if we do not conserve and replace our natural resources and use an equitable distributional system.

We all need to learn how to share more, to live more simply and wisely. We should acknowledge that famine, war, extreme consumption of limited resources, and the unfair or maldistribution of necessary resources anywhere, is happening to all of us. Deprivation can also become a shared experience, if we do not take care of our planet.

Trust me, living simply may be comfortable, deprivation is not.

Street living under deprivation

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I know that in order to survive, we do require time, activity and materials.  However, it requires even more foresight, planning,  imagination, creativity, and just plain mulishness to learn to live simply.

We are attracted to the colorful maze of materialism.  Material items we acquire accumulate in piles, get lost in storage boxes, spill out of desk drawers, clog dressers, jam closets, teeter in uneasy stacks on counter-tops and drift about in drips and drabs.  They ultimately end up in a land fill  further eroding our planet.

Similarly, we also are dazzled with many daily activities which add little to the quality of our lives and result in addled brains, hyperactivity and shortened attention spans. They include, for example, watching several television screens while simultaneously intensively roaming  a multitude of social media internet sites, commuting in heavy traffic while talking on the phone and texting,  exercising at a gym while listening to or watching the news and the like.  Under such conditions, our abilities to listen and learn are badly hampered.

Finding out who we are after we strip ourselves of unnecessary material items, obligations and useless hyper-activities, takes time, energy and planning.  It can result in some wonderful surprises.

I no longer expect to arrive at a place called “full simplicity” especially since I am not even certain what that would mean.  But I intend to continue on this most interesting journey aimed at simple living while still locating myself smack dab in the middle of our complicated, demanding  world.

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We have no car on the mainland any more.
Life just got simpler
and we feel a whole lot better from the exercise.

Now that we live in a condo in a big city like Portland, the question keeps coming up.

Do we need to drive?  When we think about it, probably not.

We consider biking instead, or walking, depending on the distance we need to go.

We own bikes and are getting in the habit of using them for every day travel to nearby places.
Bikes are easy to use in a city like Portland, Oregon.

Portland and many other urban settings like New York City are planning to keep bikes as a major source of public transport. Entire lanes and off-road areas are dedicated for bikers, making it easier to avoid competition between bikes and cars and reducing potential, unnecessary, collisions.

We learn bike rules, however.  We are expected to know how to signal when changing lanes, where to position our bikes when we turn left or right at crossroads.  We stop at red lights and at stop signs.  We stop for pedestrians.

Roads here are designed and marked to clarify space between people who need to open their car doors and bikers who ride by on the road.  I still keep my eye on parked cars, just to be sure no one is about to open their door and get out.

Portland has entire bridges dedicated to pedestrians, bikers and rails.  Here is one we take almost every day, the Tililikum Bridge.  Walking, or riding the bike across this bridge is such a thrill and a bit of a challenge on the way up to the top.

Lines and signs clearly lay out where pedestrians and bikers are supposed to be, reducing the usual dance between them.

The views from the top of the bridge are spectacular as well and reward us for our work.  We often stop to admire the view and take a breather from the upward part of the bridge.  Although, going down on the other side gives us plenty of respite, as well.

The view
Top of the bridge

Not interested in owning a bike?  Then why not rent one?  Numerous cities are now experimenting with bike rentals and part of their public transport systems.

Here in Portland, they now have a program called Biketown that offers bike rentals on a daily, or annual basis.  I joined it recently and use it for getting around town and shopping, or going to appointments.  The bikes are ever so colorful and fun to ride.

But, remember, it is BYOH, or bring your own helmet.

Shopping at a nearby nursery.

Don’t want to bike somewhere?  Are you thinking that it is too far to go on a bike?  Don’t want to?  How about rent-a-car?

We figured out costs of renting or using short-term car rentals like Zipcar and there is no way we could make the costs of rentals for shopping and getting around town equal to the cost of owning one’s own car in the city, paying for parking.

In our case, we have Zipcar right around the corner. Other companies also offer short-term rentals. I’ll bet some people walk as far just to get to their garage as we do to get to a car rental.

In any case, life is but an adventure, and biking is certainly a lot of fun, and it is also a very practical way to get around town.

Try it!  You may get addicted to all that fresh air.

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A friend of mine told me he asked his brother if he had prepared a will and his brother replied, “What do I need that for?  I’m not dead yet!”

Kenny Rogers, when he sang “The Gambler” sang “You’ve got to know when to hold’em,  know when to fold ”em and know when to walk away and know when to run,” and this rings true not only for holding cards but also for furniture, clothing, old sports equipment and dishes, pots and pans and magazines.

A recent article by Elizabeth O’Brian called  The Power of Positive Purging Your Stuff says that “while a monetary gift is sure to please heirs, an overstuffed house presents a more complicated inheritance”.   

Imagine inheriting a house with a sign placed over the door saying it is  The Museum of Things We Forgot to Throw Away Just In Case We Might Need Them In The Future.

We spend so much time and money on  expensive gift wrapping and bright ribbons to wrap gift items, but don’t necessarily view our plans for inheritance in the same way and often leave it to be presented to the receiver unwrapped, or at least poorly wrapped in newspaper or heaped up in cardboard boxes and the like, complicated by weak instructions as to where all this stuff is supposed to go.

Giving someone a streamlined, well-prepared transfer of funds, furniture and funk, is not so hard.  It just takes a bit of energy and a slight change in perspective.

Not too long ago, I blogged an article on my own personal experience on becoming a minimalist and another on a strategy for getting rid of old things and another on simple steps toward  estate planning.
Yes, this did mean looking at the future and realizing I won’t always be in it.  That is not the happiest thought, perhaps.

But it is also not very pleasant to look ahead and see piles and piles of items left in heaps for others to sort through, and to imagine already exhausted adult children,  holding down jobs and taking care of their own children, trying to straighten out the mess of unexplained transfers, while in bereavement.

Setting up a gift package is turning out to be a happy, enjoyable activity, freeing me up in the process to do some of the things I always wanted to do, since I am no longer holding down the fort on so many “no longer necessary” things.

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Since we arrived in Portland we have been working on a Concentric Circles Discovery Program.  We start from our home with the closest possible restaurants, parks, stores, and places to visit and then slowly work our way outwards, in a circular fashion.
Less than a mile from our place we have discovered the Rose Gardens which are absolutely beautiful.  We walk there almost every day.  It is uphill all the way  and offers us the possibility, if we wish, to take a short cut that includes marching up 220 steps to the top of a hill before reaching the rose gardens.  If we are not in the mood for taking all those steps, there is a road we take instead that zigs and zags its way more humanely to the top.
We have also visited the Japanese Gardens which are 350 feet farther than the Rose Gardens.  They, too, are absolutely beautiful.  However, there is a fee for visiting the Japanese Gardens, while on the other hand, the Rose Gardens are freely entered.
This week, we discovered Pittock Mansion which is  about 2.1 miles walking distance, from our place.  We drove up there on Saturday, and this was the view (see below).  One sees downtown Portland, Oregon and Mt. Hood  in the background looking so powerful and beautiful.

 Today we visited Pittock Mansion again, but this time we walked through town and then zig-zagged up to the top,  a very good aerobic work out.

On the way down, to reward ourselves for the walk up, we stopped at Basta’s for happy hour where we had the best pizza and lasagna to go with a glass of wine and a glass of beer.

This is really too much fun.

At this rate of speed, we will be busy walking in concentric circles to interesting sites for years to come.  

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