On Frugality

My senior year of high school, I was dating a great guy named Tony, who happened to be a silly dreamer, like me.

He had an English teacher–I don’t know her name.  All I remember is that she was pulled out of the ranks of the special ed department for a semester (or maybe it was guidance?) to teach an extra class of Advanced Composition.

If I saw that woman on the street today, I wouldn’t recognize her.  Still, I think of her often because of the effect she had on me, through Tony.  In a semester she managed to turn us both on to Thoreau and Emerson, Chomsky and fifteen other progressive dreamers, living and dead, but mostly onto one big word.  That is, frugality.

I learned the word right about the same time I first read On The Road, which you can imagine was a pretty revealing event for little old high school me.  It was also mid-way through my RENT obsession.  My friends and I, we latched onto stories about giving everything up and living in the country, in the city, or on the move, depending on our mood that day–any place but here, basically.

High School Rachael, dreaming.

You can trump all that up to teenage wanderlust, and in part you may be right.  But a big part of the desire to get up, get gone, and live free transcends high school angst entirely.  Granted, not much has changed for me in the six or seven years since then.  Sure, I live on my own.  I know a little more about growing veggies these days thanks to a stint on a farm.  I’ve traveled in Europe, yes, and a lot fo that on foot.  And oh yeah, I’ve got a degree in Medieval European History.  I’m living the tiny apartment life and don’t own much, but I’m hardly self-sustaining, hardly an artist, and I don’t really produce anything.  I don’t really personify any of our ideals, including the ideal of frugality.

That’s what it was though–an ideal.  Something almost beyond reach, yet still so visible you know it must be real.  Coming from an upper-middle class existence, deep in the heart of wealthy, conservative suburbia, it came to embody everything we wanted.  A life dependent upon people, not things.  One day it was wanting to set off for Yates’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, the next it was finding a tough old beater and setting off for California or Washington State.  Moving to NYC on a whim was maybe the most popular option, to a flat without heat in a part of Manhattan that, I’m sad to say, doesn’t really exist.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that those dreams in high school–they weren’t a phase for me.  I still dream them daily.  Sure, they’ve changed a bit, maybe gotten a little more practical, maybe less.  I tend stick to how-to manuals more and cling to Thoreau less.  But still, that’s what I think about every single day.  Living frugally.  Not being dependent upon ‘stuff’.  Being a producer, not a consumer, and living the new magic word: ‘sustainably.’

I’m twenty-four years old now.  Time to start thinking practically.  But I’m just as much of an idealist now as I was then–convinced that living simply can make me happy.  I have no interest in making money, only paying off my bills.  Freedom–that’s what I dream of.  To be free–whatever that means.

I’m reading this book about “American Nomads”, from conquistadors to plains Indians to boxcar hobos and hippies, so of course my “give it all up” dreams are turned up to eleven today.  Just reading it, I get frustrated, going insane thinking about places that maybe don’t even exist.

Richard Grant, in this book, sees the American desire for freedom, freedom, freedom as two separate and sometimes conflicting things.  One is that “Immigrant’s Creed of Liberty”–the desire to own land, live off it, and be left alone to do it without government meddling.  The other sort of “liberty” is what he calls the “Nomad’s Creed: that freedom is impossible and meaningless within the confines of sedentary society, that the only true freedom is the freedom to roam across the land, beholden to no one.”

If I’ve caught both bugs, then maybe I’m in trouble, as they in no way agree.  But I’m consoled by their one unifying theme, which is of course, frugality.  Some days I want to own land and work it and die and be buried in it and pass it on to my children.  Other days I want to hitchhike to Idaho and just keep moving.   I guess I’ll probably find a mix of both as life goes along, just so long as I “live deliberately” as my old idealist buddy Thoreau said, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I can’t learn what it has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”

But for the present, I’ve done some things right.  In high school, all we could dream of was independence, of course–a crappy apartment somewhere in the city where we’d sit and read books all the livelong day.  Check.

Tony, who’s now in grad school in Virginia, also recently informed me that Netflix likes to recommend many “Biographical Fight-The-System Documentaries.”  Sounds pretty consistent to me.


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~ by Rachael on March 31, 2011.

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