Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 1. No. 1
The Movement Makes Us Human
The Movement Makes Us Human
Editor: Joanna Shenk
By: Lydia Wylie-Kellerman
An exploration of how simple living, by itself insufficient, can be a catalyst for justice when coupled with systemic analyses and relationships across lines of difference.
I walk through the tan halls, down the stairs, and into the chilly classroom lined with windows. The smells are the same. The plaid skirts are the same. It’s as if time hasn’t passed except for the tablets in their hands rather than notebook and pen. I’ve been giving the same little talk for the last 18 semesters at my old high school in the suburbs of Detroit. It’s for a theology class on Peace and Justice that I loved back in the day with a teacher I still admire. The talk is about simple living. I get a chance to reflect on what I’ve been doing since I left this classroom. Most of those years I’ve lived in community on the same street where I was raised in a little corner of southwest Detroit. Part of that work has been experiments in and commitments to simple living.
In all these years there have been losses and failures and plenty of indulgences. But we are raising chickens and bees, growing fruit and vegetables, canning and freezing, and organizing a little weekly farmers market. We try to think about our use of resources: burning wood rather than heating with gas, limiting trash that will be sent to the incinerator, and using rain barrels to water our plants. We share cars and lawn mowers and washing machines. We try to pay attention to our money and keep it as local as we can. Luckily for us, that means buying baked goods at the in-home bakery on Sundays, eating in a neighbor’s basement Mexican restaurant on the weekends, and hiring the 12-year-old kid to shovel our walk.
I get to tell stories like the day we were picking cherries and our neighbor came over, gave us $5, and took home a bag of cherries. Later that night, one of their kids stopped by offering us two papusa dinners for $5. We handed back that very same $5 bill. Local economy. I talk about our neighbor who throws winter clothing swap parties with mimosas and we all exchange our unwanted clothes and hats and shoes. I tell them about our neighbor who for seven years hosted people to watch Grey’s Anatomy every Thursday because so many of us didn’t have tvs. She would buy junk food and each week ten of us would watch, and gossip, and build community instead of running 10 tvs in 10 different houses. I gross them all out with stories of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” I share how in the midst of living more simply, we are struck with the constant delight of abundance. Tomatoes to share, time to offer, beauty in the compost.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about any of this. They are mere experiments and there are a million ways to live simply…we do some and we aspire to others. There are many conversations to have and critical questions to ask when talking about living simply, voluntary poverty, downward mobility, or people of privilege thinking critically about resources, place, and community.
The reactions from the high school students always vary. Occasionally, I see glimpses of longing, but often it is faces of disgust. “Why would you do this?” “Are you going to do this forever?” Yet even in the skepticism, I can see their minds turning as they imagine possibilities outside the box they anticipate for their lives. However, the last couple of years, I’m being faced with harsher criticism, even judgement. There seems to be very real, genuine concern for my children. A sense in which I am somehow neglecting or depriving my kids (5 and 2) of what they need in the world.
This year, one student pushed back hard saying, “This doesn’t do anything systemically. Get a real job so you can do some real good and give money where it is needed.” And the next day, as they debriefed safe from my ears, they even claimed that living like this was selfish.
Whenever I give this talk, we explore the ways that simple living isn’t just an act of resistance to materialism but how it is a response to each of the topics in their book: environmental justice, (over)work, poverty, racism, and war. For example, our uses of oil and water relate to a growing number of military conflicts breaking out over resources. Yet the question she asked about systemic justice is important. Is there somehow systemic change because I live with chickens or don’t subscribe to cable? Absolutely not.
But I think about how living with fewer technologies and in tune with earth’s seasons forces me outside and gives me the time to know my neighbors and be known by them. It’s in the slow chatty walks down the street or evenings around bonfires or conversations while petting baby chicks that we learn each other’s stories, witness one another’s laughter, and fall in love with our neighbors.
And because of that, I know when the water shut-off notices have gone out and which houses to keep an eye out for when the Homrich trucks turns onto our block. It is why I know that the city has turned off water to more than 100,000 households who are behind either $150 or two months on their bills. Turning off people’s water has brought back the realities of waterborne illnesses we haven’t had to deal with in decades, parents are in jeopardy of losing their children to child protective services, and if bills go unpaid they are tacked onto property taxes expediting foreclosures in neighborhoods slated for “renewal.”
It’s why I know the trauma and fear of both deportation and the criminal immigration system. I am watching children forget memories of their father who loved them so much and was deported six years ago. It’s why we sit in courtrooms, post bonds, and drive hours to detention centers. It’s why we have hosted “Know your Rights Trainings” and participate in emergency hotlines. It’s why my 5-year-old holds a sign on Friday afternoons that reads “Build Community. No Walls!”
The student was right in challenging the idea that simple living changes systemic realities and that’s why it’s all the more important to articulate how neighborhood solidarity can create a collective force for systemic change. So, I stand outside the water department chanting “Water is a human right!” because I love my neighbors. I keep an eye out the window for ICE and am willing to put my body in the way because I love my neighbors. I pay attention to the yellow signs posted on doors announcing tax foreclosures because I love my neighbors. I slow down and keep an eye out when police pull over someone in our neighborhood because I love my neighbors. I raise two beautiful white boys to help dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy because I love my neighbors. Suddenly, humanness is the reason we fight. It’s why we march, why we sing, why we pray, why we weep. We do not work for change because it is right or makes sense or we read it in scripture but because we love.
And in terms of the question of selfishness, I don’t think this is what the student meant, but yes, I think simple living is absolutely selfish. It is about me. Living simply, in this place, with these people, is what keeps my soul strong. It has, in fact, become more of a spiritual discipline. It is the ordinary acts of putting my hands in the dirt, picking peaches, hanging the laundry, playing with kids, dancing at block parties, and walking these same sidewalks for 25 years that keeps me alive. It is the slowness, the beauty, the simplicity, the abundance, and love that sustains me for the long haul.
About the journal
Rock! Paper! Scissors! is a topic-focused, web-publication exploring issues from anarchist, radical Christian and other anti-oppression perspectives. To find out more, read the introductory piece, "What's in a name?"