I’m one of the lucky (blessed) Americans with a job. I’m quite grateful for this. My job is one that allows my family to live as part of America’s dwindling middle class. This means we have a limited amount of discretionary income, and we live in a neighborhood inhabited by others who enjoy roughly similar incomes.
Where am I going with this? Bear with me.
It’s easy to go to work day in and day out for months, for years, and forget about the world outside one’s own geographically small community. We might see a neighbor, a friend, come home with a new Thing—say, a boat or a motorcycle, perhaps a new car. We might say, “Hey, I could sure use something new to replace my old _______. We can afford it. After all, you can’t take it with you.”
The result of this kind of thinking can be a home full of clutter. You know, that gadget that was the new hotness a couple of years ago and now wouldn’t sell on eBay for ten percent what you paid, the mounds of Chinese plastic spilling out of the kids’ bedroom closets, the closet full of clothes you haven’t worn in years. Things. Stuff. Clutter.
My job is like many others in that I go to work each day at (usually) the same time, perform set duties for a salary, and collect a paycheck and benefits. However, since I’m a military officer, it’s different in several fundamental aspects. I won’t go into all the things that make being a soldier a unique career choice, but I’m confident you can imagine some of the items on such a list. I’m going to talk about one aspect, and here it is. Sometimes I go away.
Sometimes I go away for extended periods of time. I pack two or three pieces of digital camouflaged luggage and set off for foreign lands. I often don’t know exactly when I’ll be returning to hearth and home, to loved ones, and to my Things.
My life at home is pretty dad-gummed comfortable. Creature comforts are all around. I’m lucky (blessed) enough to have an upstairs “office” where I have a collection of books, a computer, musical instruments, and a comfy chair. There’s even an ottoman to rest my feet. Pretty nice, and believe me, I am grateful for these Things. I’m accustomed to having this Stuff around me each day, and I enjoy it very much, despite having sometimes to step over some of the Clutter of Things I no longer use or value very much. It would be easy to become attached to these things so that if I had to be without them I might consider it a hardship.
At this moment, in the midst of my most recent trip to a certain desert paradise, I happen to be residing in a tent with six other soldiers much like myself. We each have our two or three pieces of luggage, a rucksack and a duffle bag or two. We have a metal rack with a fairly nasty mattress, (Mine appears to have been previously used by a wild animal, possibly a jackal or hyena.) and a metal wall locker with each door either bent out of its hinges or missing the padlock shackle.
Yes, all seven wall lockers have broken doors. There’s a saying in the Army, “If you give a soldier a steel ball bearing, he’ll find a way to break it.”
We’re lucky (blessed?) that we don’t have space for much Stuff in our baggage because there would be no way to secure it while we’re out doing our jobs. So, for the duration of our time out here, we have almost nothing—only the necessities.
It’s cold and windy in the desert in February, and living in a tent is a quick way to be reminded of another Army aphorism, “travel light, freeze at night.” I packed light. This morning I woke up with cold feet and a cramp in my calf muscle.
There’s no television and no internet in the tent. I can send this information because I have access to an unclassified computer in the nice, warm office where I carry out my duties as an Army strategist. (There’s a corporate strategy to keep people in the office.) This frees up the majority of my down time for reading books, one of my favorite things to do, but something often pushed out by the new movie I want to see or a favorite TV show. I read out here the way I used to as a kid. That is, I devour books in a day or two and go hunting for more. I’m not the only one. Once each person has exhausted the short stack of books he brought, we start sharing. It’s pretty interesting to learn what my co-workers are reading, and then read those things myself. I discovered a fellow science-fiction fan I never would have suspected to be afflicted with the same sensawunda condition as myself. We exchanged reading lists.
So, after a bit of time spent living like this, a man can zero in on what’s important in life. Here’s the bottom line up-front: It’s the simple things.
When I’m cold, I don’t miss my warm bed and house nearly as much as I miss the warmth of my wife’s body beside me.
When I’m bored, I don’t miss TV or the internet (much) the way I miss spending bedtime with my kids and hearing about their day and the things that interest them.
Reading and Writing are as necessary for happiness as air and water for life.
I need an empty notebook and a good pen. There’s nothing like being in a desolate place to set my mind to thinking, and I’m sometimes amazed at ideas recorded years ago in other deserts in other countries.
As I near the end of my military career, I find I’m looking forward to enjoying the liberty that I suspect most Americans take for granted. Military life is regimented, constrained, and at times oppressive. The thought of emerging as a private citizen in a couple years makes me smile.
The fact is, we don’t need much to be content. Give me hope for the future, my family, good food, a warm place to sleep, the ability to read and write, and the liberty to do these things as I see fit, and I’ll be OK. With these few things, a person can set goals and look forward.
That is all.