The simple life has appealed to me for as long as I can remember, viewed through such idyllic lenses as living in Heidi’s cabin and romping through Alpine meadows, creating in Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House writing attic, and conversing in Anne Shirley’s cozy college house rented with friends. That my own houses never included a sleeping loft, usable attic, or the much longed-for window seat, or that my college living experience involved apartments with too much noise, too many roommates, and too many insects did not deter me, because, like Anne, I could always imagine.
As a child, I found my retreats in the woods, where I always had a favorite tree, and where I would go with notebook and pen to sit on a rock in the middle of the creek. As a college student, I spent more waking time in quiet libraries with their companionable books than in my apartment. When I moved to the desert Southwest to begin my engineering career, my initial excitement at all of the new beginnings and new landscapes gave way to a feeling that something was missing. I was able to buy things I had wanted for a long time, but after each acquisition found that the want was just transferred to some new object, and that my happiness was unchanged. I began to focus on saving for a small house and my frugal heritage was awakened. There was plenty of free entertainment in the great outdoors, hiking and exploring, and I began to cook with more variety than my former student diet. My small apartment kitchen reminded me of my grandmother’s house, and baking bread reminded me of home. I wanted my days to include random visits from friends, good food, laughter, a cozy and peaceful abode that was welcoming to all, and lots of quiet space to think.
A week at home between jobs turned out to be surprisingly pivotal. My small house had become cluttered and crowded with stuff, much of it belongings I’d dragged around for years. I cleaned out closets, cabinets, rooms, and garage and reveled in the cleared spaces. Around the same time, I discovered books that showed me my ideas about life were not unique, though they did not seem to be shared by any of my friends or coworkers. I absorbed the ideas of Your Money or Your Life and felt nurtured by the meditative thoughts of Gift From the Sea. A flurry of simple living books appeared at the library, and I read them all, and then I read them again. How could I transform my life into what I was seeking?
The answer was a long time away, but I found it little by little, with a few dead ends or experiments, depending on your point of view. I married Thom, who shared my do-it-yourself spirit as well as a love of books and science. I explored alternative career paths and applied to a graduate program in another field. I dreamed of moving to a small farm and read books on self-sufficient living. Mari was born, we moved across the country for Thom’s career, and I put my engineering career on a much-appreciated hold. In our upper Midwest suburban neighborhood, I found the quiet that had been missing in our desert city. I grew berries all summer, and created a vegetable garden. I breathed in the scents of line-dried laundry, autumn leaves, and spring rains. The sounds of frogs, rustling leaves, and owls filled the house at night. These simple pleasures nurtured my soul. I also learned that managing the landscape in a lush environment was a challenge, and that I did not want to do it on 10 acres.
For many years I sought a non-engineering path. I applied and interviewed for jobs; I volunteered extensively, and found some part-time writing work. I took classes at the community college and rediscovered my love of science. Eventually, I returned to full-time engineering, in a role that I found more stressful than any of my previous positions. I experienced complete brain fatigue on a daily basis, and weekends were more about recovery than pursuing personal interests. After only a few months there, I was looking for alternatives. The extreme environment pushed me to apply for jobs that were far from my background but that I felt would be more in line with my aptitudes and interests. It also gave me energy to persist until I succeeded, although along the way I did dream about country living, tiny houses, moving to a new town/state/country, and just quitting my job and walking out the door.
At this time I am enjoying a new career that gives me meaningful work in an environment of growth and learning, more personal time, and more space in my daily life. Space – that same reward that I found in decluttering my first house.
Unlike the simple living models I’ve followed from an early age, I don’t live in a rustic cabin in the Alps, or in charming Concord, Massachusetts, or in Avonlea. I live in a small suburban house from the mid-80s that lies in a flourishing lawn of creeping charlie surrounded by my homemade landscape and garden. Most of the year, I work full time and do my best to balance the competing demands of work, family, house, and self. My husband Thom, daughter Mari, and I enjoy books, learning, cooking, the great outdoors, and our cats and dog. As I’ve experienced and observed my life, I’ve evaluated what brings me happiness and where to spend my life energy. I look forward to exchanging thoughts and ideas with you.