Mary Beth Writes

We can’t go on like this.  Our everyday Western/American lifestyle -- is utterly unsustainable. 

Put that in your jeans (it takes 1000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans) or yoga pants (80%of the micro-plastics in the ocean are from synthetic clothing or whatever exploited-foreign-worker manufactured pants you wear (In 1993, more than half of the garments sold in America were made in America; by 2013, that number was down to 2.6 percent.) and sit on it while we think.  

We can look at the ordinary habits of our days, weeks, and holidays -- and count the ways in which our present lives are unsustainable on this planet.  I found the above info in ten minutes of googling.

Kathleen and I had breakfast together last week; achieved by each of us driving our (hybrid) cars one hour to meet at Simple in Lake Geneva. Simple sources the food locally, they make delicious breakfasts. Irony abounds. 

We talked about Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered. In it a couple in their 50’s; Willa and Iano, have to deal with the stark reality that they are broke. Both have educations and excellent career resumes; neither is fighting dysfunctional habits, yet their careers were journalism and college-level teaching. Her newspaper went out of business, the college at which he had finally achieved tenure - failed. They worked hard all their lives yet became further and further behind financially. They have two young adult children and one surprise grandchild, and they are living in a house that is literally falling down around them. The novel intersperses a fascinating, based-in-truth backstory of two disrespected scientists who lived in their neighborhood a hundred years earlier.  Kingsolver is at her brilliant best pulling you out of your life just far enough that you can look back into your own precarious life. 

The prophet in Unsheltered is Tig, the early 20’s daughter who has recently returned from two years living in Cuba and is disgusted by the consumerism around her. She is the only one who seems to understand that the center is not going to hold; people must learn to live with less stuff and more awareness. By the end of the novel Willa and Tig have cobbled together warmth, safety, food, and enough joy in which to raise the baby who has landed in their life. There is deep, true love in this story; it is that love which propels individuals to find authentic lives that do not depend on things. 

It is a powerful novel that feels more contemporary than the evening news.  Wake up. The center is not going to hold. There is not much time to reconfigure how we are going to do life on earth. 

Later in the week I heard the “Terry Gross: Fresh Air” interview with the young couple who produced The Biggest Little Farm. Which I have only seen this trailer for.  In the interview John and Molly Chester said these two things. Their points, my words.

1. Diversity is essential. Nothing healthy exists in isolation. When in doubt, add life. 

2. Monocultures are farms that use herbicides and pesticides, chemical fertilizers and antibiotics in order to grow one or two crops/animals year after year after year. When we move past that ecologically destructive model, new life will move in, take root, grow, and quite possibly become a pest. We can’t obliterate problems. We can only step back, pay attention, and consider what we can ADD that will address the excessive excess that overtakes lopsided abundance.

The answer is not to obliterate – but to pay attention and cautiously but bravely keep adding MORE life.

I believe in thrifty thinking and frugal choices. Frugality is a way to afford our best values. I don’t believe in thrift and frugality that only pays attention to the out-of-pocket cost while turning away from what our choices cost earth and other people. We must rethink our easy dependence on cheap food produced at great expense to human, animal, and planetary health. We must rethink the casual way we hop in our cars to “run out” for this item or that.  We need to understand that simplifying our lives by donating away what we no longer want around does not make the world saner or healthier, the world doesn’t need 82 more pounds of spent clothing from me or from you this year. We need to figure out how to reconfigure and reuse what we already have.

Len asked me what we (meaning all of us) can do about how we live and how it has to change.

This is what I said which I didn’t even know I believed. Sometimes talking out loud surprises us.  “Intentionally frugal people are the people most likely to be intrigued by and unafraid of change.  We know we have challenges and problems; we have looked at and lived through losses and failures. Then we changed - and we are not afraid to keep changing. We are the people who get excited by what happens when we don’t spend all of our energy and money on stuff. We are the ones who have been surprised by what moves in when mindless consumerismmoves out.” 

This call to thoughtfulness is for all of us. Those of us who are frugal because money is challenging.  And those of us who have plenty of financial stability but are committed to preserving the earth.

What diversity can we add into our lives?

What problems can we address with MORE life, not less?

Kathleen laughed recalling a sustainable solution that happens towards the end of Unsheltered. The family is hosting a big birthday party for the baby. Guests are instructed to each bring their own glass since Tig refuses to buy disposable products. Tig has seen and believes that people can throw a great party without plastic glasses. 

Then Willa, the mother in this novel, notices that no one confuses their drink with someone else’s. When the party is over there is nothing left to clean but the food.

The celebration was simply about friends, music, amazing food, and a 1-year old.

How angry, loving, and creative can we become? 


I am so reading these two books! I have a real interest in how people live well with less. I think this world needs a re-set, we truly cannot go on this way. My son and his wife just lectured my husband and I on mono-culture farms....makes for interesting , if loud, dinner convo. PS. Love your writing!
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks for saying you like my writing. I still get anxious when I post something new, something that I want to think about without being whiny! Kind words give me courage. If you are going to experiment with changing things around your farm, I'm totally interested in writing about any of your experiences. I think we all want to hear what happens as we all try to change.

Exactly what I needed... Delicious reminders to get back on track with our values of not overspending, not mindlessly buying. We keep learning and growing. Powerful stories inspire us to do more (with less resources).

Unsheltered is on my book list! I could do so much better than I do being frugal. Groan
Mary Beth's picture

Don't try to be frugal and eco-conscious all at once. Pick one activity that actually sounds interesting or fun, and go there first. Change that lasts starts in our imagination, not is guilt!

When George and I threw a party. ( At least four a year ) We never used disposable glasses, dishes, or utensils... We didn't even think of buying paper plates or plastic utensils, it simply wouldn't do. Was this because we were Gay ( We new other Gay people who entertained the same way we did ) Or was it the vulgarity of the idea of buying paper and plastic for a one use occasion that was behind it?? All I know is that the old Hippie in me simply refuses to buy that stuff... Does it make me better than those who do?? Not really it just makes me more aware of the final outcome and it's my way of leaving the world a little bit better for other people's children and grandchildren...

Thank you Mary Beth for doing justice to the message of this great book. I am sure you make Barbara Kingsolver proud. We need to hear this message over and over and realize that now is the time for a great paradigm shift and we must all learn to live more conscious lives.

Really like your stuff. Now I have another book on my endless list fo stuff to read! I have tried sharing some of your thoughts on various topics, which are similar to mine, and while most don't really want to hear, some do... If you or anyone else has some good ideas for local textile recycling, this might be a good place to add... anyway, thanks! I enjoy reading your blog from Gurnee.
Mary Beth's picture


Enjoyed reading this article. My husband and I are planning to retire in a couple years. We have worked hard and lived frugally our entire lives. We just got told that our property taxes are increasing by an unimaginable amount. We see more and more taxes coming our way. We cannot afford to live in our neighborhood anymore and can't afford to buy anywhere else. We don't see any benefits from the increased taxes in our state- our roads, bridges, schools are all falling apart. It seems we are at a crossroads- indeed we have to change, it is being forced on us. We already do all the sustainable living things we can and have always lived that lifestyle but I didn't foresee our finances being taken from us by the taxman. I believe we will survive because we have all the skills necessary but only if our health holds out. Interesting times indeed.
Mary Beth's picture

Your comment is one I read earlier this week elsewhere. Taxes jumping through the roof. To pay the pensions of employees who worked for their retirements, but city/county/state used their retirement pool to fund other things? That's happening so many places. For what it's worth, the move Len and I made three years ago from the ranch house where we raised our kids to this smaller house in a sometimes tough side of Waukesha (not always) - this made our life so much easier to figure out. But the $ stress is real. Working hard all one's life doesn't always bring the retirement we thought we could expect. It's a good time to be flexible and have skills.

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Frugality Hacks or how I saved $64,000,000, so far.

I read the ‘frugal things I did’ letters in other people’s huge and interesting frugality blogs. I figured I could list some of the ways I saved some money this week (this life). I’m pleased to say I saved about 64 Million.

Quarantine Diary #645 - Granola

Two recent tweets : Someone named Kate Harding tweeted; “What haunts me is that I am not just smart enough for so many people to be this much stupider than me.”

And from Di, Obstinate Hoper; “I’m starting to think of pandemic caution like labor: buckle down during peaks, relax a little between them. Hang in there, folks. It’s a damn long labor.”

Frugal? Road Trip to New Mexico

If our finances were stretched we wouldn’t have gone to New Mexico. We are doing fine despite the advice that says one ought to retire with a million dollars in the bank. Imagine that.

1. We and, at this point, about half the nation, have had our Covid vaccines so we felt safe and ready to see something new. However, we traveled to a place where they had worked WITH the effort to fight this pandemic. This limited our choices and is the #1 reason we didn’t go to the Badlands. How we spend $ is our power.

The Mindful Chickens are Wordy Today

Other people call them “frugal things I did lately”. I call them Mindful Chickens because they are about:

  • Being Cheap (cheap, cheep).
  • Being thoughtful about how choices affect our community and our earth.
  • Paying attention to the constant tumble of dollars and choices.

This is my collection of wise choices and dastardly schemes from the last two months.

ONE: Our electric toothbrush/water pick would no longer hold a charge but a new one costs more than $100. Len took it to the battery store where they replaced it for $15.

Mindful Chickens - Plastic & Hunger 12/20/2020

I went for a walk on Wednesday and saw this mitten on a sidewalk. When I was at the same spot on Friday, it was still there, so I brought it home because it is a hand-knitted kid mitten, ya know? Any knitters out there interested in making it a mate, so that we could give it to a kid in my community or your? It's 7" from top to ribbed bottom. 


The point of “Mindful Chickens” is to spend less money while being mindful of the environment and our human values. We can try, right?

Holy Mackerel! Mindful Chickens 12/12/2020

Yamiche and Weijia licking out the mackerel bowl this morning.


I said I would write “mindful things” we did this week. The agenda of “Mindful Chickens” is to spend less money plus be mindful of the environment and our other values at the same time. Sometimes, one of those purposes wins over the other, but we can think before we spend, right?

1. I cut my hair. This is not a particular skill of mine, but I can do it well enough to not look like the Pittsburgh Paint Dutch boy.

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