“I’ve got the Wretched Wretch a farm for his birthday.”
“A farm? Geez, mum! He’s only two! No wonder we haven’t got any money!”
“A farm? Geez, mum! He’s only two! No wonder we haven’t got any money!”
So went the conversation between me and my youngest daughter, which made me laugh.
But I thought I’d tell y’all about some of the steps we have made in our journey into simplicity (‘we’ as in our household, I mean, not the royal ‘we’!)
As this has involved a number of different things, I thought I’d post about it over a few days (though I’ll be at Spring Harvest in Minehead this next week, so there’ll be a space).
First off, I want to say, this is not me bragging ‘Look at us, we’re doing it right’ holier-than-thou kind of thing. On this quest into simplicity I find I am continually learning, going one step back for every two steps forward, and having to compromise and wait and keep trying.
For example, there’s the matter of the car. I’d set up everything to get myself car-free, got rid of the car, resolved never to have one again – and then my 83-year-old mother moved down to Sussex. The town we live in, and the road we live in, are not her style at all – she would be miserable here; it’s quite a rough and ready kind of place, and my mother is a more refined kind of person. She likes beautiful and elegant places, and country villages. So she has moved to live in the ancient town of Battle, where the centrepiece is an abbey, still in good order and now a school, built in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror on the Pope’s orders because William and his men so badly mutilated King Harold’s slain body after the battle in 1066.
The snag with country village life is the public transport is a bit sparse. At five miles distance along fast and narrow roads in hilly Sussex, getting to Battle on foot or by bike is not going to work. There are trains, but it means walking 20 minutes to the station, waiting up to 40 minutes for a train, then a 10 minute journey, then another 20 minute walk from the station – and no trains through the night of course. The buses go once an hour through the peak hours of the day. At 83, my mother needs me to be able to go, and get there quickly, if she gets into difficulties. She also needs me for outings into the country to garden centres and all the things that make her happy – because I want her to be happy in the last years of her life.
Like a lot of modern people, my mother is used to adapting circumstances to fit the thing she would like to do, rather than fitting what she would like to do to what circumstances offer – and this is a key factor in the difference between car culture and public transport/walking culture. Those of us who walk or bus learn to choose the best veggies our greengrocer has to offer. Those of us with cars maybe drive out to the farmers’ market where the real best veggies can be found.
When we re-fitted our bathroom this year, I asked Joe our builder: “Just get us white tiles and a white bath and basin and toilet, Joe – something basic that doesn’t cost much, whatever you think best.” I had no plans to go anywhere to a bathroom store.
But when my mother re-fitted the bathroom on moving into her new apartment, she wanted to go to several different industrial estates and stores to see what tiles and bathroom fittings were on offer, to compare them and make an informed choice. She’s that kind of person, and she gets immensely frustrated and stressed and eventually miserable and defeated if she can’t put her plans into action.
Looking after the people God gave me to care for is one of the things right at the top of the list of what I was sent to earth to do. And I find it such a wonderful, precious privilege to have in my hands the chance to make people happy. What an amazing thing to be able to do! To make someone happy! I love it! I am determined that, as far as it lies with me to do so, I want to see to it that my mother’s old age is happy.
So it became very clear to me that my dream of having a car-free life will have to be put on hold for a few years. Once she is no longer with us, the car can go again. Meanwhile, being a car owner (though expensive) is no hardship. It makes many things easier, and driving along the Sussex lanes is a joy.
So that was one of the steps toward simplicity that went awry. We have tried to preserve as much faithfulness to the simple carpenter of Nazareth in our choices as we can. The car is small and economical and basic, with no gadgets. It is shared between all of us here, and while the Badger is away in Oxford through the working week, it is the only car this household has. And we try to remember not to just drive everywhere, but walk and go by train or bus as well.
We don’t live our dream all the time and often, as with the car, it’s two steps forward one step back. But we are making slow progress.
One of our simplicity initiatives I am pleased about is the whole matter of birthday and Christmas gifts.
We are a big family. Five of us live in this household, then the Badger has two adult daughters who both have men of their own. Then there’s Rosie (my eldest daughter) and Jon just 10 minutes walk along the road, and Grace and Clay and the Wretched Wretch (my grandson) 10 minutes walk in the other direction. Then there are the Old Ones – parents-in-law from my first marriage, and my mother. And of course my sister, and her sons and their partners . . . and our friends . . .
Christmas can turn into an awful present orgy.
We have lived a long time in an age of mass-production now, and we have also seen what problems arise when things accumulate. No-one in our family really wants or needs any more hats, bags, scarves, earrings, perfume etc, etc. Book and CDs are usually welcome – ah, but which ones?
We eventually realised, having pussy-footed around the subject for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings, that we were spending too much money buying things nobody needed, wanted, or knew what to do with.
I took note of Ann Voskamp’s creative solutions of celebrating Christmas without gifts (can't find the post on her blog now, but this gives a good general idea), but felt the way that was right for her family was not quite the right fit for ours.
Then we hit on a workable compromise. Each person would receive a birthday or Christmas gift, from all of us. The gift might be a parcel of several small things, or one big thing – my mother had a little bag of prettily wrapped items that different ones of us had chosen, each of which would have looked pitiful on its own but together made a good present; my son-in-law had a ticket to a special concert that we all chipped in the money to buy.
That way, we keep down the expenditure and stop special occasions descending into consumer-fests but without the stark austerity of no gifts at all. And, we try to include items home-made with love – the socks our Alice knits are always received as a special treasure, and my friend Julie Faraway has just sent a wonderful collection of beautiful yarn from her daughter’s amazing yarn workshop. So socks are in the offing!
Thus it came about that I found a toy farm and purchased it ready for the Wretched Wretch’s birthday in May, populated with a number of beautiful Schleich animals – which can be got on eBay with great economy. He will receive it as his birthday gift from our whole household. I hope it is special enough that it will not feel disappointing, and I hope it keeps things simple enough that he does not end up with the materialistic overwhelm associated with a glut of presents.
This is one small step we have taken towards simplicity. As always, when I write it down it doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s surprising how long it has taken us to journey towards it, and how much careful thought has gone towards putting it in place.