'Tis the gift to be simple / 'Tis the gift to be free.
--Shaker hymn from the early 1800s
If Mother Ann Lee and her band of celibate, simplicity-loving Shakers were to materialize in Los Angeles in the 1980s, would they find kindred spirits here in the land of car phones and $100 sweat suits?
Impossible, it seems. On first glance, at least, Mother Ann would be mortified from her efficient shoes to the tip of her plain muslin cap.
Yet, if the Shakers were to poke around a bit, they would find that there are indeed some rare individuals living a Shaker-like existence in the very epicenter of excess.
Esta Krainis-James, for instance, is a 61-year-old artist and art therapist who has resided for five years in a North Hollywood backyard, rejecting a conventional life style in order to further her goal of "letting go of most technology."
Or there's Cliff Cobb, a substitute teacher from Claremont, who has pared down his material possessions out of respect for the environment. Cobb has not driven a car since 1975, and has never, in his 36 years, owned a vehicle.
What these folks and others have found--to paraphrase simplicity scholar David Shi--is that while small may no longer be chic, it is still beautiful.
In a telephone interview from his North Carolina home, Shi said that it is easier to streamline one's life in a rural setting than in a city where you are "surrounded by complexity, artificiality, noise and throbbing activity.
"Those who continue to practice simple living in an urban setting are more fundamentally committed to it," he said.
"But it is indeed possible to get off the treadmill of consumerism," added Shi, author of "In Search of the Simple Life," a recent history of simple living in America. "It is possible to live on less--and perhaps even to be happier that way."
Bottomless Expense Account
There was a time when Franklin Zahn was fond of comfort and expensive objects. After graduating from Caltech in mechanical engineering, Zahn took a highly paid engineering job in Detroit in the '30s. He drove a Packard and enjoyed a bottomless expense account. He became accustomed to first-class train compartments, fancy hotels and doting bellmen.
But then, as a conscientious objector during World War II, Zahn said he came to a realization that "those people who believe in peace also believe in simplicity."
Zahn, now 80, quit his job and resolved not to return to engineering. "In addition, I decided I would live very simply in a kind of Gandhi style, and I would not have a family," he said. "I would live (a life like) the equivalent of a monk in a monastery, but not be under the authority of any organization."
Although his resolution might sound like that of a stern ascetic, Zahn is actually a cheerful, energetic figure who appears engaged by the world around him. (Another advocate of simple living said that while the world may look at them as joyless souls, minimalists actually subscribe to "a higher hedonism.")
Zahn doesn't presume to be a saint. His weaknesses, he said, include chocolate candy and, "I waste a lot of time watching television."
He lives in a tiny, unadorned house he built himself 40 years ago. The floors are bare concrete. He cooks on a cast-iron stove he bought at a junk shop for $4.
For transportation, Zahn rides an old 10-speed bike, equipped with baskets for groceries. For longer trips, he has a moped. He did own a car for a while when he was working as a carpenter, but in 1965 he gave the automobile away and has done without one since.
"A lot of our war today is because we want a rather high standard of living," said Zahn, a Quaker. "In effect, we are living off the Third World. We are wiping out the forest in Brazil so we can eat more hamburgers.
'Robbing Someone Else'
"If I had a rather nice home and a lot of stuff, as I used to have, I would feel I was robbing someone else," he added. "I would feel like a mother who goes off to Las Vegas to have a good time and leaves her kids home hungry."
While Zahn's inspiration for simplifying his life was political, the motivations cited by urban minimalists range from environmental to philosophical, aesthetic, spiritual or practical. Flute maker Tom Thompson, for instance, took to the simple life because as a "ruthless traveler," he said he admired people who had "a few very nice things they liked, but you could get them all into a backpack."
There also is no universal agreement about what constitutes simplicity. Thompson, 41, who lives in his shop in Costa Mesa and has no phone and no car, takes his cue from the Japanese: "Their ideal of heaven is an empty room."
At the other end of the spectrum are people who practice a more compromised form of simplicity. That would include Paul Wiebenga-Sanford and his wife, Frances Wiebenga, who are attempting to raise their two children in what they feel is an environmentally responsible fashion.