Sunday, December 12, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity

Roughly ten years ago, Jim and I became interested in a growing movement called Voluntary Simplicity. The motivation began as financial. The group was inspired by a book I'd admired, Your Money Or Your Life, a keeper that I go back to from time to time when I need a boost of frugality. At weekly meetings, an interesting cross-section of people sat in a circle in a host's apartment speaking about what cool free things they did that week (hiking; kayaking; ushering at a theater and seeing the play). The main idea of the group was to support each other in the "enough is enough" philosophy. For some, that meant getting out of debt; for others, saving money for a downpayment for an apartment; for others, it was about finding a group of new like-minded friends to picnic with in Central Park-- potlucks, naturally. The philosophical questions circled around how to pare down one's existence so that one could spend more time pursuing their interests rather than spend all waking hours working in some hated job to pay off bills for piles of crap that no one even needed. "Piles of crap" is of course a relative term: my crap entailed those two non-negotiables, rent and food. Eventually we slipped away from these meetings, feeling that the leader's politics rather than the original idea for the group had taken over the bulk of the tone, but something about the driving philosophy has lingered over the years.

This is the time of the year when we're all reaching for our wallets to shop for people we love. We shop to show appreciation, to fulfill some desire in others and ourselves. And yet, the theme I hear buzzing all around me this December, both among family and friends, is that once again, Less is More. People are choosing to live within their means (despite what TV news shows would leave you to believe), and shopping seems to be more calculated and thoughtful; much less impulsive and extravagant. Gifts are less about impressive sweeping gestures that leave credit card hangovers long after January comes and goes, and more about, well, the person behind the gift.

In one of my favorite sappy Christmas movies, The Homecoming (the pilot of the Walton's), John Boy's mother, played by Patricia Neal, presents her budding writer son with a couple of Big Chief tablets and pencils so he can get to work writing his books. The euphoric pleasure she takes in a blooming Christmas cactus in her basement fills up her whole home with joy.

I have the Big Chief tablets on the brain this year, and have bought loved ones mostly books. This year we're spending Christmas in Philadelphia, and being together with Jim's mom and siblings will be a tonic to the loss we still feel in Jim's sister passing away six months ago. This upcoming weekend, we'll spend an early Christmas in Kinderhook with my family by the lake. My mom's asked me to bake, which I'm happy to do, in the spirit of offering a simple pleasure, like the Christmas cactus bloom. What do the holidays mean for you this time around?


  1. We spent yesterday afternoon at a friends making homemade ornaments after a potluck lunch (soup, brown rice, homemade bread, cheese & brownies - yum). It was lovely and very festive. Everyone brought something and left with something they had made. The kids made crafts or played as they liked & we grownup got to tap our inner crafty while being with friends.

  2. We have a pact that we don't overspend at the holidays, but it hard to abide by that rule. It's so easy to drop $50 on decorations and extra treats at the grocery store. But, I don't begrudge us a little extra fun this time of year, but I will not put anything on a credit card. Good for you for sticking to your plan and living simply. You and Jim have always inspired me in how you cultivate values and live by them. Hope both family Christmases are wonderful.

  3. Rachel,

    This is an insightful post. You're right. The holidays shouldn't be so much about the commercial aspects. I love the idea about the actual thought behind a gift. It could be something small and inexpensive, yet invaluable that expresses that person's personality or profession.

    The holidays should be simple, a few gifts at most. Having a great conversation, a delicious meal and a bottle of wine work for me. See you soon. Happy Holidays to you and your family. XO