Minimalists Today: The Hermitage & the Mahantongo Heritage Center


“As Harmonists, our goal is to live in harmony with the spirit and the earth at every moment.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

This morning, I came across a fascinating story, They Built It. No One Came. from the Sunday New York Times. The article tells the story of two men who tried to create a commune where members would live off the land and farm with Colonial-era tools. It didn’t work out, and they now call the property the Hermitage.

The men, born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, were inspired by an 18th century all-male religious community called Christiansbrunn. It was based on communal ideals developed by Moravian Church leader Nicholas Ludwig Zinzendorf, who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life (and sex, but that’s less relevant to minimalism).

“We insisted on living in a physical world imbued with spiritual beauty where nothing was mundane and every object was a reflection of the divine.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

Michael and Donald met in the 1970s at a gay-consciousness-raising group in Salt Lake City. They eventually began thinking of starting an intentional community in a rural setting and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1988, they bought 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley in central Pennsylvania and changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf.¹

At first, they slept in a travel trailer in the barn, which was the only building on the land. Soon they began to rescue period cabins and structures in the area and move them to the site. They also acquired sheep, cattle, goats, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens, cats and dogs. Star and Bright, a pair of oxen, took over plowing duties.

“It took many years to realize we are not communalists but hermits. We went from being a cloistered brotherhood to a hermitage.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

The Zinzendorfs had high hopes for their planned intentional community. They “knew it was only a matter of time before brothers flocked to join” them. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

Few were interested in joining the community, and since colonial-era agriculture is labor intensive, the lack of commune members was a big problem. The community that had inspired them had 88 men, not two.

Eventually the Zinzendorfs realized that Christiansbrunn had a few things going for it that they didn’t: charisma and religion. Not only were neither of them charismatic leaders, but they didn’t have a solid religious base. They had an earth-centered spirituality that evolved over time.

Since they weren’t able to build the intentional community they’d hoped for, they decided to host artists’ retreats, residencies and other gatherings. Eventually, they decided the empty commune would be a hermitage.

“We decided to turn everything into a showcase for the valley’s heritage. After all, there was no place where one could see what made the Mahantongo Valley of central Pennsylvania so unique in its isolated development.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

Now in their 60s, Christian and Johannes have reconfigured their lives again. They’re no longer a couple and live in two separate houses on the property.

They’ve sold most of their antique tools. The remainder are housed in the barn, which has been turned into a museum, The Mahantongo Heritage Center. The Center includes furniture, housewares, paintings, textiles and other Pennsylvania Dutch relics.

Although most of the livestock is gone, the Zinzendorfs still raise turkeys and grow and process flax into linen. They give presentations about processing flax and have made some videos showing how it’s done.

They’ve also written a couple of books. The Big Book of Flax: A Compendium of Facts, Art, Lore, Projects and Song was published in 2011. They’re still looking for a publisher for their memoir.

Ordinarily, the museum and grounds are open for tours only by reservation. According to their website, though, their annual open house for 2015 will be Sunday, August 9 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Major buildings and the museum will be open for tours, and Johannes will do “a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch bake day at the 200-year-old bake oven.”


¹ Christian later changed his name again, to Zephram de Colebi, but to keep the story-line easy to follow, I’m sticking to Christian.

Why I’m a Gradual Minimalist – and Why You Should Join Me

gradual minimalist

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

– Jim Ryun

Why am I a gradual minimalist? Because I’ve found that gradual changes are easier to sustain. Scientific studies also show that smaller changes are easier to make than big ones (no surprise there). Luckily, small changes eventually add up to a new lifestyle.

It’s also a good idea to start small, because researchers have found that willpower is similar to a muscle. This means we can deplete our willpower. It also means that we can strengthen our willpower the same way we can strengthen our muscles – by starting small and building up to heavier weights (or more difficult tasks) over time.

“Your little choices become habits that affect the bigger decisions you make in life.”

– Elizabeth George

If you’ve been living a typical consumerist lifestyle, becoming a minimalist will be a big change. If you’ve been focusing on keeping up with the Joneses, simple living will mean changes to both how you think and what you do. It’s not a question of simply getting rid of a few items so your house looks less cluttered.

You’ll probably live with less stuff, yes, but you’ll declutter until you’re down to what you need and love. Retail therapy will be a thing of the past. You may cook more and eat out less. Perhaps you’ll cut back to a part-time job. You may move to a smaller home.

Maybe you’ll become a vegan and sell your car. Perhaps you’ll quit your job for a Fortune 500 company and work for a nonprofit. Or spend less time at parties and more time reading.

Obviously, minimalism encompasses a variety of lifestyles. What they have in common is their focus on dropping out of the rat race and instead doing what brings us joy and contentment. Building stronger relationships instead of buying the latest gadgets.  Seeking out meaning instead of prestige.

These aren’t the kind of changes most people can make in a day or even a few months. Major changes in housing and employment require planning and negotiations with family members. Determining your values and conforming your lifestyle to those values is often much harder.

“On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.”

– James Clear

A simple change, like drinking a glass of water before breakfast, generally isn’t a habit until you’ve done it daily for at least three weeks. In one study, participants took an average of 66 days to turn a single new behavior into a habit.

When you’re talking about making lots of small changes at once or making big changes, it’s going to take a lot longer. This can be a depressing thought, and if you have unrealistic expectations, you may give up and decide there’s no point in even trying to live more simply.

The solution is simple: become a gradual minimalist. Give yourself small realistic goals you can meet. Declutter a few minutes day. Cut back on one obligation at a time.

Even as a gradual minimalist, I was able to downsize with my family to a townhouse 55% the size of our old house in about two years from when we began decluttering. Despite the fact that our cabinets and closets were overflowing. We owned stuff we didn’t remember we had. Our one-and-a-half car garage looked a little like a scene from Hoarders.

“Such a simplified lifestyle can be truly wonderful – you’ll finally have time for the things you really love, for relaxation, for outdoor activities, for exercise, for reading or finding peace and quiet, for the loved ones in your life, for the things you’re most passionate about.”

– Leo Babauta

The nice thing about being a gradual minimalist is that marathon decluttering sessions weren’t required. Most were under a half hour. Often, decluttering took almost no time at all. We’d just be more mindful, and if we have happened to come across something we never used, put it in the “Goodwill pile.”

Because I chose the gradual minimalist path instead of trying to do it all in a few months, I still had time to spend with my family. Time to sit on the porch swing with my husband. Time to go hiking with my son. Time to cuddle with the dogs, knit and read.

Had I tried to rush through the process, I wouldn’t have had any time to relax. Working, running errands, cleaning and cooking would have consumed all my remaining waking hours. Exhausted, I would’ve given up after a week or two. Gradual minimalism is the only way I could’ve succeed at downsizing.

If you want to live simply but feel overwhelmed by the idea of minimalism, join me – become a gradual minimalist, too.

Are you a gradual minimalist or would you prefer to change it all at once?

Getting Stuff Done: Managing Your To-Do List

to-do lists

“Simplicity is a practice, not a destination.”

– Courtney Carver

The pile of small notes on my desk serves as a good reminder that simplifying is a process, not something we complete. These notes list things I need to do, names of my new neighbors, hours of a store, an apple pie recipe and “commonplace book,” a term I want to remember. This is definitely not the best way to manage my to-do list.

I’ve been good about keeping my calendar up, but since I’ve had a few months of extreme busyness, I’ve let some of these other simplicity habits lapse, and it occurs to me that if the habit didn’t stick, perhaps I need a better solution for managing to-dos.

“Thoughts of an incomplete goal will not interfere with current concerns so long as a plan has been made to see the goal through later on.”

– E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister

It could be worse. At least I have my to-dos written down. Trying to remember tasks takes up a lot of space in your brain. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks. In other words, uncompleted tasks stay on your mind until you finish them. This is known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Luckily, researchers E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister have found that simply making plans to finish a task helps clear the task from your mind, freeing up mental space for accomplishing things.

“Research by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller uncovers how detailed planning works when you have one big to-do item but then, the longer your list of tasks and goals, the less powerful a tool the to-do list becomes.”

– Thomas Oppong

To be effective in terms of reducing brain-drain, a to-do list should entail some basic plan-making, even if it’s just deciding what to do first or which errands to run the next time you visit a particular part of the city.

Research on how we accomplish goals shows that we need to break large goals down into smaller manageable bits. On the other hand, psychologists have found that detailed planning on more than one big project can cause us to feel overwhelmed by everything we have to do.

In other words, detailed planning to reach one big goal (say, lose weight or declutter) is helpful, but detailed planning to reach six big goals is not.

“To-do lists come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s all about what works for the individual.”

– Shana Lebowitz

So what’s the solution? If you’ve already got a to-do list method that works for you, ignore the studies. Why change if what you’re doing has you getting things done when they need to be done?

If you’re not doing anything yet, or what you’re doing isn’t working, consider these suggestions.

1. Do a brain dump. Write down everything you need to do. Add to the list regularly.

2. Anything that needs to be done at a specific time, such as a business meeting or a dental appointment, must be on your calendar.

3. Filter your brain-dump list. Create a daily to-do list with your most important tasks at the top. If you’d like, keep a weekly project list as well. Each of the tasks on your daily to-do list should be specific. Use action verbs.

4. If you love lists or have a ton of stuff to do, go ahead and write a list of to-dos for the rest of the week as well – but recognize that these plans will probably change.

5. Keep your to-do list realistic. Remember that you’re unlikely to get as much done as you expected. Unexpected new tasks come up. Planned tasks take three times as long as you thought.

6. Do not transfer stuff to your to-do list that you know you’re not going to do anyway. Your brain-dump list will keep you from forgetting your “someday” to-dos.

7. Check your brain-dump list daily to update your to-do list accordingly.

8. Consider adding a few fast and easy items on your to-do list. It’s fun to check things off!

9. Avoid hard-and-fast rules unless you find you need them to keep yourself organized. Flexibility is usually better. For instance, some people will say to limit your to-do list to three items. That’s great if your top three items include one or more projects that take a lot of time to finish, but what if your three most important tasks for the day only take a few minutes each?

10. Keep all your to-do lists – brain dump, daily and weekly – in the same place.

How and Where to Keep Your To-Do List

I’ve tried a few to-do apps but discovered I prefer paper. I find it so much more satisfying to scratch through an item on a list than check a box on the computer. Obviously my current method of collecting scraps of paper isn’t ideal, so I think I need to go back to keeping a pocket-sized notebook in my purse.

You may prefer apps to paper. If you don’t already have a favorite, check out 40 of the Best To-Do Apps for Personal Task Management.

How do you manage your to-do list? I’m especially interested since I need a new plan for mine. Please share in the comment section below.

Minimalists in History: Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic

Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic

“The Guild of SS. Joseph and Dominic is a craft Guild, but is not primarily a craft Guild. It is primarily a religious fraternity for those who make things with their hands.”

– Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic members, announcing its existence

The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was an arts-and-crafts colony in England. Sculptor, typeface designer and letter cutter Eric Gill and printer and writer Hilary Pepler began the colony in Ditchling, Sussex in 1921.

The colony patterned itself after the medieval guild, which existed to protect and promote its members’ work.  An engraved stone plaque described the colony:

Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses

The colony’s values were based on the ethos of William Morris as well as Roman Catholicism. During the 1910s, Gill and Pepler had converted to Catholicism and become involved with Distributism, a movement that combined religious faith with the belief that workers should own land and live off its produce.

“[W]e have been concerned at arriving at a way of life and work which would not be the denial of individualism but the affirmation of truth.”

– Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic members, announcing its existence

Distributism is an economic ideology based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching. According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right, and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible, not centralized under the control of the state, a few individuals, or corporations. Distributism also values human life as a whole more than economic activity.

The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic’s constitution explained that the Guild was “a society of Catholic craftsmen who wish to make the Catholic Faith the rule, not only of their life but of their workmanship and to that end to live and work in association in order that mutual aid may strengthen individual effort.”

The idea was to create a community where wealth is measured by virtue rather than money and beauty, not output, is the goal of production. By 1922, more than 40 people lived at the colony. The craftsmen¹ included weavers, engravers, calligraphers, silver workers, stone carvers, carpenters and printers.

“The love of God means that work must be done according to an absolute standard of reasonableness; the love of our neighbour means that work must be done according to an absolute standard of serviceableness.”

– Constitution of the Guild St of Joseph and St Dominic

Eric Gill left Ditchling in 1924, but the Guild continued to flourish. Members of the Guild included Bernard Brocklehurst, Father Desmond Macready Chute, Ewan Clayton, Joseph Cribb, Kenneth Eager, Philip Hagreen, Edgar Holloway, David Jones, Jenny KilBride, Valentine KilBride, George Maxwell, Dunstan Pruden and Winefride Prude

The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic disbanded in 1989, and the workshops were demolished. To learn more about the Ditchling arts and crafts movement, visit the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.


¹Unfortunately, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was an all-male community for most of its existence, not admitting women until the 1970s.

Scanning Your Way to Less Frustration, Less Stuff and More Free Time


“Paperwork wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all the paper. And the work.”

– Darynda Jones

Even if you’ve arranged to get your bills and statements digitally, odds are good that you’re still going to have plenty of paper coming into your house. Although you can just toss (recycle) some of it, you’ll probably want to save some items. In most cases, scanning is the best way to do so.

No More Excuses

“Scanners are expensive.”

They can be, but you can pick one up quite cheaply. Mine is a Canon copier/printer/scanner combo, and it cost less than $30 on sale. Right now, Amazon lists a number of copier/printer/scanner combos in the $40-$50 range with free shipping.

My scanner doesn’t have WiFi, so I have to plug it into the computer, and it doesn’t have a document feeder, but I don’t have that much scanning to do. If you do, you may want to spring for a more expensive model.

If you rarely have documents to scan, you may prefer using a scanning app, such as ScanBot.

“Scanning takes too long.”

It’s true that catching up on scanning old documents can take quite awhile, but keeping up with incoming paperwork doesn’t take much time.

If you have a large backlog of scanning but don’t want to buy a scanner with all the bells and whistles, see if you can borrow a faster scanner at your place of employment. If not, see if your FedEx store (or similar business) offers scanning.

“I have plenty of room. What’s the point?”

It’s easier to find documents on the computer. Make as many subfolders as you want. Use the search function if you lose something.

Assuming you keep a backup of your computer files in the cloud or at another site (and you should), these are safe if you experience a fire or flood at your home.

If you save the documents in something like Dropbox or Evernote, you’ll be able to access them anywhere.

Keeping Some Paperwork

Some people suggest you get rid of every scrap of paperwork in your house, and that may work for you. However, I’m not that worried about having a little paper. I just don’t want the paperwork to get out of control.

We have one small file drawer to keep tangible paperwork in. It holds about 12″ worth of hanging files. Here, I keep a few things that would be a pain to scan (insurance policy pamphlets), items I need to keep as originals (certified copies of birth certificates, for example) and stuff I know we’ll need a paper copy of anyway.

For instance, we often need paper copies of the dogs’ vaccination records. When I know I’ll need the paper version, it seems wasteful to toss the paper I was given and then print it later. On the other hand, I don’t keep paper copies “just in case” I need them later. In that case, it’s better to go ahead and recycle the original.

Scanning Doesn’t Mean Hoarding

Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking scanned documents aren’t real or don’t count. Before you scan something, think about whether you need to keep it at all.

Electronic clutter results in you needing to buy more electronic storage as well as more difficulty in finding what you need.