Getting to the heart of the simpler life
By Wendy Koch
Simplicity guru Wanda Urbanska arrives 40 minutes early for an interview, and relaxes with a newspaper while she waits.
"I didn't overschedule," she says, noting one lesson of her less-is-more creed. Nor did she drive. She took public transport, underscoring the green nature of her back-to-basics lifestyle.
At lunch, she wonders whether she could put the cafeteria's smoothie in her reusable mug, which she carries in her tote bag along with a food container.
"I try hard to live the principles I'm espousing," says Urbanska, wearing the same beaded necklace and Eileen Fisher sweater set she wears on the cover of her latest book, "The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life" (Krause Publications).
Her book offers tips on how to avoid clutter (donate or sell what's not used, watch what you bring home) and debt (delay purchases, don't shop recreationally). It suggests ways to make homes more energy-efficient and less toxic.
Simplicity has become part of the green movement, as advocates tout the environmental benefits of buying and living with less.
Take, for instance, her advice for the new American home. She recommends "small, green and paid-for."
SIMPLICITY IS GREEN
Urbanska, author of several books on simple living and host of a recent PBS series on it, describes herself interchangeably as a "simplicity" and "sustainability" leader.
Duane Elgin, who wrote the seminal book "Voluntary Simplicity" in 1981, describes in a revised edition this year how the topic has taken on a new meaning amid climate change and a growing global population. He says simplicity is no longer seen as a "path of regress" but as a "path for creative progress into the future."
"These lessons aren't new, but they're what we need right now," says Urbanska, who paints Depression-era frugality as the go-to value for a nation besieged by economic and environmental woes. She says her mom grew up during the Great Depression and raised her not to be wasteful.
"People have begun to embrace frugality as a value," she notes, wondering if that will continue when the economy revives.
Urbanska, 54, a former journalist and Harvard graduate, lived a treadmill existence in New York City and Los Angeles until moving in 1986 with her (now ex-) husband to rural Virginia to take over his family's orchard.
"That was the defining moment," she recalls. "I embraced the simple lifestyle."
Urbanska makes her bed every morning, goes for a swim and writes at home until her 12-year-old son, Henry, returns from school. She works a bit more in the evening, but tries not to work more than 40 hours a week.
After her divorce, she bought a three-bedroom home in North Carolina and retrofitted it to be green. "The house is totally great," she says, but is really "too big" for her and Henry.
So, after a recent seven-month sabbatical in her father's native Poland, she's renting out the house and living temporarily with her mom in Mount Airy, N.C.
Urbanska says she came back from Warsaw, where she and her son lived in a 1,500-square-foot home and with no car, with a new view of U.S.-style consumption.
Europeans accumulate less stuff, live in smaller spaces, work fewer hours and have more free time, she says. "What I'm talking about is the Europeanization of American life. I've always been bothered by the American culture of excess."
Urbanska says Americans need to redefine success as financial solvency and happiness, not material wealth.
She encourages people to slow down, do one task at a time and make time every day to relax. She says she works best when she's not fretting about yesterday's mistakes or worrying about tomorrow's problems.
"I'm convinced," she writes, "that living in the present in our work and in our lives should be one of the primary goals of the simple life."