Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Voluntary Poverty

"Thoreau's Cabin" was originally posted to Flickr by Namlhots at http://flickr.com/photos/50907122@N00/292565874.

I have an interest in voluntary poverty. The starving artist kind, not the starving Ethiopian kind.

It's good I'm interested since I got my third rejection letter from a literary agent yesterday. This idea of cutting back my paid work hours at the library so I could commit more hours to my unpaid work trying to get my novel published isn't going as planned.

I was feeling low until I managed to rationalize happiness. I reminded myself I'm not in it for the money. I just want people to read my stuff. I want to share it. I don't want to make a profit off it. Anything beyond what I need to support myself and my family is money I don't need or want. I have witnessed nothing achieved with any inessential money but greed. I rationalize, therefore I'm happy. I must write, even if someone doesn't want to pay me to do it, therefore I blog.

"Bedroom in Arles" by Vincent van Gogh

Of course the term poverty is relative. What we in the United States consider poor is normal elsewhere on Earth. Which is interesting. People I know who lived through the Great Depression seem unfazed by the Great Recession we're living through now. People who live around other people who also don't have a lot other than food and shelter and the clothes on their backs don't expect much more. There are no richer Joneses with which to compete. You can't envy someone who is as bad-off or well-off as you. Someone reading this post in Haiti might scoff at my idea of living in poverty. But someone reading this post in Overland Park, Kansas might not understand why anyone would choose to live without a working television or cell phone. How could anyone be happy eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch nearly every day rather than dining on fine food at a restaurant if they had the opportunity?

It's about having the opportunity but rejecting it. There are literally ten good restaurants within walking distance of my suburban home. Not that anyone around here would walk. So who in her right mind would choose to stay home and eat peanut butter again? Someone who has figured out that free time is more important than more money.

When I use the word "poverty", I mean simply doing without much more than what you need. Not swollen-bellied starving children or malaria epidemics. No one in her right mind would volunteer for that kind of poverty.

The other day Katie and I were talking about what it means to "get fired." She's into understanding idioms lately. She's just now getting that when I say we're going to kill two birds with one stone by my brushing her hair while she eats breakfast, it has nothing to do with dead birds and it helps her get to school on time. So when I mentioned that someone had gotten fired, instead of assuming I was talking about someone getting burned up, she asked me what it means.

"Uh. Um. Well, it's when the place where you work decides they don't want you to work for them anymore."

Katie prodded, "Why they not want you to work for them anymore?"

"Uh. Um. Well, because you made a big mistake and they don't want you around making a lot more big mistakes."

This seemed to satisfy her, until I used the word "unemployed."

"What that mean?"

"That means you don't have a job anymore." We were driving in our ten year old car we still haven't finished paying for. We borrowed the money from my step-father who is fortunately for us but unfortunately for him too nice to send the repo man our way when we miss payments for months.

I could see Katie's face in the rear-view mirror. It was lit up as she gazed out the window. "Unemployed means you stay home and not go to work?"

"Yes. That's what unemployed means." I gripped the steering wheel, glad to have gotten through that little vocabulary skirmish without stumbling too much.

"You wanna be unemployed, Mama?!" Katie looked at my reflection in the rear-view mirror and smiled like it was her best idea yet.

I'm flattered she wants me to be home with her even more than I already do since I switched from forty hours a week to twenty-four hours a week at the library back in July. She's got a point. Twenty-four hours is a whole day. But I explained to her that we need me to work to help pay for our house and our food.

She did the normal kid thing of suggesting I "just go to the bank to get money" and "let Daddy pay for that." I had to break it to her it doesn't quite work like that.

When I had my hand on the front door getting ready to leave for work the next day, Katie's eyes twinkled as she called out, "Don't forget to make a mistake today, Mama!"

I laughed, but I knew she wasn't joking. She doesn't care about our mortgage payment or eating fine food. A roof over her head and some buttered toast would do this kid fine, as long as she has company.

Maybe that's my problem. My writing isn't yet publishable because I've lost that five year old's wisdom. I don't have that starving artist vibe. I bet Thoreau and van Gogh and other impoverished creators didn't worry about such silly frivolities as a ranch on a slab close to the interstate.

"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." -- Henry David Thoreau

"Thank God, I have my work, but instead of earning money by it, I need money to be able to work; that is the difficulty...and I have confidence I shall succeed in earning enough to keep myself, not in luxury, but as one who eats his bread in the sweat of his brow." -- Vincent van Gogh

But then again, those guys died under the age of forty-five of bronchitis and suicide. If only creative types could figure out a way to live a healthy life without needing lots of money to do so.