What ill can Your Excellency do someone who lives on ten rubles a month?
N.S LESKOV, 1831 – 1895: Jednomysl
I loved playing this game, in my youth I was a master of it. And I feel its joy today as I write this for you, my desirous little brother. I recall my past simplicity, and I rejoice that perhaps your heart, too – who knows? – will be gladdened by it. Best of all is to delight someone with a letter, a smile, a handshake, love, a kind word – the game of joyful simplicity.
There was a time I wanted to survive in the universe without possessions, money, even food. The highest of games, unachievable. I was forced to give it up in the end. But I fought over every triviality, decided to live with as little possessions, money and food as possible. The most important traveler’s game! Seemingly banausic, yet beautiful all the same. I didn’t play for greed or thrift, I only wanted to dispense with material things, and I felt pity for nature. If everyone lived as I did (I supposed), the earth, its forests, waters, winds, and depths would survive a few thousand years longer than under the current circumstances. People would need less and produce less. But I didn’t have many followers despite not requiring much of them. I hadn’t come to destroy the new age or force anyone to live in poverty, I was merely practicing joyful simplicity.
I was well prepared for this game having encountered need during the war. I had never come close to starving, but I had learned not to live in excess. After the war, I received a laughable allowance from my parents, all my friends had more. It was hard not to grow bitter, but I succeeded. I never started the game of bitter simplicity. I wanted to travel far and wide, that requires simplicity – you won’t get far with a heavy pack. In it, I carried light and simple things since I wanted to be as free from people, their ingenuity and their products as possible. With every action, I tried to save the earth from the destruction that awaits it anyway, and perfect my ability to survive on my wits and skills. Try it too, little brother, it will cause you no harm. A first millennium Greek philosopher writing on happiness and morality once said that those who enjoy luxury the most are those who need it the least. When you grow old, you will fondly recall the days you needed almost nothing. You need nothing for joy, fortune, and love. Bared soul and naked body. I remember the most beautiful time of marriage, the beginning. A straw tick on the ground, rough canvas filled with straw. Beneath a holey blanket, two hot breaths. There was nothing else in the room. Long can you draw on such beautiful beginnings, absolute poverty, the pure self-sufficiency of two hot breaths. Learn simplicity, my possession-hungry little brother! You must cease to love possessions, garments, money, food. You will gain more than you can imagine in return. Most people spend all their income on their things. Like little monkeys, they desire newer, shinier toys, incessantly snapping up colorful trifles. Swallowing and swallowing, their inexhaustible bottoms let loose a steady stream of barely used items, filling dumps. Dumps, depositories of wonderful things. Blessed are they who go there unabashed, whose sympathy for the earth and respect for the work of others compels them to gather discarded objects and give them new life. They delay world’s end! There is now so much discarding of barely used items and extra food that it has become something of a natural phenomenon. And we should not feel ashamed to take advantage of it. Hunting about in dumps, fishing about in dumpsters. Like ancient hunters in search of game. There are places where those in poverty can receive all they need to survive. Dishes, food, skis, furniture, pencils, clothes, bicycles, backpacks, blankets, string, books, axes, boots, stoves, spoons. Anything and everything. Not out of love, but out of gratefulness. The givers rid themselves of their burdens but immediately replace them with new ones. One can live for free, as it were, though most of us dwell in an enchanted forest of vile excess. Throwing away useful items is committing murder. Remember the Eskimos. Keep the things you have grown old with – the things you love and those that have served you well – to the day you die, little brother! Knife, pot, house, wife, boat. Everything. To waste is to sin. It should be illegal, one day it will be. What can be more fulfilling than using a backpack till it can be used no more? That old, rank, Tibetan-looking sack has traveled everywhere you have. It has carried your belongings, helped you survive, gotten you through thick and thin. How can you simply throw it away and buy a new one?
We watch wealthier countries in horror as plates and utensils are discarded with the leftovers into sprawling dumps that stretch as far as the eye can see. Eskimos must stand aghast. They would not throw out so much as a burnt match or a bent nail. We don’t hesitate to scrap useful, well-crafted tin cans. Tin, a noble element. From the Big Bang, the universe spent billions of years creating it, transforming heavenly hydrogen to helium, to terrestrial tin. It will never happen again. Yet without batting an eye, we throw away something forged by the universe and crafted by ingenuity. Something that can heat food, fix boats, mend skis, carry water, save lives, hold heat, carry a candle, and perform dozens of other useful tasks. Naturally, we can’t spend our whole lives storing up old cans, but we can learn to live without them. A prisoner would be horrified if you threw away a clean sheet of paper. He would use a mere shred of it to write a message that might set him free, a poem that could immortalize him. We can’t stockpile paper our whole lives, but we can produce less. Being rarer, people would treat it with greater respect.
A little suffices, especially when traveling, little brother! Show me what you can make do without, and I’ll tell you if you can come with me. Learn to carry less. You will be the lighter for it. There was a time I could hardly lift the packs I carried: saw, ax, cooker, kerosene lamp, flashlight, first aid kit, extra shoes, and lots of food – so I wouldn’t starve to death. Mine was a heavy, slow and joyless slog. But today I flit lightly over Carpathian slopes in want of nothing. I break branches by hand, cook quickly on an open fire, lay down in the dark by memory, dry my boots beneath my head, and I still haven’t starved to death. First aid kit? Garlic for every illness, my own urine for cuts and scrapes.
But in vain do I write. Values change, I see it on myself. As a boy, I used to laugh at my grandmother for refusing to throw old newspapers away. Today, my children laugh at my shocked expression as they throw away books they have finished reading. Grandma’s sense of pride and self-reliance came simply from knowing how to grow grain and bake bread. Pure soul. These days, pride is harder to come by. It is not born of store-bought bread and easy money.
Most people love new clothes. Wrapping their bodies in bolts of fresh cloth, they coo their satisfaction. That is what girls should do, my wise little brother. Dressing and disrobing is their lot in life. But you, love old clothes! Are you afraid girls will like you less for wearing them? Do you fear without nice clothes, buttons and silly collars you have no chance to find love? Then you underestimate them, at least the ones worth loving. Men, strong of thought and spirit, can walk about in rags, and deep forest souls with gleaming eyes and wild fragrance will still adore them, lay their lives down for them, long to fall asleep next to them. There may not be many of them, perhaps only one in a hundred, but they make living worthwhile. The rest is merely dust and ashes. Wear old pants proudly. Their age has taken nothing from them. Care not what others think. Take not their fashion, but let them take yours. Beach-loving dandies whose buttons shine brighter than their spirit. They will envy you and try mightily to emulate you. But never will they roll up their pant-legs as easily and nonchalantly as you do.
Most people love money, and will even harm their own souls for it. But a little money is enough. If you had twice what you have, you wouldn’t have twice as many beautiful days amid mountains and forests. If you spend it on transportation, you might shorten your journey but that is all. Planes are fastest and most expensive, but you see little of the journey. Trains are cheaper and slower. That is better. Walking is nearly free, except what you pay in fuel for your body. You see and experience so much. Stick to walking, little brother! Best of all, stay where you are. Sit back and gaze down from mountaintops, take it all in. Breathe the sweet air as clouds float gently by. You need no money for that. Then you will be like the old sage, long dead. First a king of ancient India, he became a naked saint. “Liberated from the chains of wealth, false hopes and fear of fall, he was no longer ruler of the land, but of himself. Having nothing, he owned everything.”
And finally, most people love food, and not many show much moderation. If they must curtail their cravings, it is without joy. They are torpid and gluttonous. The full bottles they bear into the mountains they do not carry out. They toss them away in the forest as a monkey its banana peel. Since food has its own game, I will speak but shortly on it – gluttony is repulsive, disrespect for food even more so. Old bread must be eaten. Not because of a few pennies, but because of principle, because we should respect all that sustains us. Most of our brothers around the world are so hungry, many of them starve to death. Once I saw a magazine with a full-page color photograph (what a waste of paper, ink, and work) of a doleful looking young man. He had squashed his unfinished cigarette into a plate of bacon and eggs. The cigarette butt stood upright amid a serving of the most scrumptious looking bacon. It was undoubtedly the young man’s supper, he had undoubtedly paid for it with his own money. He could do with it as he pleased, he simply didn’t let it pass through his intestines. Yet looking at the photo nearly made me sick. There is almost nothing in the world that bothers me, but such deep disrespect does. If I were in charge, I’d lock the gloomy youngster up and feed him nothing but bread and water for three years. Not a day less.
How distant that youngster is from the old man I once visited deep amid Balkan mountains. He was preparing his stores for winter. Six barrels stood in the middle of a cool chamber. He raised the lid on each one: sour kraut, powidl, sheep curds, lard, honey, pickled herring. In the corner, there stood three large sacks. Flour. Dried peas. Salt. A bunch of garlic and some herbs hung from the wall, a pile of corn ears lay on the floor. That was it. The old man looked healthy. He smiled happily, and it seemed he had all he needed so survive five months of cold and dark.
Be modest too, little brother! Do not seek longingly for new things, keep to the old. Eat what you are given, let nothing repulse you. You will learn to survive arduous journeys, perhaps even wars. You will remain hopeful in hardship, not hang yourself in prison. Be harder on yourself! If you search, you will find hundreds of ways to be modest. At times it may not be pleasant, it may even hurt, but there is always a way. And if the day should come when you must choose between wealth and opulence that corrupts, and humble poverty, choose poverty! Not hardship and misery, that is bad. But bird-like poverty that nurtures gaiety and carefreeness.