- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

Selena Mordue spends a lot of time thinking about how to make her life simpler.

She and her husband, David, shrug off consumer and cultural prescriptions for 21st-century living.

They turn first to herbal remedies when illness strikes, saving on visits to doctors. They limit their use of disposable products. They carefully consider every purchase, distinguishing between want and need.

This way of life is called "voluntary simplicity," and the Mordues of Herndon are one of hundreds of families in the metro area who are examining it. Although practitioners agree that the concept is fluid, with no single definition, most agree on several tenets.

Voluntary simplicity, they explain, involves changing savoring life and identifying the activities that bring a true sense of satisfaction. For most people, they say, this means spending more time on reflection and less money on stuff, ultimately freeing up time to concentrate on family, children, community and self.

Ms. Mordue says she and her husband, a procurement manager, make decisions about their life instead of having life make decisions for them.

"We've chosen our lifestyle, and the big thing is money the more money you have, the more choices you have," she says. One of their choices is to save enough money to enable Ms. Mordue, who is expecting the couple's second child in April, to stay home with their toddler daughter.

Ms. Mordue says she also makes consumer decisions that she considers more earth- and people-oriented. "We bring things into our home that are made from natural things wood, glass, paper. Even the clothes we wear are made from natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, silk and wool," she says.

The Mordues are members of Families for Natural Living, an education and support group of 25 families in Northern Virginia for whom Ms. Mordue also is a group leader. Members meet every Thursday to discuss a variety of matters from frugality to environmentalism to child raising.

A favorite topic is consumerism.

U.S. discretionary-spending figures suggest that many Americans don't mind plopping down a buck for pleasure and convenience. Americans spent an average of $9,312 per person this year on items such as fast food, gifts and health and beauty aids, says Joanne Fisher, a spokeswoman for the American Express Retail Index. That figure includes an average $1,188 for dining out, $852 for entertaining, $768 for home decorating and $384 for cell-phone service.

Cecile Andrews, author of "The Circle of Simplicity," says she finds it interesting how much most of us buy without thinking.

"Our lifestyle says if you have a problem, go out and buy a product," she says. "If you live in a culture that is telling you you're not measuring up like in commercials that is a guarantee of dissatisfaction."

With the concept of voluntary simplicity, "most people think all we're talking about is living on less," says Ms. Andrews, who holds a doctorate and is a visiting scholar at Stanford University. "But we don't live in mud huts. I think, 'Where did that come from?'"

Rather, voluntary simplicity is "the examined life," she says. "One part of it very much has to do with the environment. People understand global warming and issues of pollution. Another thing is that I don't think we've ever lived at such a frenzied pace, and people are feeling they just can't take it anymore. It's looking at the way we live and asking, 'Is this really the road to happiness?'"

People say they are working too hard and are too stressed out, agrees Eric Brown, communications director for the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit membership organization based in Takoma Park. The center is dedicated to helping people change the way they consume to protect the environment and their quality of life.

"We have found ourselves in this culture that says more is better, gotta have more and bigger," he says. "The impact is on spending time with family and friends and doing things that matter, and the impact on the environment, is quite profound."

Many people apparently share Mr. Brown's sensibilities: The center has 5,000 members in 30 countries. Interest was jolted by the events of September 11: Applications for new memberships in the organization doubled, and Web-site hits broke all records in the month following, despite the absence of new campaigns or efforts.

"A lot of people said, 'Gosh, I've been working so much, traveling I'm glad I get a second chance,'" Mr. Brown says.

Embracing the life

Getting started in the simple life begins with identifying dissatisfaction, Ms. Andrews says.

"I'm working too much, rushing too much and spending too much those are the three common activities that people start working on," she says. "Most people start working on their spending first, thinking, 'Maybe I could work less if I could save more money.' Some people might negotiate taking a sabbatical, taking a year off. This is what people are searching for the gift of time. Maybe parents want to have one parent stay home, so people are finding ways to do this."

Many begin to document their expenditures. At month's end, they examine their list and weigh the expense against the pleasure. Sometimes the truth hurts, Ms. Andrews says.

"I would never say, 'No, don't buy that,'" she says. "I would just say, 'Ask yourself is this what you really like?'"

Allyson Walker asks herself that question daily. The Falls Church free-lance editor and mother of a preschooler became interested in voluntary simplicity several years ago as a means to relieve some of the stress of juggling parenthood with a full-time job.

In voluntary simplicity, Ms. Walker says, she saw a way she could live within the framework of American society but live "more lightly" on the planet, using fewer resources and producing less trash.

"I thought, 'Oh, that would be neat to be able to not have to retreat and live in a log cabin in the woods, but rather live rather basically, participating in life and this society in the way everyone else does, except be very conscious of how much energy, trash and water you use,'" she says.

Now a stay-at-home mother, Ms. Walker says she keeps a sharp eye on her spending. She buys the things she needs for her family, which includes husband Leon Lawrence III, a magazine design director, as well as "some of the things I desire."

She is conscious of exposing her 4-year-old, Sabine, to commercials, so she insists on public television or videos for viewing and silences the radio when a commercial blares.

"And I don't watch a lot of TV myself," Ms. Walker says. "We're more likely to rent a movie. I don't want the commercials, so I am opting out of that. There are some things that are cultivated desires. By not exposing myself to that, it makes it easier for me to make decisions on what I really want and need."

Ms. Walker and her husband frequently shop for their groceries at Costco Wholesale to buy in bulk. She says she uses public transportation instead of the family car whenever it is "marginally convenient." Their table frequently is set with cloth napkins and coffee mugs instead of the styrofoam cups used in the office.

Ms. Walker also joins other like-minded people at meetings and events sponsored by EcoStewards Alliance, a local nonprofit organization whose members focus on "shifting to ecocentric and away from egocentric living," founder Peter Kelsey says. Mr. Kelsey, a former lawyer who lives with his wife in Burke, began practicing voluntary simplicity in 1994.

He says he is glad he did.

"I have much more energy, excitement and passion for the way I'm living," Mr. Kelsey says. "I have more time to spend on my relationships with my wife, father and [grown] children."

EcoStewards is about "nurturing the spirit and practice of living simply," he says. "There are inner and outer aspects of it. The inner for me is about living in closer alignment with our values and priorities in life … family and relationships; integrity and honesty. The outer piece is looking at our relationships to money and employment and balancing that with time that is important to us family, children, community and caring for ourselves."

In the long run, Mr. Kelsey says, "it's thinking more consciously about our choices and not being so concerned about how our neighbors and peers think."

Teaching simplicity

Yet peers (and the resulting pressure) are a constant in the lives of children especially preteens and teen-agers. This factor can put a dent in the best-laid parenting plans.

Mary Peters, a stay-at-home mother in Falls Church, says practicing voluntary simplicity with older children is anything but simple especially in the metro area.

"It is too easy to get caught up with keeping up with the Joneses," she says. "Kids have too many activities, and parents are trying to produce these superkids. My daughter will ask me every week for a new activity, and I have to tell her, 'No, we can't put all our time into your activities.'"

Ms. Peters and her husband, Chris Ball, a telecommunications manager, wish to raise their children Torey, 13, and Caleb, 9 "to be good stewards of the earth."

The family uses reusable plastic cups instead of paper cups. The adults bring their own coffee mugs to church instead of relying on styrofoam. They avoid buying products that have been tested on animals. They grow food including wheat in their yard for their own consumption, eschewing chemical fertilizers.

All of this is the easy part, says Ms. Peters, a former CIA employee. The difficulty lies in asking her children to embrace a simpler life in the face of one filled with the attractions of consumerism.

"It's difficult for my kids, especially the older one, because she really wants to conform to society's norms. But when given the facts behind something the reason behind certain things my kids see it in a whole different way. But if I just say, 'No, we're trying to save money,' it is much more difficult," she says.

"My son still has a lot of toys and video games, and my daughter participates in some activities and is into clothes, nails and shopping. Like other parents, I give in to some of this and say no to some of it."

Ms. Peters says she leads her youngsters more by example than by force.

"'Voluntary' means choosing it for yourself, so we can't make them do it," she says. "We try to do as much as we can, feeling that we are planting seeds for their future."

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