Community, celebration, and the slow life revolution

Sound Consumer | December 2004

by Cecile Andrews

People preparing food.

(December 2004) — Like almost everyone I know, my husband and I dread the frenetic stress of the holidays. So a few years ago we decided that we would just leave! We packed up our VW camper and headed south for the California beaches.

The days were beautiful and sunny, but we forgot that even in California it gets dark at 5 p.m. It's hard to fill 13 hours of darkness in a VW van — there are only so many games of Scrabble you can play, and if you read, the ocean air puts you to sleep by eight or nine. Then, even if you sleep and sleep and sleep, it's still only 4:30 or 5 a.m. when you wake up — with two more hours of darkness to go! We decided that escaping didn't work.

We learned some lessons about geography and climate, but the big lesson we learned was about community. We missed everyone! Just the two of us wasn't enough. We missed the season's festivity of people laughing and eating good food and singing. We discovered that we needed the celebration and conviviality of the holidays.

Yes, we hate all the commercialism and frenzied activity of Christmas, but we can ignore those. Since we've been long-time advocates of simpler living, no one really expects much of us. When you only give gifts of books or food, it's actually fun to shop.

Discovering the importance of community sounds pretty obvious, but our culture has forgotten this basic piece of wisdom. All the research shows that relationships are the missing ingredient in our search for happiness, and both happiness and social life are on the decline.

Not only are we less happy than we were 40 years ago, depression has spiked. It's up ten fold. In the same period, time for relationships has been cut almost in half, as Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, tells us. We don't have people over for dinner; we don't talk to people over the back fence; and we don't chat around the water cooler.

The holidays should help us remember the importance of celebration, community and caring. Instead of making a New Year's resolution to lose weight and get in shape, we need to resolve to spend more time on relationships.

What can we do? First, we need to have our friends over more often. I know it's hard because we don't have time to cook and clean. The key is to have really low standards! Our favorite festive activity is the ice cream social. All of our friends, who hardly eat any fat in the rest of their lives, love the exotic spread — the ice cream, the toppings, the fruit and nuts. And it's practically no work. Entertaining is possible even in these busy times.

Of course we need to do more than just change our personal lives. We also need policy changes in terms of time. The Take Back Your Time campaign wants to move us closer to the European model of four to six weeks of vacation.

Part of this effort is the "Slow Life" revolution that's spreading around the world — a way of life that allows us to slow down and savor our relationships, to hang out together and laugh and talk. When we slow down, we can create community and conviviality — a lifestyle in which we nod and smile to the people we pass on the street; stop and chat with the person in line; and hang out with our friends.

We also need change at a community level. For instance, a group of us are forming the Phinney EcoVillage. We call it ecovillage "lite," because the goal is not co-housing or intentional communities, as is the case in most ecovillages; we're just trying to create more community and sustainability in our neighborhood — more neighborliness and more concern for the environment.

Our motto is "Simpler, Slower, and Smaller." We want to live greener lives and more community-oriented lives; we want to develop deeper inner lives and healthier lives. Above all, we want more community. (Go to www.phinneyecovillage.net.)

We should all try to create more community, because it's so important. If we don't learn to care for each other, maybe we can't care about the planet or other living things. It doesn't matter how you feel about organized religion or Christmas. When it's cold and dreary and our spirits are low, we've got to come together and celebrate the joy of conviviality and caring.

Cecile Andrews is author of "The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life," one of the founders of the Phinney EcoVillage (www.phinneyecovillage.net), and a board member for Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org). She welcomes comments and questions at or 206-783-1152.

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