Helen Nearing: Liver of The Good Life

Helen Nearing’s influence on my life has been profound and I am honored to write this post to celebrate her and her husband, Scott.  I grew up in the 1960s and 70s in a liberal university town where their works were widely read, so I have always just assumed that everyone knew of them and had a copy of “The Good Life” on their shelves.  But a couple of days ago, I realized that this view was most likely wrong and that there are probably millions of women who have never heard of Helen.  So, if this is the case with you, I would love to introduce you to one of my favorite women of all time, Helen Nearing.

Helen Nearing and her husband Scott moved to a farm in Vermont in 1932 and began a grand experiment in what would now be called “voluntary simplicity.”  They grew their own food, built their own house, made their own clothes, and only made enough money to meet their most basic cash needs.  (Until this time, Helen had grown up in luxury and done very little physical labor. Think of the faith, love, and courage it took for her to make the decision to do this!) They divided the day into four-hour blocks:  one was for “bread work,” meaning what they needed to do to meet essential needs to sustain life, one was for community service, and one was for leisure and recreation. 

The key was to reduce their needs to a minimum.  No trips to the mall, no fancy clothes, no new cars, nothing that did not serve a useful purpose.  In exchange, they got back four or more hours a day and the satisfaction of spending their time outside, doing honorable, healthy work, and being role models for people like me who were looking at non-traditional ways of living their lives. 

To me, voluntary simplicity is less about doing things a certain way than in creating a new relationship between yourself, your work, and money.  It is about not taking the media’s word for it that you really need 95% of what they are selling. It is the realization that if you do not needs gobs of cash, you do not have to give away your precious time and energy at a job that is extremely stressful and time-consuming instead of one that is fulfilling, requires fewer hours and serves others, but may be lower-paying.  You can choose how you spend the days of your life and what you give your precious talent and energy to.

In 1953, they wrote their book “Living the Good Life” about their experiment and, over the years, until their deaths in the 1980s and 1990s, they were visited by literally thousands of people who came to their home to learn what they had to teach.  They wrote more books and articles, lectured, and always lived what they preached.  Scott was actually the more public face of the two, but he was more analytical and pragmatic, while Helen came from a more mystical, artistic, contemplative point of view and so it was she that I felt connected to, though I never met her.

I do not, of course, follow their lead exactly (as the Coldwater Creek catalog people can attest), but it is because of them that I bought an old house with few modern conveniences and have worked for 20 years with my husband to renovate it, grow many of my own herbs, shop mostly in consignment stores, and take jobs that don’t necessarily pay tremendously well, but pay enough for me to live and help support my family. And, I should say that I am not advocating that women stop fighting to be paid as much as men or that they live at poverty level.  Of course women need to have economic equality – the issue is how much of our lives we want to spend making money, not that we should make less than men – and too many women completely underestimate how much they will really need in retirement.  If you have children or parents to support or care for or have special needs yourself, your financial need will be substantially higher than people like the Nearings, who had no responsibilities other than to themselves and were in good health till their deaths.

What I have recently come to realize is how integral this view of how to make a living can be to women’s spiritual lives.  Many women feel that their connection to the Earth is an essential aspect of their spirituality.  The importance of not over-consuming and making your living in a way that does not exploit the Earth is obvious.  “Voluntary simplicity” is one important way to reduce the amount of energy we use, garbage we generate, and pollution we cause.  There is no better way to honor the Earth than to step away from destroying Her.

Voluntary simplicity is also key to a healthy global web of sisterhood between women.  When food, clothing and materials for shelter are exported rather than used for the good of the women in other countries who make them and factories that make unnecessary goods pollute the environment, especially in developing nations, what we have here in the US really does reduce the quality of life for women around the world.  Here is where “fair trade” can come in.  If you buy goods that are made by women who are fairly paid and who work in safe, ecologically-sound conditions, you can have your imports and help women overseas support themselves in a way that benefits them, too.

Finally, voluntary simplicity is a grand way to express to yourself and others that you are sacred.  Your time, energy and talent is worth more than a cashmere shawl or yet another knick-knack or fancy dinner out.  If you spend the time you gain on “soul pursuits” like music, art, poetry, walks in the woods, reading, or whatever brings you closer to your Creator and your inner self, how rich will you indeed be.  You have not only stated your sacredness, but taken back power over your life by being the one to determine how you spend your time and energy.

In the last few years of her life, Helen wrote a book titled “Loving and Leaving the Good Life” about her marriage to Scott and her thoughts about what their lives had meant.  She chose to end the book with words that were not about economics or freedom or power, but about love.  And this, to me, is the real spiritual message of voluntary simplicity: love yourself and your soul enough not to waste them, love others enough to spend time with them rather than in constant work, love the Earth enough to conserve it; love all beings enough to participate with them in this world in a responsible way. 

But she says it much better than I do: “A network of love crisscrosses the globe…  There are so many threads of love in the world, so much love going on, for and from so many people.  To have partaken of and to have given love is the greatest of life’s rewards.”

To learn more about the Nearings and their work and lives, go to The Good Life Center, the organization that sells their books and continues to spread their message.

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd