Robinopedia: Plain

“For 350 years Quakers have been living out of a spiritual center in a way of life they call “plain living.”

Catherine Whitmire, in my favorite resource on plainness, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity Sorin Books, 2001.
Plain living is not always uncomplicated. It is not just “simplicity” although that is a word more commonly used among Friends today.

“It may surprise some of us to hear that the first generation of Friends did not have a testimony for simplicity. They came upon a faith which cut to the root of the way they saw life, radically reorienting it. They saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false. In order to keep the knowledge clear and the doing true, they stripped away anything which seemed to get in the way. They called those things superfluities, and it is this radical process of stripping for clear-seeing which we now term simplicity.”
Frances Irene Taber, 1985, as quoted in Whitmire, p.21.
“Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behavior, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfill the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength. The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600's. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity. Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful toward living as children of the Living God.”
North Carolina Yearly Meeting (conservative), 1983,as quoted in Whitmire, p. 23-24.
For me personally, plain dress includes solid colors, solid construction and practical fabrics. It does not preclude any particular colors but it does not include any superfluous details, from jewelry to lapels or patterns. My personal standard of modesty probably owes more to my mother's example than any religious convictions. Plain dress requires fair labor standards and sustainable resources. It is a standard I aspire to, not a goal I have achieved.

Martin Kelley maintains an online list of resources for historical plain dress as does Quaker Jane. I am not called to historical accuracy.

Plain for me includes a gold wedding band – one marriage, one lifelong commitment. Not a multiplicity of romantic entanglements, although I had my share before I was married.

Plain living for me means moderate consumption of food, drink, housing, clothing, medicines, and other resources. It includes healthful and fun recreation.

I have a scruple regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages, not as a historical relic, but because I find the social use of alcohol to be inconsistent with the kinds of honest, intimate relationships I want to have with my family, my friends, and God.

Plain living precludes wagers, raffles and other forms of gambling.

Plain speech is hard for me, as I tend to entertain myself with hyperbole. Plain speech means truth telling, without obfuscation or evasion.

Plain living means living within our economic means, without debt. Plain living means limiting my volunteer and community service work as well as my paid employment so as to focus on God’s will.

"The simple life is one in which there is always time to remember the divine purpose behind each of our tasks, time to listen for a possible divine amendment to the day’s schedule, and time to be thankful for the divine presence at each moment of the day.”
Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, 1993, as quoted in Whitmire, p. 21.
Plain living requires seeking to share access to this peaceful life with all of humanity and all creation.

As with all robinopedia definitions/explanations, this is subject to change without notice.


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Blogger Paul L said...

Wow. Beautifully done. Though I might quibble at the edges (as I write this in my favorite red and white heavy -- but plaid -- lumberjack shirt), I think you could just as well say that you are practicing the Good Life, not merely a plain one.

2/26/2007 2:18 PM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

Dear Robin,

What a lovely exploration of your relationship with plain living. It's a big subject.

Like Paul, the details are different for me. One of the biggest parts of plain living for me is living in harmony with the earth. Thus: composting, recycling, purchasing organic (and locally grown when I can) foods, limiting my energy use, limiting the amount that I drive, etc. I prefer to patronize locally-owned businesses when I can instead of shopping at chain stores.

When my children were younger, breastfeeding and cloth-diapering were part of my plain living. Natural fiber clothing. Non-toxic cleaning supplies.
No television.

I have some canvas grocery bags that I've been using for over 20 years now.

I'm fairly relaxed about the design and patterning on my clothing. I enjoy the fiber arts, and it's just as easy to knit a fancy sweater as a plain one. I like tie-dyeing, and I love bright colors. I'm in deep sympathy with Margaret Fell when she exclaimed, "You will make drabs of us!" to those expounding plain, sober colors.

I don't have a wedding ring, and have a particular scruple against diamonds, which are produced with much human misery.

It has never occurred to me that raffles are a form of gambling. Years ago, when I was on the board of the local softball league, I saw how much of the candy sale money went to the candy manufacturer, and decided to make direct contributions to charitable organizations instead of purchasing candy bars or Girl Scout cookies. I imagine that raffle ticket sellers would also accept direct contributions.

2/26/2007 4:40 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

I appreciate the quotes you lift up, Robin. Makes me wonder what other yummy things are in Catherine Whitmire's book.

In recent months, I have been chuckling inwardly at something rather prophetic that my now-101-year-old grandmother used to say about me as a kid. She called me "Plain Jane" quite a bit, as in, "Why don't you wear a nice dress or put your hair up or wear make-up like the other girls? You're such a Plaine Jane."

I don't know why it's taken me so many years among Friends for me to appreciate that my grandmother knew something about me... without her knowing that she knew something about me, if that makes any sense.

And I know I have lots to learn about simple/plain living (like I never stopped to think about diamonds, for example), though I've understood about the "stripping away" that Fran Taber and others write about so that we may avoid distracting ourselves from God.

Nice post.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

2/26/2007 4:55 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks! I'm sure that some of the details will vary by person, but what is interesting to me about this is how much we agree on.

I didn't give away my plaid flannel shirts, because I like the feel of flannel and I think it would be wasteful to just get rid of them for no other reason than the rather subdued patterns.

Like Heather, I share many of the same practices about living in harmony with the earth. It wasn't so long ago that I was breastfeeding and cloth diapering too.

At our sons' preschool, we have refused to participate in the mandatory raffle ticket sales, on religious grounds, but we have made a straight donation each year. I still buy girl scout cookies from time to time.

And lest anyone think I've completely risen above vanity, I gave up wearing the color black at the same time I gave up cosmetics, mostly because I look terrible in black without lipstick. My wardrobe runs mostly to blues, greens and browns, not so much because these are the colors of the earth but because they make me happy.

And these quotes are just from the first two sections of Whitmire's book. I love it. It has challenged me and encouraged me for a few years now.

2/26/2007 10:07 PM  
Blogger cubbie said...

plain dress is interesting to me, because it's kind of the opposite of what i feel like part of my identity/life's work is. which is to fight the message i grew up with-- that girls could do anything boys could do, but that if boys tried to do things that girls did, there was something wrong with them. and so one of the things that has been really important to me when i start really passing as a boy is to wear pretty things-- because i like them and because they bring joy (which is another thing that is hugely important to me) and because they are not seen enough on boys. maybe some day i will grow out of this and mature into something different, but right now... it seems urgent-- especially when i will be working in schools in front of boys who call each other girls or other things in denigrating ways.

... but i do try to shop ethically, and i think being true to my ideals is a fruit of the spirit as much as any sort of traditional plain dress is. i just get nervous that it is somehow self-serving. but i think if i moved to traditional plain dress right now, i'd be passive-aggressive and smug about it, and that's the opposite of the point.

2/26/2007 11:40 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

cubbie, even in the periods of the strongest Quaker witness of plain dress, there were Friends with all different interpretations of it. And Friends who thought it was a silly poor gospel.

I think this is a good topic for the general Quaker advice: Live up to the Light that thou hast and more will be given.

2/27/2007 1:09 PM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

Hello Friends,

Recently, I read the book _Naked Economics_, which talked about the idea of boycotting products made by underpaid, exploited workers.

The author said that he thought our attitude was patronizing. He said that either sweatshop jobs were the best these people could do in life or that sweatshop workers had other opportunities and stupidly chose sweatershop labor. He also talked about how sweatshop labor could kick-start an economy (all of the Asian tiger economies started with sweatshops) and lead to greater general prosperity for the people of a country.

This has made me think about the idea of a living wage. I think that it can be good to pressure companies to be good employers (the Gap, for example, has largely ended its sweatshop contracts due to the bad publicity that resulted), but I'm also considering whether I ought to lay down my prohibition against sweatshops as such. Perhaps I don't know best for the whole world, and perhaps poorer countries don't need our paternalism as much as they need our dollars.

He also spoke at great length about how mineral extraction could lead to failed states. The plight of child slave miners has long been a concern of mine, and it was interesting to read that mineral extraction typically makes a country poorer than it was before.

Anyway, something to file under "learning all the time" and "first, do no harm." Our attempts to right the wrongs of the world can sometimes just make things worse.

2/28/2007 5:54 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

You've once again articulated your own experience in a way that invites us in to consider our own lives, and you've powerfully challenged me. In Evangelical Friends circles, we have definitely lost some of this testimony. Even though there are places I can point to it intentionally in my life, your post points glaringly to others that I've not even considered.

But I have given up cosmetics... ;)

3/02/2007 5:02 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Not all low tech factories are sweatshops. There's probably a technical definition somewhere that includes paying local prevailing wages, minimum levels of ventilation and hygiene, and lack of coercion of workers.

What matters to me is that I as a North American consumer have the power to influence the conditions under which the goods I consume are produced. All other things being equal, most manufacturers will procure the resources they need at the lowest possible cost and sell them at the highest possible price. If I raise the cost of employing people to include these minimum conditions, then that means that the best the factory workers can do gets better.

Frankly, I don't think most Americans are choosing to buy fewer tshirts, they are simply choosing to buy them from manufacturers with tolerable labor conditions, and they are showing their willingness to pay more for them.

3/02/2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

It's okay, Gregg, if your definition of plain continues to evolve too. :)

Something that I forgot to include in my definition, but will probably add soon, is the idea of having only one wardrobe. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm gaining ground on having one set of clothes that are suitable for work, play and worship.

One of my innovations is that I bought a plain apron. It's unbleached muslin and I think the fabric store had them for people to decorate, but I just use it as is. It makes it possible to wear the same clothes to cook and leave the house, without tomato sauce or oil stains all over everything. It means I don't have to wash everything quite as often.

The next level is that I will go back to making more of my own clothes. I know how, thanks to my mother and six years of 4-H, but in the last several years I haven't taken the time. I'd really like to find a vendor of sustainably/organically grown cotton and wool fabrics. I'll probably still buy sweaters and jeans and polyester fleece stuff from Land's End.

3/02/2007 10:18 PM  
Blogger Allison said...

Plain to me means being my natural self. We live in such an altered world nowadays that if people want to wear a tutu and dye their hair blue, they could very well be reflecting society and being natural to themselves.

11/27/2007 6:55 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Allison, to me, the question is not so much which outward expressions that I or other people choose, it's how did we choose them. An important question for me is, am I spending too much time thinking about outward things? My goal is to get the outward things out of the way, so that I and God can do the inner work of transformation.

11/29/2007 1:47 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

One of the hazards of the internet is that links change. Martin doesn't have his page on plain resources anymore, but there is this list on QuakerQuaker.org: Plain Resources

2/08/2012 9:26 PM  

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