The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau
For those who don’t know it, the quote above is from: Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau published in 1854. Walden is a particularly dangerous book about one man’s experiment with living a plain, simple life in the woods. Referencing this experiment is, to me, the best way to begin this blog, as it too is intended to be a record of the same type of experiment. Though, I admit, mine will, undoubtedly, not be as well written or insightful.
I first read Walden in the mid-nineties at a time when I had begun to notice the slow agonizing death of the fabled ‘American Dream’, and had started to come to terms with having watched the slow debilitating death of my wife. I was in my early thirties; a single father of two very young children; and was fully entangled with what Thoreau so elegantly described as the “confirmed desperation” of being resigned to a modern life.
A Life of Quiet Desperation
I was born in the mid-sixties and raised in the seventies and eighties. Like most American kids raised at that time, I was indoctrinated with the fable of the American Dream and grew to fully believe that the constant toil to gain money and things would somehow miraculously lead me to “a better life.”
I was a prime candidate for this bullshit since I grew up in what is commonly called “poverty.” Not the real, third-world poverty of starvation, misery, and early death, but rather the first-world poverty of occasional hunger, and constant derision by one’s peers for not “having.” My clothes were worn and second-hand; my father didn’t wear a suit to work; my meals, when I had them, were composed largely of oatmeal, beans, potatoes, bologna,and other cheap ‘poor-people’ foods; and I didn’t have the latest toys, or the newest bike. As a result I felt somehow less than others, and was constantly told by them that it was true. So, I, like most American children in such conditions, decided early that I would someday be a “have” instead of a “have not”, and thus began a desperate life of trying to buy and acquire happiness. I had fallen into the trap, and would thrash around in it for decades.
A Nagging Call
As a child growing up in the city, my heroes were the romanticized versions of mountain men, frontiersmen, and Native Americans. Men like Jeremiah Johnson (the Redford version), Chief Joseph, Daniel Boone, and Cooper’s Natty Bumpo. I wanted so badly to live what I had imagined to be a wonderful life of freedom and adventure, but also understood that such a life would not lead to being a “have” so eventually dismissed it as a silly and childish dream.
However, the pull of those early dreams never entirely disappeared. No matter how much I vainly fought to gain my status as a have, I still felt a desire to occasionally escape back to the woods to re-energize. Thoreau described such desires as innate and wholesome properties of being human:
Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us… . It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstructions between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saints dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecoats.
I first read these words, and the rest of Walden as part of an assignment. In an attempt to escape from pain and what had become a miserable life after losing my wife, I quit my job; cashed in my retirement; and became a full-time college student/father. I studied history and writing, and was eventually given Walden as an assignment for a course in American Literature. The book as a whole had an effect on me which I wouldn’t understand for years, but I did understand the passage above, and it set a spark in me that would, in time, become the driving force in my life. I realized that being in nature was more than just a craving: it was a necessity.
As I was still entangled in my desperate resignation, my escape was slow and peppered with setbacks. I began spending my free time taking my children camping, hiking, rock climbing, and any other activity that I could find which took me away from the city and back to nature. Eventually, I even moved my family to Asheville in the mountains of Western North Carolina to make such forays easier. However, while my surrendering to the innate need for freedom became more frequent, I still made decisions about my life with the notion of becoming a ‘successful have’. I was happy in the mountains when sleeping in a tent, but was still driven by the need to acquire more when sleeping under a roof.
This self-imposed mental slavery eventually led me to leave the mountains which I had grown to love for the plains of Indiana wherein I would finally be jolted awake.
Sawing at the Chains
The job I had while in Asheville, like so many others, was taken out of the country so that the haves at the top could have even more. Instead of holding onto my beloved mountains, I grabbed for the nearest chance at having, which was in Indianapolis.
As I generally do, I managed to establish a place for my children and me in our new home, and eventually worked my way up the ladder to having. I fell back into the pit, and everything became the norm of working to have. Then came Mother’s Day weekend 2012. It was during that weekend that I suffered a series of heart attacks which left me hospitalized and nearly dead.
Over the next few months I began to heal physically, as best I could, and change spiritually. While lying in bed in the hospital I technically died a half-dozen times, and by the time I got home, I had decided that I needed to actually live before I died for the final time. Another quote from Thoreau kept coming to me:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
So, I began working not to have but to let go of things and be free.
The process has been tedious, and at times very hard, but over the last three and a half years I have let go of most of my possessions and ties which could not contribute in one way or another to living a life free of the things; things which we call “necessities” or “luxuries”, but which Thoreau so aptly described as “hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” HDT
I made my greatest steps to date toward freedom last Spring. On the 20 April 2015, what would have been my 24th wedding anniversary I rode out of Indianapolis on a bicycle pulling a trailer loaded with food and camping gear with the intention of riding to Portland, OR. I didn’t make it to Portland, nor even west of the Mississippi River, largely because I let the trappings of the life of a have stop me.
It is too long a story to get into, but after a few weeks of freedom, I found myself in Bowling Green, KY pursuing a new life surrounded by those still chained to the idea of materialism as a means to happiness. During this pursuit I found myself continually feeling trapped, and alone, whereas just weeks before while alone pedaling away toward the next campsite, I had felt free and among friends. I had started buying new clothes so I would fit in to the crowd; new tools with which to make a living and was continually having to hide my thoughts and opinions. I was once again trapped in the pit.
By the time I realized what a tragic mistake I had made in letting go of my freedom I was once again shackled to that most terrible slave-master of our modern world: the need for money. So, I reluctantly headed back to Indianapolis, resigned to the fact that I would have to start again on my quest for freedom.
Since being back I have made one attempt to start again which was rash and soon foiled by my aging body and the master I spoke of above. However, I have also learned that the changes in me which led to the attempts to break free are permanent, and welcome. I still have to occasionally fight back the urge to give in to the pull of the great lie of materialism, in much the same way a long time addict has to fight the impulse to have that one little taste. But, every time I fight off the urge to buy some shiny new piece of technology, or acquire some new comfort, the longing for the simplicity I had on the road with the World and everyone and everything in it as my companions grows.
(For an account of my previous escape-attempts you can go here and here)
So, here I sit, dreaming and preparing once again. Gathering my stores not for a winter to come, as it is Winter already, both in season and in my mind, but rather for the Spring when I intend to try once again to escape back into simplicity.
And so ends the introduction for this journal/blog. I have no doubt that much of what will be recorded from here out will be nowhere near as extensive or introspective as this introduction. Nonetheless, I Hope it will be useful, at least in part, to the reader in one way or another.
So…let us begin.