Further into Simplicity

I started this whole journey into vastly simplifying my life a month ago. A progress report seems called for.

The overall theme seems to be “awareness”. I am aware of so many things I wasn’t before! And as I’ve simplified, the things I’ve never noticed before are affecting my life in some fairly significant ways.

Take weather. Before now weather hasn’t really affected anything but my commute. I went from a climate-controlled home to a climate-controlled car to a climate-controlled destination. Now, though? My walks and transportation are getting colder as we turn to winter. I also work in a very computer-dense office that’s kept cold as a result. Frankly it seemed a bit silly to spaz about climate control in my apartment when I can’t do that everywhere else (I like consistency – sue me).

Instead of relying on the heater I’ve been doing things like baking at night, so the oven warms my little apartment before I sleep. Clothes air dry more slowly now, so I’ve started doing laundry twice a week to spread it out a bit. I also try to do it in the morning, so the hot water warms the place too. My apartment is small enough that just that, with my comforter, is plenty. (Remember, I live in the South.) We’ve been down to 36* here and I haven’t had to touch my heater. I have no illusions that I’ll do that well in the summer, but I’m hoping to at least minimize A/C use as much as possible.

Another example? I wanted to take simplification of my foods slowly, seeing it as this huge challenge. Nope. It’s all flowing into each other. For instance, I made enchiladas last week. I made my own tortillas, since I consider that in the “bread” category and committed to making all of it. Since I had already done that, though, it seemed a bit self-defeating to turn around and use canned enchilada sauce after all that effort! So I didn’t. I found a recipe online that sounded good and purchased canned tomato sauce. I felt ok with that – and added learning canning to my to-do list for the coming months.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that simplicity seems to be a self-sustaining process. Simplification in one area naturally spreads to other areas. Like so many things it’s a change in perspective that does the trick. I’ve found myself further along in this process than I thought I’d be at this point because of it.

A basic change is that carrying plastic grocery bags as far as I have to walk is hard on my hands (not to mention that breaking bags suck when on foot!), so I got a reusable canvas tote I put things in to make carrying groceries easier. I haven’t used a plastic grocery bag since that started. Is avoiding plastic bags a good idea? Of course. I just hadn’t intentionally decided to do it – it naturally grew out of the other changes I’ve made.

That goes for packaging too. I’ve known for awhile that overpackaging is bad. But now I’m carrying everything by hand, so minimizing packaging just makes sense. This recently came up with those plastic jars spices come in. I put spices in my spice rack, but that means the plastic shaker thing the spices come in are useless. So I asked around and found a place that sold spices in bulk – no shaker to worry about. As a side benefit I’m also buying higher quality spices and have access to a greater variety.

Another example of the packaging thing is the big cardboard canisters I buy oatmeal in. Those tubes, covered with paper, have become canisters in my kitchen. I’m reusing them for something I need. Once I have enough of them I’ll start buying my oatmeal in the bulk section too, again minimizing packaging.

Since I’m already hitting the “reduce” and “reuse” parts of the 3 R’s, I’ve started looking into recycling options for my area. The eco-conscious thing is naturally flowing from simplicity, and I’m not even trying that hard! They compliment each other beautifully.

These changes even affect personal interactions. I’ve often felt like I live in this little hermetically-sealed bubble, separated from the people around me by my life. I’m a part of the neighborhood now. I took a different bus last week, to run an errand, and my regular bus driver asked if I was ok when he saw me again. My neighbor helped me out with a maintenance issue, because we’ve chatted as I walk past in the afternoons. I baked him cookies in exchange for his help – barter at its best.

It hasn’t all been roses – there have been hiccups too as I do this. Lots of them. It’s a learning process. I’ve been shopping on autopilot and picked up bread, not noticing until checkout. I’ve run out of ingredients for whatever I’m making, since I’m not used to everything being separate, and with transportation being so sporadic I’ve had to postpone things until I could get to the store again. I’ve been tired and not wanted to spend hours kneading bread and wringing clothes. I’ve been trapped in my apartment for hours because every stitch of clothing was wet at the same time. I’ve had to scramble to catch the bus, or waited for over an hour to catch one, or gotten off at the wrong stop. I’ve flat forgotten dozens of things that I haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I didn’t have enough patience with the detergent I made so the consistency is off a bit. Etc. The only thing that makes all of it worthwhile – even the screw ups – is that they only have to happen once for me to learn better. I find that highly encouraging.

Overall, I’m loving it. It’s amazing to me how natural all of this seems to be once I took that first step to get started. I still have a month to work out the kinks – which is a good thing – but so far it’s easier than I feared and more rewarding than I’d hoped. I feel more connected to my life and myself, more in tune with the cycles around me, and I’m learning how happy I’m made by little things.

Simple Things

As I start the transition to a vastly simplified life I’ve made some rather interesting discoveries about the whole thing. The biggest change is that I feel more connected with processes and cycles, in obvious ways that really never before impinged on my awareness.

For instance, like most people I buy my clothes instead of making them. And for me the material – and hence the origin of the fabric used to make a garment – never really mattered. I checked for color, fit, and a texture I liked, made sure it was machine-washable, and made sure it fit my budget. End of.

Now I do my laundry by hand. This is forcing me to really learn about the fabrics, and that’s led to all sorts of other things. Such as, did you know that clothes don’t come from stores? They come from fields, from silkworms, from animals. The store is simply the last stop before it gets to me. I somehow lost conscious awareness of that because I was so distant from the process. I knew it, but I didn’t know  it. Working it with my hands connects me to the whole cycle of the items I handle in a way I hadn’t expected.

Spending so much time with my clothing has also made me more conscious of quality – if I’m going to spend this kind of effort to maintain something, it needs to be something worth the bother. That reasoning has moved mending and alterations much higher on my to-do list. I’ve got set time between each “load” when doing laundry, and it’s nothing to quickly stitch on a button or take up a hem by hand while doing everything else.  I’m actively considering making at least some of my clothing by hand in the future, just to better grasp the process.

Transportation is another huge change. I take the bus everywhere. I find myself really studying my neighborhood, learning how it feels and meeting my neighbors. My apartment isn’t its own little island – it’s a part of something larger. Walking it on foot spotlights that in a way driving doesn’t. This is something hardcore urbanites and rural folks both know, but that those in suburban areas often forget.

I’m also much more conscious of transportation logistics. For instance, moving a gallon of milk from the shopping cart to a car isn’t a big deal. Lugging it to the bus stop, managing it on the bus, and then lugging it the ½ mile from the bus stop to my home? While trying to make sure it stays cool for the trip, and juggling anything else I’m carrying? Milk is a pain in the ass. So I have to think – how much milk do we transport by truck all across the country? How heavy is that, and how much energy is used to transport it and keep it cool? I take the issues I have with my short trip and my one gallon and multiply it, and it’s suddenly a problem of which I’m consciously aware. Supporting local agriculture is no longer some abstract ideal for me. I understand the logic more with every step I carry groceries home.

That brings me neatly to another focus. I’m also going for simplicity in my food. I want to totally ditch pre-packaged foods and make everything from scratch. My ideal is to have shopping trips be strictly for staples – flours, beans, etc – and spices. Oh, and to do this with as few specialty tools as possible. *laugh* Because why not aim high, right?

This one is hard. I’m not a great cook to begin with, and growing up Hamburger Helper was high cuisine. I also work a full-time job that’s pushing into massive overtime, and the free time I have is also spent doing the other things I’m doing for simplicity’s sake. So, since all this kicks in for real in December, I’ve decided to take the food transition in steps. A gradual adjustment should be easier to incorporate than changing direction midstream.

I decided to start with anything flour-based, since that’s the most processed thing I generally deal with. I now bake all my own bread. Over the next week or two I’ll be experimenting with making my own noodles and crackers, and eventually with grinding my own flours. Just the bread thing has been a challenge! But, somewhat to my own surprise, it’s been totally worth it. I used to pick up whatever was cheapest. Now I’m much more conscious of what goes into what I eat, how nutritious it is, and how my body feels after I eat it. I find that I’m more consciously aware of the fact that bread is not really created in a vat in the back of the grocery store. I actually stop to consider the various elements individually and how they work together to make the bread I use for my sandwich. And I’m just getting started with this whole thing!

So far this process has been as illuminating as celibacy was. I’ve discovered that – for me, at least – the dependence on automation has really distanced me from the things that make up my world. It has also showcased how far apart an abstract understanding is from practical reality. The more automation I ditch the more I realize how dependent on the earth and other people I am, and how important it is to support both. I’m really looking forward to the perspective changes waiting for me down the line as I continue this path.