Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Grace economy

So having carefully thought through the challenge of moneyless living, I decided it wasn’t for me (see previous post).

Even so, I wanted to live as small and humble and simple as I possibly could. That was how Jesus lived, and how St Francis lived. I love the freedom of it, and the space it leaves to think clearly and make decisions slowly. I dislike the tendency to approximation and sloppiness that come from too much rush and tear, from busyness and haste. I like the quietness and peace of empty space, unfilled by ornaments or utensils. I like what Japanese call Ma – the space between things that allows each thing really to be seen. I value time, not to fill with chores and commitments, but to sit still and really see – the bees visiting vetch flowers in the grass, the squirrel on the fence and the wren coming for crumbs of cheese the crow left behind, the fox and the badger at nightfall, the setting sun and the stars coming out.

To make this life possible I aspire to own as little as possible – just a few clothes and a small shelf of other odds and ends, my bedding, one or two cooking pots, a mug and plate and bowl, a spork and a knife. The essentials. I do still perhaps have more clothes than I need, but they are simple and interchangeable, practical and hardwearing, quiet and not eye-catching; simple and plain. I thought through the whole issue of observant dress (like Plain Dress or the robes of a monastic) and concluded that such garb was, at the roots of its beginnings, the unassuming clothing of humble working people – decent, modest, ordinary. So that’s what I wear. I try for black or dark grey because it takes you from everyday to formal more realistically, and shows stains the least.

So much for things. As to money and ownership, I have three sources of income: writing, a tiny pension left by my previous husband, and a cottage I let, that I bought from money my mother gave me and my father left me. I maintain the cottage to a high standard and let it at a rent the low side of fair, so it returns only a very modest net income. Most years I earn just around the tax threshold. This year will be less because I wrote no new books – so no royalty advances!

I spend my money, just over a quarter on my contribution to the expenses of our household – five adults sharing; a quarter on the shared food bill for the Badger and me, and helping an unwaged family member; a quarter on bills for my rental cottage; just under a quarter on savings and disposable income.

My disposable income goes on things like books for my Kindle, stamps, essential oils (instead of deodorant, and for scenting bathwater) and other toiletries (face and body moisturisers made by my family, and shampoo), eating out, transport, occasional purchases, and gifts to charities (Friends Of The Earth, Stop The War Coalition, the wonderful Methodist relief and development fund All We Can, the food bank, and various organisations helping refugees or people who are desperately poor.

Right now, the Badger is away in America, so I am living in Komorebi while he’s gone, but when he’s home I like to be near to him so I live mostly in his attic with him. I like to be near my household too, so I hang out with them and eat with them much of the time too. All of us work from home at least some of the time – just now our Alice is making some huge stained glass windows for the hospice in our town.

The last paragraph was not about money but gives an idea of how we live. In our garden we grow herbs and trees mostly – we have several fruit trees, still young but already producing well; so it makes a beautiful space, welcoming to birds and insects, toads and wild animals, but also grows food for us to eat. We have huge barrels for catching rainwater (about 750 litres worth in total) from the roof, and we catch sun in our solar arrays to heat the water and supply electricity for our house. Much of our winter heating comes from the woodstove and the open fire. The main fuel is either logs from old or diseased trees needing to be felled, or from what they call ‘heat logs’, compressed from sawdust floor-sweepings generated by the timber industry. And our kindling is a mixture of dead (ready to use) twigs tossed down to us in the storms by the beautiful and beloved old ash trees at the foot of the garden, and fir/pine cones that we collect when we’re out for a walk at this time of the year.

I believe in that thing I best like described as the ‘grace economy’, though some people call it the ‘gift economy’ – where people are just given what they need because they need it, no strings attached. Though (for the reasons given in the previous post) I decided being moneyless doesn’t really work in the modern Western world, I am opposed to the reign of Mammon – growth economics will destroy the Earth; we urgently need to transition to sustainable economics. Consumer lifestyle, mass production, and the proliferation of manmade objects are bad news (and therefore the antithesis of the Gospel). So in the gradual dispensing of all I own, and the radical minimalizing of our household possessions, we haven’t sold things (even beautiful, valuable, desirable things) but given them away. We try to make sure everything we donate is given responsibly. Odds and ends are collated appropriately into craft bundles or altar kits; furniture and household items are given to friends starting out afresh or on low incomes; clothes and ornaments for the most part go to raise money for charity (charity shops/ Goodwill); unused (unwanted) art supplies go to students or other artists working in that field; old bedding not fit to donate is welcomed by the dog warden so strays have something comfy to lie on, not just a concrete pen floor. Broken or damaged wooden items are good for firewood, or else the Badger remakes them into beautiful furniture.

Then, when it comes to purchases, I try to source clothes and household items secondhand – from charity shops or eBay. And we ask around our family before purchasing. For instance, our duvet covers (me and the Badger) gave up the ghost – but our Rosie had a couple of spare sets that she kindly gave us.

We do have a car (bought secondhand), but it is very economical, and is the only car for our household of five adults, my married daughter’s household, and my elderly mother.

In my experiments with the grace economy, I’ve tried to minimize what I do for money. At one time I might have claimed expenses for preaching and conducting retreats and quiet days (travel and resources costs), and I used to be paid fees for that work, too. But now I don’t. I still work for money – my rule of thumb is that if the only link the person hiring me has with me is money, then I charge a fee; but if their life and mine belong to each other, then I don’t. 

None of this is very remarkable or innovative, for sure – but the life we get at the end of it is wonderful, and it allows us to walk relatively lightly on the earth.


Deborah Jenkins said...

I find this beautiful and very attractive. I love the way you've thought everything through so carefully, and maybe over years? The photo at the end is lovely too - trees, light, wood and your stove, which is similar to ours. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking insight into your life 💗

Pen Wilcock said...


Years - yes - I began thinking about it when I was fifteen and first encountered St Francis. It's been a long and happy trail.

Sandra Ann said...

I love the comment about not charging if your life ways and that of another are intertwined in some way, that is true generosity, if only the grace economy could be applied in all walks of life, what a difference it would make :-) X

Pen Wilcock said...

Well, I think maybe it can. This is what I'm exploring and experimenting with really. The idea I'm trying out is that a person can go part the way there. So I do charge money for some things, when I must, but not always. I find it easiest to demarcate areas that I do and don't charge for, so I know what I'm doing - like my rule of thumb that I give things away rather than sell them. I think maybe everyone could think of some way the grace economy could influence their practice. For example, a church could put on one regular even where no donations or offerings were solicited - where money was not even mentioned, even if most of the time they need to fundraise or take up offerings. x

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh - I just thought of another small grace economy thing. Our street is just by the entrance to the park, so a lot of dog-walkers pass by. In the hot weather, some houses put out a bowl of clean water for the dogs to have a drink. That's a good example of it, because it doesn't cost anything - even the bowl can just be an old ice cream tub. Sometimes when people are on a low income, they may feel sad that they cannot afford not to charge for what they offer, cannot afford not to sell their stuff on eBay - but the secret is to look for what one *can* give, like the drink of water for dogs going by, and add to that bit by bit as opportunities arise. x

Sandra Ann said...

Great explanation! When I think of it we tend to donate rather than sell, partly because I cannot deal with extra stress and partly because I know it will be a twofold blessing: once for the charity shop that will sell the goods and then the customer that buys.

Pen Wilcock said...

Exactly! practical steps towards making the good things of life accessible to everyone without increasing the burden on the Earth. x

Pen Wilcock said...

This is pertinent to what we've been saying, too.

rebecca said...

Glad to read you're back in Komorebi! I judge life there to be most minimal, quiet and peaceful. I think the phrase "grace economy" is perfect. I don't remember coming across it before now...Today I "graced" a niece who moved from a dormitory last year to a small apartment off campus. I had several extra casserole dishes of various sizes which I gave her. It felt "right" and wonderful.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) x

Anonymous said...

In the past couple of years I've felt a need to have much less 'stuff' around me. Your explanation of the
Japanese word ' ma ' resonates with me.
Through your blog I've also learnt about wabi-sabi and I appreciate the sentiment.
I declutter regularly, each time I let go of more 'sentimental' books, clothing, ornaments etc.
Clothes are a problem, I still haven't worked out where to go with this. I'm thinking of
basic black & white, but I'm concerned that it might trigger my depression.
We are trying to think of a name for our home. We've thought of 'Chy an Lowr' -
it's Cornish for 'House of plenty/enough/sufficient'.
We know we have enough, but my husband is a hoarder and that's tricky.
Some loosely related thoughts here, but I want you to know how much your posts
help me. :)

Pen Wilcock said...


Thank you.

Just at the moment I am *loving* reading Hope Bourne's book - a writer I only just discovered. She wrote a few, but I think this may be the only one on Kindle - Wild Harvest. It's wonderful, and I think might be helpful to you; thinking about simplicity but in her case self-sufficiency rather than minimalism. A different perspective. I think it's helpful to take in several different viewpoints around the same subject, in feeling the way to the right path.

For clothes, looking at capsule wardrobes on Pinterest (or just do an image search on it) can bring up some good ideas of how to create a minimalist wardrobe without going too stark. And you know about Courtney Carver's Project 333 and Jennifer Scott's Madame Chic? I find both of those very helpful. Likewise Unfancy - eg this post:

I got my system from reading Jennifer Scott (and watching her TED talk). She speaks about a 10-piece wardrobe. Well, that's too radical for me, but when she spoke of a small clothes closet containing 10 hangers, that resonated for me. Like limiting how much I eat by plate size. So I now stick to 10 hangers - sturdy wooden ones, the kind with a metal cross bar that has trouser clips on. On each one I hang an outfit; so each has a pair of trousers, a top, and in some cases also a waistcoat or jacket. Recently I got some 'new' (to me) tops, which means I have more pieces that will go simply on the hangers. Well, I could put a cardigan over a jumper then add a jacket, but that would defeat the object of the exercise (keeping things simple). So I need to do another prune out. But ten hangers is quite a lot and, if you are think a monochrome wardrobe might do your head in, it means you can plan an outfit with colours that look nice together and hang it next to an outfit with colours that also relate well so you could always wear the trousers from hanger 1 with the top from hanger 2. I try to keep to no more than 3 garments per hanger - a top, a bottom and a warm layer.

Come back and share when you find a system that works for you :0)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. :)
Your outfit-on-a-hanger idea is one that I'm definitely going to try.
I'll let you know how I get on. :)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx