By Joanna Fuller, Friend of Simple Intentions
In May 2014, after more than 20 years in the workforce, I decided my life was overdue for a change. And so, as any relatively sane, single person might do….naturally I ran away and joined the Peace Corps. I left my job, rented my house, packed two bags and boarded a plane for Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.
Like the word Timbuktu, people often use Ulaanbaatar to mean the middle of nowhere, or a place so far away you actually have no idea where it is. But UB wasn’t my final destination – that was a twelve-hour bus ride west, in a small, provincial center called Bayankhongor, where I lived and worked for two years as a secondary school English teacher, helping prepare students for life outside the nomadic herding tradition of their parents and grandparents.
As a volunteer, life was stripped down. I lived with a host family and while I had my own small room—equipped with the luxuries of a twin bed, a small sink with cold running water, a single electrical outlet, a stove and refrigerator—I lacked both an indoor toilet and a shower. I washed clothes by hand and had heat from October through April, though it regularly snowed September through May. A big adjustment from life in America.
It’s funny, though, how adaptable we humans are. Soon, my tiny room became cozy and comfortable. Walking to work (we weren’t allowed to drive) became daily meditation. Cooking simple meals with the ingredients available became a creative endeavor, best enjoyed family-style, with my site-mates and our Mongolian friends.
I thrived in the simplicity: On the one hand, I did tire of wearing the same clothes every week; on the other, I stopped thinking about what to wear because with limited options, the decisions were few. Cleaning my home took ninety minutes or less, including time to hand-wash my clothes. And with nothing much besides food and school supplies to buy, there was little time spent shopping or tending to things.
I’d never before realized just how much of my daily life in America had been consumed with processing decisions about what and how much to buy. Being free of that demand was nothing less than a giant Hallelujah. So, when I came home this past August, I figured I was permanently enlightened. That, having seen the image in the Magic Eye poster I’d never again be able to un-see it and would easily fulfill my intent to bring this simplified life to America.
Returning to America after two years was like booking a week at the swankiest, most decadent spa resort in the world. I could have whatever food I wanted, any time I wanted it. I could get in my car and drive (on paved roads!) to places where I could buy anything I desired. I could swim around in a queen-sized bed, throw my laundry into the washer and walk away, turn the heat in my house to the exact setting of perfect comfort. It was so good.
But it wasn’t long before I grew accustomed to those things, and needed more and more input to get the same rush as in the first few weeks of my return. Suddenly all the things I’d been able to live without in Mongolia became things I had to have, now that I could, in America.
I determined I needed new clothes for interviews and eventual work. I started going out to eat with friends—a lot. I decided it was time to replace my fourteen year-old car. I looked around my twenty-year old home that had seen better days, and it was “clear” that new carpets were in order, not to mention a full interior paint.
But after weeks of adding to my to-buy list, in one particularly anxiety-ridden moment, I simply stopped. I took a deep breath and reminded myself: You haven’t spent this money yet. And even better, you do not have to.
Maybe that seems obvious. Maybe it seems ridiculous that I even got that worked up, and maybe I just have a problem that no one else has. But I don’t think so. I think consumption is the air we breathe in America. I think I was simply sliding back into old habits and a culture I was used to: responding to advertising and the availability of goods and services (and free financing!) all around me, not to mention the way so many others around me were living. In some ways, wasn’t I just fitting in?
But I knew I didn’t want to live that way. I’ve come to believe that the question I’m answering almost every time I buy something new is not, “Do I have enough?” but, “Am I enough?”
- Am I enough if my house doesn’t look like it belongs on HGTV?
- Am I enough if my closet isn’t “fashion-forward,” or if I don’t look as hip as my friends and co-workers?
- Am I enough if I can’t—or don’t want to—afford to meet friends at expensive restaurants?
The answer every time should be yes. But the culture here is strong, and the truth is, when I feel different from the people around me, I can also start to feel less than.
So that’s the work I need to do if I want to enjoy the peace and freedom I experienced in Mongolia.
But equally, I don’t want to lose the ability to enjoy the wonderful luxuries we have here in the States. New carpet and new paint in my home aren’t just indulgences, they’re also good stewardship, and part of my desire to have a home I enjoy and that’s a welcoming place for friends and family. A small, professional capsule wardrobe makes sense and can be invested in wisely. An occasional meal out can be a fun and relaxing way to connect with friends.
There’s an art, I’ve come to believe, in allowing myself to indulge often enough that it brings joy, but not so often that I become desensitized to the experience.
So of late, I’ve adopted a quick, two-part framework for guiding how and when I make purchases:
- The UB rule: In Bayankhongor, shopping was so limited that most purchases had to wait for the twelve-hour bus ride to the capital, which only happened every few months. If I ran out of peanut butter or popcorn, I did without until the next trip. So the UB rule is: With the exception of groceries, I can only make purchases after observing a waiting period of at least a month. Very often, I find I’m OK without. If I do go ahead and buy it, I usually treasure and enjoy it all the more because of the wait.
- The “What is it, really?” rule: If I’m tempted to break the UB rule, and to make a purchase in the heat of the moment, that’s usually an indication I’m trying to fill an emotional need, something another purchase won’t actually resolve. If there’s something I feel I absolutely have to have, right now, I ask myself what I’m really trying to buy, versus what I need. They’re not usually the same. Am I feeling lonely? Downloading and binge-watching a full season of Girls isn’t the answer. I need to reach out to my real-life friends. Feeling down about myself? New clothes might be a temporary salve, but more self-care is probably in order: I can cook a flavorful, healthy meal (even better with friends) or go to the Y for a swim. Usually the things I truly need don’t cost much money at all.
I’m no longer under the illusion that living simply is simple in America. But as I work through the complicating factors of culture and my own ego, I’m more convinced than ever that with commitment, community, and mindfulness, it’s more than possible.
By making a commitment to live with what I have, I’m finding time and space to enjoy my life at home more than ever before. As in Mongolia, my home is becoming cozy and comfortable as it is. I’m taking more time to enjoy simple meals with friends and family. My daily walks and bus rides to work have become cherished time for reflection and for just enjoying the beautiful scenery.
As Mary Poppins said, “Enough is as good as a feast.” And I have—and am—enough.