In Search of Simplicity
Today I’m going to do something I NEVER do. I’m going to recommend a non0fiction book.
Now, I don’t have anything against non-fiction. It’s just that I have less time than ever to actually read these days (oh, the cruel irony!) and I’m usually busy reading books for research, friends, and new ones put out by my publisher.
But ten years ago this book changed my life.
I know you’re probably thinking, “That book is OLD! I’m not reading it!” That would be a mistake. Because this book is AMAZING. It’s so good that when I went to send my copy to a friend, I ended up re-reading it and had to buy her her own copy instead.
And it is every bit as awesome now as it was then.
Basically, it’s a book about CHOOSING a simpler life, not because you HAVE to. Not because you’re broke (although that’s a good reason, too!) or because you want to be some kind of martyr. In fact, it’s not about sacrificing at all. It’s about connecting with the deeper parts of ourselves – and finding true fulfillment – by turning away from the things that over-complicate modern life. It’s not a manual or a how-to book. Instead, it leaves to each reader to decide for him- or herself which things are making life needlessly complicated and shallow.
When I read it, I was living in California, working every day for a technology consulting firm in a job I’d come to despise. I had a house by the beach, a full-time nanny, a housekeeper, and lots and lots of STUFF.
And I was totally miserable. I missed my children and was happiest on the weekends, doing something simple like reading, working on craft projects, or going to flea markets. I couldn’t figure out how I’d ended up with this enormous mortgage, car payment, credit card debt, and all this STUFF that only shackled me to a life I didn’t even want.
This was the book that made me believe it was possible to find – and be HAPPY with – a different way of living. Plus, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone and totally crazy for feeling as dissatisfied as I did.
So for the six years between leaving my job and moving to the little town in New York where I now live and the time when I sold Prophecy of the Sisters to Little Brown, I focused on simplifying my life. I’m not gonna lie. It’s an ongoing struggle. The desire for material possessions (or any outward sign of success) and the belief that you’re keeping up with everyone else is insidious. It tries to sneak back in on an almost everyday basis.
But really, I’m still happiest when I focus on the little things. And even though I’m still striving for more simplicity, my life remains completely different than it was ten years ago. I live in a converted barn where the floors haven’t been refinished in 30 years. I drive an 11-year-old car in which you can’t open the back doors from the inside (okay, I know this is dangerous and I PROMISE I’m buying another less-used car in the Spring!). I really hesitate to spend money on STUFF. Now, when I can justify the expense, it’s almost always on experiences instead. I’d rather go to a concert with my teens or take my kids to a movie (though, yes, I do try to go to the matinee because it’s less expensive) than buy new clothes that I don’t really need. I’d rather take my kids on a really great vacation every other year than spend money all year long on video games and electronics. When I have to buy something for my house, I look at local auctions first because I love saving money and recycling furniture (and lamps and mixing bowls and… well, you get the idea!) from the past makes me feel better than endlessly consuming. As an added bonus, saving money and consuming less means I can give MORE and that feels really good, too.
But even as I share this, I have to say that it’s not about being noble. It’s about how much HAPPIER you can be – really! – with less. Not just less stuff but less noise, less chaos, less distraction, less negativity. Less! It just distills everything down to the basics until even the simplest things seem like MORE.
And that still sometimes comes as a surprise to me.
It’s a work in progress. I still need to work on composting and trying to grow something (I’m a notorious plant-killer) we can eat. I also need to work on simplifying in other ways. On streamlining my online time so that I don’t feel the need to be everywhere all at once, something I’ve discovered just makes me feel frazzled and unhappy. On not feeling obligated to maintain relationships that are negative or unfulfilling for me. On volunteering not only money, but time, to the causes that are important to me.
But I can say without a doubt that I am happier now than I was before I read this book, and I feel like it STILL holds the key to even more happiness and serenity. I feel good about the fact that my kids understand the difference between stuff we don’t need and experiences that make our family stronger and give us shared memories that we’ll carry with us forever. Between putting a dollar in the Salvation Army can and the willingness to at least entertain the possibility of using our vacation to help build a school in Africa.
And this book is a HUUUUGE part of all that!
You can learn more about the simple living movement on the The Simple Living Network. There are tons more resources online if you look for them. And if you read Voluntary Simplicity and want more inspiring anecdotal stories, check out this one, too.