The Simplicity Project

Exercises in elective deprivation.

By Wendy Paris, published February 25, 2020 - last reviewed on March 3, 2020

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I returned from the grocery store, laden with bags. My mother, who was visiting, commented that my then 9-year-old son “has a lot of stuff.”  

“He does,” I agreed, pulling a fluffy white polar bear out of a shopping bag. I’d run into a friend who’d been holding the bear, then decided against buying it. “I’ll get it!” I’d said, taking it from her hands, thinking…what, exactly? That the 45 stuffed animals my son, Alexander, already had weren’t enough?

Back at the apartment, I faced the question of where the bear would live in the jungle of fluffy animals, shiny geodes, and half-broken magic kits crowding my son’s bedroom. We have a small apartment and limited storage. Yet, I’ll often go out and buy something new when I already have an item at home that would serve the same purpose perfectly well.

Later that day, after driving my mom to the airport, I thought about her comment. Why did my son have so many things? What values was I inadvertently teaching through this constant spending and acquiring?

By the time I returned from the airport, I’d hatched a plan. We’d go on a No-Spending Spree, a Cash Fast. It’d be like a juice fast, but instead of skipping solid food, I’d avoid opening my wallet for the weekend. It would be fun, I assured my son. Like the olden days, like Little House on the Prairie.

My son half-listened, then proposed we go down to the beach. But the parking lot costs money, I realized. So I pumped up our bike tires, and we cycled the mile and a half to the ocean, then peddled slowly along the sand. We passed under the Santa Monica Pier, where we did not stop for ice cream we didn’t really want or a sun hat I didn’t need. Every time I bike along the boardwalk, I feel calmed by the waves and grateful to live somewhere I love, feelings that don’t require spending money.

Heading home in the setting sun, I suddenly craved melted cheese. We’d make nachos for dinner, I proposed. Except, as I discovered when we got home, we had no tortilla chips. Normally, I’d run to Whole Foods to buy a bag. Instead, I cut some soft tortillas we had into quarters, fried them in oil, and voilà—tortilla chips! Alexander was giggly, excited by the big frying project and his job of patting off the oil with paper towels and shaking on the salt. Dinner became a science project.

Not spending also meant a weekend without the usual errands. Shopping often takes the place of actual activities. But that weekend, there’d be no purchasing of a new bedspread to replace the ripped old one, no stocking up on groceries or washing clothes in the coin-operated machine in our building. Without these money-based tasks, the weekend took on a homey, cozy feel.

By Sunday night, Alexander was sold on this new lifestyle. He sat at the kitchen island, finishing dinner, and said, “Let’s do this again next weekend! We can buy everything we need in advance. We’ll stock up on things, buy two loaves of bread, even though we only need one. Just in case.” He was giggling, aware he was poking fun, in a way, at our adventure in anticonsumerism.

But in practice, after that weekend, we both found ourselves noticing more ways to do without. We began seeing opportunities to step outside the abundance around us—and for me, to take a break from the undertow of stress that the onslaught can bring.

Even normal activities felt adventurous when seen through a lens of simplicity. For our next experiment, we decided we wouldn’t roam past the borders of our city. We live in Santa Monica, a small, incorporated town on the western edge of Los Angeles County. The L.A. area is home to hundreds of square miles of entertainment and edification. This availability, which is wonderful, also exerts a subtle suggestion that what we have right here, in our own beachfront town, isn’t enough.

On our “You Can’t Leave Santa Monica” weekend, we walked along the ocean, strolled the Promenade, and stopped by Omar’s Exotic Birds, where you can hold parrots and pet macaws. Later, we planted some mint in a pot on our balcony. When Alexander clamored to go the party-supply store for old-fashioned Choward’s Violet Mints, I realized I didn’t know on which side of the city line it sat. Figuring that out—standing on the street corner gazing up at the signs—gave me a precise knowledge of our city’s outline, which made me feel competent and more rooted in our hometown.

Alexander then got the idea of doing “1800s Day,” motivated, it turned out, by the desire to switch off all the circuit breakers in the apartment and see what would happen. Unclear about the parameters of this project—the 1800s was a varied century—I proposed, instead, that we observe the Sabbath, Orthodox Jewish-style. Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, we’d avoid the 39 categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, or their modern equivalents. This meant no spending but also no driving, no cell phone, no Internet. No cooking. No turning on and off lights. I’m Jewish, but I’d never observed the Sabbath in any rigorous way before because I’m not that religious and it sounded like a bunch of “shouldn’ts.” Still, I have observant friends who insist that the Sabbath is a celebration.

Friday afternoon, I called my mom and ex-husband to explain that we were “going dark.” My mother shouldn’t worry if we didn’t answer the phone; my ex should just come over if he wanted to talk to our son. Alexander sat at the kitchen island, mixing up a batch of brownies. I braided dough for bread, made chicken and matzo ball soup, and sautéed salmon. We had to hurry to finish all this prep before sundown, a frenzy that felt meaningful and important, like preparing for a big party. Then we lit the candles, said the blessings, and sat down at our grey wooden table for dinner, which felt amazingly special. We had all this food. I never make soup and homemade bread and salmon together. Who has the time?

People who observe the Sabbath.

I also had time to read—an entire stack of magazines that had been rising in the living room. Normally, I’ll start an article, then put it down to Google a historical point or listen to a band referenced. Or I’ll think, if I’m reading, shouldn’t I be writing? It’s almost the same thing, but writing is work, and work is good. But not on the Sabbath.

Without electronics, the evening stretched out before us, as empty as an old-fashioned summer. And as private. Usually, we cast out of our house, seeking information, entertainment, connection. I’ll call my mom with a question. Alexander will log on to a computer game. It’s as if the fourth wall in our home is always open. The rules of the Sabbath, however, kept the world out, which felt like a huge relief. All those rules felt, oddly enough, very indulgent.

There’s no obvious connection among our simplicity projects, but from an evolutionary perspective, they may all be attempts to escape the hyper-unreality of modern life. “This is the first time in human history that you have the option to never be bored,” says Glenn Geher, a psychologist at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “The natural state is to have mental downtime. Today, our minds are constantly stimulated. We are down to zero downtime. It’s as though we’re in a hyperactive neuronal fit all the time.”

As Geher argues, many seemingly disparate aspects of 21st-century life violate the “ancestral condition,” the environment we evolved to expect before agriculture ended our nomadic ways some 10,000 years ago. Farming led to stable villages, which brought many benefits. And it also sparked a succession of new and novel inputs, the pace of which has accelerated to such a dizzying degree that today we can feel ill at ease in our own environment.

Last month, on a road trip through West Texas, Alexander became entranced with a big paper atlas at a gas station. We’d been driving for days, navigating by GPS. Now, he declared, he would get us from Marfa, in Presidio County, to the Texas Hill Country with nothing but this atlas. I’d driven across the country before the iPhone several times, back in my 20s and 30s. But now I was phone-dependent, wary about going by our own wits and a paper map. Could we do it?

It’s not that hard to use a map, it turns out. We pulled into the tiny Hill Country town of Comfort, Texas, just as the sun set, having managed 357 satisfying miles without electronic assistance. Every single restaurant, however, was closed by the time we arrived. I was hungry and not interested in a simplicity project of going to bed without dinner. Finally, I walked across the silent street to the single open establishment, a large, garage-style honky-tonk bar. “Do you know where we can get something to eat?” I asked the bartender. “We just drove from West Texas and we’re starving.”

“Well, we’ve got some fried chicken left over from dinner,” she said. “You can have that. And I’m sure our friends over there will share their french fries.” She walked over to a table of apparent regulars, returning with a box of McDonald’s fries.  

I sat in the bar with my son, eating someone else’s fried chicken and soggy fries, feeling neighborly and cared for. “It’s just like the 1800s,” I said.