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04/05/2006 Archived Entry: "Simplicity and prosperity: Observations while on the road"

SIMPLICITY, PROSPERITY, AND A TRAVEL-NUMBED BRAIN. Sorry for being even a little more silent than usual lately. (And bless my fellow blogistas for filling the gaps so informatively.) I sneaked off to the Desert Hermitage without any advance notice. Several days on the road left my body beat and my brain feeling as if somebody injected Novocaine into it.

Setting off on road trips, I always intend to use the long, empty hours to plot books, solve personal dilemmas, chant mantras, or do something else useful. But distance-driving is so numbing (when it isn't either harrowing or just plain annoying) that I end up doing the solo adult equivalent of "Are we there yet???" for 12 hours a day.

Still, my brain was struck by one useful (I hope) insight as I passed through one of the West's galloping-growth cities. Okay, it's more of a rant than an insight. But what the hell. It has to do with the real meaning of prosperity.

You know I write sometimes about simple living. And I enjoy that style of life. But every time I write about it, some reader gets irritated. The objections are always the same: "You want everybody to live in just one way"; and "Free people shouldn't have to live in tar-paper shacks and mud huts. Real freedom equals prosperity."

I've addressed those objections before. I never say or imply that everybody should live as I do. And I agree that in a free society, nearly all of us could and would be "rich" in comparison with today. Living on less money is simply one of many possible personal choices for people who don't want to support government in this unfree world. It has disadvantages. It has advantages.

But whatever else you can say, living on less money doesn't have to mean living "poor."

I've said that before. But driving through this large, nameless, hideous city, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the richness and abundance of my own life and, conversely, the terrible, grinding, soul-crushing poverty that passes for "prosperity" right now.

It wasn't just this one city or this one trip, really. It's what I've seen "prosperity" fueling everywhere. Sacramento and Salt Lake City, Boise and Spokane, Phoenix and Denver ... doesn't really matter. They're all growing. And they're growing in ways that are supposed to be so glowingly "prosperous."

The auto malls springing up on the outskirts of every city are no longer just big lots with low-lying showrooms. They're multi-story glass palaces with copper arches and green faceted glass. The mall-malls springing next to them aren't just big boxes that sell clothes any more; they're vast playgrounds, gardens, museums, and even bigger glass palaces than the car dealerships. And above all the housing developments sprawling up the hillsides and out over the cacti (in places never meant to hold a building) aren't just humble three-bedroom, 1-1/2-bath tracts anymore. No. Everybody's gotta have 3,000 square feet and a great room, these days.

They tell us this is "prosperity." Yeah, things are bigger, glossier, more expensive. Must be "prosperity," right?

Yet everywhere you go, mountains or desert, woods or ag valley, it's the same auto-mall palaces. The same shopping-mall wonderlands filled with the same corporate chain stores. Even, it seems, the same builders of the same bloated McMansions. In several places on this trip, I noticed that not only were all these ghastly "prosperity" houses all crammed together in endless cookie-cutter sameness, but that they were all even painted the same mind-deadening tan. One development featured homes in exactly three slightly different shades of tan. Wow. Daring to be different.

They looked like the government-built houses you sometimes see on Indian reservations. Yet these weren't the homes of the poorest of the poor. These weren't the homes of little working-class drones like my parents, who were once grateful to get a "$500 down to vets" tract home in a safe neighborhood -- but who hoped their children would "move up."

These horrid houses, all alike, all dull, all predictable, are where "prosperous" people want to live. The "little boxes made of ticky-tacky" that Malvina Reynolds sang about decades ago were the homes of the stolid 1950s middle class. Now, ticky-tacky boxes are the choice of the country-club set.

What kind of "prosperity" is this? What kind of "prosperity" says that San Diego on the sea should look exactly like Salt Lake City in the mountains? What kind of "prosperity" says we should all live exactly as every neighbor lives, without expression of individuality, without privacy, without exhuberance or imagination or joyful eccentricity? What kind of "prosperity" values safety, conformity, and predictability over free expression of individual tastes? What kind of "prosperity" says that, as long as you can afford a fat mortgage, you should live in the largest cracker-box you can force yourself to pay for?

On this trip, I kept losing track of what route I was on and what cities I was actually passing though, because Boise really has become indistinguishable from Spokane and Sacramento or Denver from Salt Lake City. (Although admittedly Sacramento doesn't have billboards for something called "Missionary Mall." Yes, believe it or not, there really is a special place where young Mormons can get those perfectly awful duds they wear while ringing your doorbell.)

To me, the number one blessing of true prosperity would be the ability to have, buy, build, enjoy the things that I most want in life -- not the things that some planning commissioner, mall-leaser or tract-home builder thought everybody else should have.

Prosperity does come from freedom. But freedom is about individuality. So real freedom would breed real prosperity which would both arise from and nourish true individual expression.

If I had $500,000 or more to spend on a house, I'd build one with cantilevered wings jutting dramatically out over a hillside. Or maybe an earth shelter, a cozy hobbit-hole integrated with its landscape. Or a dome or a free-form sprayed-foam house or ... who knows? In a really prosperous society, we'd be able to customize our own vehicles -- not just with details and gadgets, but with bodies and fuel systems we could pick and choose, mix and match to fit our personal needs and preferences. In real prosperity, real local entrepreneurs would create stores and other businesses that were like no others. And every community and neighborhood would be different because its people and its enviromnent made it so.

If we were as rich in spirit and imagination as we are, these days, in money, we wouldn't settle for exactly the same SUV or hybrid car our neighbors have. Or the same clothes, the same predictable stores, restaurants, or landscaping.

I've said before that I'm the richest poor person I know. But the truth of that didn't really strike me until I found myself flooring the gas pedal in my eagerness to escape whichever McMansionland, AutoMall, Theme-Park Shopping hell I was passing through that day. To trade the glorious view from my own hand-built Cabin-Sweet-Cabin for what passes for life in such a place ... It would be unthinkable. Inconceivable.

Later, I entered a vast Indian reservation -- the mostly casino-less kind where Navajos still live on poor little ranches where real tar-paper shacks sit next to traditional hogans. And amid the poverty, I loved the riches I saw around me.

With few exceptions, everyone's home was an expression of that family's individuality. Sure, the siding was often just bare plywood (or literally even tar-paper). Sure the houses often looked as if they'd simply grown from dinky cabins. But they belonged to real individuals -- and it showed. And those people, for all their poverty, enjoy a landscape of natural beauty that no builder of McMansions or auto-malls could ever create. And they haven't wrecked it with the gaudy architectural baubles of faux "prosperity."

Then I reached the Desert Hermitage where my friends are in the beginning stages of creating a homestead that will someday look as if it grew organically out of its red-rock hillside. And I was so happy.

They don't have 3,000 square feet and a great room. I don't have 3,000 square feet and a great room. Neither of us drive a Hummer with a seven-year loan attached. But what they in the desert and I in the woods have in common are gorgeous views, mortgage-free lives, time of our own, and the sheer joy of expressing our own lives in our own ways.

Someday people are going to wake up in their McMansionized cities with their views of grand but homogenized AutoMalls and PlaylandMalls. And -- I hope -- they're going to feel revulsion at how cheaply their spirits were bought -- how they mistook plain old money for real prosperity -- and how very, very poor they allowed themselves and their communities to become because they bought into the world's biggest lie.

Lack of money never automatically makes a person poor. Simple, debt-free living has the potential to open the heart to unimaginable abundance. But "prosperity" as currently practiced creates a poverty so deep it's abysmal.

Posted by Claire @ 02:35 PM CST

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