Saturday, November 7, 2015

Doris Janzen Longacre: Patron Saint of Simplicity

Thirty-six years ago on Nov. 10, Doris Janzen Longacre died. Author of two best-selling books—the More-with-Less Cookbook and Living More with Less—Janzen Longacre could be called the patron saint of simplicity for that faith group, and for others who have followed her example of living "more with less." With the anniversary of her death in mind, I will be posting several columns I've written over the years on the topic of simplicity, beginning with this one about Doris herself.

Mennonites don’t believe in saints. But, if they did, Doris Janzen Longacre would be among them.

Janzen Longacre became well-known across North America and around the world through her two books: the More-with-Less Cookbook, which has sold over 850,000 copies, and Living More with Less, with over 86,000 copies sold.

Written in the 1970s, before living simply and "green" became trendy and popular, the books were practical guides for living in simple, sustainable, and healthy ways that kept the future of the planet, and the plight of poor people, in mind.

Unfortunately, Doris was unable to see Living More with Less become a reality. She started writing it in 1979, but died of cancer on November 10, at the age of 39. It was finished by her husband, Paul, and published in 1980.

In 2009 Living More with Less: 30th Anniversary Edition was published by Herald Press as a way to honour and celebrate Doris. It takes her original ideas, updates them, and passes them on to a new generation—people who want to get, in Doris’ own words, “more, not less” out of life.

That year, I spoke to Paul Longacre about Doris, her two books, and her final days.

Doris was surprised and humbled by the success of More with Less,” he said. “She was pleased to see how people were picking up on her ideas. She was especially happy to see how well the book was received outside of Mennonite circles.”

Doris discovered she had breast cancer in 1976, right after More with Less was published. The family was on a two-year leave of absence from MCC, studying in Kansas

“She had an operation, and the doctors thought they had got most of it,” said Paul. she also received chemotherapy for a year.

In 1977, she developed severe pain in her back; the diagnosis was bone cancer. Doctors gave her two years to live.

Those two years were “quite a strain for her,” he recalled. “She was in pain most of the time. But she tried to be optimistic. She tried to get a walk in every day—that was her therapy, it helped her back, and her attitude.”

Doris also became “more observant of nature, and the sounds of people around her, as she felt her own mortality,” he added.

It was during this time that she decided to write Living More with Less.

Doris wondered what to do with the time left to her—she still had lots of creative interests,” Paul said. “ 

She came up with idea for a sequel to the cookbook, taking the idea of simple and creative living beyond food and into rest of life.          
Writing the book gave her focus, and a reason to keep going, even if she knew her time on earth was short. 

“She felt she had more to say—just not as much time as she wanted to say it all,” he said.

While writing Living More with Less, Doris kept a journal She wrote about her struggle with cancer, and about writing the book. Paul shared a few excerpts with me.

“On September 14, 1979, less than two months before she died, she wrote a prayer that said, in part: ‘I struggle today to cope with the task you’ve laid before me. Your word says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house . . . ’ Does that mean ‘Unless the Lord unravels my thinking, relaxes my muscles, restores my health, so that I can write the book?’ Perhaps it means ‘Unless the Lord writes the book . . . ’”

“On October 12, she wrote: ‘Third lung X-ray today—unchanged. Probably means no going home from the hospital tomorrow. And I’m so near to finishing my book. If I could just have six weeks of good health I could finish.’”

“On October 18, she confessed to ‘impatience, discouragement, and fear. Fear that my lungs won’t ‘open up’ again. Fear that for weeks and weeks I won’t be able to work on my book.’”

“On November, 4, she penned these words: ‘I so much want to complete this book, one of the creative works of my life. But weighed in the balance against more time with (my family), the book is like a dry dandelion ready to blow . . . if I get well enough to work on the book I will have time with my family.’”

And what does he think Doris would want to say to readers of Living More with Less today?

Doris would have wanted her readers to feel and live more simply as a discipline, but a discipline of creativity and joy rather than one of drudgery and guilt,” he said.

As for the 30th anniversary edition, he hopes it will “energizes a new generation, just as the original energized our generation. I think many people today realize we are in crisis, that we need to simplify our lives and change our habits. I hope the new edition gives them some ideas and encouragement for how they can do that.”

More information about Doris, including poems, journal excerpts, her last sermon about living with cancer, the funeral sermon and tribute, can be found on the Herald Press website. 

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