Is There Life Without Money?

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.

Hm.

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.

Kirk out

I Went to the Library Because I Wanted to Read Deliberately…

I have never read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, though of course I have heard of it – and now that I come to it I’m ashamed I took so long.  We Brits are scandalously behind when it comes to reading American literature: of course we read Henry James and have a stab at Hemingway and Pound (aren’t Pound and Eliot more British in spirit anyway?) but as for me, I am terribly behind on my US classics, only coming to Walt Whitman late and never having touched Faulkner.

All is not lost! for I am only sixty and it is probable that many years remain in which I can rectify these omissions.  In that spirit, I went to the library and happened upon Walden which, though I have only read fifty or so pages, has already blown my mind.

First, I never knew that there were so many quotations in it – for just as every line in Withnail and I is quotable, so every page of Thoreau has something in it that you didn’t know came from thence.  On the first page I read a line familiar to me from Dead Poets’ Society:

‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.’ *

That idea of living  deliberately, thoughtfully, not just being swept along by the mainstream, is very appealing – though it does of course mean living a very stripped-down life.  Still it’s good to question which of the things you regard as necessary to life actually are.  Is a car necessary?  Is a job necessary?  And if so why?  You may come to the conclusion in the end that you do in fact need all these things; but at least you’ll have thought about it: and as we all know, the unexamined life is not worth living.  (That’s Socrates, not Thoreau, but still.)

A few pages later I came upon this:

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the  music which he hears…’

Everyone knows that line, as well as this one:

‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

I had no idea that Thoreau was the source of these; and now I do, I want to read more.  I’ll keep you updated as I go…

Kirk out

*I guess Thoreau didn’t go on holiday by mistake?