You want it revoked? Maria's voice trails off and her eyes widen slightly as she really takes me in: my broad-brimmed straw hat, collarless shirt, leather suspenders, and long beard.
Am I Amish? Am I a time traveler from the 1850s? Whichever, something strange is going on here. But this is the biggest motor vehicle office in the state, and a lot of unusual people must come through here; I see that Maria is regaining her composure and her smile already. Only now her head is tilted forward and her tranquil eyebrows are poised in a question.
Yes, I tell her once more, I really want to give it back.
This excerpt from Scott Savage's recent book, A Plain Life: Walking My Belief, (Ballantine Books) begins a unique personal travelogue, a mini memoir that revolves around the author's pilgrimage from rural Barnesville, Ohio, to the state capital of Columbus.
It's a 120-mile trek with just one purpose: to return his Ohio state driver's license.
Savage is not Amish. But he is a conservative Quaker farmer from Ohio who to the untrained eye would appear to dress the part of that well-known Germanic Christian sect that has colonized various regions of the Midwest.
The likeness doesn't stop there. The 40-year-old father of two also drives a horse-drawn buggy and he's forsworn the automobile, another Amish custom (though Amish eyes in Ohio would notice that Savage's buggy doesn't sport the trademark rounded corners preferred by the Amish).
Savage did not harness his horse, Ned, up to the buggy for the journey to Columbus, however. For this trip, he wanted to walk the whole way, stopping only to eat and sleep in available motels and restaurants. A deeply religious man, Savage took the hike as an occasion to memorize Christ's beatitudes a task others might have relegated to a lazy afternoon in an easy chair, but that's another matter.
Savage's book is not some predictable and cute Charles Kerault-type travelogue, in which a pithy, worldly traveler offers a portrait gallery of back-road characters.
With a feature-length movie now out about a guy who drives a lawnmower across the U.S., and the well publicized trek of Granny D, an elderly woman championing campaign reform, it's just as well Savage doesn't take his hoof to Columbus as a very serious feat (if you'll forgive the pun).
Instead, Savage uses his mini odyssey which he refers to as a "leading" from God to both critique the state of American materialist culture and to "witness" to others that there is a solution to the madness.
Such travel journals have a long tradition among Quakers. Religious Society of Friends founder George Fox, and many Quaker leaders since, have gotten their message out via the memoirs of a spiritual journey.
Some Quaker sects also have a long history of social involvement being some of the first vocal, white abolitionists and continuing to work on peace and social justice issues today.
Savage borrows from both these traditions with his book, his travels and his near decade-long run as editor and publisher of the journal Plain, a monthly magazine printed by hand on recycled paper and illustrated only with woodcuts and engravings.
He also helped organize the Second Luddite Congress, a follow-up to the first Luddite Congress organized by weavers and members of the cottage industry who resisted against the industrialization of England's textile industry in the 1800s.
Though Savage's social critique is neither simple-minded nor unsophisticated, the central theme to his "leadings" can basically be boiled down to a simple premise: People have traded the important things in life time with family, for example for material stuff we don't really need. We work so hard getting things we don't need that we lose sight of our most important values.
It's a refreshing message. The solution isn't simply changing or regulating cultural content on television or the Internet but challenging the whole institution of mass culture, he argues.
In other words, just pull the plug. Yank the cord on the TV, the radio, the computer and begin focusing on the real people around you.
Savage writes about this process from personal experience. He and his wife opted out about ten years ago, moving to rural Ohio where they befriended Amish farmers and settled into a conservative Quaker denomination (not to be confused with politically conservative evangelists).
They learned to make their own clothes and grow most of their own food as they sought to align their personal lives with a deepening faith in God.
Thankfully, Savage writes about these experiences with clear, plain prose, mixing plenty of righteous indignation with equal helpings of humility. Some of the most charming passages center on his own failed attempts: to meet his own ideals, to fit in with his Amish neighbors, or to break in his skittish horse, Ned.
The hint: Opting out isn't easy; there are no pat answers to the many contradictions that arise when you choose which technologies to keep and which to throw away. But it's all worth it, Savage seems to say. The plain life is not about what you have to give up, but about what you gain when you pull the plug.
And as Savage savages today's passive, consumer culture, he does so from an interesting, relatively nonaligned vantage point: From that perch, he offers some refreshing insights into the hypocrisies of both the left and right.
I reached Savage at a motel room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he's staying during an ambitious book and lecture tour (which he's doing by train, not foot, by the way) that brings him to Colorado Springs next week for a lecture and book signing.
I: Now that you're in the middle of a busy book tour, what kinds of challengers or contradictions to your plain lifestyle have arisen?
SS: What I do with horse and buggy, and any other area where I may be living differently than the average person, none of those things are based on taboos. So it's not, "horse and buggy good, cars bad." Instead, everything we're doing is based on choices and those choices, in turn, are based on what is important to us.
We live in a society now where we are told we can remake ourselves and our values at will if you have, I guess, a Gold Card, you can be whatever you want. But we don't believe that. We really believe that there are certain basic needs that people have: a need for community, a need for God, a need for family. So all those choices are based on how to meet those needs.
And we're trying to make sure those things aren't interrupted or hurt or distorted. So if I drive a horse and buggy at home, the reason isn't because horse and buggy [are] good, cars [are] bad. The reason is that we've found it slows us down, makes us more present so we're better able to be a part of the place where we live.
So going out on the road, taking a train to talk about my book doesn't bother me at all. But of course there are all sorts of contradictions in my life, as there is in anyone's because I'm a human being.
What I'm really seeing as I've been out on the road is how much we're trading time for stuff. People have even less time than when my wife and I quit the whole game. Less and less time and more and more stuff. But it's just an awful trade.
I hope that wherever people are able to and of course not everyone is rolling in stuff [they] give back all of the material things that they got in exchange for being wrapped up in work and in transit getting back and forth, etc. I hope that people consider giving back some of the stuff to get some of the time they're being robbed of.
I: Do you think there's more of an opportunity now to get your message across because of that trade-off?
SS: Oh yeah, [that's just what] the people who are coming to readings are talking about; they don't have the time. They are totally caught up and also [they're frustrated] with communications people can't get a hold of a real human being out there. All this [technological] communication has really meant is that we've learned to spend more time talking to and interacting with machines instead of human beings. We are being thwarted in something that is very basic to us, which is contact with other human beings.
I: My wife and I are trying to exchange stuff and money for time, in other words, to live with less so that we have the time to be with our kid. But we incorporate those ideas into the urban life. How do you see the folks who are trying to do this on the urban and suburban level?
SS: I think that if you just try to "live simply," you're very liable to be co-opted in the urban and suburban environment. There's a huge co-opting machine out there that will have you wearing simple shoes and [carrying] a simple credit card. And so this machine that we live in, it can co-opt any attitude or any thought toward rebelling against it and just turn it around and sell it back to you.
What I have been encouraging urban and suburban people to do is just pull every plug in your house, not just for a week, but for a month. In a week's time all you'll have is withdrawal symptoms. But in a month, what you might find out is that once you can no longer be reached by the engines of progress and commercialism, reality will start to flood back in. Then it will become easier for you to begin making sensible choices. If you just try to jump in and live simply, but still within the environment that we have across the county, you'll end up being thwarted.
Just ask the people who are involved in the marketing of people because what happens is that people are being sold to advertisers. But if you go to those people and say "simple living," they'll all say, "Oh, that's nice, that's a marvelous category."
But if you say, "Opt out and do not accept anybody in the home except the real people who walk in the door no TV, no radio, no nothing," and do not look at ads and or [shop] at big chains, then they are just going to turn green and fall over dead because you really are then finding a way to short-circuit the co-opting of simple living.
"Today, the modern libertine spirit is as powerful and, hence, as dangerous as the spirit of demagogy present in some right-wing religious groups. They're two sides of the same coin: The philosophy of complete freedom is growing monstrous in its pursuit of pleasure, and to restrain it, the 'ayatollahs' are requesting that ever-stronger social controls be placed in their hands." From A Plain Life: Walking My Belief
I: It always frustrates me that the contemporary conservative movement and liberals too tend to emphasize what's on TV, what's on the Internet, the e-mail...
SS: The content...
I: Right. But if we are going to really focus on our family, then maybe we ought to just chuck the TV out the window.
SS: Yeah, there's so little focus on what we're actually doing, as opposed to what we think we're doing. We probably have a hundred million people or more who essentially do the same thing at work every day. That's new and that's bizarre. They sit down at a desk in front of a putty-colored box with a keyboard and they bang their fingers against the keyboard all day.
It could be for all sorts of reasons, but physically and emotionally and spiritually, the mere fact that they're all sitting in front of a box all day, relating to it, is going to have a major impact on the quality of their lives.
They say, "Oh I'm using the Internet to go to all these great resources that I can use for my job." I would say, "No, you're sitting in front of a box all day long. You're talking to it. You're writing to it. And you're dealing with it instead of people."
I: What would you say to the argument that the Internet and computer are just vehicles and that some very real communication happens with this technology?
SS: To be honest, I think that's idiotic. I'm sorry to say that, but it proves how far we've gone from seeing ourselves as living human beings, made from dust, breathed into with God's spirit and alive and on this earth. It just proves to me that we are starting to see ourselves as machines; if we can spend that many hours in communication with machines.
Go to any office building, no matter what the trade, and you'll see people sitting at their desks, on the phone talking to someone's voicemail. When they hang up they then see that they have messages from someone else and while they're listening to those messages, they turn to their computer and they find messages there. In that context, if you actually get someone on the phone, you're doing pretty good.
I think the only reason we can make such comparisons and say that the virtual life is just like real life is because we've become so divorced from real life that we don't even know what it is.
In our family, we unplugged everything. We live in a house in which there are no sounds except the sounds made by people that are right there. It is a much richer environment than it was before when we had the opportunity to listen to a thousand different channels of radio and the opportunity to have all these externals come in. That life was not rich in texture; on the contrary, [but] now we've gotten back the texture of reality, and we like it. We love it.
We're not resisting any more. We were resisting modernity, but now we're going toward something else. We are embracing something; we're not resisting.
I: That's an interesting point because so much of the Luddite discussion has been centered on resistance.
SS: Yeah, what do we have to give up? It's all sort of dirge-like.
I: Yeah, it's austere and the message people get from that is that if you live this lifestyle, you'll be unhappy and hungry.
SS: Yeah, if you don't have a microwave, you'll be in a cave chewing on a bone, or something. But for us and our family, our lives are much richer. And we live below the federal poverty line. But you know what, it makes no difference to us. We feel so much more flexibility. We have so much less hanging over our heads than when we had two full-time professional incomes. Poverty is when you feel that you need something badly that's basic to you and you cannot meet that need. We don't have that experience.
I: I've always felt that if I opted out of the urban or suburban life and went to a rural place, I'd lose an opportunity to have an impact in the city. Maybe this tenth-of-an-acre sliver that we have here can be an example of that philosophy. Leaving for rural areas might be another version of a white flight, where you're just escaping the problems of the city, not fixing them.
SS: But you can't escape it [the problems of the city].
If you go out to a rural area, you haven't escaped the problems of the city because the cities have created problems for the rural areas as well. The rural areas have been drained of their populations and the rural areas have lost their economies due to the introduction from the cities of these large box store chains and malls. That money is flowing out of the rural areas to the cities.
So if you go out to the country, you are still in the throes of the city's problems. It's just that you are responding to them in different ways, and the way we are responding is by dropping our participation in that economic system and reforming our own local economies.
I: What you're saying about families trading in the stuff for time has a profound ring here in Colorado, given the deep introspection following the Columbine High School massacre. Perhaps what you're saying is part of an answer. We've relegated our kids to a system that takes care of them during the day so that we can make money to pay for the system that takes care of them. All that creates divisions between the family, the kids, the schools and the authorities that were not as prevalent in the past.
SS: The system doesn't love your kid. You love your child and that's why you have to be present. Your presence in the loving firmness you apply is what makes the difference between them going right and wrong.
It indicates that there is an underlying problem that the people who love their children, their families and their religious communities are not present for them enough and that has to change. People need to realize they've made a very bad trade if they've traded their time with their children for careers and advancement. And I'm not saying it has to be just Mom at home. I wish everyone could stay home and that we had fewer "jobs" and more just working to support ourselves more directly at home.
I: One of the responses to Columbine and other school shootings has been, "Let's bring religion back to the public school in some way." Something symbolic, like posting the Ten Commandments and so forth. This suggests that the problem isn't the system, that the system can be reformed with religion. As a Christian, what do you think?
SS: To me, this is a continuation of the thinking that has led us to the problem. For me, I think it would be good to have the Ten Commandments on the wall, along with a lot of other documents that show our true history as a people. And some of that history has been blotted out erroneously, I think.
But I also want to separate out what the school does from what we do at home. It's at home that we have to take care of the moral education of children. We continue to abdicate, and that is exactly the problem.
That's how we got into this problem: parents believing they could send their kids out to be morally educated by somebody else. First of all, it's not [the schools'] job and second of all, given what they've done with so many other mandates they've had, I don't have any confidence that children would not come home worshipping the goddess. If we're going to give religion to the schools, whose religion is it going to be? I don't think it's going to be mine.
I: To me, the Ten Commandments in schools supports the idea that we can reform what's on television rather than just throwing out the box ... or in this case, the idea that you can effectively educate thousands of kids in these giant boxes of concrete called schools.
SS: Yes, right. We'll have really good TV programs for the kids as they sit getting fat watching... .
I: Exactly. On the other end of the political spectrum, I imagine a lot of the people who are sympathetic to your message are, in fact, liberals who are often distrustful of a heavily religious message. What kind of reactions are you getting from those folks?
SS: Most of the reactions are wonderful. They are reactions of relief, that someone says what they believe, and [does] not just spout what's politically correct.
I: Here in Colorado Springs, we have a very large conservative Christian presence that has essentially bought into the mass consumer culture accumulation of personal wealth, etc. Do you have a specific message to that community as well?
SS: I don't want to criticize my fellow Christians for their approaches. But I do want to insist that we can't always redeem the culture and that's been the impulse behind the evangelical camp over the last 20 or 30 years ... the belief that one could go out into the culture and Christianize it. But if culture is giving us ways of being that are anti-religious, or some might say anti-human, a Christian version of that doesn't really help us.
So I'm not sure that Christian rock and Christian videos and Christian credit cards I shudder to think what else could be given the stamp of being Christian ...
I: Christian government, perhaps...
SS: (Laughs) Perhaps that's next. But I would have to say it's a failed experiment and I would hope that the evangelicals would look at this and [that] say, instead of trying to adopt the existing culture, we should be creating our own culture, based on our own values.
So what is a Christian video? To me a Christian video can't exist if it takes time away from being with others, caring for the poor, living out Christ's mandates and also from time with God. So there's no such thing. A Christian video would be not to have a video, but rather to spend time in real life living the precepts of Christianity.
Now I know that's a very surface answer. But I do want to ask my fellow Christians in the evangelical movement to begin examining one thing for me and that is, "Has it worked, to redeem this culture? Is that what has happened? Or on the contrary, has the culture changed for the worse the Christian enterprise among people of faith?"
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