Eugene’s Other Community: Involuntary Simplicity

creative commons

Sometimes its difficult to tell the professionally homeless from the  involuntary homeless. This story came to us from Ruby Colette, a homeless local reuse artist who writes about the green movement from the point of view of someone for whom simplicity is not voluntary. “Making trash art helps me remember that I am not garbage, I am not disposable, even if I’ve felt treated that way.” Ruby responded to our recent ad for writers.

Involuntary Simplicity
– Ruby Colette

I have never practiced simplicity voluntarily.

True, my parents have always owned one car at a time, and most of my adult life I’ve lived carless. However, our family spent my teen years in a wealthy suburb, and as I entered my twenties and had children, I earnestly strove to be middle class.

I flowered into the queen of cool stuff, the mom whose wardrobe the kids raided at Halloween, giver of tea parties with elaborate dishes and linens. Waldorf School was necessary for the children, along with the related accoutrement and natural playthings. Thanks to the natural food store I owned with my then-husband, I bought it all wholesale, carved wooden villagers and animals, silk play cloths, matreshkas, wee wire-boned people. Our family ate everything macrobiotic and organic. Purity, we strove for purity. We had many choices.

But it didn’t last. Through disability, abusive relationships, and some embarrassing choices, I fell bumpety bump from the middle class into poverty, then into a mental institution, then into homelessness.

I left the middle class clinging to Eighties self-realization affirmations about how much I deserve. Gone, my 1940s home in the U district, my garden, my tea sets and linens and goddess art. Gone the luminous amber jewelry, Laura Ashley dresses, Victorian hats, the stockings and shoes and hairclips, layer after layer. All the trades I did with Saturday Market artists; every artist needs groceries, no? More than ten years of peeling back an archeological dig of stuff and attachments and privilege got me to where I am now.

I am lucky; I had a chance to see that money did not make me happy. Studies show that the only time money makes people happy is when they move from abject poverty into poverty. With the advent of social security disability helping to end my homelessness, that happened to me.

I am happier now. Better words are content, relieved, relaxed. The bugs in a friends garden, birds in the trees, friends from infants to elders who people my world, all entertain me. I love the culture, the code, of the people who took me in, which can best be described as Fagan from Oliver! meets Hints from Heloise. There’s always a project going here, improvised out of what we have on hand and in head.

The resilience and resourcefulness to take the blows life gives you and make art, make songs and stories and jokes—that’s what I admire the most about the disenfranchised. Children living in garbage dumps sing and play games. That spark, that desire to create, burns bright in dark lives.

I can’t recommend voluntary simplicity, never having practiced it. I am sure it’s not easy. Still, the people I admire most are those who never had a chance to have more than enough, the people for whom simplicity is not a choice. I would like to see us as a culture honoring people practicing involuntary simplicity as much as we respect our voluntarily simple friends.

Might as well laugh. Might as well enjoy right now. Because there is no real security outside oneself, no matter how many layers of financial cushion gets built up. Might as well listen to some more folk music, sing a few verses, lighten up, and tell some stories about spirited devilry. Might as well settle back, drink tea out of my chipped cup that says LOVE on the side, and think about when I’m no longer couch surfing, or on a cot at the mission.  I know it’s coming, that next adventure.


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