By Charles Redfern
My family’s heart palpitates whenever I rant about how we should sell our suburban home and move into a tarpaper shack – and no one heeds my call for a nation-wide tarpaper shack movement: Dump those monster houses. Get rid of possessing possessions in a world where former luxuries are now strangling “needs” (we were once happy with black and white television sets).
If only they could hear my impeccable logic, worthy of Socrates himself: My family’s lovely little home vacuums us of cash. The roof will leak, the sump pump will sputter, the leach field will reek, or termites will chow down the back porch. And don’t even mention the driveway, which is quickly becoming the exclusive landscape of four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicles. And then there’s the lawn. Our house must emit energy pulses crippling all mowers within a foot of our property. Roofs, sump pumps, rotten porches, mountainous driveways, and broken machines suck the bank account dry and vomit up the credit card because we “need” those things to live in our supposedly cuddly Middle Class home, which I now adore as much as a Tokyo resident loves Godzilla.
Ergo tarpaper shacks, which free one and all of such “needs.” They come with no sump pumps, driveways, and back porches. They’re offered at reasonable prices in neighborhoods with no lawns worthy of the name. We can cram our bank account for the kid’s college education, which he’ll “need” because …well … everyone needs college. Maybe we’ll save enough money for that long-coveted trip to the White Mountains, which we can never afford due to sump pumps, leach fields, and mowers – and, oh yeah, car repairs. Because we “need” cars … because our cuddly suburban home sits too far away from everything and we must drive everywhere … which means we “need” to spend money for gym memberships because we don’t get exercise because we don’t walk to the store.
Remember those monks and nuns and their vows of poverty? Remember Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler? “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Maybe the monks and nuns were onto something. Maybe Jesus was issuing an invitation more than a command.
And let’s all be game. Let’s all call the tarpaper shack realtors. Our nation began wrapping itself in a sticky web of needs from coast to coast and border to border amid the post-war sprawl. Veterans wed their brides, moved them out of the city and into paradise: the ‘burbs, with their two-bedroom pillbox homes. The interstates linked the communities and created the need for more oil – and then the two bedroom pillbox homes seemed small. We moved from the inner ‘burbs to the outer ‘burbs and their sky-high mortgages and a lifestyle of luxuries morphed into “needs:” air conditioners (we once did fine without them), computers, I-Phones, I-Pods, internet connections, cable television contracts, dish networks, and the ever-climbing oil product list: plastic wrap, plastic paper, plastic signs, plastic cups, plastic cup holders, plastic helmets, with vinyl-vinyl everywhere – all of which pushed the rigs into Middle Eastern deserts and into the deep blue sea. As Johann Hari writes, “we live permanently doused in petrol. Every time we move further than our feet can carry us, or eat food we didn’t grow, or go shopping, we burn more barrels. Petrol pours off each of us like an invisible sweat.”
And the vicious circle of needs twirled and swirled into its vortex as we sank deeper and deeper into debt – even while many transferred their employment from jobs involving tangible things to shadowy “derivatives,” which spawned sky-high bonuses before they grew fangs and gobbled up the economy and spread a foreclosure epidemic and a housing crisis and an economic shock that swirled and twirled us into a deeper vortex as we grappled for our “needs” and …
Stop! I want my tarpaper shack!
Or maybe we can emulate a family I met in January. They once lived in Philadelphia’s cuddly ‘burbs – until they heard a call and had a “burden:” Leave the ‘burbs. Live in urban Detroit and minister to a desperate city. Essentially, Jesus gave them the same challenge as he did to the rich young ruler, but this couple did not walk away. They said yes. The wife is a social worker/pastor and the husband works in conflict transformation – both in the Detroit area and around the world.
I can’t help but ask: Who is more free? Is it the man so tied to his possessions that he walks away from Christ? Is it the family clinging to its Middle Class home at all costs? Or is it the husband and wife willing to give it all up? Who owns his possessions? Who is owned by them? Who has more options?
I suppose I don’t really want a drafty tarpaper shack – but I’d prefer it to the confining, sticky web of “needs” now strangling our culture.
For further reading:
Hari, Johann, “We are all trapped in a global oil slick now,” http://johannhari.com/2010/06/24/we-are-all-trapped-in-a-global-oil-slick-now