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Hanging to the
Cliff Edge

  Charles Gray's passion for identifying with the poorest two-thirds of humanity pushes him to live more and more simply. He experiences a dilemma when a friend offers to transport some of his belongings in a car and again when another friend offers him cheaper than market-price accommodation. However, his life takes off again when he finds a new partner, Dorothy, and together they organise the Fast-For-Life against the deployment of first-strike nuclear weapons.
By Charles Gray  

Strangely, during the time I was finally giving it all away, writing checks and handing out money all over the place, I reached the lowest expenditure level ever under the WEB. In December, 1979, my expenditures were $13.16. The low point was a kind of victory on my long effort to cut my expenditures. I have previously reported on the tough going when I fought to be able to pay rent. After solving that problem in Eugene I had reduced my expenditures to between $21 and $32 a month. In Portland I pushed them lower yet to a range between $13 and $21.

Why did I do this? In a way it became a game. I took pride in finding new ways to live on less, to continually drive down my expenditures. In Eugene it had been a challenge to improve my skills. In Portland I felt that living way under the WEB was the only thing that gave my depressed ego some satisfaction. In this, at least, I was strong. The WEB was my special thing, and I did it with pleasure, almost a vengeance. I enjoyed keeping the graph of my expenditures and seeing the line getting ever closer to zero. So on the one hand, pushing my expenditures down had become a kind of ego satisfying game. However, I missed some of the little treats I had previously allowed myself, an occasional Reeses Peanut Butter Cup or an ice cream cone. I think I dipped into my Secret Corruption Fund a couple of times that winter in order to avoid sainthood.

Pushing down costs had other motivations, as well. One was purely practical. I figured that the difference between my expenditures and my budget was savings, and that I might one day need what I could save within the budget for emergencies or extraordinary expenditures. I hoped to save enough to be able to afford a trip to see my children in New Zealand at some future time if they or I were needful for such a visit. That meant saving a goodly portion of a budget that was less than $75 a month. The WEB could work well over the long haul only if it could accommodate occasional extraordinary expenses. Seeing my savings grow gave me more faith in the WEB as a long term practicality.

Finally, driving my consumption downward met an inner need to live at a level closer to the world's poor. In a sense, the WEB for me was not my personal ideal, but rather a compromise with my social circle, an effort to establish a principle of equal sharing , a principal less extreme than real identity with the world's poor who had far less than their equal share. I hoped that appealing to the deep-seated value of equality would be a first step and a step that was modest enough to be both possible for myself and hopefully for others. I hoped that if I didn't demand more that I would have a chance of persuading some of my circle to adopt the idea. I might even persuade Leslie to reconsider her position. I might not become more isolated. I kept the standard of equal sharing because I viewed it as both a very strong position, a logically modest one, and one that in time would be adopted by others as the minimum requirement for a nonviolent economics. The gulf between my perspective and that of my community caused me great anguish. It was not easy to feel so alone. For me the WEB was a morally defensible philosophical position, not a personal preference. My personal preference, my feeling for the poor, my guilt at so long being complicit in oppression pushed me toward a level of consumption at least closer to that of the world's poor than the level of the WEB. The desire to at least partially identify with the world's poor became another reason to push my expenditures further downward.

... internationally organised open-ended fast or hunger strikes participated in by at least 2000 persons worldwide might be a tactic of sufficient power to tip the balance against the deployment of first strike weapons and begin the proces of disarmament.

Emotionally I felt good about this. Intellectually I realised it was a little unreal because I was still tied to the WEB in the sense that I was accumulating as savings the difference between the WEB and what I was actually spending. Those savings were available for my use if I needed them. Such savings were not available to the poor of the world. I didn't reduce my income. It remained at the WEB level. Only my expenditures went down. Consequently, my identification with the poorer half of humanity was only partial, if it was even that. At any time I could call on my savings and jump back to the richest third of humanity.

Nonetheless, at that time I wasn't calling on my savings and perhaps I never would, so my austere lifestyle was emotionally strengthening to me and helped me hang on during that winter of deep personal and ideological loneliness. I may have been partly alienated and isolated from the U.S. society, and even from my close associates, but I felt in tune with a larger humanity and a more nonviolent morality.

I wish that larger humanity had come around and warmed my bed on those cold nights in that old barn of a church. I suppose if I were to sum up my feelings about that winter, it would be that I was hanging to the cliff edge by my bloody fingernails. I remember that image filling my mind at the time. Well, I did hang on, and that hanging on became a kind of personal victory, a feeling of having passed a hard testing and coming out on the other side with my ideals intact and my practice consistent.

Perhaps you have heard enough of that winter, dear reader, but I should remark briefly on one other battle that began in January of 1979 and culminated in December. In January I had concluded that if the first strike nuclear weapons then in the developmental stage were to be stopped before their likely deployment in the mid 1980s, the peace movement would need to employ the most powerful nonviolent tactics available. Testimony by Jim Douglass in the anti-Trident trials inspired me to think that an internationally organised open-ended fast or hunger strike participated in by at lease 2000 persons worldwide might be a tactic of sufficient power to tip the balance against the deployment of first strike weapons and begin the process of disarmament.

The life-risking, possibly suicidal nature of such a fast deeply frightened me. I could not see advocating such a fast if I lacked the courage to participate in it. Though I shared the idea with a few intimates, I kept it otherwise to myself, but all through that year I struggled with the question of whether I would be willing to risk such a fast. Finally, late in the year, the crisis was resolved. I decided that the idea was such a good one that whether I personally had the courage to participate in it, the idea should be circulated around the peace movement for consideration. That decision was a great relief. It was also a decision that would refocus my life because to get any idea, especially a radical idea, adopted by the peace movement requires considerable effort.

One other effort more closely tied to the WEB was taking up space in my life in 1979. That was the development of the idea of the ECO dollar, the adjusting of the cost of my purchases according to a dozen social-ecological criteria. I did this in an effort to meet the criticism that the impact of our expenditures on the world had more to do with what we spent our money on than on how much we spent. I figured both the amount and the social-ecological impact were important.

I then built a rack out of scraps for my bike trailer and loaded my remaining possessions on it... and hauled it to Eugene... It took two long summer days for the trip, travelling about 60 miles of back roads each day.

It was during this time that I tested out my criteria by applying them to my purchases over a four month period. It took a lot of energy to take every single purchase no matter how small and index it on up to twelve different criteria. It felt pretty crazy. I was spending less than $25 a month, but taking hours and hours to evaluate the social-ecological significance of these purchases. It was consciousness raising, but pretty exhausting. It felt kind of nit picking. Who was going to care? I also felt uneasy about actually using the results to modify my budget upward, however logical it seemed to reward myself for wise spending patterns. Would I be getting too easy on myself? At the time, unable to come to any conclusion on this, I simply stuck to the same cash budget and simply stored my lifestyle research away for some future time when I might incorporate it into the WEB.

During this period I began thinking about the necessity of some kind of tithing to the causes that seemed most important and to make such tithing a regular part of the WEB. Though I liked the idea of double tithing as a recognition of the seriousness of the world crisis, I failed to systematically do this at that time. For a time, I used such tithing to help fund the initial costs of circulating the proposal for the International Fast For Life. Later that effort so totally took over my life that the tithing got lost somewhere. For a time, though, it felt good. Certainly the WEB must cover not only our personal needs, but our obligations to the community. The practical working out of this idea then lay dormant for several years.

In the Spring of 1980 I was hitching frequently to Eugene to help relieve my sister and brother-in-law in their care for our mother who had suffered a debilitating stroke. It became apparent that my sister needed more help, so in June of 1980 I returned to Eugene.

The process of four moves in one year helped slim down my personal possessions considerably. Leslie helped my by taking some of my stuff back to Eugene in her Datsun. I then built a rack out of scraps for my bike trailer and loaded my remaining possessions on it, about 90 pounds worth, and hauled it to Eugene with my old bike. It took two long summer days for the trip, travelling about 60 miles of back roads each day. It felt wonderful. Ah, the simple life! It felt good to be poor. It felt good to haul my stuff admittedly only half of it by bike. So I guess I was half free from depending on automobiles on moving day. I suppose I could have made two trips and been real pure, but, what the hell? What are you supposed to do when a friend makes a loving gesture to help? Besides the offer was made before I'd done the bike trip and I wasn't too sure I or the bike would make it. By the end of the second day I was really dragging, saddle sore, and sunburned, but feeling a little proud for a 55 year old pretty tough after all those years.

I resumed my job taking care of Leslie's property, so I again had no housing problems. I also spent time each week caring form my mother which gave me lots of personal pleasure. Too often my life has been with social movements with abstract and far distant goals. It was wonderful to care for one human being for a change. The balance of my time was used in the rapidly burgeoning effort to organise the Fast For Life. This effort totally focused my life and released lots of new energy. I soon forgot the harsh and lonely struggles of my time in Portland. My spirit came alive and I felt happy again.

No sooner was I happily settled in Eugene than I fell in love again.

After my return to Eugene my cost of living rose sharply though I stayed within the WEB. The primary reason was that I was returning to full time organising work, really more than full time, and consequently some of the labour intensive aspects of simple living fell by the wayside. I travelled more. I foraged less. I had more phone calls. The organising work was so demanding that I had less energy to discipline my expenditures. By October, my expenditures rose to $61 from the $21 of the previous May. The WEB in October, adjusted for population increase and the value of the dollar was $74.65. I was still well within the WEB, but no longer saving most of the WEB each month. As it turned out, those days were gone for the balance of the balance of the first eleven years. Full time work makes the WEB more difficult.

No sooner was I happily settled in Eugene than I fell in love again. I was doing a workshop on the Fast For Life proposal at the summer conference of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at Seabeck, Washington. I also participated in a workshop on simple living where I talked about the WEB. Dan Berrigan was on that panel too. Dan said the WEB was not for him. That was a big disappointment to me.

At the conference I got better acquainted with Dorothy Granada whom I had originally met during the occupations and subsequent trials at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant. Dorothy liked me, the WEB and the Fast proposal. She didn't know quite what she was getting in for, but she went for the whole package. That was the end of my loneliness. What a joy it was to have a personal companion again. What an unexpected treasure to have Dorothy to share this lifestyle and this demanding and exciting fast organising. I had thought that being alone was one of the costs I would have to pay for the WEB. That was true for a while, but now perhaps that was over. I luckily came along at the right time. Dorothy had previously decided she was going to adopt a simple lifestyle and she had already decided to become active in the efforts against the Bomb. In December of 1980 Dorothy moved to Eugene.

Dorothy's adoption of the WEB was a very sudden plunge from a car and a three bedroom house in the suburbs of Portland and a $25,000 a year salary. It quite amazed me. I had taken several years of psychological preparation and practical sorting out of financial affairs before I had managed the change. Dorothy, on the other hand, did it all in one big jump.

Our moving in together posed some immediate practical problems. I had to give up my rent free room. The doctors felt I had abused the privilege of using the room by also running the fast organising effort out of the basement and holding meetings there. That was hard for these conservative doctors to handle. Adding another person living in the basement was too much. Consequently, we had to find other housing. Our good friend Karen Irmsher offered us a room in her house in the River Road area of Eugene. We were guests the first month and then worked out a non-profit rental. The room was a godsend. It was a small low ceilinged room, but by sharing it we could stay under the WEB.

We had been offered a very nice room near the centre of Eugene by another friend. However, it's market value and even non-profit value was too much for the WEB. Our friends wanted us for whatever we could afford. We struggled with this one. It would be comfortable and would save us a lot of commuting time, time we sorely needed in our now demanding organising work. We felt, tough, that by accepting this kind offer we would in reality be accepting a subsidy and we would not really be sticking with the WEB. That nice room was out of our class. It was hard to turn down, not only because of the obvious comfort and greater convenience, but because we feared our generous friends would not understand and might be hurt. It was the same old problem of rejecting the generosity of our well meaning friends in order to really live simply.


Our new room at Karen's fit the budget, but life became harder with biking the four miles into town every day and sometimes making two round trips when we had night meetings. Again, because we no longer had warm dry cars, we felt how wet the Oregon winter can be. For me it was not nearly so bad as the previous winters. I was no longer alone. I was enjoying introducing Dorothy to some of the simple living tricks I had learned. I especially remember the enthusiasm with which she took up foraging. I also began to eat better. I had gotten pretty thin those first three years on the WEB. The WEB was definitely easier with two.

As we came under more time pressure when our organising accelerated, the long commutes got harder for us and we moved back into town. As summer had approached the ride had gotten more pleasant. Our route was on a beautiful bike path along the Willamette river, so it was a hard choice.

Our new housing cost more. Our more than full time organising cost more. We decided to ease the financial pressure by accepting the ECO dollar adjustment to the WEB which meant a one-third increase in the budget. It was a hard decision for me. I wondered whether the change was really logically justified or whether we were just doing it because we could no longer stay within the WEB 3. Whether logically justified or not, we made the change. I worried about the admittedly arbitrary ECO dollar indexes now added to other arbitrarily chosen standards for the WEB, mainly the choice of 1960 as a base year. Arbitrary standards open the WEB to more criticism. Nonetheless, I fell back on the realisation that we had to make some estimates of what an equal share was in the absence of more knowledge as to what a sustainable world economy might be.

My struggle centre on what the WEB ought to be. Dorothy's struggle was more on how to live within it. Her main concern was to live simply and she looked at the WEB as a kind of guideline. However arbitrary some of the standards were, and however unreliable some of the data going into the formula were, for me, sticking to the WEB was more of an absolute. I got very anxious whether our expenditures were over the budget. To me that was a failure. I think to Dorothy, it was just a fact of life. Usually we made it. Sometimes we didn't. Dorothy was more naturally spontaneous and generous than I was.

Incorporating the ECO dollar adjustment eased the strain and we even managed to save a little. That felt good. We were active in a local small group emergency fund so in addition to our own savings we could call on the fund if need be. Our in town housing cost more, but we were only a five minute bike ride to our office so we could really pour energy into our organising for the fast.

Friends who had previously worried that our chosen lifestyle would be so demanding on our time that we would be lost to the peace movement had to reassess when they saw the amount of energy and time we were able to put into the organisation of the Fast For Life. I again felt we had demonstrated that the WEB meant a liberation of time because we needed so much less to sustain ourselves. Though living on the WEB was labour intensive per unit of product, when one uses so little product one comes out way ahead. Those were good days. We were together. Our lives were focused on as critical effort to stop the arms race and we felt in a more just economic relationship with our sisters and brothers.

  Complete copies of the reduced version (used above) are available from Ben Searle, 5 Fairlawn Rd., Montpelier, Bristol B56 5JR plus 50p postage. The original was written in 1989.
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