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A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire and Mike Schosser
Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You call your way of life "voluntary simplicity." For Cat in the Flock readers, explain how you live, and how it's different from mainstream expectations.

CS: Voluntary simplicity means that we decide what our values are and how to live to express those values instead of allowing mass culture to tell us what we are supposed to value and how we are supposed to live. It also means doing our best to live within the limits of what the earth can provide. 

The less time we spend on earning money and on all the activities, like commuting, that are required to earn money, the more time we have for our own interests. Spending less time earning money means we have less money to spend, so we limit the goods and services that money buys to the lowest level that we can manage. The less we spend on any particular good or service means the more we have to spend on something else we might need or want, so we prefer goods that are high quality and last for a long time and/or require little or no maintenance and/or are secondhand and/or are human powered. We do our own cooking and cleaning and as many other basic household services as we have the skill to do. These choices generally entail using less energy and less energy intensive materials than we would otherwise use, which also means we cause less pollution and waste to be produced so we come closer to living within the earths limits.

Violets
While others might see wild violets as weeds, Claire regards them as an early spring source of nibbles, as well as a food for pollinators.

LB: That sounds great. I have two followup questions for you on this. First, removed from the dependence on a job, how have you spent your time instead? Second, what sorts of modern conveniences have you decided are not important? Do you wash your dishes by hand? Line-dry your clothes? I ask because Anthony and I began hand-washing our dishes last year since dishwashers are so weak these days that we ended up washing them ourselves after a wash cycle anyway, and we wanted to save money as well as use the wash water in our garden afterward. We were surprised to find we both actually enjoy washing dishes - it's meditative and satisfying. 

CS: The house didn’t include a dishwasher when we bought it, and the kitchen is so small I didn’t want to lose any space to a dishwasher, so I decided I would wash the dishes by hand. Although I had a dishwasher most of my adult life, I find I don’t miss it at all. I often mull over ideas while I’m doing the dishes, or I listen to music.

After washing the dishes, I put as many as I can on a rack and let them air-dry. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but it’s satisfying to find a way to arrange the dishes on the rack so I don’t have to dry any of them myself!

Dish Rack
The dish rack at the Schosser/Gaillard household.

While we have a clothes dryer - it came with the house - I dry our clothes on clothes racks most of the year. Because they aren’t abrading each other as they tumble around in the dryer, our clothes last many more years than they did when I used the clothes dryer all the time. My three pairs of fleece-lined blue jeans that I wear for five to six months of the year are well over 10 years old, and I can still wear them in public!

I don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Our floors are wood and linoleum, so I sweep them with a broom and mop them to clean them. We rake leaves with a rake and shovel snow with a shovel. I dig garden beds with a shovel instead of a tiller. Mike splits wood by hand. Sometimes he saws it by hand, too, although he uses an electric chainsaw when sawing by hand becomes too difficult. 

We don’t have a television. Instead, we each read a lot and have particular interests that we pursue.

As for what we do instead of a job, we have lives. Granted, part of the time we do the not-so-fun things like cleaning, paying the bills and keeping track of expenditures, and mowing the mix of grass and weeds that isn’t part of one of the gardens. Most of the time, however, we are doing something that we enjoy and that furthers our life goals. This includes each of us having an active spiritual practice and doing volunteer work. We enjoy reading and creative pursuits such as writing and playing music. I spend a lot of time working on the various gardens and watching the birds who live here or visit.

Birdhouse
A birdhouse beckons over Claire's garden plot.

LB: You and Mike shifted to this lifestyle back in 1994. Taking such drastic steps as you have to get off the hamster wheel was, I'm sure, rarer back then. What made you decide to do it? How hard was it, initially? What are your biggest struggles now?

CS: I came to St. Louis in 1984 to work as a research chemist for a large multinational corporation. If I had been happy with corporate life, perhaps Id still be working and we wouldnt be having this conversation. But I wasnt happy. It wasnt just that I didnt like my job; nothing about corporate life appealed to me. I could see how every step up the corporate ladder restricted further what employees could say, do, or think. The only question was how long I could stand to continue working there. The answer: eight years.

When I quit my job, our household income dropped by almost two-thirds. We adjusted our spending downward, but within a year, it became clear that we were spending more than Mike earned. We tried to determine where we could reduce expenses enough to live on Mikes wages, but we couldnt seem to find any place where we could cut spending. 

Luckily I found the book Your Money or Your Life in early 1994. By applying the nine-step program in the book, we learned which expenses really were fulfilling and in line with our values and which werent. Knowing that, we dropped or reduced the most unfulfilling expenses. Within six months we were saving money, which by itself was a big boost to morale. Since we had dropped unfulfilling expenses, we felt better from that as well. 

Mike retired in 2001, when we calculated we had enough income from savings to cover all of our expenses. Then we moved in 2002 to our current house, drawing on savings to make energy-saving improvements. Interest rates declined in the early 2000s, reducing our income further. We went through some lean years, until we aged enough to begin drawing our pensions. Right now were doing well, while we continue to increase our resilience to economic fluctuations.

Canoe and Red Buds
A canoe under the red bud trees at Claire and Mike's place.

LB: That's an incredible life trajectory, Claire! By the way, Anthony's mother used Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL) to retire early at age 55, pursuing a spiritual path and involving herself in a community called The Red Door that she helped found. She was active in both pursuits until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. So Anthony has read YMOYL as well. The problem for our generation, however, is that a lot of the advice in that book is no longer valid. Generation X has seen a dramatically widening wage gap between corporate leadership and the worker base. Pensions are no longer a thing (no employer has ever offered either of us one). Ours is the first generation in many to do less well than our parents. Finally, there are no longer any safe investments; savings accounts, CDs, etc., earn next to nothing, so we're left with very little besides the (rather volatile) stock market, and even today's 401Ks are tied to it. All that said, is there any advice you can give us as we work toward a hopeful kind of retirement? Also, I'm curious whether you had ever thought about leaving corporate life to go into a softer career, such as non-profits, or teaching? I've done both although in the end I had to opt for corporate work in order to pay off heavy student loan and other debt. 

Garden
A view of the tidy food garden.

CS: YMOYL worked for Anthony’s mother and for us because we could take advantage of pensions and good interest rates on safe investments. Without those the YMOYL goal of living off of interest from savings for many years becomes impossible; ordinary people cannot save enough money to do that at the current very low interest rates. 

I think the changes you’ve described are likely to continue and bring with them further changes that make the kind of retirement that my parents’ generation experienced a rare thing. To put it in ecological terms, previously stable economic patterns have been disturbed and are becoming more so with time. One of the things that permaculture teaches, a concept it borrowed directly from ecology, is that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance: they handle it better, it doesn’t tear them apart. 

Dogwood Blossom
Dogwood blossoms.

 What you and Anthony are doing and what Mike and I are doing increases resilience to economic disturbances by increasing our options to respond to it. The only form of resilience many people know is to earn more money. That is becoming more difficult to do. However, a more potent form of resilience is to need, and spend, less money and to increase our skill base so that we can more easily adapt to changing conditions. By growing some of your own food, you spend less at the grocery store; you eat better so you are healthier; you learn a skill that you can share with others; and you enjoy the satisfaction of gardening. By refurbishing patio gliders you saved the money you would have spent on lower-quality patio furniture and their replacements when they broke, you learned another skill, you have sturdy and beautiful patio furniture that will last for as long as you have a patio, and you have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Everything you write about shows the different ways in which you and Anthony increase your resilience and maximize your options for later in life. The best advice I can give you is to keep doing what you are doing!

You asked if I considered other options for paid work such as teaching or working for a non-profit organization. Although I enjoy teaching on an informal basis, I never considered teaching in public schools. Even when I attended them in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that you couldn’t teach what or how you wanted. In grad school I did my research with a professor who began his career the same semester I started, so I had a front-row seat to watch the pressures that are involved in obtaining tenure. That was enough to discourage me from becoming a professor. Non-profit work didn’t seem much different from corporate work to me, except that it didn’t pay as well.

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Part 2: Suburban Homesteading

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space


The 'COVID Cabana' Might Just Save Us All

Bar1
We outfitted our 'COVID Cabana' space with old lawn furniture, a tiki bar from a friend, and an area rug. All photos by Sue Frause.

By Sue Frause

When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the United States in January of 2020, my husband and I were mildly concerned. But even more so when the first confirmed case in the U.S. was diagnosed in our home state of Washington. That patient was being treated at Providence Medical Center in Everett, less than an hour away from our home on Whidbey Island. It was a little too close for comfort. In March 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee initiated a Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in our state to fight the virus. And since then we’ve been adhering to the basic guidelines of wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet apart. Plus a whole lot more. 

Bar 1
Kids to the rescue again, donating a BAR sign they didn't have room for. Farmer Bob outfitted it with lights.

Summer was easy, as we spent a lot of time outdoors, occasionally gathering with family and friends at our home or theirs. But when the cool, wet weather of autumn arrived, all that changed. It was the season to hunker on down indoors. Which for us, meant not having friends or family over for in-house gatherings, and not going to theirs. It was going to be a long winter.  

Gas Fire
Our son and his wife gave us their never-been-used gas fire pit to cozy up the space. S'mores, anyone?

 Here on Whidbey Island and beyond, along with the proliferation of alfresco dining options, people were creating outdoor spaces where gatherings would be much safer than in their homes. That’s when I realized we had the perfect space to put together a venue where we could invite folks over to share a glass of wine or two. Our Covid Cabana was born! 

Barn
Farmer Bob's barn was built in 2005 with the help of friends and relatives. Our Covid Cabana may be seen in the forefront before it was transformed.

Its location was ideal - a 7 x 14 ft. covered area off the side of our barn. When we built the barn in 2005, the original plan was for the space to house our chickens. But my husband, aka Farmer Bob, soon realized it wouldn’t be such a great spot for a flock of egg-laying hens. So over the years, it has morphed from a carport to a storage area for picnic tables, lawn furniture, and our tiki bar. A loft above it housed even more outdoor goods. 

Wine Room
Farmer Bob created this temperature-controlled wine room located inside the barn, just steps away from our Covid Cabana.

 But in November, all that changed when we transformed the catch-all space into a cozy Covid Cabana. The best part of the process was being able to use everything we had - we spent zero dollars in creating a comfortable space for up to six people. Here’s what we recycled:

  • Two teak benches that seat four, with a matching coffee table
  • Two outdoor chairs
  • Area rug
  • Tiki bar with two stools 
  • Bar sign
  • Strings of lights on a dimmer
  • Gas fire pit 
  • Grapevine wreath

When summer arrives in June of this year, Farmer Bob plans to build and install six barn doors on the two open sides -- making it an all-season, indoor/outdoor space. And I’m hopeful that sooner than later, we can change its name from Covid Cabana to … Cozy Cabana!

H-l-about

Sue Frause is a prolific, long-time journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in print and online in the U.S. and abroad. For 15 years, she wrote an award-winning column for The South Whidbey Record. She currently writes not one, not two, but three blogs: Eat|Play|Sleep, Closet Canuck, and married to martha. She is also a regular on Around the World Radio. In her many travels, she's visited all seven continents, but her favorite place in the world is right there on Whidbey Island.

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Using the Japanese Art of Kintsugi to Keep Instead of Discard

Header with reeds

By Anthony Valterra

America - land of the free, home of the brave. America's myths tend to center around the idea of resistance. We see ourselves as the lone holdouts. The ones who will stand against tyranny and injustice. We are the brave soldiers of the Revolutionary War standing up to the tyrant King George the III. We stood up to the Nazis and then the USSR. We see ourselves as tough and unmoving. And that is still part of our culture.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world -- "No, YOU move.”

~Captain America~

Around the 1920's Western Civilization started discovering Eastern philosophy. A new way of dealing with events came into being. The concept was that the oak tree breaks in the storm, but the reed bends and springs back. This idea began to become more and more mainstream with the introduction of Confucianism and Taoism. But it really gained ground with the introduction of Eastern-style martial arts such as Tai-Chi, Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee's Jeet Kun Do.

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

~Bruce Lee~

Maybe we have reached the point in our culture where it is time to start looking at a new metaphor. The oak, no matter how strong, can break. And the reed can only bend so far, or it can be cut. In the end we may need to realize that anyone, and anything, can be broken. And once broken, some things can be repaired. But even the best repair will leave evidence of the break. Then what do we do? Right now our culture tends to see the broken and repaired as either something to be ignored, pitied, or tolerated. But what if we saw this process as a natural thing? Everything and everyone will be broken at some point. Nothing is immortal. Nothing is perfect. Perhaps there is a beauty in this process. 

I first encountered the Japanese art of Kintsugi while reading Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan by Azby Brown. Purely by coincidence, Lisa and I  vacationed at the Pacific Coast, and I got to see an example of the art form. It was amazing. I was entranced by what looked like a bolt of gold lightning flashing across a beautiful ceramic bowl. I also loved the idea that what was broken can be mended and be all the more beautiful for enduring that process. 

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. 

~Ernest Hemingway~

Personally, I tend to see the path that our world is on as "unsustainable." Kintsugi touched me on a number of levels all at once. I decide I wanted to share this idea with Lisa. And what better way than giving her an example of the art. Now, I am no artist. But I can "Google" with the best of them, and I found an artist who could do the work. I got Lisa this bowl.

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It is gorgeous. And being a wise and sensitive soul who has had more than her share of brokenness, she loved it. So, much so that this year, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said she wanted the broken pestle of a marble mortar and pestle she owned repaired using the Kintsugi method.

You see... you get something started, and then it's on you to keep it going. But now I was in a pickle. When I bought the bowl above, the artist supplied both the bowl and the repair. This was a particular and personal object. And try as I might, I could not find an artist who would do a commission for anything less than a small fortune.

Remember how I said, "I'm no artist?" Well, needs must. I bought a clear epoxy that was designed for use with stone. Then I bought "gold" metal fine powder. Not real gold. I would have bought real gold, but I couldn't find it in powder form. I mixed the two together, glued the pestle together, and... taa-daa!

IMG_1263

It's not perfect. It has a bit of a junior-high-school-girl-taking-a-home-crafting-class look to it. But Lisa loved it. Because she is wise and sensitive. And because all of us are broken, but when we are repaired by love, we end up all the more beautiful for having undergone that journey.

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The Perfect Valentine's Day Gift: A 'Queen's Gambit' Chess Experience

Chess Set
A vintage Soviet-era set.

By Lisa Brunette

I don't think I'm overstating it to say that The Queen's Gambit is the best series Netflix has ever offered. Anthony and I finished it last night, and wow. I can't think of a better viewing experience. It has everything: a gorgeously flawed heroine you can't help but root for, well-developed supporting characters, a story arc that manages to be surprising and satisfying in one go, and a stream of sumptuous sets and costumes (especially in the later episodes). Judging by its enormous popularity - it's the most-watched show in Netflix history - many of you feel the same. 

If you've just binged it yourself, you might be looking for a way to extend the good feels, but with no plans for a season two - that arc was magically complete - I suggest in place of further bingewatching, you bring chess into your life as a special Valentine's Day experience. The classic two-person game is the perfect way to show your loved one you want to spend quality time together.

As it so happens, I did a deep-dive into the Etsy vintage chess offerings in search of a post-Christmas birthday present for Anthony. After an exhaustive search, I settled on the set above. This was before we watched The Queen's Gambit, so it was by serendipity that I'd picked out a classic Soviet-era set reminiscent of the sets depicted in the final episodes of the show. This one's from the 90s, but it has the same reverse detailing you can see in the queen and king in both black and white, and it's carved from wood.

Chess Set Black

Chess Set White

Now Anthony's a fervent tabletop gamer, and chess is soundly in his wheelhouse. But as surprising as this might sound since I literally own a game-writing studio, I'd never played before! But now I can cross that one off my bucket list. I'm an instant fan, for the combination of strategy and concentration. I love it.

Which is a good thing, because look how happy Anthony is with his new chess set.

Chess Anthony

While mine was the only one of its kind available, don't worry, as there are plenty of other options to choose from. If you like the vintage Soviet-era style, the Etsy shop ChessUSSR offers several, including this beauty, an antique set from the 1950s.

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Image courtesy ChessUSSR.

ChessUSSR also sells those delightful Mid-Century Modern chess clocks, as seen in nearly every episode of The Queen's Gambit. The vintage ones are rare items and don't come cheap, but for you hardcore chessheads out there, why not help preserve a piece of chess history? If you're going for the complete Valentine's Day experience, get the chess set plus the clock. It'll add to the ambiance!

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Image courtesy ChessUSSR.

If the Soviet style isn't your cup of tea, here are a few options that take the chess aesthetic in a completely different direction. 

First, I had this hand-carved stone Mexican set favorited for quite some time because, you know, PINK. But this was a gift for Anthony, not me, and while he's the type of awesome guy who doesn't even flinch at some pink in his living room, I do know where to draw the line. But maybe it's just the thing for your valentine?

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Image courtesy TeotihuacanMxArt2.

Next up is an incredible mesh of nature and games. Plants and flowers are sealed in epoxy to create these whimsical pieces that are just as pretty for display as they are pleasing to play. They are handmade, unique, and nature-inspired, so I felt they deserve inclusion. For the gardener/nature-lover valentine on your mind, they're perfect.

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Image courtesy EncasingNature.

Finally, staying with the handmade ethos, I offer you this set, hand-carved from olive wood for a sort of Game of Thrones-meets-The Queen's Gambit vibe. It was my runner-up choice, as it's just so gorgeous and yet... dare I say... manly? 

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Image courtesy MbgArtGift.

To complete your Valentine's Day 'Queen's Gambit' experience, how about some chess-themed cookies? I stumbled onto this cool set of cookie cutters fashioned with the help of a 3-D printer. While I wish they were metal instead of plastic, they're still on my favorites list because Valentine's Day is coming up, and Anthony's never met a cookie he hasn't liked...

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Image courtesy EZHCookieCutters.

I've included affiliate links in this post, so if you purchase via the links, Cat in the Flock may get a commission. But the truth is I would've happily crafted this roundup even without the affiliate bump. Many of our small, independent operators are the ones who've suffered during the COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, so I'm only too happy to support their work. But this ain't charity, either; I've become more and more aware of the superiority of handmade and vintage items and am happy to turn you onto some great things you might love, too.

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