The Best Things in Life Are Free

Last Thanksgiving I hit a deer and banged up the front end of my car. To repair it properly would have cost several hundred dollars (the plastic grill itself was over $300), so I chose to leave my car a little banged up. A friend made a grill out of a piece of screen and got my hood to latch so I could pass state inspection.

In the past, when my car’ start­ed to look road-weary and battle­ scarred, I would begin to think about trading up. But with the price of a car skyrocketing to lev­els one might have paid for a home two decades ago, my goal from the beginning was to keep this car for 300,000 miles, or 15 years, whichever came first.

I’ve religiously changed the oil every 3,000 miles, and my five­-year payments are almost up. Soon I’ll have some extra money I can use for better things—my kids’ education, for example, or some bus travel into the moun­tains of Mexico and Central America, where I always learn so much from the people about the virtues of simple living.

Also, happily, I no longer consi­der it a hardship to keep a car so long. In fact, I enjoy the challenge of not succumbing to the consum­er mentality that seems to have now taken over as the American Dream—what one can buy, what one can own, what one can have. After my last car payment, I will have no further debts to my name. No debts, no credit cards, no sav­ings. I plan to keep it that way.

Some days I count what I spend frivolously, say on restaurant lunches or 7-Eleven coffees, and more and more the figure comes up a simple $.0. As for wardrobe, I have long preferred the look and feel of clothes that have been worn a few years to something stiff and new and in style. For shelter, I rent a small but comfortable four-room house, which sometimes seems a touch extravagant, now that my kids are in college and more on their own. In the winter, I move entirely into my study to save fuel. But again, I find this con­servation not a hardship, rather a pleasant experience, a seasonal going within.

One of my sisters has a summer lake house in Michigan several times more elaborate than the house I live in. When I visit her on occasion, I notice that keeping up two homes can be a burden as much as a pleasure for her and my brother-in-law—double the lawn mowing, painting, fixing up, etc. Their lives often seem but an­other case of the house owning its owners.

If I chide her a bit for how busy she is or how much she sighs when she’s dusting, she tells me that I’m just proud of my poverty. But having traveled in poorer coun­tries, I don’t think I live in pover­ty, but in tremendous wealth.

It pleases me that I don’t lock the doors of my house, even when I leave town for several days. I have nothing worth stealing. Once a student asked me, when I said I don’t own a television, “But what do you do, then?” I admired this question. It was so honest. She really couldn’t imagine.

I certainly prefer the free sounds of silence to any pleasure a television or, say, a four-wheel vehicle could afford. An evening walk in the rising moonlight costs me, in total, a little bit of shoe leather. And I’ve had the same hiking boots for over 10 years now. I wax them regularly. They are so comfortable.

Before my mother died some years ago, she feared that some­how I was going bad, that I wasn’t making enough effort to fit into mainstream society. At the time I had gone a couple years without having a regular job and was liv­ing out of my VW van on a bit of savings and day labor. I’d grown a beard, and was sometimes openly angry at the directions I saw American values drifting. In fact I was a little angry at my mother too, because I saw her

drifting unawares toward the sed­uction, the bland comfort, of things. My folks’ house, for exam­ple, was too “Homes and Gar­dens” nice to feel really at home in, compared to the rough texture of the little bareboard farmhouse in which we kids had grown up.

She would argue, “It isn’t the things that matter; it’s what they matter to you.” And I would quote Thoreau, “Our lives are frittered away by details; simplify, simpli­fy, simplify.” Like Thoreau, I would go so far as to say that I can judge the quality of my day by how little

money I spend. I have learned one of humankind’s most ancient truths, which is still seditious as it’s ever been: the rich things in life are free.

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