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Simplicity and the good life -- this side of going hobo

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Wednesday, January 7th, 2004 — Whenever I hear someone talk about living more simply I get nervous. Part of me agrees completely; my life is full and could stand some weeding out.

But there is always a voice that cautions me about what I will have to give up in the process.

However, the idea of living simply haunts me, wanting my attention. So last November, when I heard about an evening presentation entitled, "Bringing More Joy, Community and Simplicity into Your Holidays," I decided to check it out -- not just for simpler holidays but for ideas I could use throughout the year.

The evening was sponsored by the City of Palo Alto and the environmental group Acterra: Action for a Sustainable Earth. The speaker was Cecile Andrews, an author and scholar affiliated with both Seattle University and Stanford University.

As I was driving downtown to the meeting I had my usual misgivings about how I would probably feel out of place in a group of people who have adopted simple living in earnest. Not so.

First, Andrews is a light-hearted, bouncy woman with a great sense of humor who doesn't appear to live a life of self-denial. Second, people in the crowd looked just like me. There wasn't an ascetic in the room.

Moreover, no one had all the answers. Each person spoke about ideas he or she had tried, which ones worked better than others and difficulties about keeping life simple.

Simplicity is a work in progress. I can live with that.

Andrews spoke of the time she wanted to avoid the craziness of the holidays and suggested to her family that they spend the time in their Volkswagen camper in the desert. The experiment failed. All kinds of unforeseen circumstances turned their escape into a disaster.

This story reminds me of the times I am so aggravated by things falling apart around our house that I make a plea to sell it and move to a trailer park -- an urge to walk out the door and leave it all behind! This would be the equivalent of throwing away all my clothes in my closet to make wardrobe choices easier, or burning my calendar to free up time.

But I know these are empty threats, which only avoid the real issue. Simplicity is not a matter of all or nothing. We have to make choices -- what to keep, what to let go of.

Here is where it gets scary. I'll probably have to leave certain things behind that I have come to enjoy. But big bills, exhaustion and unreasonable expectations are no fun either. The payoff of simple living comes in the long haul, as we begin to like this new skin we are wearing.

If there was a take-away message from the meeting, for me it was that simple living is not about having less but about having more: more fun, more time, more satisfaction from what we have and do.

It is also not about choosing to do or have nothing, as if we become comatose instead of enjoying life. We still expend energy; nothing ever got done without some effort. But when we choose the things that matter most to us we feel satisfaction. We enjoy the process and the result.

One of our sons gave me a journal in which he had inscribed the "Hobo's Creed." It begins: "All us hobo's ... promise to ... take a big sabbatical from the conventional life, to dwell in small tents by wise old streams ...." It is a beautiful statement of respect for the earth and our role as grateful travelers on this planet. It is idealistic perhaps to the point of mythical, and few can actually live the hobo's life. But many of us will benefit by shifting our focus from having and doing more to enjoying more what we have.

Traveling light can help us discover who we are as we emerge from layers of trappings. A part I especially like is that there are many ways to travel light. We can all do the weeding that seems right for ourselves.

I saw a greeting card with a picture of a fat, grinning cat on the front. "Happiness is wanting what you already have," it said inside.

Somewhere inside myself, I've known that all along. My challenge for the New Year is to remember it.