The stripped-down life

It’s been quoted so often that it’s practically a cliché, this old saw by Henry David:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

And yet it’s a cliché because it’s so true. Because it’s what we want and can’t seem to find, we Americans. Because it’s a pearl of great price, a lost coin, a rich vein.

So you can substitute “went to the woods” (which I tried a few times) for “moved to a farm” or “spent a year in New Zealand” or “decided to do my student teaching in Africa.”

And that’s why thinking of home is complicated. As much as I love the U.S.A., (foremost family and friends, secondly purple mountains, deer and antelope etc.) and as out of place as I feel in Tanzania, I fear that the rubbish heap of American culture — from stupid smartphones to omnipresent advertising to church ladies running the government to comedy so unfunny they have to tell us when to laugh — will lure me not with a siren song but a jingling earworm into a life that is the antithesis of Spartan, however simple I’ve tried to make it over the years.

The marrow is hidden in bone as hard as diamond, wrapped in layers of fat and thick skin, clothed in poly-something-or-other and logos and slogans and snark, riding in the back seat of a Cadillac with fake chrome fake spoked wheels parked in a five-car garage beside an ATV and a speedboat and a Harley and a Prius beside a McMansion in a subdivision named for something that doesn’t live there anymore in a suburb with another stupid name in a sprawling megalopolis of labyrinthine roads to nowhere but strip malls selling fake food that pretends to come from real countries and the newest of everything designed by the greatest minds of our generation to distract us from the dear and deep and to fuse enamel to rock-hard bone to keep us from the marrow.

The other day I made a list called “Things I Hate about America”:

  • How unreflective we are
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Anti-science
  • Obsession with bad religion
  • Racism
  • Smartphones
  • Militarism
  • Inequality
  • Advertising
  • The American Dream
  • Materialism
  • Celebrity worship
  • Strutting

At the top I should add “The inability to find much less eat the marrow.”

In New Zealand, I spent several months without a car, although Diane had one she drove to work and that we used for travels. I walked to the shop, bought my groceries, and carried them home. We heated the house with a coal fire and lived out of suitcases. Every day I said to myself “I’m on the other side of the world” and felt happy about it. I never did get a cellphone.

Here in Africa, I live without a car and walk to the shop and spend much of my days outdoors. My smartphone doesn’t work, and I don’t have a TV. No one has said an unkind word to me.

This is what I’ve enjoyed about a brief time in Africa, not only my own stripped-down life out of a suitcase with no car and no significant worries, but witnessing and admiring the marrow in what we used to call “the third world” but now call “developing countries” (whether they are or aren’t).

Food grows in every vacant lot, because people need it because they have no money to buy it. When they’re finished working at their jobs, they go to their farms and whack the hard dirt with heavy hoes that to me are the ultimate symbol of Tanzania. They need the rain, and when it doesn’t come, it’s all they talk about. They grow corn and dry it and grind it and cook it into something called ugali, which looks like a lump of white dough and tastes like what you dip it in, and they love it. My friend Samwel said ugali is man’s food, while chips (fries) are women’s food.

It wasn’t that long ago — 100 years — that America was like this. Today I saw 10 men with picks in a line digging a trench for a power cable. Down by the river, they pound rocks with other rocks to make smaller rocks. They make bricks from dirt and bake them in ovens and build houses from them, or for want of bricks they build a frame of sticks and pack mud for walls and roof it with palm fronds. They’re strong as hell, and the women even stronger, carrying more on their heads than we roly-poly Americans can carry in a wheelbarrow. Many of the men have cellphones, and they’re always texting.

And no, I wouldn’t trade my (relative) fortune for their lot, and I don’t think it’s better when all things are added up, but I do think we’ve traded marrow for a plastic bone, and our American Dream, to extend the metaphor, is an endless game of fetch, an obsession with the new and the news, a taste for carbon smoke, an unrequited love affair with celebrity, leaders who have time-traveled from the 13th century, food so altered and poisoned that it’s barely food, addiction to painkiller-killers and antidepressants no more effective in treating made-up ills than a witch’s brew, and a racism so deep in the marrow that it’s no easier to see or recognize or grieve over than the truth, goodness, and beauty we’ve sacrificed to the false gods of capital, power, and a plastic freedom more dumb than free.

So I have mixed feelings about coming home, but I hope I will arrive with sharper teeth and stronger jaws, more like Thoreau, that old hyena, and the first thing I’ll do in my new pursuit of happiness is to take up my hoe, and follow him.

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