Common Misconceptions about Simplicity


Simplicity can be quite complicated.

I realized this when a friend asked me for some of my thoughts about it during the Lenten season this past March.  (Simplicity is one of the outward Spiritual Disciplines practiced by Christians – but it can certainly apply to others as well.  However, in this conversation, I’m rooting discussion in my faith tradition.)  I started to write him a facebook message, but stopped after it stretched on for over twelve paragraphs. I can sum up what I think Simplicity is in one sentence –

Simplicity is a life stripped of excess; excess that separates us from what really mattersIn the context of Christianity, it’s easy to define what really matters – Loving God. Loving People.

But the practical business of partaking in this weeding process can be thorny.  First off, what is a weed?  Or rather, how do we recognize simplicity when we see it?

So that I better recognize what simplicity is – I started out by identifying 5 things simplicity isn’t.

Simplicity doesn’t mean Easy.

The first thing I determined was that simplicity doesn’t mean taking the easiest route.  It is always easier to do things the way they have always been done, to not question our decisions, our choices..  It is always simple to do what is most convenient – but that does not mean it will allow us to excise excess.  It is always simple to do what everyone else is doing, but does that mean we should all be doing it?

Simplicity is not always Cheap.

If simplicity ultimately involves loving other people then in good conscience it is difficult to participate in practices that enslave other people.  Because of the convoluted and global practices of trade these days – unfortunately much, but not all, of the time it is necessary to purchase something that has been made by slaves.  One of the biggest practices of simplicity involves the work of discovering how to avoid these things – and purchase items which reflect just labor.  This is usually more expensive than cheaper alternatives.

Simplicity involves Work.

One element of simplicity is investigating alternatives to current practices.  The mental work to decide to live simply is the first step, and hard enough.  Beyond that it’s hard to rethink habits, and to try new practices.  It’s always work to discover goods that are ethically made and sourced.  Furthermore, it is mental work to say no to upgrading your goods, and sometimes forgoing labor-saving devices in the practice of simplicity.  Relevant Magazine presents one of the biggest labor saving devices which is slowly eroding the practice of simplicity and silence.

Simplicity is not the same thing as Minimalism, or Sustainability.

Sometimes I get really into all the similarities between Simplicity and Sustainable living – forgoing upgraded technology, finding locally sourced vegetables, home cooked meals, thrifted clothing, one car lifestyle. I want to be able to say that these two things are the same – and there is some crossover – but they aren’t the same – because the Discipline of Simplicity is, again, rooted in faith.

The definition of sustainability is to be sure that the current generation doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to live on the earth.  Sustainability’s goal is that people will have enough resources to continue indefinite life on this planet.  Simplicity is ultimately not about resources or goods at all, and Christian simplicity is not about this planet primarily – but about God, and People.

Simplicity is not just a state of mind.

I like what Richard Foster*, author of Freedom of Simplicity, writes –  “The Christian discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.”  Although I can think about simplicity all day long, if I don’t change my habits it is nothing but talk, and nothing has been gained. Simplicity must be but into practice with small choices implemented one after the other.

What do you think about Simplicity – or have you even thought about it before?

*I am very indebted to Foster’s thoughts on Simplicity.  I cannot recommend Foster’s book highly enough.  His book was the first I read on the topic, and I think it is the best.

You might also like this post: About how to keep Holidays Simple by focusing on People.


Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day!  Research says that making a personal commitment, and then making it visible will help change your behavior.  Consider taking the following measurable and specific challenge for the next year.

I promise to bring 1 (or more) Reusable Bags with me whenever I go shopping.

Tips and Tricks to make your promise Easier. 

(Research also shows that if you want a commitment to stick – it’s not so much about stopping an action, it’s about replacing it with another action.)

  • Keep reusable bags in your car (at all times!)
  • If you live with more than one person – put someone in charge of “reminder” duty. This is a great job for a little one.
  • Buy the type of reusable bag you can add to your key chain, or stuff in your purse/backpack.
  • Add a sign to your dashboard (or back of your front door) that says “Did you remember your reusable bag today?”
  • AddActivist Abby” on facebook.  Information delivered straight to your newsfeed about just how ridiculously bad (and frivolous)plastic bag consumption can be.
  • Don’t approach it as an all-of-nothing task.  If you forget once or twice – just reuse the plastic bags you get.

What else are you doing to celebrate Earth Day?

I’ll celebrating by cleaning up trash at my local park during this week.

You might like these other posts I’ve written about sustainability and green living.

Talking Trash – how we cut our Trash output in half in one year.

Book Review: Serve God, Save the Planet

Book Review: Serve God, Save the Planet

Serve God: Save the Planet – A Christians Call to Action.

by. J. Matthew Sleeth, MD.

Hey all!  I read this very enjoyable book and wanted to share it with you.  I think it’s particularly useful for Christians who are interested in Green stuff to have a book they can hand to their skeptical, or simply overwhelmed, friends as a useful and enjoyable handbook to say – Hey – I don’t agree with everything he writes, but this guy covers all the basics you might want to know about Creation Care.  This book is engaging, thoughtful, well written, and most of all – easy to read.  (Important when giving people books to read – unless you know they want a challenge.)

Check out this quick review – which I cut and copied from my Good Reads account.

I enjoyed reading this book as a Christian response to “going green.”  The author is a very engaging writing who used a lot of personal anecdotes, and well as, I think, sufficiently reminding U.S. Christians that they are rich simply by dint of being born in the US – doesn’t matter what quintile you fall into.  You can’t get out of this, so you’ve gotta engage it. 

I like how the author didn’t shirk from the “hard stuff” (eg: population control), and provided specific ways to reduce your carbon footprint etc.  I like how he related first world actions directly to our third worlds brothers and sisters – I think this is the most important point that Christian sustainability and green advocates need to make.  Putting aside the (unfortunately somewhat) more controversial topic of global warming for now, we absolutely must address “our” own selfishness that allows us to ignore others suffering and lack of most basic resources like water and food – in our own favor of exotic foods and belief that our money is ours to spend as we will on whatever will make our lives most convenient, enjoyable, and ‘cool.’

Overall I thought he presented a very balanced portrayal of all the aspects that make up “saving the planet,” Energy, Food, Materialism… etc.

All that being said: two things bothered me; the author is certainly no Biblical scholar and interprets several Bible passages in a literal way which many theologians agree should not be interpreted as such. I, of course, applaud his use of many verses and having a Scriptural base for his position on the environment, however I wish he hadn’t overstepped his own knowledge by wading into theological territory.

Going back to my introduction however, I do wish he had addressed his unique position in being a person who, no doubt, earns a fair bit more than most/all of his readers and has had that cushion of wealth to fall back upon as he was making lifestyle accommodations – even ones that ended up saving him more money.  Even if he had discussed more often the difference between people in his own income bracket, that would have been nice.  I’m not saying numbers, I’m just saying he never really acknowledged that yes, all U.S citizens are privileged but he (and family) are particularly privileged.

Hey! Check this out! I was interviewed over at TerraBluTeams!


Talking Trash with Beth*

I met Beth last week at Zumi’s, a lively café in Ipswich, MA., owned by sustainable practitioner, Umesh. Beth, who lives in Salem, was one of our first website subscriber’s a year ago, when we founded

In her late twenties, a wife, mother and graduate student, Beth proclaims herself a sustainability “beginner” because her upbringing was not very “eco-conscious”. Beth’s passion for a sustainable lifestyle was inspired by her first trip at age 21 after graduation from Gordon College to “wwoof”. This adventure allows volunteers a hands-on opportunity to live/work on an organic farm, either in the USA or abroad.

It was Beth’s first trip alone, outside the USA, to a strange land to meet new people and learn about sustainable living. When Beth arrived in New Zealand at her chosen organic farm, four hours outside Auckland, she was immediately put…

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A quick word on Upcycling

Have you heard about Upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of converting used/old products into something new, and often better than the old.

I have a friend, Jenny,  who made her daughter this fantastic kitchen set (You’ll need to scroll down in the post a big.)  Jenny is super crafty and awesome – please check out her facebook page for her business here.  And in fact – she’s the one who introduced me to the blog “Better After” to start with. I love seeing how crafty people can be – because I definitely don’t have an eye for that.

I tried one (yes, one) upcycling project last year – and it mostly consisted of slapping a coat of paint on a rolling cart I found on the side of the road.  Full disclosure – my husband actually painted it.  I just tried to put a stencil on the top.  (Not my finest moment.)

Upcycled Cart

Purpose of cart - book storage and truck garage.
Purpose of cart – book storage and truck garage.

But, I’m always curating Upcycling projects on Pinterest (you can see them here).   Yet, making collages for my New Year’s Resolution out of recycled paper is about the extent of my upcycling.

If you craft – consider seeing how you can find a way to incorporate used materials in some way in each project.

For a great resource for North Shore crafters  – check out the Extras for Creative Learning in Lynn – and read this blog post from Connect Shore about it.

Talking Trash – One Year Later

Last year I started taking a look at improving some of my sustainability practices – The first thing I looked at was trash – Here’s the original post – But I’m going to summarize last January’s conclusions below:

The Original Data –

In January (2012) I took a good look at what goes out of my house during the course of the month.  That’s right, the Trash.  I don’t want to turn this project into a legalistic minute measure of everything, merely gain some broad understanding.  So, I did the simplest thing I could think of with the trash.  I took thirty seconds every three or four days to photograph my trash can and recycling bin to see how much effluvia gets cast from the house.

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It turns out we throw away about three 13 gallon bags of kitchen trash a month (with the fourth being almost full now, in part because of the party I hosted over the weekend), and recycle 4 bins full of bottles, cans, and papers.  In addition to this, we also throw away 2 bags a month of disposable diapers. Lets say then we probably throw away about 100 gallons of trash each month, and about 150 gallons of recycling.

The Conclusions –

By and large what’s getting recycled is bean cans, cereal boxes, and seltzer bottles.  But mostly, lots and lots of Goya bean cans.  If I was going to reduce the amount of recycling (thereby starting with “reduce,” , this would be the biggest thing to tackle.  A solution to this would be to buy beans in bags and in bulk (and less seltzer. 😦 )

The two (or three depending on how you count) biggest questions that came of this were –  (1) does Salem have a composting program, or a place to bring compost, and how can I find out? (2) Should I finally switch to using cloth diapers?

The Follow-Up One Year Later:

I can confidently say we’ve reduced our Trash by half, and increased our recycling.  (Unfortunately we’re by no means down to one bag per year)

Here’s the top 4 Ways we did it:

1. Switched to Cloth Diapers 6.5 out of 7 days – I stopped thinking about the cloth thing as an “all or nothing” proposition and made a resolution to use cloth diapers every day – except for Sunday mornings, and the one nighttime diaper.  I stopped researching cloth diapers and just BOUGHT some. (There are an overwhelming number of options.) We change diapers about 5-6 times a day – which means we’ve gone from 38 disposable diapers a week to 9 or fewer.

2. Learned more about which types of plastic you can recycle (especially plastic bags.) AND bought Reusable fruit/vegetable bags for the times when we’re not part of a CSA.  You can recycle a lot more plastic bags than you think you can – like bread bags, bags that contain toilet paper/papertowels, and newspaper bags.

3.  Switched to cloth cleaning rags, and handkerchiefs – After our son no longer spit up a couple times a day we had a quite a few of these “burp cloths” hanging around.  They became our cleaning rags, and my handkerchiefs. (The husband thinks that’s gross.  But he doesn’t have allergies – so whatever.)  I think we bought 3 (possible 4) rolls of papertowels in 2012 – and they were made from recycled paper.

4. Partnered with friends to compost more.  This was the hardest project – but, like the diapers had a really big payoff, in drastically reducing trash.  We started composting in May.  When we joined the CSA in June we were able to bring the compost back to the Beverly Farmer’s Market, where a nice fellow took it away, and provided us with a huge bucket to keep it in in our entryway.  (We weathered a huge fruit fly invasion in August too.  What a pain!) When we were part of the winter CSA at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton – they let us bring our compost there.  But, once that ended – we asked other couples at our church to see who else composted – and now we bring our compost to a friend’s house.  (Next Project – Church compost pile?!)  I also learned that you can compost tea bags and kleenex anyway.

As for the rest of our “hard to get rid of trash”  – We saved all our textiles to donate during Salem Recycles Textile Drive in November (they take usable and non-usable textiles like sheets, clothes, rags).  Textiles drives happen twice a year.


Took advantage of Salem’s “Bulky Rigid Plastics” recycling to get rid of some broken baby toys, and old tent parts. We brought our broken dehumidifier to an electronics recycling event at Ebsco in Ipswich, donated old baby toys in usable condition to a local non-profit, and donated our car.  Electronics Recycling Events happen every couple months on the North Shore, usually listed in the Salem News.

At the end of January – our only lingering problem? What to do with our old half-broken microwave.  But I’m a sure a little research will solve this problem.

For more info on Recycling – Check out The Mass Recycling Coalition. – Do the Math – Boston’s Orpheum Theatre

Do the Math – We are greater than Fossil Fuels

I attended my first rally ever last night – The Do the Math tour with Bill McKibben.  Rumor has it it will be the biggest stop on the tour, filling up (most of) the Orpheum Theatre’s 2700 seats.

The bulk of the rally concerned a recap of the three numbers Bill McKibben talked about in his viral Rolling Stone piece this summer.  The numbers are 2, 565, and 27… well, some other large number.  Really, I think they are important, but the concepts behind them are better than actually remembering the numbers.

First, that if the global temperature rises about 2 degrees celcius (from what it is now) we’re in for a wildly bumpy ride of horrifying weather patterns that could kill millions and cost billions to clean up and recover from.

The second number (565) represents how much fossil fuel we can burn before we raise the global temperature two more degrees.  The third number, which is 5x the size of that second one, represents how much known oil that we have access too (hard or easy to get to) that fossil fuel companies are planning to burn. Already.

Dismal, right?

What’s the strategy that Do the Math puts out at this point – Divestment.

Stop investing in oil companies.  Get your college to stop investing.  Get your church to stop investing.  Your company.  Yourself.

That was the rally (in a nutshell.)

There are two important points I want to make about the rally – one is for do-gooders in general, and one is specifically for Christians.

Do Gooders – No matter how little you drive, how much you recycle, how few things you buy – if there are not structural changes to policy change, business operations, and even the mundane things like investment strategy there will be no progress in this issue.

This is the old “one person” vs. a “group of people” debate.  (I love having this debate – even more than I love having the nature vs. nurture one).  That is – is it more important to change hearts or is it most important to change policy (ie: group think)? –  Trick answer – both!  For me, I think it’s most important to change policy in your public life, and hearts in your private life.

Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world – Archimedes

Christians. The thing that really gets me about this cause is that the people who will be most affected by climate change are the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world – that is, the people Jesus expressly said to care about.  They’re subsistence farmers, desert dwellers – people eking out a living.  I know that America is on a shaky recovery, expensive gas… etc etc etc.  I know, also, that Christians are some of the most skeptical people about this “climate change hoax” as they sometimes call it.  That’s nice.  Forget about that, lets talk about how big oil companies still screw over poor subsistance farmers even if there isn’t such a thing as climate change.  It’s a win win to protest this if we’re serious about taking care of poor people.

The effects here (in the US) of changing policy hurts first and foremost big business (who can afford it and will innovatively recover, I have no doubt) and secondly people who are poor, but not abysmally poor.  The deaths here will not be from starvation – they will be from freak storms.  That’s first why I back this movement.  (The second reason is of course, the biosphere changes, but I’m not going to go into that (right now).)

Like Bill McKibben said last night (paraphrased) – What we’re asking isn’t radical.  We’re just asking for a planet that works as good as it did when we were born.