Plain Life, Plainly

Plain chores

It looks like we are seeing the leading edge of a Plain revival. The twentieth century left many people stranded spiritually; we moved from an all-encompassing Modern philosophy to a Post-Modern zeitgeist. The Moderns are still in control of most institutions, but those of us outside the mainstream of those same institutions are, from a Post-Modern perspective, looking to the past and lost tradition for a way to follow into the very uncertain future.

What is Modern and Post-Modern? In my context, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a move in academia, society and politics to a philosophy of Progress and optimism based on human achievement, is the beginning of the Modern era. (Most academics would agree, I think.) Post-Modern (don`t be afraid of this term) is based on experience and philosophy of the twentieth century, when the senseless destruction and chaos of the world wars and other conflicts brought into question the legitimacy of Progress. Its seeds were sown in the Enlightenment itself and in the social protests of the nineteenth century. Widespread genocide and ecological destruction reinforced this philosophy amongst academics and influential thinkers. Post-Modernism asks:

How can we believe what we were taught when those beliefs brought so much destruction –

How can chaos and violent anarchy be Progress –

This is the meta-question that has led many of us to find another way. We want a way that follows the teachings of Christ without the excesses of culture that we now reject, such as materialism and consumerism. The cultural churches – the mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican institutions – seem to be still enmeshed in the dominant, destructive culture. So in the late twentieth century, other ways of faithful living have been explored, rejuvenated and reworked, such as the New Monasticism and the Plain movement.

I can`t speak to the New Monasticism; while we live in an informal community, it is not ordered in any way except that we are all Anglicans and the centre of our week is Sunday attendance and participation at worship. Nicholas and I are very Plain but have accommodated ourselves to the way of living here in the rectory. We have electricity, a vehicle, an internet connection and television. The house is old and not particularly up to date. But we are unable to garden since that would mean the removal of old trees much valued by the neighbourhood, and recycling is not as efficient as I could wish it. I make my own clothes, do some canning and we interact with other Plain people when we have the opportunity. We are trying to maintain our Plain philosophy in a more worldly church community. I don`t see that we have any influence on them at all.

It is what it is; this is a transition stage for us, and with some matters becoming realized, we should be able to move on to a more suitable place for small scale farming and a self-sufficient life.

I think this is where many of us Plainers are headed. While not Anabaptist in profession, we are looking for suitable places to adopt some of the best of Anabaptist and traditional Quaker ways. (I will acknowledge that not all Plain followers are necessarily traditionally Christian; we need to make room for Quakers and others who are more liberal in their theologies.) I hope that as a movement we do not fall into the sectarian errors we have seen in the past. (Formal shunning and the ban, for instance, are inappropriate. We can avoid close association with those whose influence on us is deleterious, but we cannot withdraw from our witness.)

The great irony, of course, is that one of the tools we use to be a Plain community is the internet. Most of us express some concern and even dismay that this is the best we can do, but I doubt if we can give it up without losing community. I would prefer a more traditional form of communication myself. Scott Savage tried this with Plain magazine, but the funding fell short and he could never exceed a certain circulation number due to the printing technologies he used.  (I have still not written to Scott as I had planned. He`s been through some rough stuff in the last few years, and I don`t want my concern and curiosity to sound as if I am criticizing him for choices he made.) I envision something more like the Amish Budget, a newsletter with many columns written from many locations, giving the local news and views. But publications are supported by advertising, and no one wants to advertise in a publication for people who reject consumerism; we are not a very good market.

I`m not at all sure we can define ourselves yet. We are Plain, but we have so many expressions of that. We don`t have an ordnung and won`t, since we don`t fall under but one authority as a group, and that is Christ. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, day by day, question by question, leading by leading. We are drawing on the Anabaptists who have been the living encyclopedia for Plain life, and the traditions of Quakers, monastics and other groups who chose to be isolated from the Modern world. I would prefer that we do not quarrel amongst ourselves – I had enough of that sojourning with the Orthodox and their many cries of `You are not canonical!` (If you have been part of an Orthodox community you know what I mean. The Paedalion is both beacon and cudgel.) This is a weakness in the Anglican church, which will ignore the dissenters until they get tired of the yelping and throw the pups out. (Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and now the Biblical Conservatives, whatever they are going to call themselves.) The Quaker meetings are, in their erudite and polite way, at odds internally all too often.

Let`s keep it simple and courteous. Let`s speak Plain English (not Plain speech, except amongst ourselves) and give the St. Francis sermon – preach with our lives, using words only when necessary.

Witness

as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

so much depends

on a blue dress hanging behind the attic door

very plain blue dress

Nicholas likes this shade of blue. I made this from the Friends pattern, but made a one-piece bodice with a placket at the neckline. This saved some fabric, because I had bought remnants to make this.

blue dress with black tunic apron

This little tunic-style apron is so easy to make. The pattern called for edging it with bias and lining it, but I used a single layer of fabric and turned the outer edge and neckline. It’s a good choice if you need an apron quickly – since it uses a little more than a yard of cotton fabric. The ties are bias tape stitched down. I will add pockets at some time. I cut this from a vintage seventies-era pattern; I remember my grandmother owning this one, but I don’t remember that she ever wore an apron. She was quite the fashionable lady!

Raise Up a Child

Patience (almost three years old) loves the kitchen. She has a play kitchen of her own, and we have bought child-sized real pots and pans and utensils for her. She loves to make raisin soup (six raisins in her little stockpot, stirred with a wee wooden spoon) which often as not gets fed to the dogs. But there is nothing as wonderful to her as real cooking, at the kitchen countertop, with real bread dough. She has a little rolling pin, and she rolls with great intent and concentration.

making her own pizza

When she knows that she will be participating in the kitchen project, she runs to the closet for her apron, gets her rolling pin and pushes a chair over to the counter. “Me cook!” she announces. “My cooking!”

But last time she got involved she wanted to run the show, and slapped at my hand when I reached for “her” mixing bowl. She was plucked from the chair, levitated into the living room, and set down in the time-out chair in the wink of an eye. She was then shut out of the kitchen. Her Nana came to see what happened, and found her, flour-covered and contrite, murmuring sadly, “Sorry, Dodie,” over and over. She was then restored through the intercession of a grandmother, gave a tearful and hopeful “Sorry, Dodie,” in person, and happily went back to work with no more temper. (“Dodie” is now her name for me. I used to be “Jii” rhymes with “Wii” but I like “Dodie” better.)

She will sweep with a broom twice her size with great vigour and little effect, will take a cloth and polish the furniture, and loves to wash her play dishes in the canning kettle.

a woman's work is never done

Housework is the work she sees day to day, and she takes to it enthusiastically. She is at the imitative stage of intellectual growth, so it is time to encourage this, and teach her not just how things are done, but that they are in fact fun and rewarding.

I see no reason for women (or men, for that matter) to treat housework and homecare as something distasteful. It is necessary and a clean, safe, beautiful home is a haven for the family. God intends nature to be self-renewing; in the natural cycle of life, things go gently into the soil as they decay; winds blow away the dead leaves and keep the air fresh; micro-organisms break down that which is harmful and then make it elemental. Humanity has made great strides in destroying the natural cycles, and the planet is not as God intended. But if you have ever been in a wonderful old-growth forest, or on a clean, untouched beach, or climbed a high mountain well above civilzation, you know what I mean. It is clean and sweet and pure, as God intended.

Our homes should imitate that purity. We can’t live on a forest floor, and we need to sweep and wash to keep our manmade floors clean, but God intends us to live in cleanliness and order. We live in an ordered universe. Even what seems random to us has been millenia in the making.

If we teach our children that housework, cooking and homecare are drudgery and demeaning, they won’t want to do it. They won’t want to participate in the natural order. We divorce them from nature by sending them to regimented schools, by dressing them in artificial fibres, by entertaining them with television, electronic games and shopping malls. We treat them to polluting and energy-consuming amusement parks, where adrenlin and constant novelty are stimulated. They don’t learn the satisfaction of a job well done, the quiet assurance that they are doing the best they can to care for others, and the joy of living in God’s creation. They are instead subjected to adrenal rushes, screams, flashing lights and overheated, overstimulated crowds.

I don’t want to be a prophet just identifying the problem; I am proposing solutions. Teach your children well. Teach them the benefits of natural living. Grow a garden, bake your own bread. Get off the worldly treadmill.

Don’t disparage the work you do, whether it is in the home or elsewhere. Be of good cheer about what you do. If you have a job that is soul-destroying, it may be time to move on to something else, even if it means cutting back on your  “lifestyle.” Get some education in a field you love. Don’t complain and have a morose attitude. Do what you do well, and set a good example.

Complaining less is one of my goals. My dissatisfactions weigh down those around me.  That doesn’t mean I have to take a passive attitude, it just means that if something isn’t going well, I need to work to correct it, and if I can’t I probably need to shut up about it. I’m a bit of a complainer, and quite eloquent about what’s wrong – it ends up being counter productive, since my complaints, while relieving my anxiety and stress, just pass the burden to others.

Raise up a child in the way in which he should go; and do it by good example.

Look at That!

Here I am in a dress that is neither solid colour nor dark! I ventured into some colour and pattern this summer, in order to get lighter fabrics at the sale prices. Nicholas has picked some of the colours, and they are brighter than I am used to wearing, but they appeal to him with his diminished visual acuity.

Blue dress with a small dark blue figure in the print

The Cost of Plain

A thread came up on facebook about the cost of dressing Plain, in the traditional sense, with Plainers, modest dressers and traditional Quakers chiming in. Is it expensive to dress Plain?

At first I had trouble affording Plain dress, so I modified and adapted my own clothes. This wasn’t hard for me, since I was working clergy, and I had a lot of basic black in modest cut. I bought a few compatible secondhand pieces, but put off cape dresses for several years. While three of my black dresses are still going strong – one is about fifteen years old – some of it wore through, particularly the denim. Denim dresses got made over into aprons, but even they have given up the ghost now. I decided to get cape dresses, and a pattern – a major investment for me. I wanted the dresses and particularly the capes and aprons to see how to make them. I’m glad I did that, because the dressmaking process is a bit complicated, and I’m still in  the midst of it!

My findings: EBay is a good source for secondhand, wellmade and wellkept dresses and caps. It is no more expensive than a city consignment shop, although a little more than expensive than the Sally Ann store. I learned a lot from the pieces I bought.

As to the cost of fabric – well! Here in Canada, a metre of good cotton can cost CAN$10-$15, and a cape dress takes about four metres for me, if the cape and apron match the dress. One solution was to buy a more expensive fabric for the dress, and a lighter weight contrasting fabric for the cape and apron. Remnants can sometimes supply enough fabric for the apron or even both cape and apron, if there’s a couple of metres of the same. Remnants here run about CAN$2 a metre, sometimes less. I unbundle the remnant and examine it before purchasing, so I don’t find a big stain, tear, or join in it when I get home. (If I’m not taking it, I refold and roll it back into its elastic or sleeve. I worked in a fabric store when I was young – the remnant bin was always the bugbear!)

The back racks and bargain rooms of most fabric stores will yield good fruit when alloted enough time. I’ve had to be a bit flexible on what I get – few solids make it to the bargain bin. I’ve bought some prints now, in subtle tones and patterns. Think “Little House.”

In Maine where I used to live, the Amish and Mennonite women would arrive at the discount stores by busloads to buy fabric. A little detective work might find a discounter who buys mill ends or outdated fabric store bolts. In Maine this was Marden’s. I know that most metropolitan areas have such a warehouse discounter, and if a group of friends set a date, they could carpool there and bargain hunt for fabric and notions. (Plain girls day out!) Len’s is the go-to discount fabric store here in Ontario, but Fabricland and Fabricville across eastern Canada have bargain rooms and remnant bins. Certainly don’t overlook the remnants to make waist aprons and bonnets!

For little girls and big girls who aren’t so Plain, a not so great fabric can be improved with an inexpensive trim, making a discount fabric a much better buy. I do this with the children’s clothes I make. It can lengthen a skirt a bit – pillowcase edging, which is often beautiful cutwork, can add an inch or more.

Let me know if you have more ideas on the frugality of simple dress.

Shorn Hair

I get a lot of inquries about cutting one’s hair, especially from women who have sojourned with or joined sects that follow a strict Biblical interpretation of appearance. What is shorn hair? “Shorn” means it is cut close to the scalp, or very short so that the shape of the head shows. “Shorn” is the past tense of “to shear”, and shearing is what we do to sheep. We take off most of the fleece, not quite to the skin, because poor sheep need some protection from the sun and insects; shearing follows the contours of the sheep’s body.

Do we mean when we interpret the admonition from Paul that women should not cut their hair at all? No. Trimming is not shearing. Paul meant that women should have long hair, as a covering when they are naked, and to appear as women and not to try to pass as men. He called for women to honour their feminity by having long hair, revealed only to their husbands, and that they weren’t to cut it so short that they could dispense with covering. Covering protected the hair as well as protecting the modesty of a woman; her hair was not an object of beauty to be admired by all. (And those who think this is ridiculous, that uncovered hair can’t be immodest – well, what do all the product advertisements tell us? That we should have silky, shiny, sexy hair, that men will be attracted to our beautiful uncovered hair and other women will be envious. That sounds immodest and vain to me.)

Must a woman’s hair be uncut? I don’t think we should treat the teaching as a superstition. Some women will need to cut their hair for health or safety reasons. Some women will find their hair easier to care for if the ends are trimmed neatly. I believe the covering is more important than the state of the natural growth of hair underneath, since that is personal and between a woman and her husband. My own hair is uncut, not even trimmed, and past my waist. It is a goodly length of hair. I find it manageable.

I do not cut my hair because this is my personal sacrifice to God, that my hair will be as natural as possible and without any ornamentation. Most women my age cut their hair above their shoulders and colour it. My hair is completely natural, and I am not concerned about the colour or how good it looks. My husband has always been satisfied with this, and prefers the natural look of my long hair to anything styled or coloured. In this way, I am as God made me, without any anxiety as to how others view me. My air is covered in public, and through most of the day in the home.

In Plain dress, uncut hair and headcovering, I have no anxiety about whether my appearance is pleasing.