simple matters 14: roshanda cummings and erin johnson

    December 12, 2018

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    Roshanda (Roe) Cummings and Erin (E) Johnson // Brownkids

    For Roe Cummings and E Johnson, living simply is about getting free. Together, they live in a teeny, tiny Baltimore, Maryland apartment and chronicle their journey toward liberation on their Instagram account, brownkids.  Here’s their perspective on striving toward debt-free living, emboldening communities of color, generational trauma and healing, and thriving in a truly tiny space.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: We’ll get into specifics, but let’s start with you sharing a bit about yourself with RMTL readers who might not be familiar with your work.

    ROE + E: Hi, Everyone! I’m Roe and he’s E and we’re Brownkids. Minimalists? Uh-yeah, you could say that. Intentional Living Advocates? No doubt. Debt-free folks? Almost there. But more than anything, we are two brown people who looked at each other a couple years ago and decided we were going to live our liberation now. Not tomorrow. Not someday. Right now.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    So, that’s what we’ve been doing: ditching the stuff that doesn’t matter and figuring out how to make powerful of all our moments, while we host the wildest-open-hearted Instagram community interested in doing the same.

    I asked E once what he hoped for these Insta-squares and he took a long moment to think before he spoke: “I want to embolden communities of color economically and financially….with the end game being a more perfect union, in the face of inequality.”

    And this, to me, brings that all home—makes ‘our work’ make sense. What we’re up to in the world is this: freedom for all of us through mind, body, and minimalism.

    This is the story of us empowering ourselves. We’re so happy you’re here.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: You’ve recently moved across the country into a tiny space in a new city. People often think of living in small spaces as being confining, but what are the ways that you’ve found it to be liberating, close quarters aside?

    ROE: (Oh my gosh…I’m realizing I want to call you, reader, “Family”, just like I do our community every day) Everyone, I want you to know I own a copy of Erin’s book, Simple Matters. It lives in one of the hallowed book boxes waiting to be unpacked and placed on shelves in a place of honor. I read that book and thought to myself, “She gets it. She really actually gets this small living stuff.”

    And now that we have downsized from 800 square feet (74 m2) to ONE-HUNDRED AND FORTY SQUARE FEET (13 meters square for our International Loves), I find myself clinging to its principles: Don’t rush into buying anything until you know how you’re using the space; every item counts; look for antiques and wood pieces you can keep with you for a lifetime.

    Because right now, as I wait, I’m feeling downright claustrophobic. It doesn’t have a kitchen (long story) and the row-house situation custom to Baltimore is like sharing a room with your brother but your brother is your neighbor and he does Riverdance in the evenings.

    The whole reason, however, we decided to make such a hilarious leap is we’re training for van life actually—to spend time in the daily lives of everyone who’s followed us over the past 6 years ( or at least that’s what we keep reminding ourselves, hahaha) and we knew it was going to be harder to jump for 800 to 75sq feet than from 150 to 75, so we chose to go for this.

    The liberating feeling rushes in when we remember the end goal, make creative plans for small space solutions we would N E V E R have come up with had lived somewhere larger, and, we spend more time outside, period, getting to know our new neighborhood.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: Liberation, freedom, unapologetic living, empowerment—these are words you guys often use to describe your journey. They sound like words—and destinations—that most folks would find appealing, but no doubt they have specific and special meaning for Black folks. Can you talk a bit about that?

    ROE: Oh, yeah! Favorite question!! Oh man oh man oh man oh man…I could go so many dorky, nerdy ways with this.

    Alright, let’s get nerdy. Why these words mean something profound to Black Folks these days is because we’re entering an age where we don’t have to taste them as concepts on our tongues, we can live them.

    And, when we do live them, something happens in us. And our children.

    It’s no secret that Black Americans have been systematically boxed out of economic opportunities, property ownership, and the social freedom to do as they wished (In Baltimore, freed slaves were exclusively kept from trades; e.g. carpentry, blacksmithing, cobblers, gunsmiths, milliners, etc., until the 1940s. These jobs were higher paying jobs, setting back 2 to 3 generations of men and women from not only stable forms of income, but also passing on legacy vocational skills to their children. Imagine how that could affect upward mobility).  So, black folks alive today carry those implications not just historically but genetically.

    brownkids | simple matters | reading my tea leaves

    But this is where it gets exciting: Studies have shown, in the emerging field of epigenetics, that what was possible for our parents came with us in our DNA and that whatever we ourselves heal and unleash in our lifetimes becomes healed and unleashed in our children’s DNA.

    Meaning: That for anyone marginalized in any way historically—if you dare to live liberated right now, that new possibility actually passes down to the next generation. So, for Black People, why not go all out? Throw off all chains, heal yourself, and free yourself from the ways you may have been held back—fault of yours or not—if it can lift us all up to the next level. The question, “What do I want to make possible?” when I wake up every morning as a black woman in America, takes on an all new, profound meaning.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: Can you share what it’s like to be a couple doing this work and why you’ve chosen to share your journey publicly?

    ROE: I’ll punt this over to E for the beginning of this answer because he’s so good at things like this.

    E: For me, this started as a chronicling of our relationship and nothing more than that! And now this is just the story of us freeing ourselves paired with the information we receive that we feel isn’t ours to have alone. We have a saying, “We all gettin’ free,” and that means that the lesson of freedom isn’t ours alone.

    ROE: Me, what it’s like? Surprising. Shocking. A whirlwind, most times. We seriously were just taking pictures of ourselves for our friends and our account exploded. It feels heartwarming to know there are so many people rooting for you as much as they are rooting for themselves; who’ll do anything for you (when we shared all of our design challenges for the tiny space, I received 300 DMs from people that day who took the time to GO OUT on the internet and find bed options for us, I kid you not). I take my responsibility as this internet person very seriously: If I’m learning something that’s helpful, I want our IG family to know about it. And that takes a lot of personal work on my end, making sure I’m filtering out any crap, resisting the temptation to be another excuse to “buy stuff”, and keeping myself clear about where it is I am going in life.

    If you’re going to lead, lead with integrity, spirit, and generosity. In that order.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: You guys are both infectiously good spirited. How do you guys stay cheery even in the midst of doing things that, frankly, a lot of folks would find to be intensely stressful? (Letting go of worldly possessions, hiking through the California wilderness, moving into a tiny place in a new city—on a new coast!, etc.)

    ROE: HAHAHAHAH. Ohhhhgodddd, I think it’s just too much work to be anything else.

    E: Of all the possible lives I could choose to live, it just doesn’t make sense to me to choose the life where I’m stressed in it.

    ERIN: You developed the Jar Method and coach folks on how to integrate it into their lives. Can you explain a little bit about how it works, but especially how it hits that sweet spot of simplicity and frugality that makes up so much of your work?

    ROE: Oh, gosh, totally! I decided I was going to get out of debt. But instead of trying to get a higher paying job, I came to the conclusion that I should get rid of my debt so I wouldn’t have to have a terrible job to pay off my debt. So, that meant: “Girl, you gotta get your money right.” And, by money, I meant expenses, and my expenses were all going to food.

    E was and is vegan and we’d go to Whole Foods for fresh vegetables and watch our hard earn money wilt 3 days later. I made a decision: if you can keep your vegetables longer, your money will go farther, and you won’t spend as much.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    The Jar Method was an accident. I O B S E S S I V E L Y researched food storage (because, dammit, I’m going to figure this out) and made a connection to glass and cold circulation. Our refrigerator was a crappy rental fridge, so I bought 64 oz mason jars to store greens and smaller jars to store chopped vegetables, and bought all of our food for a MONTH in one shopping trip (since I read from Linda Watson, this one smart). E was agog. “Why are we spending $350 on groceries?!? At one time!!” I told him to trust me.

    By combining glass and methods, our fresh vegetables went from 3 days of freshness to 3 weeks. Before, we spent $850 on food every month as a city couple. The first time we tried this, we saved $500, eating produce we no longer had to rush to eat. I perfected it and created The Jar Method to satisfy our community who hounded us about it for 2 years.

    It’s the simplicity and frugality sweet spot because you no longer spend your money in a way that doesn’t multiply. You eat your values, to your health, and to your sanity. Expediting your financial goals, not impeding them, which feels SO. damn. Good. And, once you learn it, you want to tell everyone, it’s so awesome, and you have command over your home and money in a way you didn’t think possible —  so you can do other things you a c t u a l l y want to do. (But most of the time walking around feeling like I’m adulting well is actually what I’m here for.)

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    ERIN: I imagine that you might hear from some folks who are fascinated by following along with your story, but who feel, for whatever reason, like the kind of freedom that you enjoy wouldn’t be accessible to them because of jobs, family, kids, health, or any of the other kinds of things that tend to keep folks from, in your words, getting free. What would your message be for these folks? How can people who aren’t ready to take the whole plunge still manage to get their feet wet?

    ROE: E and I lived under the poverty line for 6 years.

    We’ve never made over $40,000, combined.

    We don’t have a car. We don’t own property quite yet.

    We’re from an historically marginalized group, where in some situations in America, we have to watch our behavior or it could mean our lives.

    I came from a traumaaaatic background and I never thought I’d get out of the cycle of being chronically overworked and underpaid.

    And today, I blink with wonder at the life I get to play in every day.

    It’s not luck, it’s not chance, it’s not limited, and it’s not elite.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

    I think the guy on the Bigger Pockets podcast is spot on:

    When you decide these things, in this order, your life is going to pick up speed:

    (1) Know what you want and (2) do something about it.

    Really. Consistently. Gently, but with determination.

    Say it out loud. Tell people about it. Make it plain. Then watch what happens when your will meets your magic. Hold on, kiddos.

    simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves


    To see more of Roe and E’s work, follow brownkids on Instagram.

    To learn how to slash your grocery bill, consider The Jar Method.

    Photographs of  Roe and E by Jamie + Lauren Eichar @eicharphotography + @eichars_explore 

    The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own Simple Matters story came out in January of 2016. It’s still available where most books are sold. (Signed copies are available locally at Stories Bookshop!)

    a book advent calendar, continued.

    December 11, 2018

    This is the second year that I’ve taken to wrapping up books we own and books we’ve borrowed and setting them on a shelf to open one by one through the month of December. An advent calendar, for book lovers. I have mixed feelings about the new tradition, to be honest. I’m impatient, for one thing. And fickle. I can’t remember where in the pile The Polar Express sits unopened and there have been certain nights when I’m in the mood to read one particular story or another, never mind the number on the outside of the parcel. (Yes, I’ve already done my share of rejiggering the order of appearances.)

    Whether or not you’re in the midst of counting down days to Christmas one book at a time, here are a few additions we’ve made to our wintry and Christmassy reading list this year.

    Like last year, I’ve included a range of secular wintry titles alongside others that are decidedly more biblical. As always, I’ve searched for books that feature predominately characters of color, and that have been written and illustrated by folks of color, too. Faye’s taken a particular liking to the story of nativity this year and so I’ve been especially intent on finding diverse renderings of that story in particular. Ashley Bryan’s Who Built the Stable is our current favorite alongside Synthia Saint James’s color-blocked illustrations of a black baby Jesus (and family) in Hallelujah: A Christmas Celebration. For a bit of child-bearing realism, the very pregnant Mary in Julie Viva’s The Nativity is truly not to be missed. And I’ve just placed an order at a local shop for a copy of Lara Hawthorne’s brand-new and beautiful Silent Night. Those and lots more below—and this way, too. If you have other favorites to share, please do! 

    + BEAR AND WOLF, words and pictures by Dan Salmieri


    + FIRST SNOW, words and pictures by Bomi park

    + HALLELUJAH: A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrations by Synthia Saint James

    + I GOT THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT, words by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrations by Frank Morrison

    + MICE SKATING, words by Annie Silvestro, illustrations by Teagan White

    + ONCE UPON A SNOWSTORM by Richard Johnson

    + OSKAR AND THE EIGHT BLESSINGS words by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon, illustrations by Mark Siegel

    + RED AND LULU, words and pictures by Matt Tavares

    + SILENT NIGHT, illustrated by Lara Hawthorne

    + THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL words by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrations by Jerry Pinkney

    + THE LITTLE REINDEER, words and pictures by Nicola Killen

    + THE NATIVITY, words and pictures by Julie Vivas

    For the curious:

    The paper tape labels I used on the books are from Appointed

    The wrinkly wrapping paper was salvaged from packing materials. 

    Most of the books on this list are ones we’ve been able to find at our local library, but when we buy books, we love to support our local bookstores—Stories BookshopBooks Are MagicGreenlight Bookstore, and Community Bookstore, to name a few. I’ve provided links below to where you can find these titles online or in your own neighborhood bookstores. 

    This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links. 

    gift guide: gifts to shift habits.

    December 10, 2018

    An extra bag you’ll never want to leave home without +/or same-day grocery delivery (zero-waste edition).

    A wrist watch to help you put down your phone +/or a record player for analog evening entertainment.

    Not-ugly compression socks for taking care of tired feet +/or a special assortment of tools to revive tired shoes.

    A water filter to encourage proper hydration at home +/or an extra-insulated and plastic-free thermal bottle to take out and about.

    The perfect pot for making a weekly supply of soup +/or fresh bay laurel for seasoning. 

    A project book for laying out a plan +/or something to help encourage a bit of…spontaneity.

    A new perspective on an ancient herb +/or a little something to help melt away stress.

    A casserole to encourage potlucks +/or  written encouragement to gather together.

    A bag for a weekly library haul +/or a year’s worth of diverse books delivered to your door.

    Slippers to make loving winter a little more possible +/or a sweater for keeping warm (and making it easier to turn down the heat)

    Here’s a collection of gifts that might, with a little luck, nudge the receiver (and the giver) toward a shift in habits. Maybe the shift will mean being a little more gentle on the planet, or maybe it will mean being a little more gentle on themselves. Here’s to making everyday life a little more special at the same time that it becomes a little more simple.

    Many thanks to Anna Jacobs for research assistance on this post. This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.

  • my week in objects (mostly).

    1. this plastic-free tape. {and this place for stocking it.} 2. this green stuff. {but i promise i’m done now.} 3. these decorations. {and the little guys *delighted* by them.} 4. this booster seat.…

    December 7, 2018 14 Comments
  • how to know it’s december.

    On sidewalks, fir forests. In second-stories, twinkle lights. Above intersections, snowflakes.  In staircases, pine needles. Through mail slots, letters. In mugs, cocoa. Under beds, parcels. In pockets, clementines. On minds, wishlists. On windows, frost…

    December 6, 2018 4 Comments
  • simple matters 13: celia ristow.

    CELIA RISTOW | LITTERLESS Celia Ristow is an environmental organizer and writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. On her blog, Litterless, she catalogues her efforts to curb her own waste and shares practical and supportive…

    December 5, 2018 22 Comments
  • gift guide: gifts for little ones.

    Colorful blocks of every shade +/or a blank-slate wooden dollhouse. Families of fairies (plus a rose flower fairy and a sunflower fairy),+/or bedding, a tiny tea service, and furniture. Headphones to fit little ears +/or a very special lap harp.…

    December 4, 2018 6 Comments
  • gift guide: gifts to hone skills.

    Knitting Skills: A new knitting pattern +/or the yarn to complete it. Knife Skills: A new cutting board (plus phone holder) +/or a new knife for practicing. Cocktail Skills: A handy guide to strong drinks +/or a whiskey…

    December 3, 2018 9 Comments
  • my week in objects (mostly).

    five little things that made my week. 1. this bunch of dried up stuff.  {for making it back to brooklyn in one piece.} 2. these seasonal socks. {because slipping them on this time of…

    November 30, 2018 10 Comments