Reflections on Consumption and Economy
I am not much of a shopper. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of excess cash and so I worked and took care of my own expenses. Rarely was there extra money for stuff, and my mom made a lot of my clothes, and so I never really developed an appetite for stuff. My first year out of college, I had a two bedroom apartment that I shared with a friend and the furniture in my room was made up of milk crates (handy chest of drawers) and a mattress. I kept my first car—a 1993 Ford Escort– until my husband practically pried the keys out of my hands two years ago, and I still mourn giving it up. In addition to not being a shopper, I am not a hoarder. If I buy something, my rule is I have to get rid of at least one thing, if not more than one thing. I don’t collect anything. I purge closets, drawers, cabinets often. But about a month ago, I noticed something a bit absurd: clothing items in my closet that I bought for the book tour that still had tags on them. I had, instead, chosen to wear just a few things that were comfortable—literally and stylistically- over and over again. Lip glosses poured out of a bathroom drawer, magazines were reaching dangerously tall heights, and the number of new books in a basket waiting to be read was bordering on absurd. In the shower, I noticed 4 sets of shampoo and conditioner (I have unruly hair but not even 4 conditioners can change that). Somewhere, when I wasn’t looking, I had become a consumer. I started thinking about how this had happened. How the girl called to family and friend’s houses to banish clutter had become a hoarder. And I realized that it had all snuck up on me, one lip gloss, book, and web-based shopping trip— oh, those shoes look cool. Forget that I can’t try them on to see that they are uncomfortable— at a time. My life was so busy with promoting the book that I hadn’t noticed my accumulation until the week after my book travels stopped (five and a half months after the book events had started), and I was mortified. So, I purged. Sent read books to a friend in the Navy who is out in the Persian Gulf right now, a bag of lipsticks and clothes to my sister, and coats and sweaters to the clothing closet down the road. Food to the food pantry. Dishes and other items to Habitat. And then, when I sat down to write my annual birthday list, a thought crossed my mind—a simple way to get me back to my non-consumer ways. I would drastically minimize my consumption for at least 12 weeks of the coming next year. The rules: I could purchase food, gifts for others when necessary (although I customarily do a lot of alternative gifts, I just wanted to have it out there that I could purchase something to celebrate a birth, an anniversary or whatever if I wanted), medication, and toiletries when I was out of something necessary (ie: toothpaste yes, nail polish no. Although I have to be honest and say that I have never purchased nail polish in my life. The point was that the toiletry had to be really necessary and not just manipulated into my thinking it necessary). And then I quit consuming.
Now, four weeks later, I have some observations after my first period of non-consumption: The web-shopping that I did was really just a way to deflect boredom in the midst of my sometimes solitary workdays. On days where I am writing, I can sit all day at my desk in my lil’ studio and not see another person. Sometimes, when I needed the distraction that I used to get by walking to the office next door to mine to visit with my co-worker, I would surf the web, landing on a site to buy stationary here or books there. Now, I am deflecting the tedium by getting up and doing something else: walking outside to visit with my neighbor when I see her in the yard, throwing “brain” (my pup’s favorite toy) for her in the yard. Sometimes quitting something cold turkey is just about replacing the issue it was addressing—boredom, anxiety, whatever. This past week of non-consumption took place while I was on vacation in Central America with street vendors eyeing me and calling out in English, $10 for 2 t-shirts. The experience really rattled me on so many levels. It rattled the non consumer in me—the girl who didn’t need or want any more stuff. It rattled the introvert in me—the girl who just likes to walk unfamiliar streets and observe. Turns out, I was being observed. A dart of my eye to a display and it was as if I was saying, “I want that.” The vendors are brilliant salespeople. They take that opening and run with it. When I politely listened to their spiel and then said, “thanks, but I am not shopping today,” they begged me to name a price. When I wouldn’t, they would bid against themselves, lowering the price more and more as I demured. Sometimes, my fluency in Spanish caught them off guard but never enough to abandon the sales pitch. Ultimately, I would rush back to my room, away from the markets, so stressed from the inability to escape the sales stalk and pitch. It rattled the social justice activist and the lucky American in me. I am terribly uncomfortable with the idea of being a rich American (which I am no where close to in American dollars, but which most Americans are—just by virtue of living here– as compared to the world). Being reminded that I am over-resourced—disproportionately so as compared to the world– made the consumer in me even more self-conscious- -made me want to shut her down even more. And, yet, the part of me that has traveled and studied and experienced knows that the dollars that I spend with one of those vendors often means the difference between food or no food. And the activist in me has always believed that many of the world’s problems are rooted in poverty and that simply sharing resources could go far in righting the world. I had to find some sort of solution. And so here is what I did: I bought very little while on vacation—birthday gifts for my mother, mother-in-law, niece, and nephew- but in those situations, I paid the price quoted. I didn’t barter or bargain. I just handed over the $6 for a t-shirt here and the cost of a little girl’s dress there. Then I tipped my cab drivers and waiters generously. And, finally, I came home and logged on to http://www.kiva.org. It was one way to reconcile all of the thoughts and emotions moving through me—the conflicting forces. One of my birthday goals this year was to make a loan through kiva.org—something I have already done a couple times—but I was happy to do it again and hope to make it a regular part of what I do— a very direct way for me to balance resources while not consuming.