Book Review– Organized Simplicity

Simple living. For the typical American in this economic climate, that sounds like a swell idea. For the Christian looking to free up more resources for the Kingdom, that also appeals. But what, exactly, does this entail? Living like an ascetic? Throwing away the stuff in the garage? Somewhere in between? Tsh Oxenreider, creator of the blog SimpleMom.net, has come up with a step-by-step, room-by-room answer in Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living.

A former missionary, Oxenreider started a blog about simple family living while overseas (her family is now based in Austin, Texas.) The book is a compilation of the ideas and tips featured on her web site. Since she started her blog in 2008, and since then, it’s expanded into a mini-empire with over 27,000 subscribers, 500,000 monthly page views, advertisers and sponsors, five offshoot websites (simpleorganic.net, simplehomeschool.net, etc.) and multiple contributors.

I stumbled upon this blog through the blog grapevine (blogvine?), and was intrigued with the mainstream success of a devout Christian. How would she incorporate her faith objectives (as I had assumed her reason for downsizing home life), with her practical solutions for living? Oxenreider describes simple living as: living holistically with your life’s purpose. Problem is, she doesn’t really get into what that really means. Her Christianity is mentioned only in passing, without explanation. It has an elephant-in-the-room quality about it.

While this choice to omit deeper motivations may make the book more accessible, it makes it difficult to glean why Oxenreider is so intent on living simply. She only refers to wanting intentionality for her life goal—filling a house with kids, a husband, and love (in her words, “nesting”). Oxenreider predicates the purpose of her blog on the principle that, “When we find solutions for cutting everyday life clutter, we’re taking care of our family, our home, and ourselves.” The point of living simply, it seems, is to live simply.

Oxenreider introduces these foundations for her way of living, and the majority of the book is focused on how to de-clutter. This is exemplified in the 2nd part of the book, “Ten Days to a Simpler, More Organized Home.” Each day centers on a room, and is filled with solutions about how to prioritize things and checklists for cleaning. For example, in the master bedroom, Oxenreider instructs the reader to “stick to the classics,” to keep the basic black dress, skirt, etc. She also writes that under-the-bed storage boxes are a good idea. Finally, there are reflections at the end of each chapter, mostly encouraging the reader to reflect on the purpose of the room and to de-clutter accordingly.

In all, the book is a handy guide but most likely replicates the tips on her blog (but minus all the ads, ironically). Like many things, the value of the book depends on your expectations. Fairly or not, I was expecting a more personal story about why Oxenreider and her family want to live simply. To be fair, there are references and stats about wealth levels and standards of living, but I had been looking forward to reading about how her and her family not only simplified their home and lives but also about what motivated them to continue to do so.

I was slightly let down when the book seemed little different from a family-focused issue of Real Simple. As such, the usefulness of the book then depends on the type of audience. If you’re a single person looking for philosophical or theological rationale breathing purpose into directives for living simply, then you will be dissatisfied (but take heart, this blog you are currently reading is a good place for this!) If you’re a busy stay-at-home mom (“home manager”) looking for tips to nurture simple domestic living, read her blog. If you’re a busy stay-at-home mom looking for home recipes for detergent and lists to de-clutter and prefer to have it in a bound guide, then this book is for you.

Motivated by Grief


After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?

The Story of All Our Stuff

My friend turned me on to this website:  www.storyofstuff.com.  It gives a quick and sobering summary of where all our STUFF comes from.  Our “designed for disposal” economy, the toxins we make, the labor injustices, our overconsumption, and the methods of disposal are all terrible.  Please watch it, decide on what action you can take, and forward it on!  Especially to anyone who doesn’t “get” the issues of sustainability and justice that we’re facing.  Our system is in crisis!

For a focus on electronics, see this website:  www.storyofelectronics.com.

Alternative Black Friday

Black Friday at WalMart

On Monday, bargain hunters across the internet rabidly devoured the leaked Wal-Mart “Black Friday” flyer.  For non-U.S. readers, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, and a big shopping holiday as retailers offer deep discounts to kick off the holiday shopping season.

I have mixed feelings about Black Friday.  On one hand, I do love good bargains, but on the other hand I am opposed to buying stuff needlessly.  I’m also opposed to wasteful gift-giving.  And I’m a bit leery of participating in a no-holds-barred pure celebration of consumerism.  It’s one thing to buy, but it’s another thing to celebrate buying.  Maybe it’s like the difference between reading comic books and dressing up to re-enact famous superhero battles.

This year for Black Friday, June and I are going to do something different.  We’ll shop, but for charities.  We have some money saved up in our CGF, and we’ve been meaning to invest in MicroPlace, so we’ll spend some time online and make donations and loans to nonprofits.  As for celebrating by handing out turkeys while dressed as pilgrims, well… maybe next year.

More ideas for beautiful and affordable weddings

Building on a previous post, I wanted to share a few tips of my own for having a beautiful and inexpensive wedding. My husband and I spent $7500 on our wedding (including wedding dress but not the honeymoon travels), had a dinner reception, and we had 250 guests! After going through the experience of planning a wedding, I realized how a lot of our culture around weddings have become about expensive “must haves” which leads to a lot of waste. For example, a bride “must have” a brand-new, brand-name dress. Everyone “must have” their hair and makeup done by a hired person. We “must have” catered food.

In light of the amount of waste that we saw in the wedding industry, my friend Kathryn House and I saw an opportunity specifically in bridesmaids dresses and launched a small business earlier this summer called BridesmaidTrade.com. Consider the following facts: The typical bridesmaid spends more than $1200 per wedding (a big chunk of it on the dress) and each woman in the US is on average is a bridesmaid in 4-5 weddings over her lifetime. The median (and mode) bridesmaid ends up wearing her bridesmaid dress exactly 0 times. While most of these once-worn dresses sit dry-cleaned in closets, hundreds of thousands of new bridesmaids dresses are bought each year for weddings. BridesmaidTrade.com is an online consignment store where past and future bridesmaids can sell and buy once-worn bridesmaids dresses. It’s kind of like Craigslist where you can set your own price and create your own post for each dress you want to sell, but the site is a whole lot more shopper-friendly.

Besides using BridesmaidTrade.com, here are the other top suggestions I would give to anyone trying to plan a wedding that feels abundant and beautiful but doesn’t break the bank:

  • Ask (and you will receive) help from your Community: We were able to pull off a fun and beautiful wedding at a reasonable cost because we had a lot of help from family and friends in arranging flowers, compiling music, etc. We are blessed to have incredibly gifted musicians, artists, photographers, and others with special gifts in our community and I am sure you will find some in yours as well. A surprising bonus for us was how it brought our community closer in the 24-48 hours leading up the wedding. Family and friends who did not know each other before (but were there because they were connected to us) had time to meet and talk to each other while arranging flowers, setting the tables, etc. It made the whole wedding feel more fun and intimate when we got to the big day.
  • Opt for once-worn. Consider buying a once-worn dress, not only for your bridesmaids but also for you (the bride). Sites like oncewed.com and recycledbride.com have hundreds of postings of really high-quality dresses that have been worn only once. Try to find a dress that you like where the seller resides in your area. Then you can actually drive to their house to try on the dress before the purchase.
  • DIY hair and makeup (especially for bridesmaids). I tried out a few hair and makeup artists before my wedding but actually found no one who I really liked. I did my own hair and makeup for the wedding, and two friends graciously did the hair and makeup for all my bridesmaids. It can definitely work if you have at least a 1:3 ratio of people who are reasonably talented with hair and makeup to people who are not. Check out this blog post on DIY bridesmaid hair
  • Skip the fancy (and sometimes bad) catering. We ordered our food from our favorite Thai food restaurant in Cambridge, and had a buffet-style dinner. Everyone loved the food, and no one got dry chicken breasts. We got bottles of champagne and Charles Shaw from Trader Joes. If you really want some servers, you can try what we did- we hired 5 people from Craigslist for $12 per hour ($300 for the night for everyone), asked them to show up wearing black pants and white shirts. We had a friend who kind of played “server manager” for the night, making sure the water was getting out, tables were being cleared, etc. Since it was a self-serve buffet, five servers seemed to be enough. $10 per person for the food times 250 people + $300 for the servers + $300 for the alcohol = $3100 for the food, or $12.40 per guest. Not bad!
  • Check out wholesale flowers. We purchased our flowers from freshroses.com which was the best deal- they come 2 days before the ceremony in a semi-dehydrated form for packing and come back to life after soaking in water. We then had a few friends working do de-thorn and arrange the flowers the day before the wedding. Roses, stocks, and peruvian lilies are generally the best value. I also saw a friend do her centerpieces with candles set on top of mirrors, which looked great for an evening wedding and also were cost-effective.
  • Chinatown cake. If you’re really set on having that hazelnut cake with the raspberry filling, go for it if it can fit in your budget. But for us, we weren’t particular about a fancy type of cake, so we went for a $200 yellow cake from Chinatown with buttercream icing. It tasted great and we (read: my thoughtful bridesmaids) decorated it with extra flowers.
  • Music/ DJ.Instead of hiring a DJ, we asked our friends to compile their favorite “mingling music” and “dancing music” and compiled a playlist on a i-pod. Jake’s cousin made sure the playlist was just running smoothly.

Here are some pictures below, if you are curious. For people’s privacy, I haven’t attached any pictures of dresses, hair etc. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at yjeanette.park@gmail.com (Jeanette Park)!

Guns and other stuff: think before you buy

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In many U.S. states, there is a mandated waiting period before you can purchase a gun.  For Jodi and me, living in Costa Rica, we have a mandated waiting period before we buy just about anything.  Here’s how this reality has helped us make progress in living simply:

In Costa Rica, most consumer goods are readily available, but usually for 50% to 100% more than in the States.  Just a few random examples:  Converse shoes are $60-80 instead of $13-20 on Slickdeals; laptops are easily double, as are just about all kids’ toys.

This extreme price difference means that we still buy most of our stuff from the U.S.—we make our purchases online and send them to the next visitor who’s kind enough to schlep them to Costa Rica in their luggage (thanks mom, bapa & nana, LKVP, D/CD, G/CB, KH, MS, SK, NN, SL, J/EC)!

Thus, just like buying a gun, nearly every sizable acquisition carries with it a significant waiting period—often several months—from when we first want something to when we actually buy it.  We’ve found that this time gap is an excellent mechanism for thinking twice about whether we really need more stuff.  It gives us space to prayerfully discern whether a particular item is a necessity or a luxury, whether it is a tool or a toy, whether it is part of the life of economic discipleship to which God calls us.  As Richard Foster says,

one clear advantage to this approach is that it effectively ends all impulse buying. It gives time for reflection so that God can teach us if the desire [for more stuff] is unnecessary.

For Jodi and I, our “waiting period” spiritual discipline has become an integrated part of our lifestyle , no matter where we end up living in the long term, and we’d like to urge you to consider it as well.  I close with some provocative discernment questions, adapted from Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, that we’ve found helpful in guiding our prayers during our “waiting periods”:

  • Am I buying this for its usefulness or for the social status it will give me?
  • Could this purchase produce an unhealthy addiction for me?
  • Could this purchase blur my spiritual focus or distract me from pursuing God?
  • Do I need to buy a new product, or would a used or borrowed one work just as well?
  • If I buy this, will I still be able to meet my goals for giving to the poor and to God’s Kingdom work?

How to Have a Beautiful, Inexpensive Wedding

My friend and supervisor was the best man in a wedding this past weekend – which was one of three weddings that happened in one ceremony.  Yup, a triple wedding:  three sisters and each of their fiances got married at one time.  http://www.fox11online.com/dpp/news/local/Triple-wedding-three-times-as-nice.  And they did it in one hour.

The three sisters got engaged at around the same time.  They knew their family couldn’t afford three separate weddings.  So they rolled their three weddings into one.  Apparently it was beautiful; each couple was honored equally; and Dad hustled up and down the aisle to walk each of his daughters down.

I wonder how much Christian character it took for the three couples to plan the wedding?  Sometimes, it’s hard for just the bride and groom to agree on their wedding plans.  But for three brides and three grooms to plan one wedding?  Wow.  In American culture today, weddings tend to be an expression of the “personality” of the couple, so I admire anyone who gives that up for a larger goal.  It reminds me that the foundation of effective giving is faith and Christian character.  I wonder how much money they saved?

Until I heard this story, I thought I was just going to blog about my wife and I having a beautiful, inexpensive wedding.  All told, our wedding cost $5,000.  Of course, the tuxes and wedding dress cost $$.  For our ceremony, we rented a church building for $100.  We hired a photographer for $1000.  We paid $100 for a YWCA building right around the corner.  We rented coffee shop style tables and chairs.  We bought the reception food and asked friends to help us cook almost all of it.  That was the big money saver.  We had 250 people at the ceremony and reception.   Anyone else think of ways to express the value of simplicity through a wedding?

Passing on Values vs. Items of Value

Father and Son

As a new parent, I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to raise my son, and what kind of person I’d like him to be.  The answer I keep coming up with is: NOT SPOILED.  It is a terrible irony and tragedy for parents to work hard in trying to provide a better living (more money) for their children, only to find the excess money counterproductive and spoiling them.  Why drown your kids in a sea of money when others are dying of thirst?

If spoiling a child results from giving him everything he wants, then the obvious antidote is to wisely withhold them.  Here are some thoughts:

* Fewer toys, more time with family and friends
* Less TV, more library books
* Exposure to many people, of all different wealth levels
* Avenues to give and serve as a family and with a church community

One of the hardest things about a consumerism diet is modeling it myself.  There are a lot of areas for improvement in eating habits, shopping, surfing, and time spent on tech toys.  I’m hoping the pain will be worth it, as I’d much rather raise a child who has compassion, generosity, and honesty rather than a new car, a private college trust fund, and mad video game skills.  (That last part is really close, though.)

Since I’m writing from the idealistic perspective of a new parent, I’d appreciate any words of wisdom who have been through this already.  What have you done to raise your children in a non-spoiled way, and what might you do differently with your years of experience?

Just Lifestyle: Four Options

I’d like to propose a little thought experiment.  Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of two familiar but explosive realities. First, about God:

  • God loves justice.  God’s heart is broken by poverty and human suffering.  Jesus is the Head, and we are the Body—we are God’s hands and feet on earth, showing the world what Jesus’ compassion looks like. This is beautiful.

Second, about the world:

  • The world includes more than two and a half billion people surviving on less than $2 a day.  Almost half the world’s population has no realistic opportunity to encounter God’s love in Christ.  This is intolerable.

So the question I want to ask is: when it comes to our financial lifestyles, what would a genuinely just lifestyle look like?
Standard Christian teaching on stewardship looks something like this:

  • Be honest, work hard and don’t get into debt.
  • Tithe 10% to your local church.
  • Put some extra money in the offering when there’s a big earthquake or famine or tsunami in the news, and perhaps sponsor a child in Africa on a monthly basis.

But when I take an honest look at this conventional advice in the light of the first two realities, I can’t help feeling that it’s a thin, watered-down echo of God’s ideal for a just lifestyle.

Here are some more radical approaches that I think might be closer to the mark:

1. John Wesley—founder of Methodism, one of the most influential evangelicals ever

2. Ralph Winter—missions leader, founder of the US Center for World Missions

3. Mother Teresa—missionary to the poorest of the poor, Nobel Prize winner

4. Peter Singer—secular utilitarian philosopher

  • Context: Global poverty, especially famines
  • Big idea: We are responsible for suffering we fail to prevent if we have the power to alleviate it, regardless of geographical, national, or cultural distance.
  • Concrete action: Buy only the necessities of life, and give away the rest (Singer reckons “necessities”= approximately $30,000 per household annually).

  

What do you think? What would a just lifestyle look like for you, given God’s compassion and the world’s poverty?

Debt

We recognize that debt is an extremely important issue.

In fact, if someone is deep in credit card debt, we feel that it is better to do whatever it takes to pay it off as quickly as possible, even if that means postponing significant giving. In the long run, you’ll not only be more financially secure, but you’ll be able to free up more to give. Most Christian financial stewardship ministries do a great job of providing resources on budgeting and debt, which is why we don’t reproduce that info on this blog.

But there are drastically fewer voices empowering the church to invest in biblical justice for the poor, so we keep our focus and passion there. In the meantime, here’s just this one bit of profound wisdom on avoiding debt: