Live in a tent for a week, as I did this summer during a campout with my son’s Boy Scout troop, and you get a good lesson in what you really need, and what you can do without. In a space the size of a small bathroom, I placed a portable bed, a sack of clothes, a few books, a grooming kit and little else. The exercise reminded me that it’s possible to be comfortable, even happy, with only a handful of belongings within arm’s reach.
Don’t let me preach too long about the virtues of paring down. Our campsite included a mess hall down the road with plenty of food, and our little colony of tents boasted some other creature comforts, too: electric fans, iced drinks, a shaded canopy and a dozen chairs.
In the pantheon of Roughing It, we’d hardly have warranted an honorable mention.
While my spirit of confession is still strong, I should also admit that my enjoyment of camping comes from the knowledge that it doesn’t last forever. I love coming home to a familiar house, my own books, two televisions, a warm bed and a hot shower. Material poverty isn’t my idea of a fulfilled life.
But shrinking my inventory of possessions, even temporarily, helps connect me with pleasures that can too easily get lost in the clutter of computers and car keys, catalogs and power tools.
That’s what Henry David Thoreau was after, more or less, when he went to live in a tiny cabin for a couple of years on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He wasn’t much interested in economy as a penance, either. During his stay at Walden Pond, regular trips to the dinner tables of nearby friends and loved ones nourished Thoreau with food and friendship. He eventually left his cabin and rejoined life in neighboring Concord for good.
What was essentially an extended campout at Walden forced Thoreau to think about what’s really necessary for a good life. He discovered that we can all do without a lot more than we think we can.
All of this comes to mind because I usually write a Thanksgiving column each November in which I offer a few words of gratitude for what I don’t own. The inspiration comes from Thoreau’s comment that after life’s basic necessities are met, we’re richer in proportion to those things we can afford to let alone. That was his way of saying that less can be more.
That thought came to mind recently when we gathered to help clear the house of an elderly aunt who’s moved to a nursing home. My aunt was skeptical of consumer culture and once famously remarked, upon entering a Florida tourist shop, that she’d never seen so many things she didn’t need. But even though she’s lived simply, my aunt had managed to fill her shelves and closets and cabinets during a long and eventful life. Feeling the weight of books and pottery and pictures as we boxed them up, we were reminded that the things we own can be a burden as much as a blessing.
Which is why, as I bow my head over the turkey next week, I’ll quietly give thanks for the stuff I don’t have.