Living simply starts with one’s own life. It has taken me all of mine so far to wriggle through to anything like the place I imagined.
What I wanted was a hidden, quiet life, out of the way and hard to see or find. I wanted a life that left only faint ecological traces, made little environmental impact, did not interfere with the Earth’s rhythms and processes very much.
I wanted space and peace around me – time to think and dream and consider, time to watch the wonder of creation, to gaze with God and share His “Ô le bien!”
I wanted to be free to write – and by “write” I include the thinking, focussing, imagining, centring processes that precedes the actual tapping away at the keyboard by months or even years.
I wanted as much time as it took to be with my family, loving and encouraging them, cheering them up when they felt low, talking through puzzles and perplexities, sharing ideas, drinking tea together. I wanted time to sit by the sea and work in the garden.
But I also wanted to be financially secure and able to pay my bills. Living frugally is fine, in fact it is part of the plan. Thrift strategies form one of my happiest games. At the present time, as other people’s utility bills are steadily increasing, ours are steadily decreasing, and in our household the most expensive people to feed are the cats.
So I don’t need to generate much income. I don’t even need to cross the tax threshold. Just enough. What is enough? £450 per month is enough. £220 of that is my ¼ share of household living costs, £75 is my contribution toward family members either in transition or occupied on family duty or establishing a business, £25 is my contribution towards the cats’ food and insurances, £120 is for regular giving to charity (about £40), national insurance contributions (about £10), travel, books, gifts, postage, eating out, candles, matches, clothes, books, toiletries (aromatic oils, Lush bar shampoo, package-free soap from the wholefood co-op), bits and pieces like hopi candles and spirulina, garden plants – and anything else I may like to buy.
I can spend money quite fast!! Any extra that comes in leaves with alacrity. But £450.00 a month is what I realistically have to see coming in to cover my regular outgoings.
£450.00 x 12 is £5,400. The tax threshold in England at the present time is £7,475. The average wage in England at the present time is approximately £25,500.
Last year I sold a few books which bumped up my income. It came in handy to pay towards the ongoing (now, thank the Lord, almost finished) building works on our dilapidated old house. And I never have trouble finding things to spend money on! I cheerfully disposed of the extra I earned on buying clothes and having fun. In a couple of weeks, for example, some of us are off to Yorkshire to visit some really nice nuns with whom I have been in correspondence over the books I write. With patience and application (slaving over a hot computer for 2 hrs while repeatedly forced offline in the crush of people buying the same thing) I managed to get 2 nights at a York Travelodge for £19 a night (hooray!), and the Stanbrook Abbey guest accommodation at Wass is modestly priced. Even so, I wouldn’t be able to go on a trip like that or replace my computer or even pay my accountant without earning over and above my basic as outlined above. Nor pay for items like all the ink and paper for church admin etc. Nor have all the ready-meals and take-outs we’ve enjoyed while the kitchen’s been out of commission. Nor source toys for the Wretched Wretch and me to play with. But that’s no problem because I do turn over more than £5.4k a year – it’s just, that’s the bottom line, what I have to bring in to keep my nose above the water.
So though I can get through almost as much money as the good Lord sends, my actual needs (for outgoings, this makes no provision for making savings) are only £5,400 pa.
It has taken me a long time, steady focus, and determination to reach the situation where a) things are in place that allow my regular expenditure to be so low (eg I no longer have a mortgage) and b) things are in place (like solar panels on the roof selling electricity to the national grid) to create that small income. Writing income is too uncertain. Publishers say things like "Thank you! Yes, we may well want to publish that. Can we let you know in a year's time?" It's regular, dependable income that has to be in place.
So, financial realism is an aspect of living simply, and can make it a distant star while one works patiently towards one’s vision and goal.
Time management is another aspect of living simply – considering carefully before taking on commitments, and keeping a discipline of relative solitude.
Management of space is another aspect – and the most discussed and best understood one; people have grasped the importance of de-cluttering by now (in principle at least, they have a ready supply of reasons why they’d like to but personally can’t possibly).
Emptiness is an aspect of living simply. For me, one objective in simplicity is engagement with the living world as distinct from the world of man-made objects. I find that possessions, whether for ornament or utility, compete with that. If I sit in a plain room that has very little ornament – basically, not much in it – then I notice the shafts of sunbeams moving and changing, the drifts of woodsmoke, the smoke from an extinguished candle, the shadow of fluttering birds wings, the passing of a cloud. Part of the objective in redesigning the kitchen was to make space to allow in this living beauty. As things stood, the morning sun came pouring in at an angle from the east, hit the wall cupboard – and stopped right there. Now, with that block of veneered chipboard removed from its paths, the sun will stream in unimpeded.
I love this. I want the beauty of travelling light and things that are alive to be the adornment of my days, not a vase or a statue. Not that I have no ornaments; here are mine:
Another aspect of simplicity – an important one – is contentment. This I am working on. Naturally anxious, with something of a restless mind always looking for trouble (and willing to make my own if I can’t find any naturally occurring; if all else fails I can always worry about Hell), a discipline of contentment is an important objective for me; but I find it easier to isolate, identify, recognise and work towards that once the easier things like a financial structure, a clear space and a pruned diary are in place.
Now, when I began this, saying that living simply starts with one’s own life, I wanted to go on to think about how challenges to simplicity arise in association and interaction with others – in taking one’s place and making one’s contribution in the community. But look, it’s taken me so long to say what I mean about living simply starting with one’s own life that I must leave it at that for today. We can think about The Others tomorrow!
Oh, I love the art of Sieger Köder. When I became the secretary to our church’s PCC (the church council, its admin body), I wanted each of the documents for which I was responsible (agendas, minutes) to have a picture. This was just because I like pictures and am always disappointed if there isn’t one, only words; but I have been pleased to discover the pictures offer a secondary function of making it easier to quickly identify a document from a pile of others similar. At the Standing Committee I can see at a glance round the table who’s looking at their minutes of the last meeting and who’s inadvertently got the minutes for the last PCC out of their folder, so hasn’t got the right information to hand.
During the time I was equipping myself for the rôle of PCC secretary, I went to the Christian Resources Exhibition. One of the stalls I like to visit there is that of the Paulist press, who have such wonderful materials for group study, personal meditation, correspondence and church life. I got this CD ROM of images of the work of Sieger Köder thinking they would be wonderful for the pictures I wanted to head my admin documents.
At the same time, with some difficulty I managed to obtain all three of the books + disks of Steve Erspamer’s art, which takes me round the whole liturgical cycle of the Church’s years A B & C.
I prefer to stick to the one artist for stylistic consistency, and Steve Erspamer’s work is in black and white – the colour in Sieger Köder’s is essential to the imagery. This makes Erspamer’s much cheaper for me to reproduce.
So I found myself always using Erspamer’s images but, to my surprise, never Köder’s. Accordingly I passed on the CD ROM.