The Smell of Simplicity

Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints by Christiana Peterson / Herald Press, 2018

Our families were decidedly weirded out by our strange choice to move to an intentional community. It’s not that they were surprised or even unsupportive. After all, they were used to both of our somewhat spontaneous adventures as single people. But Matthew and I were married, with a child, now. How would this work? they probably wondered. And what kind of people are they linking themselves to in this community?

Some friends and acquaintances, when we visited them, would respond to our life on the farm with, “Oh, how I envy your simple life.” Maybe our rural setting seemed far away from the rapidly moving concerns and worries of their city lives. Or maybe farm life seemed idyllic, close to nature with singing birds and frolicking animals and sweet-scented plants.

They were partly right, and our initial view of simplicity actually wasn’t far from theirs. But this kind of simplicity was mostly concerned with our physical lives. In that sense, Plow Creek farm seemed, at first, to tick off all the boxes of simplicity: we didn’t have traffic, there were few places to shop, and access to entertainment was limited. We were closer to the earth and the seasons, and it was calming to hear the wind, the creek, and the chugging of a tractor instead of police and fire engine sirens of our neighborhood in D.C. We ate food from the farm, and we lived off the land, which was a lot closer to the way our ancestors lived for millennia than the way we’d been living in D.C.

In some ways, we idealized our new adventure the same way some people idolize St. Francis as a funny little hippie who preached to the birds. Both views hone in on the sweetness and the beauty, without any knowledge of what is actually a strenuous way of life.

I loved the comfort our life provided but I also was torn by a guilt and shame for being so privileged. And it took becoming an adult and moving to an intentional community to understand why.

The idea of living simply appealed to Matthew and me for many reasons. We had both grown up in wealthy homes, but our upbringing and travels—largely possible because of that wealth and privilege—had exposed us to people of different cultures and economic backgrounds. Just after the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s, my father took my older sister and me to Russia. We visited a poorly funded children’s hospital and sat at the homes of many widowed women who fed us—even as they recalled recent memories of standing for hours in breadlines and of the family members they’d lost to the secret police. We’d visited these places briefly, though, and then I’d return home, glad to be back to my normal comforts, satisfied with myself and what I’d learned from the suffering of others.

But my father was pulled back to Russia time and again. I think he wished Russia, and not our American culture of ease, was his normal life. In his younger years, my father was frequently troubled by the ethical and theological responsibilities of having money. It seemed that this reticence with money spurred him to share his wealth in many ways: in the course of his overseas travels, he helped begin the first radio program to share the gospel after the Soviet Union fell. He wrote letters to prisoners who heard the gospel for the first time. He helped start a theological college in St. Petersburg. He mentored Russian portrait artists and helped them sell their work both in Russia and in the United States. He paid for the ongoing education of people in Ghana, Russia, and the U.S. All the while, he taught Bible classes at church and various universities.

I don’t know if my father continued to agonize over money as he grew older; he didn’t share that with us, his family. What I do know is that all of his generosity with others also came at a cost. Maybe it is selfish, but when he traveled to help others, my sisters and I often felt bereft of his presence and affection. He was a gentle father, but like many men of his generation, he was gone a lot, he didn’t communicate well, and he wasn’t emotionally available.

And while I admired the way my father shared his wealth, from a very early age I was confused by the tension I felt: I loved the comfort our life provided but I also was torn by a guilt and shame for being so privileged. And it took becoming an adult and moving to an intentional community to understand why. My guilt about wealth wasn’t because my role models weren’t generous. It’s really more about the complexities of economic injustice, and what wealth can keep us from.

If you’re wealthy, you aren’t as acquainted with inconvenience. New cars don’t break down as readily. You live without fear of what an expensive illness could mean. The rising prices of food or gas don’t register on your worry radar, healthy teeth aren’t a luxury, and your children can participate in every afterschool activity they desire.

In moving to Plow Creek, Matthew and I were being led by the discomfort we felt with our privilege. We wanted to allow ourselves to be a little less comfortable, to be in community with those who understood what it meant to struggle and maybe place ourselves within that struggle a tiny bit more, too.

But the truth was, that tension still remained and sometimes I longed for what I left behind.

Our simple house at Plow Creek seemed to amusingly resist my cleaning efforts. Dust and dirt were swept and mopped and vacuumed for only a few hours before the house settled back into its old routine of rural décor. A toilet and showerhead continued to look unclean due to the grime from iron in the well water. Cobwebs hung all over our house—between a picture frame and a lampshade, a showerhead and the ceiling.

The humidity of summer introduced the smell of moldy rugs and I thought about newer houses in cities with air conditioning and updated carpet. Where the crown moulding was decorative and not merely functional and the paint was fresh and aesthetically pleasing. When I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the inside of the toilet bowl with baking soda and steel wool, I thought of clear city water and refrigerators with ice machines. I imagined a larger kitchen and more than one bathroom. While I shooed away the fruit flies that hovered around the small compost bucket under our sink, I fantasized about garbage disposals, tightly sealed houses, and nice restaurants that would do the cooking and dishes for me.

While I shooed away the fruit flies that hovered around the small compost bucket under our sink, I fantasized about garbage disposals, tightly sealed houses, and nice restaurants that would do the cooking and dishes for me.

I didn’t always have those feelings. But sometimes when a family member came for a visit and wondered aloud how I was able to live like this, I began to see the dirt in the caulking as if it were a neon sign. Before I went back to Texas or on a trip to any big city, I often felt unprepared and like I never had the right clothes to wear. My unease was akin to those nightmares of being naked in public, and I was certain people were looking at my second-hand clothing and feeling sorry for me. I should wear makeup, I’d think—the makeup that sits in the drawer that my daughter opens more than I do to play dress-up. I should actually brush my hair.

But I found that no one cared much what I looked like at Plow Creek. Clothing was functional. What else would it be for? Why would one put on mascara when she would be spending the day in a hot kitchen, sweating from canning? Who would wear a new white lacy blouse on a day of gardening and weeding? Sensible shoes were necessary for hard farm work. Accessories on hot days were superfluous.

When my husband and I drove all the way from Plow Creek to Texas during our first January on the farm, I noticed for the first time how dramatic the culture clash was between where we were living and the place I grew up. Until we came upon big-box store after big-box store on the outskirts of the Dallas suburbs, I hadn’t thought about the intense culture of shopping and consuming in which I had grown up. And I was a little ashamed of the way I felt when we drove by outlet malls and shopping centers. I sighed audibly, feeling the warm effervescence of pleasure that comes from the sights and smells of consumerism.

Living at Plow Creek didn’t take away my desire to dress well. I got that feeling when I went into a clothes store just before Christmas and the fleece snowflake pajamas were on sale and there was the smell of artificial pine trees in the air. I still wanted to buy sweet-smelling candles, music and books from the chain bookstore, the pretty scarf that I didn’t need, the overpriced shirt I’d only wear once.

I don’t think it’s wrong to go shopping, or to want to look nice, or to dress up, or even to find artistic satisfaction in fashion. But people at Plow Creek didn’t care if I was dressed well. They just wanted me to show up at church and common meals. They wanted me to care about the members of the community. They wanted support and friendship and prayers.

Sharing a washer and dryer with two other families, with well water that stained my shower heads, with hot water that often ran cold from overuse in the winter, in a house that would never feel spotless and always smelled a little funky, in my thrift-store sweater, trying to budget our food for the month: somehow, through it all, I felt a profound sense of joy and contentment with our version of the simple life.

Christiana N. Peterson is a regular contributor to Good Letters, an Image Journal blog, and has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Christianity Today WomenOff the Page, and Art House America. Peterson lives with her husband and their four children in Ohio. This excerpt is taken from her forthcoming book, Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, Herald Press, 2018. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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