The Red Stripe in Nashville

Between Living Simply and Living Poor

I live on a red stripe dividing poverty and fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

My bedroom window frames an intricately twisted metal mass resembling a power station in front of rows and rows of brick buildings that most everyone calls ‘the projects.’ From this government-subsidised housing complex, I hear gun shots, angry voices, emergency sirens, and big-bass-booming low riders.

In contrast, my back deck peers over the roofs of the world-famous Music Row, where music stars record their platinum albums and Nashville Star produces its USA network television series.


Goodbye to simplicity auto-pilot
My decision to live here on 15th Avenue reflects
a personal attempt to live simply . I spent most of 2003 with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a full-time volunteer program with a clear mandate for learning how to live simply. But now that I live independently and am no longer on “simplicity auto-pilot”—steered by the framework of an organization, from food to cars, neighborhood to time management, furniture to recycling—I am in charge of my own choices.

Awareness not food stamps
Even after my stint in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps,
where simplicity was one of the four chief values we lived by, I still confuse simplicity with just being poor, probably because the stereotypical assumption is that both are really about people not having a lot of things.

But the difference between the two is that simplicity doesn’t require subsidized housing, food stamps, or choosing whether to eat or pay the light bill; it requires both ridding ourselves of excess, and an awareness of consumption, activity, and self in general.

However, as I look at the ragged clothes in my closet, accept that I am using my brother’s car because I cannot afford car payments, dip into my savings to pay medical bills, and listen to the voices of a domestic fight outside echo through the strange night air, I realize that I am myself on the red stripe between living poor and living simply.

The real thing
By no means do I live in real poverty. I have health insurance, a savings account, a family to bail me out in case I get into financial trouble. I eat fruits and vegetables; I’m free of debt.

On the other hand, by no means do people in poverty necessarily live simply. Some of the homeless I work with every day refuse to look for employment because they would have to leave their five bags of stuff unattended. Some of the homeless use their limited income to purchase drugs, motel rooms, or new clothes and shoes instead of using them to meet basic needs.

The choice to live simply
Although somewhat motivated by a lack of financial security, I admit I have the luxury of accepting simplicity as a gift and a lifestyle choice.

Even if I could afford new furniture, simplicity tells me to take advantage of what is already used instead of buying new. It says I could live without a car if I gave up some of my freedom of travel and activity in order to save time on upkeep and money on repair. It challenges me to consider the purpose of my purchases and distinguish my needs from my wants.

Simplicity motivates me to go to the Farmer’s Market
for my fruit and vegetables, to bake my own bread, to eat only what I’m hungry for, to buy free-range eggs even though they are three times as expensive as the grocery-store brand, and to consider how far my food has traveled before it rests on my plate.

It begs me to balance my time between self, helping others, and contributing to relationships. It directs me to the library instead of Barnes & Noble, to the independent coffee shop instead of Starbucks, to the thrift store instead of The Gap.

My simple future?
Soon I’ll be at a new job, earning at least twice my current salary. My hope is that my lifestyle will not change much.

Simplicity is a life-long process, and even with financial freedom, I want to face the daily challenge to live simply. I want to be a part of a movement that will allow both my poor neighbors who live in ‘the projects’ out my front door and the wealthier ones who live in the fancy brick houses out my back door…

  • to have adequate and nutritious food,
  • to exist in an environment without air and water pollution,
  • to have access to education and health care,
  • to have time for leisure,
  • and to value the relationships that keep us human and alive.

Mary Vancura writes from Nashville, Tennessee.

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Food stamp and cityscape photos courtesy of State of Maine and Senator Bill Frist’s web sites.