High above the madding crowd of Hardyville, and as far as you can get from the nowhere-near-mad-enough shuffle of serfdom lies the Hilltop Hermitage.
Here I've come on retreat -- alone with the scents of pine and honeysuckle, the melody of songbirds, and the silent companionship of dogs.
I'm here to contemplate a question that's occupied most of my last 10 years: "What is individual freedom (as opposed to political freedom) and how to achieve it?" I'm planning, Creator help us all, to do some thinking out loud about that in the next few months.
The path to the answer (if answer there be) isn't linear. It has more turns than a lathe and many branchings. Some branchings will lead to interesting places. Some will dead end. There are few footsteps or worn places to serve as a guide.
It seems I stumbled upon one of those turnings before I'd hardly even begun the walk. So here in the honeysuckle sunshine of a clearing, on the porch of a tiny cabin, I find myself not contemplating some Big Question like "What is the proper response to a tyrant (when you're low on ammo)?" but merely pondering my own current interesting circumstances.
I'm not sure whether I mean "interesting" as in "Way cool!" or as in the ancient Chinese curse.
I was wondering how to transmute private experience into something universal (which is what us writers do). Days went by and my mind felt as dry as a stone in the desert.
Then it hit me: Grasshopper was no fool.
You remember the old childhood fable:
Grasshopper is sunning himself on a leaf, playing his fiddle, laughing as Ant staggers by, toiling under a heavy load. Ant warns Grasshopper that he'd better look to his own future. But Grasshopper scoffs, "Why waste such a lovely day?" He capers off the leaf and dances around with his fiddle. Ant shakes his head and toils on. Then of course comes winter. Grasshopper, starving, shivers outside Ant's door, where Ant sits inside warm, well fed, secure -- insufferably smug.
We no longer favor morality tales like this for our children. We fill their malleable little skulls with lessons like "diversity is so wonderful everyone must think exactly alike about it" or "anyone who plans for the future is a racist".
But funny thing. We still continue to live like Ant long after every possible need for doing so is fulfilled.
Here. Let me give you the real ending for Ant's tale. (I have it on good authority that the more famous version was actually cooked up as an early CIA dysinformation campaign, funded by the Rockefeller family and globalist business interests.)
Ant labors away. He diligently follows all the best advice to build his 401(k) plan and his childrens' college fund. Heeding an expert from Ant-TV, he performs clever year-end strategies to save on his income tax. (He gives just enought to charity to placate the IRS, not a dime more.) He detests his job, but after all, it does pay for the new BMW, the TiVO, and liposuction to improve his neurotic daughter's self-esteem.
The sign over the door to Pan-Global Antworks, Inc., where Ant works 48+ hours every week, doesn't actually say "Everything not forbidden is compulsory." But it might as well. Nevertheless his employer holds weekly meetings at which paid consultants chirp cheerily about "creativity" and "innovation."
At 63, before reaping the rewards of all that planning, Ant collapses with a heart attack. As he lies in intensive care, he congratulates himself on having opted for the finest health-insurance coverage. But that unlimited-coverage policy doesn't quite cover everything. It can't insure him aginst the One Big Inevitability.
One night, shortly after being moved (prematurely as it turns out, but you know HMOs need to save money) from the ICU, Ant passes unnoticed from this world. His shriveled spirit crawls out of him, tries to rise, but instead dissipates ignominiously in the slight breeze from an air conditioner. As his dessicated remnant shreds, Ant wonders, vaguely, why he doesn't feel satisfied with the way he's lived his life. Farewell, Ant.
And Grasshopper? Well, Grasshopper picked up a few gigs as a fiddler in country & western bars. That got him a tour with a minor opening act for a major star. He took the cash from that and spent some time on a beach in Greece, where he had a passionate affair with a beautiful woman. During which, he wrote a steamy romance novel under the pen name Alexandrina De Passionata.
Eventually he retired to the South Pacific. He takes a gig or writes an article when he feels like it. He stays healthy by eating right, avoiding stress, and getting lots of recreational exercise. He stashes some cash in an offshore account, so it's there when he needs it if he can't work. But he certainly doesn't plan to do any such thing as "retire." So there he sits, sunning himself and fiddling away, enjoying the occasional gin & tonic in the company of a dusky Polynesian maiden.
It's all a matter of perspective.
A couple of weeks ago, I gave my biggest client notice that I wouldn't be doing any more work for him after this month. A good guy but he consumed too much of my creative energies.
I won't have anywhere near enough to live on when Client X is gone.
I have no plan to look for "work," freelance or otherwise, to replace that income. I'm just going to ... fiddle.
So, you ask very sensibly, "Do I have a ton of savings?
Noooooo, I respond, scattering sense to the winds. Very little. But neither do I have a ton of expenses or liabilities.
Just like Grasshopper. My role model.
You see, Grasshopper isn't lazy, idle, short-sighted, or self-indulgent as that old "endless drudging labor is good" myth would have it.
Grasshopper is (as we all start out to be) an independent individual, born with natural intellect, curiosity, and creative skills. He just never deadened himself.
Lazy? Hardly. He's the most ardent of doers. What he does, he does from joy. From curiosity. From a sense of adventure. Yeah, Grasshopper sometimes sits for days on end, contemplating blades of grass and translating the language of buzzing bees into the tongue of the blooming flower.
It looks as if he's doing nothing. But that sort of "nothing" is the great something (the great Paying Attention) from which most interesting concepts arise.
Grasshopper is open to opportunities. Opportunities -- those amazingly tricksy little creatures -- sometimes come to those who ... well, those who are too busy happily following their bliss to worry about abstractions like "opportunity."
Or so I'm deciding to trust.
I'm not looking for "WERK!" in the Maynard G. Krebs or Trans-National Antronics, Ltd. sense. Not even in the freelance sense. Not seeking labor to fill the larder. But there's this vaguely book-shaped object in the back of my mind that's trying very hard to form into something I've never expressed before. I need Grasshopper time to learn what that book wants to be. I'm wondering what I might be able to do with a couple old neglected skills I've been
working on playing around with. And ... well, we'll see what comes.
My guess is that if I get seriously in tune with my Inner Grasshopper, I'll end up making something somebody wants -- wants more than people want what I do now. Or patrons will appear, bearing dollars. Or both.
Already the gods appear to be giving cosmic thumbs up. Almost the moment I quit Client X, Debra and I received a generous out-of-the-blue donation to our Starving Artists Fund. On the same day I had an offer to buy one of my just-beyond-baby-step drawings. (My pictures aren't yet ready to sell and may never be; but that was a beautiful sign.)
Could I end up falling on my fanny? Selling matches barefoot in the snow outside Ant's door come December? Sure. Absolutely. I might have to take up that 4:00 a.m. paper route the crazy lady down the road keeps telling me is such a Very Good Opportunity. But one part of freedom is willingness to take risks. And another is pursuing our own dreams, independently (with the support of our community of compatriots and buyers of our wares).
So even if I fail, I'm already more free today than I was two weeks ago.
Toil may be necessary to feed, house, and clothe ourselves. Beyond that ...?
Of course it's one thing for a freelancer (flaky by definition) to go a little further over the top. It's another when a "normal" person looks up from under his daily burden and begins wondering about Grasshopper life.
And this, I suspect, is the ultimate dread of the corporate state (both its Big Brother and Little Brother wings). "Lazy, dying Grasshopper" isn't, at bottom, a fable about responsibility. It's a tidy bit of propaganda for those who want to control by fear. "Independent, creative Grasshopper" terrifies those who want the masses safely in lockstep.
They fear their millions of predictably toiling ants might realize that it's possible to "live in the now" yet also use that "now" energy to create a satisfying future. Self-liberated ants would no longer need so many bosses, consultants, experts, laws, rules, regulations, or bureaus. Truly satisfied ants would no longer "consume" so many mathoms in an attempt to fill life's void. No longer be such good taxpayers. No longer think in quite such passive lockstep. No longer be too tired after their day's labor to question authority. No longer be so very, very well conditioned to Collaborate, Cooperate, and Comply.
If enough people ventured The Grasshopper Way, ant warrens would echo with emptiness. And you know, I seriously doubt we'd all be starving to death because we didn't devote our lives to the great gods Financial Security and Retirement.
Envious Ant and corporate masters need Grasshopper to fail. Their future rides on it. Well, we shall see. In the meantime, Grasshopper and I shall pick out a few more tunes on the fiddle and follow the airy trails of honeybees while thinking thoughts deep and wide.