Recently, as I may have mentioned, I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; an account of his time living deliberately in a cabin in the woods. I used to have a cabin in the woods and although I wasn’t legally permitted to live there, I did stay there quite deliberately. My days in the woods were times of living slowly; of contemplating, thinking, writing and walking. It taught me a lot about what I take for granted; about what I can and can’t do without. Above all it taught me to value water: when all you have is a five-gallon container which needs to be filled from a tap a hundred yards away, you learn to treasure every drop of the stuff.
Thoreau includes meticulous accounts in Walden, of how much it cost him to raise his barn and plant his crops; how much it cost him to live there once he’d settled in. It’s a little different in rural Leicestershire where my cabin was already ‘raised’ so I had to buy it as well as paying ground rent twice a year for services such as water and use of the toilet block. There were no shops nearby, which also taught me to value what I had, especially during those times when I was up there without a car.
But the one thing I couldn’t live without was money. And there’s the rub: plenty of people have tried, but those who succeeded the best were either able to survive at a very basic level, or those who started off with a great deal of land in the first place. I did once know some rather hippyish people who maintained that money comes to those who believe; and that if you have faith you can simply reach out and pluck money from the air.
I have to report that for a while one of these people ended up living in a horse box in a field…
Since deciding to write full-time I have had basically no income. Fortunately I am married, so I share my partner’s income. Unfortunately it isn’t very big. Fortunately we have generous friends and relatives (some of them) who help us. Unfortunately we can’t rely on that happening. And there are times when you find yourself at the bottom of a very dry pit.
But I chose this life. I could have stayed a teacher; I could have carried on running teacher training courses. Sure, I’d be miserable – but I’d have an income. The ones I feel sorry for are those who don’t have that choice: the homeless, the unemployed – or, these days, the slightly-employed: cleaners who have to get up at four to clean offices and get home before the children go to school. The disregarded. The despised. Because my life has two huge compensations: one, I’m happy doing what I’m doing – and two, there’s every chance that it will get better.
So do one thing this Christmas to help. Donate to a food bank. Buy the Big Issue. Offer a sandwich to a homeless person. Help out at a shelter. Or just smile at someone and wish them a happy Christmas.