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In the late seventies, at the age of eighteen and with a seventh-grade education, Dolly Freed wrote Possum Livingabout the five years she and her father lived off the land on a half-acre lot outside of Philadelphia. At the time of its publication in 1978, Possum Living became an instant classic, known for its plucky narration and no-nonsense practical advice on how to quit the rat race and live frugally. In her delightful, straightforward, and irreverent style, Freed guides readers on how to buy and maintain a home, dress well, cope with the law, stay healthy, save money, and be lazy, proud, miserly, and honest, all while enjoying leisure and keeping up a middle-class façade.
Thirty years later, Freed's philosophy is world-renowned andPossum Living remains as fascinating, inspirational, and pertinent as it was upon its original publication. This updated edition includes new reflections, insights, and life lessons from an older and wiser Dolly Freed, whose knowledge of how to live like a possum has given her financial security and the confidence to try new ventures.
“…this book will not only make you laugh but might actually inspire you to embrace a simpler life.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Compulsively readable…[T]his strange, engaging hymn to the laid-back life now, in 2010, one message comes out loud and clear. As the 18-year-old sage Dolly Freed wrote: ‘I refuse to spend the first 60 years of my life worrying about the last 20.’”
—The New York Times Art Beat
“An elegant memoir”
—Philadelphia City Paper
“Dolly Freed is my hero….[If] this smart, engaging, funny, and frank manifesto…doesn’t make you want to quit the rat race at least a little bit, then you must be one big, fat rat.”
“Dolly is a sharp writer, an autodidact and an 18-year-old of unusual competence and grit…[T]here’s nothing precious about Possum Living: it's genuine in a way few books are,…”
“Possum Living, a manifesto for living cheaply…is a relevant and sassy manual for the nonconsumer lifestyle.”
“A paean to self-sufficiency”
—Columbia Journal Review
4. We Rassle with Our Consciences
Let me re-emphasize that we aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose. We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here. (Incidentally, the reason Thoreau quit Walden Pond was that he was lonely—I don’t care what he said. You need the support of a loved one.) No, if some Wishing Fairy were to come along and offer to play Alexander to my Diogenes, I’d pretty quickly strain that Wishing Fairy’s financial reserves. We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.
There actually are people living somewhat similarly for ideological reasons, though. In fact, there’s a growing cult of this sort of thing going on, as you may know. Unfortunately, many of these people tie in all sorts of outlandish religious, mystic, and/or nutritional theories with their possum living and give us all a reputation for weirdness. Many back-to-basics types also buy expensive and unnecessary equipment, clothing, and health-nut food (and wind up back in the money economy because of it) and so give us all a reputation for phoniness.
So if you’re thinking spiritual or sociological thoughts, don’t waste your time with me, but if you just want to easy-up your life somewhat, why, then, you’re talking my language! We’ll get that Protestant Work Ethic monkey off your back!
We’re incredibly lazy. You wouldn’t believe it! We have an anarchy here wherein neither has to do anything we don’t feel like doing. (Except to feed the creatures. You can’t neglect animals in your care.) Normally I do the housework and the Old Fool does the garden, the heavy work, and the care of the creatures. Not because we have sexist roles, but because the housework bugs him more than it bugs me, and vice versa. If I don’t feel like doing the dishes, say, for a couple of days, why I just don’t do them. I often feed the animals if Daddy feels like goofing off, and he often does the dishes. The anarchy works for us because we love each other and don’t abuse it. It amazes me that so many people must either dominate or be dominated, like a bunch of monkeys on Monkey Island at the zoo.
Often my conscience tries to nag me when I’m goofing off, but it doesn’t get very far any more. Daddy says it’s just the same with him. Actually, it’s hard to understand how it is that laziness has fallen into such disrepute in our society. Well, I’m tired of being a Closet Sluggard! I’m lazy and proud of it!
We can afford to be lazy because we satisfy our material needs with little effort and little money. Of course, you know that money doesn’t buy only goods and services, it also buys prestige and status. Being somewhat egocentric, we don’t feel the need to buy prestige or status. The neat trick that Diogenes pulled was to turn the tables on those of his contemporaries who believed that “Life is a game and money is how you keep score.” He didn’t keep score. We don’t keep score. You needn’t keep score either if you don’t want to. It’s entirely up to you.
Money per se isn’t the only status thing involved. Some people make a big machismo deal out of employment itself. You know, mighty-hunter-bring-home-the-bacon stuff. Folks old enough to remember the depression of the l930s tend to take a very solemn attitude about jobs, and unless you like to argue, it pays to sidestep the issue with them. It doesn’t matter that you’re not on welfare or accepting charity but are earning your own way in life (albeit in an unorthodox manner), the mystique lies with that Holding Down a Job concept. Don’t ask me why.
Sometimes people who secretly resent it that they have to work (or think they do), and we don’t, point out that Daddy has no security for his old age. Daddy always knuckles under and mutters something like, “Gee, you’re right, mutter, mutter,” because it makes them feel better and doesn’t cost him anything, so why not?
Once he was fishing and an old gentleman came along and struck up a conversation. Coming to the conclusion that Daddy couldn’t find work, he started commiserating with him about the “hard times.” Then Daddy made a mistake and let it out that he didn’t want a job. The old boy got himself into a state of righteous indignation because he was retired, and had earned the right to go fishing on weekdays, by fifty years of hard work, and here Daddy was just going ahead doing it. Daddy mollified him by pointing out that he’d be up shit creek when he got old, and that thought cheered the old gentleman up to the point of giving Daddy a nice catfish he had caught.
However, what he truthfully thinks is:
* Sure, you have security, but the slaves on the plantation didn’t starve either.
* The social security system is an obvious pyramid game and can’t be trusted.
* There’s really nothing I do now as a young man to live that I won’t be able to do as an old man.
* It’s unmanly to worry so about the future. Did Caesar worry about his old age pension when he crossed the Rubicon?
* Jesus clearly and specifically taught against concern for future security (Matthew 6:25–34). Like it or not, it’s un-Christian to plan for the future.
* I refuse to spend the first sixty years of my life worrying about the last twenty.* Dolly will take care of me.
These same resentful people might also bring up that “you aren’t doing your share—you aren’t contributing to society.” While it’s impossible to have too much contempt for this beehive mentality, to avoid an argument you can answer:
* I am too being useful! You can always use me as a Bad Example!
* While I’m not contributing to economic growth, a dubious good, I’m also not contributing to pollution, a definite evil.
A serious consideration is that of family. I definitely plan to have children, although I’m not sure if I want to get married or not. I don’t know many people who have been married for any length of time and are happy about it. I suspect the description of the average marriage—“Two animals find each other”—may be correct. Daddy says when I find the man I want to be the father of my children I can just invite him to move in. Why get the State of Pennsylvania involved? It’s none of their business. If he doesn’t want to move in, that’s okay, too—he can visit. By the mores of our society I should leave here and go live with him, of course, but I don’t see any reason why I should. I like the life I have here. Then, too, I don’t want to leave the Old Fool alone as he approaches the downhill side of life. Don’t suppose I’m sacrificing my happiness to my filial duty, because it’s not that at all—I’m happier than most married women of my acquaintance, at least. Also, I want my children to grow up with their grandfather. The idea of the extended family—the generations living together—appeals to me. The notion of kicking the kids out of the old nest and sticking the old folks into some “retirement village” is part and parcel of industrialized economics, which I also dislike on other grounds. Possum economics allows for everybody to be useful and contribute to the well-being of the family, regardless of age. Young and old alike can, say, feed rabbits or run a still. The idea of genetic immortality—the family going on and on forever—appeals to me. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion.
I’m trying to be fair with you and give you the picture of possum living as it really is. The few things I’ve mentioned that others may fault you on are no big deal—most people have enough to do to run their own lives without concerning themselves with what you are doing with yours. The big deal may be what you say to yourself. The Metaphysician-in-Residence—the little tiny unauthorized voice we all carry around in our heads—is going to chip in its two cents worth too.
“You know you’re going to die eventually and they’re going to throw you in a hole in the ground and shovel dirt in on top, don’t you? Is that all you want to accomplish in life? To become a lousy possum?” it will sneer at you. “Is that the purpose of life? No! You’ve got to Make It Big,” etc.
Not being a guru, I’m not going to go poking about in any purpose-of-life quagmire swamps with you. But really, what purpose can you find in the life of any human, living or dead, rich or poor, drunk or sober, that you can’t read into a possum’s life? Possum philosophy was actually formed over 2,000 years ago, and I needn’t go into it further. A good example of it is in the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the Bible.
Now that you have the overall idea—is it for you? Possibly not. It depends on the instincts you were born with and your present family circumstances. For example, my Mom wants no part of “this squalor,” as she puts it. Daddy and I are instinctive possums—we break out in hives in elegant surroundings. Also, you have to trust your instincts. “Philosophize with a hammer,” as Nietzsche advocated, “testing idols to see if they ring true.” Does the money economy ring true for you? Does possum living ring true? It isn’t enough that you know a false idol when you see one; your family must agree with you. If your kid gets the shakes when the TV goes on the blink, forget it. If your spouse gives you the fish-eye look when you mention rabbits in the cellar, forget it. If the thought of quitting your job blows your mind, don’t do it. If it makes you feel good, on the other hand, do it! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Now that you know what a lazy, rotten, sinful thing I am, I’d like to pass on to you some of the ideas we’ve picked up to help you become just the same. Besides the facts and examples I’m going to give you from our experience, you can learn how to do most anything that needs doing by simply researching in your local library. There’s a growing body of literature on back-to-basics subjects and you can get information to help you there, too. Unfortunately, the editors of some of these periodicals seem to be willing to print articles by people with considerably more enthusiasm than common sense, so expect a lot of chaff among the wheat.
If you can’t go the whole route, at least go part way. If you can’t become a nonconsumer, aim to be a mini-consumer. Okay?
1. What do you think of the saying “People don’t own possessions, their possessions own them”? Does this apply to any part of your life?
2. If you had no kids, no spouse, no need for a job, no car, and no electronics other than a radio, what would you do with your spare time?
3. Is vegetable gardening something you like to do or would like to do? Why or why not?
4. How do you feel about killing animals to eat them? What do you see as the difference between killing your own meat and buying it? Is it ethical to eat meat if you, yourself, wouldn’t kill an animal to eat it?
5. Do you pay attention to how animals raised commercially are treated or do you try not to think about it? Why?
6. In the "Law" chapter, Dolly Freed advocates lawless acts to intimidate people who are troublesome. In her afterward she repudiates that type of behavior. Which version do you think is right? Why?
7. The author states that “self-reliance gives one a strong sense of security.” Do you think that would be true for most people? How about you?
8. The author asserts that “one needs very few physical things in order to be happy.” Is that really true?
9. Dolly Freed’s dad thinks "compulsory education is a fraud—nothing but glorified babysitting.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
10. If the possum living lifestyle is as easy as the author states, why aren’t more people doing it? Are we programmed about what’s accepted and what’s easy by our culture?
11. Do you think people are as easily affected by consumerism as the author thinks?
12. Even if you aren’t going to live a possum lifestyle, do you think there is value in knowing about it? If yes, what would that value be? If not, why not?
13. Has the book made you think about making changes in your life?
14. Are you living the life you ought to be living? How would you know?