I’ve been re-reading Scott Savage’s book A Plain Life about his walk across state to turn in his driving license. It’s good but in a slightly hard work kind of way. As for example when he says of his wife’s sense of anxiety (that he had intuited) about his planned walk from Barnesville to Columbus:
“But Mary Ann is a Friend, and I knew she did not want to give in to fear and stand in the way of a leading, a spiritual command from God. The journey from modern to plain living had often called for her to yield to the Divine will, and she had learned to honor and follow that Inward Guide.”
Several times I returned to that paragraph, asking myself why it makes my solar plexus writhe in an embarrassed kind of way. Because I know what he means, and oddly enough I wholeheartedly agree with him. But there’s something about its solemnity, taking himself so seriously, and the certainty. Identifying one’s political gestures with the Divine will – isn’t that just a little . . . pompous?
But I have stayed with the book because his decision to renounce car travel surely strikes a chord with me, as does his journey into an Amish-type lifestyle, from which I have much to learn.
I think my struggle is one that has often created communication failures between the American and British approaches to life. The more serious an American is about anything, the more serious and respectful and formal his demeanour. The more deeply an Englishman cares about something, the more he clowns around and pretends he doesn’t. This caused a certain amount of friction in Allied teams in the second World War. And the word has gone round from chastened English tourists returning home from trips to the States – it turns out to be a grave error to try and josh around with Americans in uniform; don’t repeat the attempt, chums!
So I think my Englishness is embarrassed by the unaffected earnestness of Scott’s presentation of his thoughts, even while my heart salutes his endeavour. I’ll keep on reading but I find myself frequently turned off.
But at the same time as considering Scott Savage’s renunciation of modern ways of the world and embrace of a plain and forthright Christianity, I’ve also been thinking about people who live without money.
I read some of Daniel Suelo’s blog and some newspaper articles, and googled about Freegans both stateside and in the UK.
All Freegans seem to come forth with identical polemic about the indisputable evils of consumer society and the corrosive power of money – and I find myself inclined to agree with them.
So I checked out what Freegans actually do – and it seems a lot of what they do our household also does. They forage for wild food, pay as little as possible for anything they acquire, where possible paying nothing at all, they give and receive via Freecycle, and they go dumpster diving for food. Well, we pick wild herbs and berries, and go for walks armed with wooding bags to collect kindling. Most of our furniture is second hand or donated, when they were small our children’s clothes were almost all donated or picked up from school Lost Property chuck-outs, or sewn or knitted by relatives. We swap and share and like things wabi-sabi and rustic, and make things ourselves. We pick up money off the street and scavenge happily – but we don’t go dumpster diving.
Now that’s not because the idea of retrieving good food from the trash disgusts me, it doesn’t at all. Rather, it disgusts me that it has to be thrown away. But I don’t like wresting things from someone who didn’t want me to have them. Freegans are up against security guards and sometimes police, and have to venture into areas out of bounds, late at night, dressed in hoodies, to obtain their pickings.
I once read one of the Buddha’s Five Noble Precepts rendered as “Do not take what is not given,” which is a significant step further than Do Not Steal. Food in an sealed bag in a high-sided dumpster in an out-of-bounds area protected by security guards is not given. And for that reason only, I prefer not to push in and take it.
But I also read that Freegans avail themselves of whatever freebies are on offer, as part of their protest against consumer culture. So I thought I’d have a go at that to see what it felt like and evaluate it for myself. I had a look at websites of samples and vouchers and freebies in general. I was really interested only in the food and drink sections. The Freegans spoke about scavenging all kinds of pickings – a pedometer, a joke spider, a myriad odds and ends; but frankly I’ve spent significant amounts of time and energy getting all that kind of junk out of my house, and I certainly don’t want it back. But I signed up for free samples of tea and a cereal bar, and printed off a voucher for a free cake and some free cheese (though you have to buy some first to get it), neither of which I had planned on eating or really wanted.
And I signed up to Graze because they have an offer where the first box is free and the second half-price and you can cancel whenever you want without obligation. But (which they count on I guess) I felt it would be really mean to take the freebies then cancel. I’d feel obliged to have a few goes before I stopped it. Actually I emailed them to cancel it.
I felt worried about all the ad-mail I have undoubtedly unleashed in signing the various Terms and Conditions despite checking all the Leave Me Alone boxes.
And when I’d done all this and read all the bumph I sat back and considered. Did this leave me feeling liberated from consumer culture? Did it heck! I felt like I’d been staring right down the throat of Mammon the whole afternoon!
It seems to me that going in for Freegan lifestyle is not a renunciation of consumerism but is entering a tight symbiosis with it.
This puts me in mind of a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (2:26-29 NIV), which goes like this:
From the Desert of Kedemoth I sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon offering peace and saying, ‘Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot – as the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, and the Moabites, who live in Ar, did for us – until we cross the Jordan into the land the Lord our God is giving us.’
The paying an honest price for what is offered is part of the separation, the holiness unto the Lord that keeps the world at an appropriate distance. I think. I feel better about it than scrounging vouchers and scavenging for left-overs. But that could just be acculturation. I’m not sure.
I had to go back on Facebook to “Like” the pages of the cake and cheese people to get their vouchers. I had a definite feeling that I was just kidding myself thinking I’d got something free from them. I think they took a piece of me in exchange. I think I wasted an afternoon, and I entangled myself inadvisedly, and I wish I hadn’t. I’ve discovered one thing anyway – being a Freegan is not for me. I want to live simply, but not like that.
Though I would add, I immensely respect what I have read of Daniel Suelo and his moneyless path. His particular approach seems to have real integrity and coherence. A very spiritual man, with a quality of innocence that oddly reminds me of Diana Lorence. That particular quality shines out in the picture he posted on his blog, of himself with his little god-daughter at her baptism/blessing ceremony (the fourth picture of six on this post). There's the same unaffected - what should I say? - charm? grace? - lovely quality captured in the photo of Diana Lorence here. A purity of heart.
Oh. You know what I mean about Saul's armour, yes? This story.
(if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here)
BRF folder. BRF stands for Bible Reading Fellowship, who will be publishing the updated, radically revised and expanded new edition of my Spiritual Care of Dying and Bereaved People. When they sent me a contract they sent me this, which had a catalogue of their children’s book in. I kept it carefully for a while Just In Case – but when I realised that no matter how hard I thought it remained opaque to me why it could ever be significantly useful, I opened my hand and let it flow down life’s swift-flowing river.
Oh, I posted about these before. Dear little things. Make good gifts.