Saturday, January 21, 2006


by Skald

" I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost inumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to me extravagently large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them. I am surprised when the herald blows his summons before some Tremont or Astor or Meddlesex House, to see come creeping out over the piazza for all inhabitants a ridiculous mouse, which soon again slinks into some hole in the pavement."

--Henry David Thoreau

The mainstream stereotype of Thoreau is that he was some kind of anti-social hermit. Many imagine that he lived in a hut in a remote place... cut off from others... completely alone. But this is not the case. Thoreau often mentions visitors and friends. He lived in the woods and had a great deal of solitude, but was within walking distance of Concord.

Thoreau advocated simplicity, not isolation. And he recognized that housing was the best place to start. Even in his era (pre Civil War America... 1800s), houses had become insanely large, cumbersome, and expensive. Thoreau was bewildered. He couldnt understand why people chose to work their asses off... for 30 years to life... just to pay for an unnecessarily luxurious house. So he walked into the woods, found a nice spot next to a pond, and built a small, warm, comfortable home for next to nothing. Freed from paying outrageous rent or mortgages, he had plenty of time for writing, long walks, reading, and visiting with friends.

Thoreau's choice is still available to us. We must remember the point, however. The point is not isolation. Or forced deprivation. Read Walden and you get no sense of deprivation whatsoever. Thoreau writes of abundance, freedom, ease.

We can still go into the woods. But there are other options as well. Van living is one. Or car living. Communal living is another-- this is a popular choice for new immigrants. Its not uncommon for 4, 5, 8 or more immigrants to cram into a one room apartment. And why not.

We are not enslaved by force. We are enslaved by our expectations. No where are these expectations so ridiculous as in America.

I think, for example, of a couple I met in Bangkok. The woman was American, her husband was Thai. They had a 4 year old boy and a newborn baby. I visited them one evening and was happily surprised to find them all sharing a small one room apartment... an apartment somewhat smaller than the one Im now living in.

The parents slept in a double bed. The newborn slept with them. And the young boy slept on a rollout pad at the foot of the bed. They struck me as a particularly happy and close-knit family. I asked them why they chose to live in Thailand, rather than America. Their answer, 'Life is so much easier in Thailand. Everything is simpler.'

Their arrangement would be considered "deprived" by most Americans. In the States, many think that EACH CHILD must have their own room. A living room is thought to be necessary. So too a television, stereo. Increasingly, computers are considered a "necessity" too. And a separate room for the kitchen.

Thoreau is right. We live like vermin... infesting obscenely large spaces.

And what a price we pay. In San Francisco people tell me that my rent is "very low". Im paying $500 a month! I consider that borderline obscene. In most parts of the country, its difficult to find a house for under 100,000 dollars. One hundred thousand dollars! Madness.

We're taught that more money, more money, more money is the key to happiness. If we could only make more money, we could be free. We could retire early. We could escape.

But most of us dont need more money. Its our expectations that are the problem, not our income.

Freedom starts in the mind, not the wallet.

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