I am officially homeless these days. Not that I don’t have a place to sleep, but insofar as I no longer have a permanent place to live. For a year I am vagabonding with my family, so we’ve become short-term renters in various locations. I measure my expenses in the daily rate I pay for a place to be. Currently that place is Punta Cana on the east coast of the Dominican Republic.
That’s a weird thought, having to pay for a place to be. I mean, it’s almost contrary to the very notion of freedom. I think most people are pretty much used to conceptualizing the idea of having to pay rent or a mortgage. It’s such a normal aspect of life that we typically just reduce that amount from our income without even thinking about it. It’s money we’ll never see and there is no way around it. What is left over is the actual money that we get to use, that we get to spend. Having to pay to be somewhere is simply a given.
However, it’s not as much of a given as you might think. In fact, it’s a relatively new idea that a parcel of the Earth could be privately owned and that you could be excluded from a place unless you are able pay a price to either own it or occupy it. Private property as we know it is only several hundred years old, a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. In other words, most humans who have lived on planet Earth have not had to work to pay for a place to rest up for their next work day. Not in the way that we do today. That’s unique to us and our time.
In keeping with my general admonition that we should really investigate the things we take for granted, like Thoreau did when he set about on his experiments with intentional living at Walden Pond, I find it instructive that we should get to the root of the expenses we incur just to have a place to be. It brings to mind an article I read recently in Orion, which is a journal you should check out if you are into the environment and any aspect of the humanities. It explores our history of private property, our relationship to it and how it helps us to commodify nature. We own a portion of the earth, so in some way we not only own the trees and lizards, but we can then variously control them, destroy them, poison them, demolish them to do our bidding. It’s easier for us to think of our right to damage the environment when we see it through the lens of private ownership. If in our minds nature was really the heritage of all of humanity, it’s destruction would be a much more difficult prospect to justify.
I spent the early part of my career doing what was expected of me, of all of us really. Once I got together enough cash, I bought a house. I signed up for a mortgage really. My house was always owned by the bank (who was I kidding?). I also had an extra property that I rented out. This seemed like part of the narrative for success. In reality, it was just a lot of headaches. One day my wife and I decided it would be best for our family to change course, and we sold the whole lot. The reaction we received was enormously telling. How could it be that two professionals with clearly enough money would forsake the obvious advantages of home ownership? We were oddballs in a society where everyone with the means buys the same model of success. This is what I think we should all be concerned about. We need to decide for ourselves what success looks like. If too many people are all agreeing about something, it’s cause for suspicion. People don’t agree unanimously to even the simplest and most straightforward of issues.
I was in Puerto Rico recently and one morning I stopped for a snack at a roadside restaurant/bar with outdoor seating and a pool table, the likes of which you see on nearly every back road of the island. It happened to be the day of the local vintage Volkswagen rally. I had a great time walking the lot and snapping photos of the collection of everything from Manx-style dune buggies to vintage buses. I saw on one of the vans a sticker I had never seen before in all my years of road traveling:
Free camping is not a crime.
In other words, shouldn’t there be options for those who genuinely long to be free?
There are many different modalities of living, but we all tend to follow a pretty typical model. As we start down the road of our adult lives and before we sign the mountain of papers that commits us to our mortgages, it’s instructive to look at the fundamentals and determine which option works best for each of us. Keeping in mind of course, that although there are options, big house or tiny, suburbs or inner city, rent or buy, stick built or straw bale, you still have to pay. Thinking about it in daily terms, more like a night in a hotel than a monthly deduction from your bank account, puts it in a unique perspective.
Incidentally, it probably doesn’t cost much just to have a roof over your head in the Dominican Republic. I am currently residing in a beautiful apartment a block from the beach in a heavily touristic city. Furnished, and with gas and running water (electricity is extra), I pay about $43 US per day. Of course, this comes with a certain amount of luxury, including a nice kitchen, and a gorgeous swimming pool.
You know the rules are bent
When you have to pay rent
Just to live on earth.
~Bela Fleck and the Flecktones