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A simple plan leads to a much richer life

December 11, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This article is from December 2001 and is new material by Elisabeth Sherwin at this web site. Elisabeth writes: "I like this article because it champions a simple life based on the 1997 nonfiction lifestyle book "The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life" by Cecile Andrews (who is not from Davis)."

Nathaline and Aaron Shonk and their three children live in a large new home in Davis.

From the outside, it looks normal in every respect. When you enter the house, however, you notice something strange: It's nearly empty. It looks like the Shonks are either very poor or they haven't finished moving.

Neither guess is correct.

They've just gotten rid of their extra stuff. They've adopted a simplified lifestyle and have stopped the conspicuous consumption of furniture, clothes, toys, pictures, plants and rugs.

"We have everything we need," said Nathaline Shonk, standing in her living room, which is furnished with comfortable matching chairs, two beanbag chairs, a cupboard and a long, low bookshelf. Black and white family photographs adorn the walls. That's it.

"People do come over sometimes and say: 'You don't have any furniture!' " she said.

They should see her closet. Her summer wardrobe consists of a half-dozen dresses and tops. There's so much extra room in the master bedroom closet she shares with her husband that she put her desk and computer in there and calls it her office.

Only seven years ago, she said, they lived a typical Los Angeles two-income, consumer-oriented lifestyle. For fun, she'd go clothes shopping.

The change came, Shonk said, when she quit working to take care of her younger children.

Amber is 15, Alexandria is 5 and Andrew is 2. The children are home-schooled.

"When I quit work we had to start living more frugally," she said. "I started reading books about living on one income and later met Cecile Andrews at a homeschooling program."

Author comes to Davis

Andrews is the author of a 1997 book, "The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life," which is a how-to book for a bare-bones lifestyle that Andrews has been championing since the late 1980s.

Earlier this month, the Seattle-based Andrews gave a standing-room-only talk at The Avid Reader bookstore. Shonk was in the audience.

Andrews explained how she and people committed to a simple life focus on creativity, participate in the community, and are generally more consciously concerned with the environment than those who never take time out from working, shopping and consuming.

Andrews encourages people to join simplicity circles, groups of four to six people who trade their own experiences and share information to help one another develop lives of simple contentment.

According to the Trends Research Institute, 15 percent of America's 77 million baby boomers will have joined this inwardly rich, outwardly simple movement by the end of the decade.

Few Americans stop to think about how lucky they are. More than 75 percent of the world population lacks what are considered mere basics in the United States: food in the refrigerator, clothes, a roof overhead and a place to sleep.

"People live in global villages with nothing but the clothes on their backs," Shonk said. "So we always feel like we have a lot."

She said a commitment to this lifestyle has helped her family value time more. It has helped them decide what's important in life. They gather together once a month to decide where to make charitable contributions of either money or time.

"We can decide whether to spend two hours at the movies or volunteering," she said. "We don't end up going to the movies very often." Amber, the teen-ager in the family, volunteers by walking donor dogs at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Shonk volunteers her time and interests to the local homeschooling community by writing a newsletter and organizing field trips. They gave away one of their two cars.

"I think I could lose everything and I'd be OK if I had the family photo albums," Shonk said.

*It goes deep*

"Sometimes when you talk about this lifestyle to others they think a 'simple life' means cleaning out your junk drawers," she added. "It goes much deeper than that."

To Aaron Shonk, it meant a decision to value time over money. He was strongly influenced by a book called "Your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

"I never enjoyed shopping or going to the mall, so consuming less was easy," he said, "but it was hard at first getting rid of the TV."

Three years ago the Shonks cut back on special TV channels, then they eliminated cable. Then the TV went out to the garage. Then it was sold at a garage sale.

"You miss it at first and then you realize what a distraction it was," he said. "Getting rid of it helps families draw closer."

"Lots of families say, 'I want this, let's get this,' " added Nathaline Shonk. "We say, 'I can get rid of this and this and this.' "

Amber says she doesn't mind her family's simplified lifestyle, either. She remembers what it was like before.

"In L.A. we had too much stuff," she said. "I had shelves full of toys I never played with."

"I don't know of many 15-year-old girls who go through their closets and give stuff away," said her mother.

* Another family commits*

Another Davis family, Laura and Cyril Juanitas, are similarly committed to creating a simpler life.

After graduating from UC Davis, the Juanitases worked in inner-city Washington, D.C., in the mid-'80s as part of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.

"Through that work we came to value a frugal lifestyle, which means that we have less so that others can have more," Laura Juanitas said.

But those lessons weren't implemented immediately. After D.C., they lived in Seattle. He is an attorney, she is a social worker.

"Four years ago, life was out of control," Juanitas said. "We had no time." They both worked until their third child came along, then Laura cut back so she could spend more time with her children.

With a drop in income, they found that they did less and had more time. They liked that trade-off and began reading about the simplicity movement. Juanitas went to one of Andrews' programs in Seattle.

Then, over the course of one of Seattle's wet winters, she got pneumonia.

"While I was in the hospital I realized that all our family was back in California," she said. "We decided to move back."

They moved to Davis in 1999 and that change helped prompt their new lifestyle, too, which is being accomplished through a series of large and small steps.

They have four children: Joshua, almost 13; Zach, 10; Nick, 5; and Zoe, 3. They are down from two TV sets to one, and time spent watching TV is limited.

"TV is very isolating," Juanitas said. "And I don't allow any Play Stations to be hooked up to the TV. I don't want the kids growing up isolated from each other and us. We make decisions based on what will bring us together."

The family is run like a democracy, which accounts for the fact they still have a TV.

"I would like to have one car instead of two and no TV but the family is a democracy," Juanitas said. "We may get there yet. At least we talk about these things and I ask the kids to think it through. I want them to think about the big picture and their role in it."

She rides her bike a lot, as do the kids.

"And once a week we share a meal with our neighbors in order to get to know them and have family connections with others," she added. As a family, they also decided to sponsor a child in El Salvador.

And they gave away lots of their clothes, too.

"Why have six coats and 20 sweaters?" she asks.

"I consider this a spiritual lifestyle as well as a frugal lifestyle," she said. "I don't think the American lifestyle is what the Creator had in mind."

Juanitas says she is definitely not as harried as other mothers she sees in her neighborhood.

"I choose my activities carefully and I don't overextend," she said. "For one thing, it takes longer to get everything done if I ride my bike but that helps give me time to slow down and think."

One simple step she took almost immediately was making cloth napkins instead of buying paper napkins. Yes, that does require a lot of laundry, she said, but with four children there's a lot of laundry anyway.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

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