One Couple's Simplicity Makeover

Six years ago, driving through the quaint town of Mount Airy, near North Carolina's Blue Ridge Parkway, Robin Hester stopped and picked up a book that would change her life. The book was Simple Living by Wanda Urbanska, who some have referred to as "the Martha Stewart of the voluntary simplicity movement."

After poring through Urbanska's 2003 memoir about downshifting to a rural town, Hester and her husband--still grieving over the loss of their 19-year-old son in a traffic accident--sold their thriving but unsatisfying commercial real estate business in Tampa, Fl. They moved to the same sleepy little town where she found the book and began to fulfill their dream of running a bed-and-breakfast--Sobotta Manor, a four-bedroom inn that opened in 2005.

"You see your own mortality very quickly when you lose a child," Hester says. "There were a lot of things we put on the back burner."

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photo: courtesy Robin Hester
The Hesters opened their Sobotta Manor B&B in 2005

Not anymore. That year, Hester, now 50, took the first step on what would be a long, difficult journey to a simpler, more meaningful life. Hester was inspired by, and had the support of, her simplicity idol, the 54-year-old Urbanska, who lives in the same small town. And as it would turn out, Hester had almost as profound an influence on the simplicity advocate.

"She has affected me hugely," says Urbanska, former host of the Simple Living series on PBS and author of the recently released The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life. "She reminds me of the big picture. It's amazing how much we have influenced each other."

Like Minds

The two women met--fittingly enough--five years ago at a garage sale Hester was having in Mount Airy to get rid of extra furniture.

The author recalls, "She came over and said, 'Are you Wanda Urbanska? I moved here in part because of one of your books.'"

So it began. The two women connected and eventually became friends through Rotary Club meetings, the local tourism board, and other happenings around town. They often chatted about Urbanska's advocacy of voluntary simplicity.

This movement, which has come in and out of vogue with each economic hangover in the U.S. economy, rejects the more-is-better pursuit of wealth and consumption in favor of connection, self-reliance and quality time with family and friends.

Hester had already embraced several tenets of simple living, including finding meaningful work and engaging with her community.

But she struggled with one core premise--thoughtful consumption.

"I had always said, 'I don't drink or smoke, but I do buy a lot of clothes,'" Hester says, with a laugh.

Her enthusiasm for possessions, however, soon changed dramatically, causing her to streamline and de-clutter with such a vengeance it would amaze Urbanska and worry Hester's husband, Thurman.

Indeed, she even challenged Urbanska--who is moving this summer to Raleigh, N.C., to work with a nonprofit that rehabilitates affordable housing--to go through her stored boxes more quickly and more ruthlessly than Urbanska had planned, rejecting the physical in favor of memories.

"If I said I was going to go through two boxes in storage, she would say 'four,'" says Urbanska. "I've never gone through stuff this quickly. Her wisdom has helped me to move forward and let go of a lot of things."

Devastating News

Hester's newfound zeal began after she and her husband received devastating news last Christmas. That day, Thurman Hester was rushed to the emergency room, where the previously healthy 49-year-old was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a disease he keeps in check with twice-daily chemotherapy treatments.

"That caused me to rethink everything," Hester says. "I'm seeing that it isn't the stuff that's important; it's the time that's important."

The result:

o Out went 78 of the 80 designer purses she had accumulated but never used, as well as the shoes that had languished in her closest. All were consigned, donated or given away.

o Ditto for the boxes and boxes of jewelry and several racks of clothes that just sat in her closet.

o Also donated were the toys in her attic, most of her CDS and the books that collected dust on the shelf.

Now her office is organized; her closet has been pared down to favorite pieces and sorted by color. And she has only kept the family photographs that she loves.

Finding the Time

But Hester knew there was one other important way her life needed simplifying: She needed to carve out more time to spend with her husband, or face looking back with regret one day.

On Urbanska's urging, the couple moved out of the bottom floor of their spacious inn and into a nearby two-bedroom condo, to have more privacy, flexibility, and a space to retreat for quiet home-cooked dinners--a rare thing in their former life in Tampa.

As busy real estate managers, the couple ate so many of their meals in restaurants, it was their favorite waiter who became one of their biggest shoulders to lean on after their son, Christopher, died; their waiter friend came to stay and helped out for several days. "We saw more of him than we saw of our friends," she says. "Truthfully, we worked all the time."

Since her husband's diagnosis, Hester has been working more to keep her award-winning Sobotta Manor in top form. "This is hard work," Hester says, "but the reward has come from making people happy and making friends from all over the world. We don't regret it."

"Robin is one heck of a hard-working, visionary kind of person," says Urbanska. She worries, though, that her friend is carrying too heavy a load, and has encouraged her to bring in help--something Hester is trying to do.

Hester says she draws strength from her husband's emotional support and always-positive attitude about his disease, treatment and outlook. Her life, she says, runs more smoothly now that she has a smaller living space that is uncluttered, quick to clean and private, like their first shoebox apartment. "We were so happy then. I feel like we have gone back in time."

Her advice to others trying to streamline their own life? "Just don't buy it," Hester says. "You don't need it. Put the money in your savings account and enjoy the latter part of your life."

As Hester father's always told her, you spend the first half of your life accumulating stuff and the second half giving it away. "It's not the stuff that's important."

Melinda Fulmer writes regularly about issues of health and wealth for publications such as the Los Angeles Times and web portal MSN.

Simplicity Makeover: Wanda Urbanska's 7 Paths to a Better Life

1. Live frugally; save money and retire debt as fast as you can.

2. Find work that sparks your flame and colleagues whom you respect and enjoy.

3. Rethink the American way of housing, and focus on small, green and paid for.

4. Personalize and simplify your decorating choices; adopt nontoxic cleaning strategies to save money and create a healthy environment.

5. Cook healthful food and in bulk: Rediscover your kitchen, source your food with an emphasis on local fare, and establish the ritual of regular, sit-down family meals.

6. Plant a new victory garden with fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables and allow its growth to spur on your own. Grow flowers for your body and soul.

7. Infuse your rituals and celebrations--daily, annual and life passage--with meaning and not money. Plan in advance and be original. Engage in community life as one primary ritual.

© 2010 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. dba SecondAct

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