The following is an excerpt from Possum Living: Living Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed (Tin House Books, 2010). Originally published in the late 1970s when Freed was 18 years old, Possum Living is part philosophical treatise, part down-to-earth how-to, and provides a no-nonsense approach on how to beat the system and be self-sufficient — right in suburbia. The new, updated edition includes fresh reflections, insights and life lessons from an older and wiser Dolly Freed. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “We Quit the Rat Race,” and Chapter 4, “We Rassle With Our Consciences.”
Do you remember the story of Diogenes, the ancient Athenian crackpot? He was the one who gave away all his possessions because “People don’t own possessions, their possessions own them.” He had a drinking cup, but when he saw a child scoop up water by hand, he threw the cup away. To beat the housing crunch, he set up an abandoned wine barrel in a public park and lived in that.
The central theme of Diogenes’ philosophy was that “The gods gave man an easy life, but man has complicated it by itching for luxuries.”
Apparently he lived up to his principles. But despite that handicap, he seems to have had the most interesting social life imaginable. He not only lived in the center of the “Big Apple” of his day (fifth-century B.C. Athens), he also had the esteem and company of many of the most respected, rich and influential citizens, including that of the most expensive prostitute in town.
When Alexander of Macedon, the future conqueror of the known world, was traveling through Greece, he honored Diogenes with a visit.
Alexander admired Diogenes’ ideas to the point of offering him any gift within his means. Diogenes, who was working on his tan at the time, asked as his gift that Alexander move aside a bit so as to shop shading him from the sun. This to the richest and most powerful man in the Western world.
Parting, Alexander remarked, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” Diogenes went back to nodding in the sunshine.
Diogenes was fair and just to all but refused to recognize the validity of man-made laws. He was a good old boy, one of the first back-to-basics freaks in recorded history. He lived to be more than 90 years old. Alexander, The Mighty Conqueror, drank himself to death at age 33.
Well, this “Saint Diogenes” has been my father’s idol for many years. I remember when I was a little girl, Daddy painted a picture of Diogenes sitting in his barrel tossing away his drinking cup. He wrote “Are You a Diogian?” as a caption and hung it on the living room wall to inspire us.
Mom wasn’t inspired.
At the time, Daddy was a working stiff of the garden variety. Sometimes he made good money and felt like a big shot. Other times he was out of work and scared. Our well-being was at the mercy of fluctuations of the economy in those days, same as it is for millions of other people.
Why should this be? What did Diogenes do — besides live in a barrel — that anyone can’t do today? The economy of his society wasn’t as prosperous as ours, yet he didn’t work and he didn’t starve.
It happens that something of a Diogian life is still possible, because Daddy and I are still living it. Here’s what happened:
After Daddy painted the picture of Diogenes, we initiated austerity measures. Daddy hoped we could get some money in the bank and become more secure and independent.
Mom’s hobby, candlemaking, came in for some scrutiny. We had candles from one end of the house to the other, and the equipment and supplies were beginning to be a financial drain. Rather than give up candlemaking, Mom decided to sell her candles to recoup the money she had spent.
To our complete surprise, she started making really good money at it. In less than three months she was netting more than Daddy was bringing home from the factory. We couldn’t believe it! Unsuspected by all of us, including Mom herself, she turned out to have a flair for craftspersonship and an absolute genius for salespersonship. It was a women’s lib fantasy come true — a mother and housewife suddenly discovering she had the ability to make money on her own. In short order Mom rented a store and opened a regular business. Daddy quit his job at the factory to help run it. Being good with numbers and miserly, he took over the bookkeeping and financial chores. Having no previous experience or knowledge of the principles of business or economics, the two of them just bumbled along, not knowing what they were doing, and evolved their methods using ordinary common sense.
They made a bundle. Moreover, they cooked the living bejezus out of the books and so managed to keep most of it. But we weren’t happy, so after three years we sold the business and our home and moved out to this more rural area. The plan was to have a small shop in our home — just enough to pay the bills — and to relax and enjoy life for a change.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Mom and Daddy started arguing all the time. About money, of course. When they didn’t have any, they didn’t argue about it — when they did, they did. Mom, having gotten a taste for money and wheeling-and-dealing, found she didn’t want to give it up. No Diogian she. So she took little Carl, my brother, and left. Soon thereafter, she obtained a divorce.
Well, that was four years ago. When the dust had all settled from the divorce, Daddy and I found we had no car, no TV, no appliances, no job, no job prospects, and no income. Without Mom, we couldn’t run the candle business, and Daddy is flat not going back to factory work.
What we did have left was this house, free and clear, and a little money in the bank.
For us emotional types, a divorce can be a very trying experience. Making decisions about one’s future is difficult for some time following. So we haven’t made any. The Old Fool likes to go around saying he can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up. But truthfully, not having to make decisions is one of the great luxuries of life — right up there with not having to go to work.
We just drift along from day to day. We have a roof over our heads, clothes to wear, and we eat and drink well. We have and get the good things of life so easily it seems silly to go to some boring, meaningless, frustrating job to get the money to buy them, yet almost everyone does. “Earning their way in life,” they call it. “Slavery,” I call it.
Sometimes Daddy frets and says we are little better than possums living this way. Possums can live most anywhere, even in big cities. They’re the stupidest of animals, but there were possums on Earth millions of years before men appeared, and here they are — still going strong. Who can say whether we or they will outlast the others in our good green world? They’re all fat and sassy and love life (or so I like to believe), and nothing you can do will persuade one to work in a factory or office. Possum living is what we call our life here now.
So we live like possums? Good! Let us do so even more.
We Rassle With Our Consciences
Let me re-emphasize that we aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose. We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here. (Incidentally, the reason Thoreau quit Walden Pond was that he was lonely — I don’t care what he said. You need the support of a loved one.) No, if some Wishing Fairy were to come along and offer to play Alexander to my Diogenes, I’d pretty quickly strain that Wishing Fairy’s financial reserves. We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.
There actually are people living somewhat similarly for ideological reasons, though. In fact, there’s a growing cult of this sort of thing going on, as you may know. Unfortunately, many of these people tie in all sorts of outlandish religious, mystic and/or nutritional theories with their possum living and give us all a reputation for weirdness. Many back-to-basics types also buy expensive and unnecessary equipment, clothing and health-nut food (and wind up back in the money economy because of it) and so give us all a reputation for phoniness.
So if you’re thinking spiritual or sociological thoughts, don’t waste your time with me, but if you just want to easy-up your life somewhat, why, then, you’re talking my language! We’ll get that Protestant Work Ethic monkey off your back!
We’re incredibly lazy. You wouldn’t believe it! We have an anarchy here wherein neither has to do anything we don’t feel like doing. (Except to feed the creatures. You can’t neglect animals in your care.) Normally I do the housework and the Old Fool does the garden, the heavy work and the care of the creatures. Not because we have sexist roles, but because the housework bugs him more than it bugs me, and vice versa. If I don’t feel like doing the dishes, say, for a couple of days, I just don’t do them. I often feed the animals if Daddy feels like goofing off, and he often does the dishes. The anarchy works for us because we love each other and don’t abuse it. It amazes me that so many people must either dominate or be dominated, like a bunch of monkeys on Monkey Island at the zoo.
Often my conscience tries to nag me when I’m goofing off, but it doesn’t get very far any more. Daddy says it’s just the same with him. Actually, it’s hard to understand how it is that laziness has fallen into such disrepute in our society. Well, I’m tired of being a Closet Sluggard! I’m lazy and proud of it!
We can afford to be lazy because we satisfy our material needs with little effort and little money. Of course, you know that money doesn’t buy only goods and services; it also buys prestige and status. Being somewhat egocentric, we don’t feel the need to buy prestige or status. The neat trick that Diogenes pulled was to turn the tables on those of his contemporaries who believed that “Life is a game and money is how you keep score.” He didn’t keep score. We don’t keep score. You needn’t keep score either if you don’t want to. It’s entirely up to you.
Money per se isn’t the only status thing involved. Some people make a big machismo deal out of employment itself. You know, mighty-hunter-bring-home-the-bacon stuff. Folks old enough to remember the depression of the 1930s tend to take a very solemn attitude about jobs, and unless you like to argue, it pays to sidestep the issue with them. It doesn’t matter that you’re not on welfare or accepting charity but are earning your own way in life (albeit in an unorthodox manner), the mystique lies with that Holding Down a Job concept. Don’t ask me why.
Sometimes people who secretly resent it that they have to work (or think they do), and we don’t, point out that Daddy has no security for his old age. Daddy always knuckles under and mutters something like, “Gee, you’re right, mutter, mutter,” because it makes them feel better and doesn’t cost him anything, so why not?
Once he was fishing and an old gentleman came along and struck up a conversation. Coming to the conclusion that Daddy couldn’t find work, he started commiserating with him about the “hard times.” Then Daddy made a mistake and let it out that he didn’t want a job. The old boy got himself into a state of righteous indignation because he was retired, and had earned the right to go fishing on weekdays, by 50 years of hard work, and here Daddy was just going ahead doing it. Daddy mollified him by pointing out that he’d be up a creek when he got old, and that thought cheered the old gentleman up to the point of giving Daddy a nice catfish he had caught.
However, what he truthfully thinks is:
- Sure, you have security, but the slaves on the plantation didn’t starve either.
- The social security system is an obvious pyramid game and can’t be trusted.
- There’s really nothing I do now as a young man to live that I won’t be able to do as an old man.
- It’s unmanly to worry so about the future. Did Caesar worry about his old-age pension when he crossed the Rubicon?
- Jesus clearly and specifically taught against concern for future security (Matthew 6:25-34). Like it or not, it’s un-Christian to plan for the future.
- I refuse to spend the first 60 years of my life worrying about the last 20.
- Dolly will take care of me.
These same resentful people might also bring up that “you aren’t doing your share—you aren’t contributing to society.” While it’s impossible to have too much contempt for this beehive mentality, to avoid an argument you can answer:
- I am being useful! You can always use me as a Bad Example!
- While I’m not contributing to economic growth, a dubious good, I’m also not contributing to pollution, a definite evil.
A serious consideration is that of family. I definitely plan to have children, although I’m not sure whether I want to get married or not. I don’t know many people who have been married for any length of time and are happy about it. I suspect the description of the average marriage — “Two animals find each other” — may be correct. Daddy says when I find the man I want to be the father of my children I can just invite him to move in. Why get the State of Pennsylvania involved? It’s none of their business. If he doesn’t want to move in, that’s okay, too — he can visit. By the mores of our society, I should leave here and go live with him, of course, but I don’t see any reason why I should. I like the life I have here. Then, too, I don’t want to leave the Old Fool alone as he approaches the downhill side of life. Don’t suppose I’m sacrificing my happiness to my filial duty, because it’s not that at all — I’m happier than most married women of my acquaintance, at least. Also, I want my children to grow up with their grandfather. The idea of the extended family — the generations living together—appeals to me. The notion of kicking the kids out of the old nest and sticking the old folks into some “retirement village” is part and parcel of industrialized economics, which I also dislike on other grounds. Possum economics allows for everybody to be useful and contribute to the well-being of the family, regardless of age. Young and old alike can, say, feed rabbits or run a still. The idea of genetic immortality — the family going on and on forever — appeals to me. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion.
I’m trying to be fair with you and give you the picture of possum living as it really is. The few things I’ve mentioned that others may fault you on are no big deal — most people have enough to do to run their own lives without concerning themselves with what you are doing with yours. The big deal may be what you say to yourself. The Metaphysician-in-Residence — the little tiny unauthorized voice we all carry around in our heads — is going to chip in its two cents worth, too.
“You know you’re going to die eventually and they’re going to throw you in a hole in the ground and shovel dirt in on top, don’t you? Is that all you want to accomplish in life? To become a lousy possum?” it will sneer at you. “Is that the purpose of life? No! You’ve got to Make It Big,” etc.
Not being a guru, I’m not going to go poking about in any purpose-of-life quagmire swamps with you. But really, what purpose can you find in the life of any human, living or dead, rich or poor, drunk or sober, that you can’t read into a possum’s life? Possum philosophy was actually formed more than 2,000 years ago, and I needn’t go into it further. A good example of it is in the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the Bible.
Now that you have the overall idea — is it for you? Possibly not. It depends on the instincts you were born with and your present family circumstances. For example, my Mom wants no part of “this squalor,” as she puts it. Daddy and I are instinctive possums — we break out in hives in elegant surroundings. Also, you have to trust your instincts. “Philosophize with a hammer,” as Nietzsche advocated, “testing idols to see if they ring true.” Does the money economy ring true for you? Does possum living ring true? It isn’t enough that you know a false idol when you see one; your family must agree with you. If your kid gets the shakes when the TV goes on the blink, forget it. If your spouse gives you the fish-eye look when you mention rabbits in the cellar, forget it. If the thought of quitting your job blows your mind, don’t do it. If it makes you feel good, on the other hand, do it! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Reprinted with permission from Possum Living: Living Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, published by Tin House Books, 2010.