09/07/2013 06:14 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

The Simple Life: Off the Grid in Hilo

I recently asked my wife, Kim, to buy some reusable sandwich and snack bags for our son.

Just to give you some background on this request, about a month ago we were in Target buying some school supplies for our son and we found ourselves standing in front of several shelves of lunch bags. My wife grabs the reusable sandwich and snack bag set and asks, " Do you think we should get these for Bodhi?" I take them from her and feigned a serious examining expression, but already had the intent of placing them back on the display hook. "Hmmm," I said. "I think it would be easier if we just used Ziplocs. We won't have to clean out crumbs or worry about almond butter getting crusted in the small corners." Kim looked at me doubtfully, but tired from all the running around we had been doing she put the bags back and we carried on with our shopping.

I've been reading a book by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. She is the first female primate in the 500-year history of Anglicanism. In her book, Jefferts Schori poses a question that many of us have heard before, but for some reason this time when I read it, it really touched something in me. She asks the basic question, "How can we live simply so that others can simply live?"

What does it mean to live simply? From a certain perspective buying a box of Ziplocs, packing a sandwich in one of them and throwing it out after is pretty simple: no apparent mess. The mess, however, is playing itself out somewhere else, somewhere I don't see in my daily life. And it's not necessarily about Ziplocs vs. reusable bags, but about an overall attitude of apathy.

There is a pretty heavy handed quote from teacher and writer Leo Buscaglia that goes like this, "I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate -- it's apathy. It's not giving a damn." I don't believe the indifference that comes from apathy is in extreme contrast to love as Buscaglia suggested. I believe people truly want to do good but get disconnected somehow amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life. There was a fascinating study conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary. The study attempted to understand, why, when we all have so many opportunities to help, we do sometimes and we don't at other times. Seminary students were given the assignment to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan. They would prepare in one building and then walk to another building to deliver the sermon. On the walk to their audience, students would come across a person lying on the ground obviously in pain. The study attempted to see how many individuals would stop and help the suffering person. The study concluded that whether or not a student stopped to help depended on how much of a hurry they felt they were in and whether or not they were preoccupied and focused on other things.

So what's our focus? Where is our attention going? Would even the simple act of smiling at a homeless person on the Hilo Bay Front have an enormous impact on that person? I think, yes. I may not have bought him lunch, but maybe, for that moment I restored his sense of human dignity.

So what is a simple life?

Kim, Bodhi and I moved to the Big Island from Honolulu four years ago basically to live more simply. We bought 9.26 acres of blank ag land in the middle of an old growth 'ōhi'a lehua forest. We went to the woods to live completely off the grid and to, like Henry David Thoreau said, "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." For a year and a half we produced our own electricity with a small solar panel and a 12 volt battery, we caught rainwater for cleaning and bathing (cold garden hose showers), weekly filled an ice chest with blocks of ice for refrigeration and used a five gallon bucket for a toilet. For more details on our life off the grid see our blog at

After a year and a half in the woods we, like Thoreau, moved back to "civilization." Even though we now get a steady stream of electricity (still solar powered), county water, Internet, hot showers and a refrigerator that makes tremendously wonderful amounts of ice, we still desire to live simply and authentically.

So what does it mean to live simply? Is it feasible for all of us to go back and live with 19th Century amenities? Probably not. Perhaps simple living is more about having an awareness that we, all of us on this planet, are intrinsically connected to each other in the web of life. Our actions do have an impact in places seen and unseen.

Today Kim came home smiling with the reusable sandwich and snack bags. She was wonderful about it, no smug commentary of, "I knew you'd come around." Just a loving patient glance knowing that I am a work in progress.