Simplicity: Lessons From the Homeless

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Montana Dave The other day I was talking to my friend Dave. He’s known as Montana Dave because, I guess, he came from Montana originally, but there are a few of the guys who I know were raised in Montana, but they don’t get the nickname “Montana.” On the other hand, there’s a number of Daves or Davids around, so I suppose he needed some kind of nickname and Montana suits him just fine.

I think of him as “Mountain Man” myself because he’s a rugged guy and prefers to live on his own, out in the wilderness. He makes regular trips into town to get food and other supplies if he needs it, and, I think, to just talk to people for a while because it gets lonely to just talk to yourself and you always say the same things back. But he doesn’t stay in town for long.

So Dave and I were talking and I asked him, “How do you stay out there? Why do you stay out there? Do you really want to live apart from everyone? It can’t be easy.”

Dave took his hat off for a moment and looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you really want to know?”

I got the sense that he was going to tell me an earful, so I steeled myself up for a lesson and said, “Sure. Yeah, I do.”

Dave didn’t say a word. He reached into his pack, took out his bag, laid out a paper, but some tobacco on it, licked it and rolled it up. Only after he lit his smoke he said, “I go to the library, you know. And I see there that there’s a number of books on simplicity. I’ve looked at them and read what they have to say, just for a laugh. These people don’t understand simplicity any better than that fellah Thoreau did. And I don’t blame them. Real simplicity is hard. I’d say that for most of us, if we were going to learn real simplicity, we have to be forced into it. Being homeless is a good start to really learning priorities.”

“Well,” I chuckled. “Not everyone on the street is simple. What about April who got a boyfriend just so he could carry her bags and boxes around town? What about Andrew who filled his car with crap and then piled tubs and bikes on top of his car until it almost fell over?”

Dave laughed loudly and shook his head. “Well, those folks are special, if you know what I mean. I’m certainly not saying that all the homeless are simple. But I bet you that April is carrying around a lot less than the piles of stuff she had when she had her own apartment. But I agree, they are still focused on stuff, and that’s a problem if you are on the street. You know Tim and Sam? Sam was forced out of her apartment and she was going to live on the street with Tim. One guy… I can’t remember his name… made a big pile of things that Sam would ‘need’ when she got on the street. When Tim got back to help Sam, she showed him the pile and he gazed over the pile and laughed. ‘You think that we’re going to be carrying this huge pile all over the city? When you’re homeless,’ he told her, ‘Everything you need has got to fit in or on one backpack.’ Then he started pulling out the things she really needed that could fit in the backpack he brought.

“And he’s right, you know. If you leave anything in your camp you are just asking for people to rake through it and take what they like. The first step of simplicity is being forced to give up on everything, everything except what you need that day. People who write books like that in the library still have rooms, even houses, full of stuff they ‘need.’ That’s not simplicity. At least that’s too complicated for me. You say that prayer, don’t you? What’s the part about bread?”

“Give us this day our daily bread,” I recited.

“Right. Daily. Not tomorrow. Just today. God doesn’t really want us to think about tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I build my cabin, and it takes time and preparation. And I come into town to get some food from you sometimes. But I don’t worry about tomorrow or what I will have or not have. I think after my wife left me and I had to live on the street, one of the happiest things I ever did was to cancel my insurance policies. That’s a lot of tomorrows I don’t have to worry about anymore.”

I hesitated, “But if you don’t prepare for tomorrow, how do you care for yourself? Don’t you starve?”

Dave chuckled as he said, “Well, I’ve gotten pretty hungry sometimes. I suppose that’s those are the times I walk over to see you. But for the most part I don’t save anything for the future. I might think about how I’ll store some things so the raccoons and cougars won’t get them, so I can still wake up in the morning. But for the most part, I just wake up and see what’s available. I don’t think about ‘what if I can’t eat.’ I guess if I don’t eat, then I don’t eat. But almost all the time it works out. If it doesn’t, and I’m stuck, then I pray.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “I didn’t think of you as a praying man.”

“Why? Because I don’t attend your services? I don’t know that I need to bother God with my questions all the time. I do stop in on occasion to give him a thank you… but generally I pray only when I really need to.”

“And when is that?”

“Last winter I was in my cabin and I got snowed in. I had wood for fuel, but if I lit it I was taking a chance on burning my whole house down. I took my shovel,” he pulls out his portable spade from the outside of his pack and unfolds it, “which is one of my essential tools, I’ll tell you. Anyway, I took this shovel and dig through the snow. It took me three days. I’m surprised I didn’t get frostbite. I’ll tell you, I prayed up a storm on those days. And He saw me through. And at the end, when I got to the church, you were open and warm and there were ninety people here, but there was some warm soup. I gave an extra thanks to God that day.”

“So, basically, simplicity is only getting what you need that day and trusting God for the rest?”

“Well, it’s a bit more than that. After all, I don’t live out in the woods just because I don’t want to have too much stuff. It’s really about avoiding drama. That’s why I don’t live with my wife anymore. Too much drama.”

“I thought she kicked you out?”

“It was mutual, I suppose. But for the most part I got the worst end of the deal.”

“But you’re living the simple life, right? No drama?”

“Yeah, and I almost froze to death last winter. That wasn’t so great. But no drama is good. You guys have a lot of drama around here.”

“True. I wish we had less. Far less.”

“Well, I think there’s a time to just walk away from it. Walk away from relationships, from the anger, from the demands…”

I was skeptical. “You mean that you should just give up on relationships?”

Dave looked up and backtracked, “No, not just give up on all relationships. Tim and Sam, they’re good for each other, you know? And they’ve had some rough patches, but they are working on them and they care about each other. That’s great. But look at most of the relationships on the street. Craziness. You can’t hear the love past all the yelling.”

“I understand that, but many relationships, if you really work on them, you can make it.”

“I wonder if you can really have the energy to work on relationships when you are struggling to survive. Relationships mean you are thinking how the other person thinks. That’s tough when you don’t have enough food. In time of survival, it’s best to just think your own thoughts.”

“But even when your surviving don’t you have to care about other people? Help other people?”

“Absolutely. And when you are surviving, helping others is simple. You need food, so do they, so you both share what you have. You need water, so do they, so you share. If one of you has got shelter and the other doesn’t, you share your shelter. But if you go deeper than that, it’s tough.”

“So how do you think people like Mark and Diane do it? They’ve been together for a while.”

“I don’t know how they do it. Just compatible, I guess. They have their arguments, too. I bet they take breaks from each other sometimes. But for me, it’s just simpler to live without a relationship. Fewer rules.”

“I’m sure you have some rules you live by.”

“I try not to. As few as possible. It’s easy to stack up rules like firewood, but they are a lot harder to get rid of. It’s simpler to live without rules. I know that you say you have four rules around here, but you have more than that. You have this complicated system of who can sleep overnight and when.”

“Well, generally we aren’t supposed to have anyone here, but I make exceptions.”

“And everyone is trying to figure out your exceptions because everyone wants to camp on this property. It’s safe. Or at least safe-er. So you have these hidden rules that drives everyone crazy. I know you let some people stay and others can’t. But that’s the thing, it complicates it. For me, it’s just about care and respect. Just care for people that really need it and respect everybody. That’s all.”

“Well, I’d like to do that, but there’s hundreds of people needing care around here…”

“So you make your own complications. I live out in the woods. The traffic’s a lot lighter out there. Sure, I come back around. I’m not a hermit. I want to talk sometimes. As you can tell.” He grins at me. “but I don’t live around all the people all the time. There are times to be with people and times to be by oneself. You’ve got to balance it for who you are.”

“That’s what Thoreau did as well. He was out in the woods for much of the week but spent the weekends with his mother.”

“Huh. Well perhaps he knew what he was talking about after all.”

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