amanda rowe

Urban simplicity
October 8, 2008, 6:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

My friend Tina recently wrote a post on “lessons from the island” inspired by her time on a tiny island off of Maine’s Bar Harbor. She praised the simple pleasures of life on an island – knowing one’s neighbors, a feeling of safety, necessary resourcefulness, walking rather than driving, smaller space, etc.

I often long for simplicity in my own life. Trent and I lived in a tiny, 1960s mildewed camper on a South African farm for a few months in 2004. We think back on that time – the early mornings, physical exertion, difficulty in performing common tasks (e.g., laundry, cooking) – with such fondness. We had two changes of fraying clothing apeice, and had to wrestle our dinner from the warped cookware and expired ingredients in the kitchen. We zipped our sleeping bags together and cuddled at night (not our norm) on a lumpy mattress to fend off S. Africa’s cold, wet winter wind. But every morning, we opened our door to the most amazing view of clouds rolling in over the Cape. We walked a half mile up the road for coffee with Auntie Pat, passing wild calla lillies and daisies and terrific views of rolling canola-blanketed hills.

When I think simplicity, I think of that time. So perhaps I have conflated the idea of simplicity with the that of “more difficult but worth it” living. If so, then my urban lifestyle actually seems quite simple. Much more so than my suburban apartment in Texas, at least, or the suburban home I grew up in. Here’s why:

– Walking. Driving and parking in the city is a huge pain. My daughter and I walk everywhere. This requires some foresight. If we’re walking to the store, we must consider our list: too many items means a grueling or downright impossible walk home. Walking also promotes community, as Tina pointed out, as I meet my neighbors out on the street and have time to pause and talk.

– Small space. We live in a one bedroom apartment because it’s what we can afford. It’s not the environment in which I imagined raising a child. I pictured a yard, a nursery with a wall mural, and a carpeted hallway to toddle down. But living in a small space naturally limits your consumption, something we want to model for Nadia far more than we want smiling pastel animals painted on the wall.

– Bonding. This is tied to the issue of space. In a small apartment, conflict must be resolved because there’s nowhere to hide. Close physical contact between us and Nadia is inevitable – she sleeps either in or next to our bed because the space necessitates it (although we quickly discovered this to be one of the greatest joys of parenting). I often wore Nadia in a cloth sling on my chest – we simply didn’t have the space for some monstrous 3-in-1 carseat-stroller-with-developmental-toy-bar-system, much less the array of substitutes for mom’s arms that have become popular: bouncy seat, swing, etc. And the space sometimes forces me to play with Nadia because again, there’s not room for the elaborate baby distractors that would do it for me, like exersaucers and jumpers. (But let me be clear – if we had the space, I’d love one of those carseat strollers and some baby distractors. )

– Resourcefulness. What can we make for dinner when the local grocery store is out of a key ingredient (as is often the case in our Soviet-esque Safeway)? How does one knead bread without a counter top? Where do kitchen utensils go when the kitchen has no drawers? What games can we play using a sidewalk, dry leaves, and our imaginations?

– Outdoors. Ironically, I spend much more time outdoors living in an urban area than I ever did in the suburbs. Perhaps because my home is just tight enough to squeeze us outside every day for open spaces and fresh air.

We’re hoping to add some containers to our balcony this year to plant a small kitchen garden (if we can somehow finagle a little more sunlight). If our efforts are successful, I hope to try my hand at canning, preserving, and pickling. I think I was wired for the “difficult but worth it” simple life.


When Ugandans visit your home
October 2, 2008, 5:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I would say we have a pretty simple, minimalist lifestyle. We never buy things we don’t need. We make do with old, ugly, stained, even broken stuff for as long as possible. Our diet includes lots of cheap protein (dry legumes) and homemade baked goods. And we live within 600 square feet of dusty, mildew-prone space.

Last week I hosted a visit from three Ugandans to our home – a child named Innocent that recently underwent heart surgery in the U.S., her mother Antonia, and an interpreter, Jean. Knowing that guests from a developing country were visiting made me realize the frivolity and waste all around us, and that our simplicity is relative, not absolute.

I once read in a Mennonite cookbook something to the effect of: “you no more need a different meal for dinner every night than you need a different dress for every day.” Either half of that equation is a bit shocking to read – the same meal every night? My kitchen is stocked with a wide variety of grains, legumes, produce, etc. You could argue that the variety of foods is important for nutrition . . . sure. But I have to admit that my primary motivation is entertainment – pure hedonistic pleasure in the act of eating different textures and flavors night after night (even bite after bite within a given meal), and impressing others through my meals – not nutrition.

The same dress every day? Despite my nonexistant fashion sense, we have two closets, three underbed storage containers, a dresser, a cabinet, and three storage cubes full of clothing. Again, excuses can be made – different seasons and occassions necessitate appropriate clothing. But honestly, most of the variety in our wardrobe is decorative, not functional. We like having choices and dressing to suit our mood, rather than being forced to wear the only warm sweater, or only pair of jeans, or only dark jacket available.

Trent became more aware too. On the morning of the visit, he suggested that we hide some of our shoes in the closet (we keep about 8 different pairs lined up by the front door).

Is all this stuff bad? Is it so wrong to own things with purposes that are primarily decorative, entertainment, or convenience? I don’t think so. As with so many things, I think those things are just an external symptom of our inner life. Is our lifestyle becoming too crowded for contentment, contemplation, true hospitality, and the spiritual life? Are the things we consume so ravenously actually consuming us? What can we learn from our Ugandan visitors, who possess far less, but whose level of generosity and family/community closeness many of us would envy?

Our friends Matt and Sandra kept a blog of their time in Uganda last summer that has some interesting reflections on similar ideas.