Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoreau's Disciple

I just finished reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. When I read it for the first time years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when a book seemed to speak directly to my soul. Thoreau gave shape to some of my core beliefs that I, at that point, couldn’t put into words.

If you’re not familiar with Walden, to sum up: Thoreau, a nineteenth-century philosopher from Concord, Massachusetts, left town and built a shack next to Walden Pond where he lived for several years. Walden is a practical and philosophical guide to frugal living.

Thoreau extolled the virtues of voluntary poverty and the simple life. I, too, find something clean and healthy about spartan-living. Some of my finest moments have been spent alone in nature or traveling on hitchhikes.

The ascetic who immerses himself in nature or embarks on a holy pilgrimage wishes to thrust himself into the very throes of life
. In so doing, he leaves the tidy, formulaic and unwavering character of conventional life to plunge into the very breeding grounds of the authentic experience.

By relying on our instincts and wits rather than on our wallets and families, we test ourselves, learn, grow; we can, in this way, reinvent our identities.

Not liking the man I thought I was becoming, I decided to steer my life in a different direction. I chose to live out of van for two purposes: 1. To eliminate the cost of rent so I can afford college and 2. To experiment with life.

Under most first-world definitions, I am poor. In two weeks, after my first tuition payment, I will be precariously close to penniless—and I use the term “penniless” quite literally. Stubbornly, and some may say foolishly, I’ve refused to take out loans.

I’ve already had my fair share of loans, and now that I’ve rid of them, I want nothing to do with them anymore. Anyone who's been in debt knows that the money you get is in proportion to the freedom you give or, as Benjamin Franklin puts it: “A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.”

Even if I was wealthy and had the means to afford college and live comfortably, to be perfectly honest, there's a good chance I'd still elect to live in a van. I've always been fascinated with how far the human body can be pushed and I can't help but wonder where the fringes of my faculties lie. I suppose living in a van is a way to determine which things I really need, but also to test the resiliency of my body and mind.


Thoreau, who wrote Walden in 1854, saw the same rampant and unforgiving consumerism that we see today.

I oftentimes feel a sense of culture shock in my own culture. All the things--the iPhones, Hummers, chain stores--make me feel queasy; it's as if I've wandered into some parallel, Disney-like universe that might be amusing for a weekend, but anything more would be like being stuck in a disturbing dream that you can't wake up out of.

I can't help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with a culture that embraces hedonistic shopping sprees with total disregard to the moral and environmental implications of such a lifestyle.

And how unnatural it is to think (and to accept!) that we were meant to live by the time-clock. In punching in and punching out, we divide our lives into neat little segments: school, work, family, retirement, and death, leaving little room for anything more. Forty hours a week are squandered on what is, for most, if not back-breaking, then soul-crushing labor.

We “Thank God It’s Friday” and look at the rest of our week with dread, not thinking that we ought to be equally thankful for Mondays and Thursdays.We work to obtain what we commonly regard as “necessities,” which are, more often than not, trifling expenditures, bought both to justify the drudgery of our hard labor and to instill a false sense of freedom.

There comes a point when all the crap we buy weighs us down to the point when, to paraphrase Tyler Durdan of Fight Club, the things you own end up owing you. Call me poor but call me free. Too often are our dreams lost amidst closets of collected clutter; freedom comes easier to those who don’t have to shoulder the burden of their belongings.

Our money and things do ensure security. And while I acknowledge the many benefits of a safe neighborhood, a warm home, and three meals a day, security also functions as a muzzle, restraining our wilder sides from manifesting.

In ensuring safety and security, Suburbia--in all its immaculate orderliness--circumvents the chaos of nature that once, not long ago, was an integral component of our lives.

When there is no more chaos, you have to create some. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s obvious that my little enterprise is not a scheme to “get back to nature” as Thoreau’s was. Yet, despite my concrete surroundings, I feel that if I discard all the clutter and extraneous “things,” then I might be able to, as Thoreau puts it, “live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

While I acknowledge how my little experiment is, in part, fake, and my poverty isn’t exactly “real,” I find my simulation far more genuine than what is commonly regarded as the reality of the age.

I could have taken out loans, lived in a reasonably-priced apartment, and easily paid for everything in less than a year after graduation. Or I could have landed some decent-paying job, worked 40 hours a week, and carved out a neat little existence for myself somewhere in Anytown, America.

But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the opportunity for growth, where’s the risk, the adventure? For those things,
I can manage a little discomfort.


Anonymous said...

Right on brother, well said. You've summed up what I've been feeling for a long time. Just wish i had the cojones to take a drastic step like you and live on the edge.

Ken said...

Go for it pal.

“If one advances confidently in the direction of one's dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” -Thoreau

Punanamous said...

I lost my job 2 years ago and lived off unemployment & student loans. Just landed a job in a new city. Couldn't see dishing out 3/4 of my check for living expenses. Soooo, for now I'm living in my paid for, 97 Mitsubishi Mirage named Betty, with 234,564 miles. Hopefully, I'll find a van on CL SOON! I got a $10 a month membership at Planet Fitness, a mailbox and a storage unit.

Not thinking (duh me) I told a few friends and family members. THE BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER! Only one person gets it. If one more person calls with the " you're crazy, everyone has bills, get a real place, I'm soooo worried about you..." crap rrrrrrrrrr!

I love you spirit and drive!
Good luck...

Ken said...

punanamous--right on. To be honest, I sorta like the incredulous responses--there's just something about them that seems to confirm that I'm onto something. Surprisingly, there were several decent looking and quite cheap vans on craigslist when I was looking for one. There was another one for $2000 I had my eye on. I bet you'll find something affordable. Also, I think the cheapness of my van had something to do with it being from the south. Happy vandwelling!

Anonymous said...

I'm incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon your blog, in particular this section. I've been feeling especially uncomfortable with the money that goes through my hands from paychecks to tuiton loans, rent and car notes and you were able to put into clear words my exact feelings. I always thought I was doing the 'right' thing and what was expected of me but I realize I'm really doing myself a disservice by "compartmentilizing" my school, work, family and your blog shook me enough to try to make small changes. I wish you only the best in all of your endeavours!

Ken said...

Hillarie--ah, good to know! Happy trails!

Dolly Iris said...

I have to read this now. My Grandfathers last name was Walden and in his front yard was a small pond he constructed and put up a small wooden sign "Walden Pond". I wonder if it was a reference.
We originate from BC Canada and he grew up in the logger lifestyle. If you watch "log drivers waltz" on YouTube that would have been a good way to describe my grandparents.
He was driving logs when he met my Grandmother who was a cook in the camp kitchen.
When I return to Canada I will find a copy of this book. Thank you for inspiring me.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but notice how you talked about how our culture falls victim to consumerism (chain stores, etc.) without considering the moral and environmental implications yet you talked about shopping at walmart and kmart. I'm not accusing you of being hypocritical, as it might be impossible in our culture to survive without, at some point, giving in to these things. And I am equally, if not, more guilty than you of this, however, I just found it interesting and wondered if you had thought about it?

Anyways, keep on doing what you are doing, I think it is great. Hopefully soon in some way or another I can follow you lead.

Ken said...

Dolly--no prob. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but if you lean on the heretical side of things you may get a kick out of it.

Anon-I suppose it is a bit hypocritical. To defend myself I'll say this. I only bought about $20-30 worth of stuff and it was all necessary (hooks, cloth, etc.) And I needed to be on campus in a day or two and I didn't have time to mess around--the van had to be stealthy and habitable immediately. Plus, it wasn't like there was a mom and pop hardware shop around the corner. Except for black friday viewing spectacles, I don't think I've been in a Wal-Mart for two years now. I dislike Wal-Mart for a hundred obvious reasons, but I'm guessing I'll shop there again. In some towns, you have no option to go to WalMart to get stuff you can't get anywhere else. I'd love to do my shopping at Farmer's Markets, but that's a privilege that only people with money can enjoy. Unless my wallet's bursting at the seams, I'm sure I'll continue shopping at no-so-great places like WalMart, Kroger, Food Lion, etc.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your explanation, it really is sad the way these stores monopolize their market's so that it's impossible not to go there.

Julia said...

I don't know that it's the large stores that make it impossible to find things anyplace else, but more that they've brought things to an area where they weren't available any other way, except mail order. I live in a rural area that has a Walmart (meaning 25 miles away). While I despise shopping there, my budget demands it, and secondly, the only other option would be to drive another 50 miles or so to shop somewhere else. The Walmart didn't displace anyone else's business because they carry stuff that none of the other local businesses have.

I applaud you for what you're doing... the American way of life has been so over the top, it's nice to see people embracing the more frugal way of doing things.

tentaculistic said...

One of the best encapsulations I've read in a long time. Me too, I gotta say "right on"!

I remember when I got back from living in a 3rd world country, I used to get sick and dizzy when I walked into a grocery store, where you could do a 100-yard dash from one end of the aisle to another, and all to sell the exact same product in different colors and bottles, from floor to ceiling. It was too much for my brain to handle! Still feels like I walk around with a totally different world superimposed on my everyday life, like some kind of bifocals, to make me see how ridiculous so many of our Western lives are.

signalfire said...

It has been reported (alleged?) that Thoreau's mother brought him cookies on Sundays. I don't know if this is true or not, but it sure makes him seem a little less.... wild and edgy. :)

Love the blog, I'm slowly reading my way through it. I will be 61 in a few days, will qualify for SS in one more year, and then I want to buy a van, join a gym, join a co-office space or idea incubator such as Hacker Dojo down in Mountain View for my internet access, intellectual stimulation (and maybe to meet some guys my age?!) and I'll sleep when I'm not exercising either my brain or my badly-needing-it body. Plus, if I'm in Mountain View or San Diego, my second choice, there's tons of stuff to do when you have 24/7 hrs of time. I spent my life in a cubicle or cooped up at home doing telecommuting jobs. But once, when I was 21, I lived in a tepee; best housing I ever had; it was spiritual, sensual, and smelled wonderful. Time to get back to the garden, as us hippies used to say... cheers!