I’ll be the first to admit that creating a life of voluntary simplicity is far from “simple!” A key element of learning a simpler way of living is the experience created when we become clear on our core values and deep personal beliefs, and then simply make our life choices accordingly. The process of (1) achieving personal clarity, and (2) learning to make new choices is not always easy. The choices that result in simpler living cannot be based on someone else’s list of guidelines or “how-to’s.” My choices very likely will not be your choices, and your choices are for you to make. You see, voluntary simplicity is not a regulated life of conformity to a new rule book; rather, it is a life of freedom–freedom to choose to be fully who I am, and to practice ways to merely live my essence with the greatest authenticity I can. Even more than that, it involves not only being deeply aware of who I am as an individual, but learning new awareness of the world around me and how I interact in that world.
As we learn to experience the freedom of new life choices, we also learn much about the meaning of community and what it means to be part of the larger whole. Voluntary simplicity is not a life of self-absorbed individualism, but a life of deep connectedness and awareness. It is not a life motivated by guilt or negative judgments, but a life of deep personal joy and tolerance of others who may view the world differently. We are all connected.
Those who seek to walk a simpler path share a respect for the telling of our stories–never with the expectation that others will do exactly as we did, but with the awareness that in the story-telling, the teller receives insight and the hearer receives understanding to perhaps see some part of the world around them through different eyes. What follows is my story of how I re-inhabited my community.
It was a wild pace. I can’t deny it. For eight years of the most recent decade of my life, I lived in Salem and worked in downtown Portland. I felt that dividing myself between two cities was my only choice. The Portland scene represented higher salary; more compelling professional opportunities; a more progressive social environment; and a stimulating plethora of the arts, exquisite restaurants, and fabulous places to shop. Salem simply paled in comparison. Yet I was bound to live with my grade school-aged children in Salem until they were 18, due to custodial restrictions in my divorce decree. For many years, I felt like nothing short of a prisoner of war entrenched within Salem’s city limits.
The result of splitting my life between two cities was anything but “simple.” Sure, I made thousands more dollars and was involved in great activities, but there were obvious monetary expenses associated with my choice, as well as personal costs that were somewhat tougher to tally. The obvious out-of-pocket expenses of my commute included the following: • I was alone in my car for 15-20% of my waking hours, depending on traffic. • Roughly 80 gallons of unleaded gas went through my gas tank each month. • I spent roughly $10,000 over the course of those 8 years on parking fees. • My odometer accumulated 30,000 miles annually. • I spent unrecorded thousands of dollars on monthly oil changes, more frequent tune-ups, increased insurance premiums, and the new tires required to support that kind of mileage.
On a personal level, the cost of my commute meant that I was not present in the hallways or classrooms where my children attended school and day care each day. It meant that I was more aware of the issues on the mind of Portland’s Mayor than the concerns on the table before Salem’s City Council. It meant that my personal social support circle was a long-distance toll call away. It ultimately meant that Salem was where I schooled my kids and hung my clothes; Portland became the center of my professional, social, and spiritual identity. Simple? Huh-uh! It took a number of years before I realized that the emptiness I felt was partially due to my lack of a sense of place–the experience of “home.”
My decision to end that commute became clear when ultimately the mounting personal cost of my gypsy experience loomed larger than the merit of metropolitan glitz, sensory stimulation, and professional visibility that Portland had once meant to me. I bit the bullet and entered a phase that I now look back on with fondness as the period when I learned to “re-inhabit my community.”
It wouldn’t be true if I told you the adjustment was instant or easy. I realized the intensity of my “withdrawal” from my Portland addiction for months. I had grown to love the view of mountains and cityscape from 33 floors up in the U.S. Bancorp Tower. I had literally become an addicted consumer in the Portland scene, shopping for the sheer pleasure of spending and constantly having newer and better stuff. (By the time my 8-year commute ended, I had accumulated a wardrobe large enough to wear a different professional outfit every single workday for four entire months! This didn’t even include my “casual” or “evening” wardrobes! But don’t get me started . . . ) Slowing from the pace of the Portland scene allowed long-avoided thoughts and feelings to come crashing in. I had managed to keep them at bay for 8 years with frenetic activity and the resulting physical and emotional exhaustion.
I’ll be the first to confess that Salem is still far from “glitzy” when compared to neighboring Portland. But Salem has been where I have now lived for a quarter of a century. Part of my personal process in creating a simpler life has involved intense personal lessons about re-inhabiting Salem–about learning to live where I live–about taking personal responsibility to create community within my geographic domicile and to no longer buy into the fantasies that “there is better than here” or that “more is always better.”
My re-inhabitation vignette ends with a smattering of symbolism. In 1977, upon graduating from college, I purchased a Baldwin spinet piano. Since acquiring it, I moved that piano 14 times in 20 years–always within Salem and always looking for the place where I felt that I truly belonged. I promised myself that I would pay the price to have the piano tuned when I knew in my heart that I had finally arrived “home.” Well, after two decades I finally had that poor piano tuned for the first time in July 1996, when my family (now complete with husband Mark) rented an older two-story house in Salem’s inner city Historic District. (There were many reasons for our conscious choice to relocate there, but that’s a whole other story!)
The sweetness of this story’s ending is that I have learned that “home” is not defined by a structure, but by a spirit which we embody–or perhaps it embodies us. It goes far beyond the transience of physical dwellings to the richer sense of self-knowing and deep belonging that results from living life with authenticity and valuing relationship over dollars. It occurs when we reach the place in life where we truly feel in the marrow of our bones that we are a part of the ageless cosmos, and all of the humans and more-than-humans who inhabit it. We are not what we own.
I smile as I remember this Taoist quote: “My barn having burned, I can now see the moon.”
Carolyn Berry lives with her family in Salem, Oregon. Author of the journal “Seasons of Gratitude,” Carolyn is a multi-faceted speaker and presenter with a passion for teaching workshops on life simplification and authenticity. She can be reached a 503-391-1922.