Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On useless crap.

I love New Year's resolutions. I appreciate the impetus to take a look at my life, and choose something I'd like to do differently, and then acting on that desire instead of letting it nag the back of my mind. That's why I actually take my resolutions very seriously, and I even announce them on Facebook to hold myself accountable.

This year my resolution was not to buy anything for myself for a year. No sweaters, no shoes, no boots, no underwear or socks. No hats, no coats, no tchotchkies, no cosmetics. No. More. Crap.

I was surprised by the reactions I got from friends when I announced my intentions. "Seems extreme," was one comment. Another person joked that I was going to be pretty smelly if I didn't buy soap. Didn't appreciate that one. Of course I'll purchase what I need to keep clean. My husband didn't believe I'd be able to do it, which provides some hint at my reasons for choosing to. I can now report that I've reached the third month of the year, and I still haven't bought myself anything new, at all, except I decided to switch my brand of drug-store face cream, and so far I'm happy with the change.

A lot of people are baffled about my sudden aesceticism, and I decided to explain where it came from, partly because I wasn't absolutely certain of all my reasons for doing it. I'm never certain about anything until I try to write about it, actually.

When I became a mother, I had the same reaction most new parents have: Complete joy, unparalleled love, and paralyzing, keep-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night terror. Suddenly I was responsible for small being(s) who were absolutely dependent on me for sustenance, shelter, and safety. Until you have a child, it's hard to feel in your gut the total responsibility a parent has toward her baby. Take my word for it, non-parents, it's a definite blow to your psyche. Suddenly, nothing you desire comes even close in importance to seeing that your child is safe, well-fed, warm, and loved.

When my baby cried, it was emotional agony for me if I couldn't make it better. If my baby was in pain, or was simply mysteriously freaking out and I couldn't figure out why, I honestly felt like I would go crazy if I couldn't fix it. It's so scary, all the possibilities of what might be tormenting an inconsolable baby: Is it a hair wrapped around a digit? A migraine headache? A potentially fatal intestinal blockage? Or is it just that I'm holding her the wrong way? The anguish a new parent feels in those moments can be intense.

For me, though, I always knew she'd had enough to eat. It wasn't dysentery, or typhoid, or a poisonous insect bite, or an undiagnosed birth defect in one of her organs. I knew this because I live in America where I have access to health care, and I have enough money to buy food for my kids and to provide safe haven for them.

I'm so lucky.

Because these conditions of ease and comfort do not exist for the majority of parents in our world. The majority. MOST people in the world are food insecure, which means that there are lots of parents, today, this very moment, watching their child moan in pain from being hungry, and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The anguish of being a parent, knowing what is wrong, knowing that your kid might even die from the problem, and still not being able to fix it? Unimaginable. Unbearable. Horrific.

When my kids were babies, I started having a kind of strange image that kept recurring to me. I have three young kids. I can't carry them all. I saw myself on a lonely highway, exhausted, pushing them all in a shopping cart, mountains on my left, mountains on my right, and nothing but nothing up ahead. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I think it's partly because I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy while I was pregnant. That horrible situation of trying to raise a child in a world that has lost its humanity has haunted me ever since, and when I became somebody's mommy, it became my recurrent nightmare. Somewhere along the way, as I imagined this image of myself exhausted, trying to keep them alive, trying to stay alive myself so that I could, I realized: This is actually a reality somewhere in the world. There are parents right now trying to see their kids safely through a war zone. It haunts me. It really does.

Obsessive? Yes. Neurotic? Sure. But I bet you every parent goes through this, at least at first, until things settle, and parenthood becomes the New Normal.

This shift in my world view sapped the joy of shopping from me. I keep thinking about parents fleeing Syria, trying to carry their children across a desert, parents in Somalia, whose children have stopped growing, parents right here in the USA whose kids eat rice every meal, knowing the food stamps won't last much longer. Getting something for myself, with all that on my mind, wasn't fun anymore.

I know that what I'm doing is kind of useless. It's self-absorbed, really. Who am I helping? No one. I give to charities, but not enough. I could give more. Actually I think I will. I just wanted to stop feeling so guilty after the initial fun had worn off from my latest needless purchase. I wanted to change my relationship to the material world.

I've hesitated to write about this because I didn't want to seem sanctimonious. I don't begrudge anyone their new jeans. I truly don't. Life is hard, sometimes crushing, and if shopping is your way of coping, then I say go for it. Shop instead of drinking, or doing drugs, or doing yourself any number of possible injuries. Right now, this year, my way of coping is to not shop. I think of it as an expression of solidarity with the parents who don't even have the option. And you know what? I do feel a little bit better about my choices. It's a break from stuff.  A break from shopping. A break from my own petty preoccupations with the material world.

I didn't expect this, but I feel so free.

UPDATE 3/16/2015: So over a year has passed since this experiment, and though I didn't make it all the way to a year before I bought something for myself, (I made it six months,) I can report one positive outcome of this experiment that seems to be holding true: I no longer enjoy shopping online like I used to. Before, if I was bored I would look at the websites of my favorite stores, or I would check out Ebay for that JCrew sweater I saw somewhere, and I would buy something, enjoying the feeling that I was doing something for myself. Just now, for the first time in months, I went to one of my favorite stores' websites and just the process of looking at stuff to buy was boring for me. Ebay too. Online shopping just doesn't give me the same emotional lift that it used to. I don't know why this happened, except to posit that the six month hiatus I took from buying anything at all forced me to find other ways to spend my time when I was bored. And now I cure boredom with social media, (a waste of time but at least it's free,) reading, and other more productive uses of my time. I suspect I spend a great deal less money on useless crap, and that's a relief to my wallet. All in all, I recommend this experiment for anyone looking to change their orientation to the physical world. I think I am definitely less of a spendthrift, so even though I failed to make it for a whole year, I still think I gained something valuable from taking a break from shopping.