What is the “Good Life”? Once I thought I knew.
I remember one summer afternoon talking it over with my friend, Rich. We were parked at the edge of a field in Orland Park. It was coming down on evening, and the sun was coloring some winter wheat red in a field. We were 21.
The field is long gone, replaced by town homes, condos and two car dealerships.
The Good Life. You had enough to eat. You had your health. You had a mate. You worked at something you liked.
Those were my ideas.
Rich’s ideas were different. A little different. He wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was 39. He also didn’t care if he married or had kids. In fact, that is not the image he had for himself. He was going to be a player; or, more exactly, he was going to “play the field, ” as it was said then.
His idea of the Good Life never happened. Not the way he related it that day. He is past 39 and is not a millionaire. He has probably spent a million, though, making some mortgage banker and credit card issuer happy.
He didn’t get to be the player he wanted to be. In fact, the next season after this conversation, he announced that he was getting married, and that he wanted to close the business. He got married. The business closed. Later, he got divorced. He got married again. Along the way he had three beautiful girls. One is married. One is getting married in April, and the last is still at home, finishing high school. I held his first two in my arms, and now they are smart young women. Oddly, they both live in Manhattan. One in Manhattan, New York, married to a builder. The other is Manhattan, Illinois, soon to marry a real estate business owner.
Along the road to the Good Life America changed.
The Good Life was now defined by what you consumed.
You got a credit card. You got a car payment. You got a jumbo mortgage.
You owned nothing, not even your life.
This is the America I know. I’m part of it… for now.
My idea of the Good Life as I thought of it that day didn’t turn out the way I wanted either. I tried. It just didn’t.
One day in a used book store I picked up a book called, “Living the Good Life,” by Scott and Helen Nearing. I’m not sure what drew me to it. It was a trade paperback, with a picture of a past middle aged Scott Nearing in a sleeveless t-shirt, looking down at something. Maybe it was the title. I picked this book up over 20 years ago, so I was well into my life, good and otherwise.
It change my life. Mentally. Scott and Helen Nearing recounted in “Living the Good Life” their experience of homesteading a broken down farm in Vermont during the 1930s. They had no choice, really. New York was in turmoil and a quarter of the population had no jobs, and those that did often found their wages cut. They had lived out the stresses of the Great Depression in the city, and now they chose to try to survive where there was at least some open space. They did survive, and they thrived. They grew what they needed and saved the rest. For cash, they did sell some crops. They also built houses, using homemade forms to cement in around the natural rock that makes up much of Vermont. They constructed rock homes. Whatever the Nearing did, they must have done it right. Scott lived to be 100, and died in 1983. Helen was killed in a car accident in the late 1990’s. She was in her upper 80’s, but hale and hearty.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the book that influenced the “back to the land” fad of the late sixties and seventies. For those who weren’t there, those days were days of turmoil and fear. There was a war going on in a place nobody cared about, and the toll of that conflict was flashed on our brand new color television sets in much too vivid color. The body count was given by Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley and the rest of the dense talking heads. Cities burned. Politicians and Civil Rights leaders were gunned down. People yearned for something real, something old and familiar. Some television programming reflected that. You had “The Walton’s” and “Happy Days”, both reflecting supposed better times in America.
Most of the hippies that went to live in the commune got sick of the idea that you actually had to perform manual labor to earn or harvest your daily bread, and they gave it up and are now lawyers and investment bankers and politicians. They never got it. Not like Scott and Helen Nearing. They never got it, because they still wanted “stuff”. Now they have their stuff, and I wonder if they are living any good life.
A letter came for my by snail mail last week. It was from someone who wants to by my 11.1 acres in Michigan. The woman who wrote the letter lives in a nearby small town. i suppose they want to live out in the country a bit. It’s a nice piece of land. It has a pole barn, a trailer and several dilapidated out buildings on it. A creek backs up against the property. Large poplar trees grow on the edges of the once plowed fields. In the summer they rattle and shake and twist in the wind. It’s a peaceful sight. I’ve sat on my back porch and watched it many times.
i won’t sell. Not now. Maybe never.
Each morning when i wake up and get about the daily scramble my mind goes back to my field and my poplar trees on a warm summer day. In my mind long ago this was part of my Good Life. I could probably get a nice chunk of change for the land, but I won’t do it. Won’t sell.
There is still a chance at the good life. I’m not of the idea that i want to go about subsistence living, but I do want a life where it’s not all about buying everything in sight and paying dearly for the privilege of living in the midst of it all, in the way of money for the cost of the living and the damage it does to living a good life.