By Chandrea Serebro
There goes Simone Penn, chugging along in her Generation X Toyota Tazz, her greens in cardboard on the seat, drinking out of a glass. Not because it tastes better, mind you. This Spartan lifestyle isn’t a product of her bowing to popular culture or what is trending on twitter. Neither is it a result of a modest upbringing. No, this frugal existence is not built into her being. When Simone was young, her stepfather used to tease her that she had “stuffitis”, the “disease” of accumulating stuff, a state of mind where enough is never enough. It is also the self-knowledge that you are firmly stuck, running for your life on the mouse wheel of materialism that, by definition, will never stop. And, when you couple the obsession with things with being an only child and growing up, as Simone says the millennials like to call it: “#blessed”, you have got one small person with an endless supply of (mostly expensive) stuff.
“I grew up extremely indulged. I always joke that I’m the only child of three parents – I need a lot of attention! By attention, I guess I mean stuff.” A millennial herself – the under 40s who also just happen to be entering their prime spending years – Simone’s quarter-life epiphany to lighten the load, or shed herself of the very stuff she has spent her life accumulating “might actually be a pathological response to my childhood”. The about turn came at a time in her life when people all around her were frantically establishing their lives with fledgling marriages, new babies, the peak of their careers, and what will most probably turn out to be the upper end of their lifetime’s salary. But at the same time, a small pocket of resistance was also growing, a group of privileged people choosing a life of minimalism as a way of getting back to basics and finding freedom in simplicity.
Now, it has been said that minimalism is the new way to become famous, and you might find that it is indeed what is trending on Twitter. But you would still have to look far and wide to find more than a handful of people who do more than just recycle their plastic bottles, let alone go to the lengths that Simone is pursuing to take on the full extent of this philosophy. It started for Simone when she discovered a blog called ‘Zen Habits’ which showed her the art of living the simple life and inspired in her a thirst to find ways of living “a slower and more authentic life”. She was only starting her twenties at the time, living with her parents, her self-determination not yet realised, so she took control over what she could to change her lifestyle and get her life in line with her growing ideas on living authentically. “I wouldn’t say that ‘minimalism’ or ‘zero waste’ or ‘the tiny house movement’ or ‘eco-sustainability’ and so on is important to me per se. I’d have to say that living the most connected, peaceful, contented, authentic, and meaningful life is really important to me, and living in a more simple way helps me find me this.”
The ultimate goal, she says, is to live “only with what I need, in the space that I need”. Only months ago, that was a luxury four-bedroom cluster in the heart of Glenhazel, home to Simone, her husband Jonathan, their three-year old boy Judah, and their one-year-old baby Ayden. But, even then, says Simone, “three of the four bedrooms were empty. The second bathroom was barren. The playroom downstairs was purely for show.” Despite her yearning for simplicity, she was still acquiescing to the latent effects of that old “stuffitis” of her youth, something Simone set out to change in a more extreme way. Now, says Simone, she’d have to write a book to adequately describe the changes she has made to her life to embrace the culture of less.
“I’ve created a capsule wardrobe for myself and my children (my husband also sort of follows suit, but he certainly has the most clothes out of all of us); I bought a R229 Nokia which is my ‘going out phone’ so that I am contactable if my husband or my kid’s school need me. I leave my iPhone at home for use only in WiFi when I’m not going to be distracted from my kids or husband. This allows me to be fully present when I’m out and about with my kids and especially when driving. I’ve changed over the running of my home to one that is considered Zero Waste and green – I don’t use any detergents at all to clean (we use only soap knits, vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, and saponified oil bar soap in our home, and coconut oil for moisture. We’ve started composting all of our organic waste (food scraps, egg shells, dust, meat bones, etc.) with a Bokashi recycling system.”
But the piece de resistance is the sale of their home in favour of what she calls an ‘eco-pod’ – a term she coined to describe the 54-square-metre glorified-cottage-with-a-solar-geyser she is building on the premises of her in-law’s house in Fairmount. “I’m hoping not to ‘go off the grid’ completely, but rather to have what we might call a long-distance relationship with the grid. I’m hoping a solar geyser, gas stove, wood-burning fire place, grey water harvesting system (JoJo Tanks), and a couple of sky lights will emancipate me to a decent extent.” Simone’s next steps include finishing this eco pod, moving in, creating a vegetable patch in the garden for vegetables that she is not able to buy without plastic, and “to just keep going”.
This is a new attack of minimalitis, an extreme indulgence in the minimalist way of life which, for Simone, “is to own only physical possessions that I find useful and/or beautiful.” She is taking the brave first steps into living the authentic life she always dreamed of, despite what others might think. “I can’t actually take any credit. My husband Jonathan has been by my side throughout this entire process and, even though he thinks I’m completely insane, he indulges me and my shenanigans and has helped me to keep my feet on the ground and actualise my best self in a practical and sustainable way. It doesn’t hurt that my in-law’s are able to help us out with the land either.” For Jonathan, it’s not a quarter-life crisis that caught him by surprise, but there are days when Simone’s newest antics do. “It’s not as if Simone just came home one day and said ‘I think we should sell our house and build an eco-pod’. This has been a process over our nearly seven-year long marriage. Having said that, there have been times I’ve arrived home from work to find every single cosmetic and toiletry I own bagged at the front door for donation. ‘Chemicals’, Simone says by way of explanation.”
She once asked if they could both sell their cars and operate their entire life with only a Vespa. Jonathan also admits that he could have lived without her ‘cloth-diapering’ phase as well. Yet behind all the madness and quirks, he concedes sound logic and rationale, and “still being a Jewish CA after all”, he recognises how this lifestyle will not only liberate the Penns financially, but will also enhance their lives. “The eco-pod has been planned meticulously based on every nuance of the life we have built, and love to live, together. People often ask Simone how she managed to convince me to go along with all of this, but truthfully I’m just as committed to this project and making it work as she is.”
Together, they are boldly following the mantra: less, but better. And inspiring others. “For the most part, though, I have to say that all of the feedback I have received has been incredibly positive and encouraging. People have come up to me in the shops, they Whatsapp me, inbox me, and follow me, to tell me how inspired they feel. Women I don’t even know send me photos of bags of clothes that they’ve tidied out of their closets to live more simply, and it makes me feel incredibly proud.” Of course, there are those who wonder what on (the now greener) earth she is up to, who question her staying power, or judge her extreme action. “I can’t really blame anyone because I put myself and what I am doing ‘out there’. And I have no idea what the future holds. But I feel totally ready to face it, unencumbered. For me, the ultimate goal is to live a life of joy, peace, connection and authenticity – whatever that looks like for you. For me, physical things hold, or rather create emotional energy too. I want my life to be a place, as much as is in my control, of simple pleasure, love, and as much time and memories with my family as possible.”
Simone’s starter steps to going minimal
- Join the Mothers’ Nature Whatsapp group where we share hints, tips, finds, advice, and encouragement on all things eco. Send a request to 0745007679.
- Search online for inspiration and awesome blogs/people to follow. Some favourites are #zerowaste #minimalism #ecofriendly #debtfreecommunity #capsulewardrobe #tinyhousemovement #sustainableliving
- Invest (R499) in a Bokashi composting system for your organic waste and food scraps.
- Ban single-use plastic in your home.
- Switch to cleaning with only Bicarb and Vinegar (this one also saves thousands).
- Cultivate a closet of clothing that reduces the mental energy spent getting ready in the morning.
- Stop caring about what other people think of you.
- Follow Simone on Instagram: @missuspenn