25 April 2012

Daniel Suelo - The Man Who Quit Money

 A Review

“Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were too uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give them away. We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. We had no written law, no attorney or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. 

We were in a really bad way before the white man came, and I don’t know how we managed to get along without the basic things which, we are told, are absolutely necessary to make a civilized society.”
-- Lakota sage Lame Deer (from John Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions)

If you’re searching for a modern-day successor to Thoreau, Daniel Suelo could be your postmodern Transcendentalist. Known by author Mark Sundeen as “The Man Who Quit Money,” Suelo has spent the last 12 years living in a cave near Moab, Utah, foraging for food, working occasionally (but not for wages), reflecting deeply on life’s Big Questions, and somehow managing to keep himself off the hamster wheel of getting and spending. Suelo is the rare person who has actually been able to opt out of life’s pecuniary tangle, while still living an existence that appears full and unclouded by the desperation and despair that we tend to associate with homelessness.

He notes, “I’m employed by the universe. Since everywhere I go is the universe, I am always secure. Life has flourished for billions of years like this. I never knew such security before I gave up money. Wealth is what we are dependent upon for security. My wealth never leaves me. Do you think Bill Gates is more secure than I?”

50-year-old Suelo began life as Daniel Shellabarger, the fifth child of a pair of thoughtful evangelical Christians who was raised to take the Bible literally, and yet also, somehow, was permitted to question. A thread of the book traces his theological development, from a child forced to believe, to a deeply inquisitive college student, to someone who reads source texts from world religions, as well as Thoreau, Gandhi, and Tolstoy, and cobbles together a personal theology that reflects his own beliefs. In later years, Suelo even goes back and reviews texts that inspired his parents, such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and comes to understand Jesus’ more revolutionary aspects. He also conceives his own theological schema, such as the concept of “divine Chance,” which he develops as a penniless visitor to Alaska, who must test the phrase “God will provide.” He realizes that to experience true faith, he must accept that there’s nothing in the material world to fall back on.

Starting at age 26, Suelo spends several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. During that time, some of his religious convictions are tested, as when he visits the mansion of a fellow volunteer who has recruited Ecuadorian natives into helping him run his own cattle business, to the point at which they are “civilized” into being the richest Indians in the jungle. He notes, “There was no poverty in the jungle until they introduced money, and all the sudden there’s poverty. And all the diseases that come with it. And you look at people and they’re not happy. They have all these goods, and they’re unhappy.”

Suelo. Photo: Benjamin Lesage.
While battling his own demons (depression, sexuality), Suelo retains his sense of philosophical inquiry, as he spends more than a decade trying to make the switch to a life without money. Sundeen well-conveys how conscious and reflective Suelo is, as he takes great care to unravel the roots of so much suffering derived of our participation in a monetary system. Ironically Suelo emerges as deeply Christian, in the sense of living out what Christ actually taught: becoming spiritually enlightened through giving to the poor and living humbly. As Suelo asserts, “All this work, work, work and obligation we think is so righteous is really evil, destructive. The more I read the Sermon on the Mount, the more I see it is instructions for releasing ourselves from the Money System—the System of Debt & Obligation.”

Because he lives in a cave and thinks deeply, one might conclude that Suelo is a hermit. But this is actually not the case, as it wasn’t for Thoreau. Despite his comfort with alone time, Suelo is “a social butterfly” and enjoys the companionship of his many friends and family members. In fact, his vow to live without money often draws to him people who are curious about his life and principles. He readily acknowledges that, in a completely interconnected universe, no one is entirely self-sufficient—and his renunciation of money is not about attempting to break those ties.

I edited Sundeen’s work when I was an editor at Outside Magazine years ago. However, I don’t know him personally and have no investment in the book’s success, so can rave about it at will. Obviously, the writing quality is high, but what makes this volume so compelling is the number of questions it raises about the issues we all grapple with: money and greed, family, relationship, compensations of every stripe, trading quality of life for work, the definition of home, etc. Sundeen hews a direct path into Suelo’s mind, and it’s fascinating to watch him take clear-eyed looks at his own life and motivations. At one point, Suelo discusses why he’s not in a relationship, and Sundeen goes straight for it, asking, “How much of your life is just a reaction to not falling in love. Do you think you were driven into solitude by a broken heart?” Suelo’s measured response reveals just how deeply he has considered these questions—and his reflection compels the reader’s own soul-searching as well.

Of course many parallels between the journeys of Suelo and Chris McCandless (subject of Into the Wild) exist. McCandless would have definitely agreed with Suelo that “the way of truth is the way of nonpossession,” as he donated his entire $25K savings to Oxfam before embarking on his cross-country adventure. Both young men realized that their experiences could be diminished by having money to fall back on if the going got tough. And both realized that money often prevents us from enjoying our lives in the deepest possible ways.

Unsurprisingly, there is no tradition of living without cash in the US. Most likely because money was so fetishized by our ancestors. Native American writer Vine Deloria (God is Red) notes, “In the centuries after the Protestant Reformation, poverty was considered indicative of sloth and other sins, and it was seen as proof of the individual’s degeneracy…As the white populace of Christian America has become more affluent, the concept of stewardship has been developed to explain the embarrassingly rapid growth of wealth of a substantial number of peoples. The theory goes that we are not really greedy, God has simply blessed us by giving us wealth over which we are to exercise good stewardship.”

This book's release has been particularly well timed, for an era in which we're realizing what "good stewardship" for a few has meant to the many, some of whom find themselves in Suelo's situation involuntarily and are forced to confront the very same questions he has addressed so eloquently. Suelo's philosophical journey should inspire all of us to wonder about the financial system we were born into and the alternatives that might just offer a happier existence to far more than the 1 percent.

Suelo produces a blog, “Moneyless World – Free World – Priceless World,” at http://zerocurrency.blogspot.com/ and a website with a lot of great answers to FAQs, “Living Without Money,” http://sites.google.com/site/livingwithoutmoney/. (Nope, no wi-fi in the cave; online life happens at the library.)

More about Chris McCandless: http://www.christophermccandless.info/.

Check it out! This review can also be read at the NY Journal of Books:

17 April 2012

Cape Blanco, Oregon

Photo: H. Utz

I haven't written a poem for a long time. But was inspired by an assignment in our Transcendentalists class: write a poem in the style of Emerson. Now, there's an assignment! I enjoyed this exercise and it stretched me, as I don't often write, or think, in mid-19th-century English. But the Transcendentalists have reminded me of a month I spent camping alone on the Oregon coast in 2008, one of the best months of my life.

Cape Blanco

Atop a rocky terrace against the sea,
Campfire voices strut, philosophize, debate
To the crackle of wood and bottles
Petitioning Phorcys against the dangers of the deep.

Weary of bluster, I escape to stiller ground,
Watch dense smoke nestle in evergreen boughs
of fog-shrouded sequoias beneath blackening sky
crinkling and coiling ever back on itself.

Alone I sit, anchored by sodden earth
Scanning sky’s vast canopy of leaf and branch
While the chill of wind-off-water
duels brazenly with an August night.

I stake my tent under full moon’s light,
breathe the scent of wet pine and brume,
ocean salt and the day’s last repast,
as midnight rousts a coterie of stars.

Cradled by Beauty, I make my bed
held by giants whose diurnal ablutions—
water, wind, rain, and tide—have placed
cold heavens within their grasp.

A patter of droplets pelting my tent
nudges me further down roads of dream
until day’s light presses awake the treetops,
announcing morning in ripples of violet and blue.

Open-pored, brine-soaked, I awaken
Bare skin a vessel, unfurled, to forest’s great Essence,
as surging waters above and below
embrace this promontory in tides—

a baptism of all both ancient and eternal,
washing the sands of this e’er-pervious coast.


03 April 2012

Books Live! Unusual Libraries in Unexpected Places

After the last post, I found I needed a bit of reassurance that books aren't really going away. A few dozen Googles later, I see growing evidence for the theory that people still dig them--in hard copy, with covers, paper and spines. Books have been reasserting their presence in all kinds of unexpected places, and in "micro libraries" designed to not only keep us all reading, but to develop community among neighbors. Here are just a few examples.

This one blew me away. On Feb. 2, 2010, IKEA set up 30 bookcases on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. I guess it's obvious why they can't be a permanent fixture. But a joy to see the Aussie surfer dudes, perhaps a bit more literate than their American counterparts?
Then we travel to another fine city: Amsterdam, where the Schiphol airport has installed the world's second airport library (the first is in Nashville, TN, US). Slick, spacious, multilingual and free, it makes me want to run right over to Holland and embrace sleek European modernity.

From here, we go to Chile, which encourages literacy in some unique ways, including the Bibliometro libraries in subway stations, and the Biblio Trenes, repurposed train cars housing libraries. One of them even has a groovy mural (below).

Still in South America, we head north to La Gloria, Colombia, where Luis Soriano tricks out burros Alfa and Beto with books for kids who have none in their homes. Since the late 1990s, his traveling donkey librarians have been trekking along Colombia's Caribbean shore, delivering a rotating selection from the library's 4,800 donated volumes. Soriano's work with his Biblioburros has been featured on PBS' POV series.

 And then there are those with much greater access to books: New Yorkers. Who nevertheless have been suckers for architect John Locke's reappropriations of phone booths, which previously were just sitting around lonely and cold, proving to children the once desperate existence we lived in the hideous era before cell phones.

Of course, in Great Britain, phone booths look a whole lot more quaint...this one from the town of Westbury, Wiltshire, developed as the result of a contest for ideas to revive the mouldering old box. In 2009 Brits gathered together--at a tea party, naturally (Sarah Palin not invited)--and settled on the country's most diminutive library.

"Well, I'll be knackered. Pip pip and cheerio! It's a wee library. Get mum a phone book, luv! "

Swimming back across the pond (and a few miles inland), we come to Madison, WI, home to the Little Free Library movement, which has become a mini sensation all over town. Outside their homes, folks post small boxes  (sold in local shops), filling them with volumes for passersby to borrow or trade. One project has been to construct libraries out of old Eatmore Cranberry crates, found in the nearby Amish countryside. Ultimately, they aspire to build more than 2,500 micro libraries all over the world. More info: littlefreelibrary.org.

Last but not least, we ride our vintage Schwinn cruiser to Williamsburg, Brooklyn's Corner Library. Artist Colin McMullan designed this replica of a classic public library, which stays open to cardholders 24/7. It's fully functional, including donated graphic novels, zines, pamphlets, and books published by small presses and artists, plus CDs, DVDs, maps, etc. More of the popular, doghouse-sized bookeries are in the works.