September is the Other January
For me that message means renewal, starting again, and picking up projects that might have stalled. Marketing and promotion is a hard job for many people. While I actually sort of perversely enjoy it, I have let that ball drop, roll away and disappear the past few months. Now I am happy to say that I have received a shot in the arm from a very prestigious source, Kirkus Reviews.
Naturally I am hoping the review will bring more attention to my book, Being Home, but more important it serves to remind me that I have created something and it is out there in the world. While I can say the book is MINE I have realized recently that it is a bit more complicated than that. The publishing contract I signed limits what I can do with the e-book versions and I am just beginning to understand that ownership is a slippery slope.
Ah ha! We segue to our September topic! What does it mean to own something and why is it such a deeply embedded human value? I suppose it varies across cultures, but here in my backyard it is a very emotional and pervasive thing. A recent Seattle Times article by Sarah Stuteville recounted her experience with the “Buy Nothing” movement and I have written before about “Minimalism” projects. They both try to look at how acquiring affects our lives and pocketbooks, and both wind up revealing that we have more power than we think.
The issue really comes down to my own relationship to objects, money, my space and the world as a whole. How many people are able to stop and consider this kind of question, when all around us are the messages of consumerism? Unless you feel some sense of control over your habits and decisions it is far easier to be told what you should have, how many toys you need, and what will make you look good and feel happy.
Stuteville concludes her article with exactly that point: Living better and being happy is a matter of owning your ability to choose. As she says, it is usually a combination of financial, aesthetic and environmental values. According to many sources (including Value Village by the way) half of North Americans feel they “have too much stuff.”
So how do you start to wake up to your own criteria for ownership? Another recent editorial I read was about one family realizing that the house they were able to buy in the current tough market was the place they needed to accept as home. It was their “Satis House” – a reference to a stately mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The Satis House was built so that whoever lived there would always have enough and never want for more. The family in the editorial realized that they could choose to acknowledge their new house as enough and settle in and enjoy it.
That is what I call personal power.
And now I will reveal my own clay feet. I recently spent not a small sum on a dress I didn’t actually need. It does fit in my closet, so the spatial considerations were not an issue, but I still wondered afterward, what exactly was I thinking?
What is it about having things that is so seductive? In looking carefully at the process I identified some typical phases. It starts with a hunger, which can be a raging desire or a little tickle of speculation. Hmm, something new to wear for the party would be fun.
There is moment here when I could have recognized a syndrome I like to call “bored around the wallet”. It was coined by a Swiss friend to reference eating for no good reason, i.e. being “bored around the mouth”. Pretty good, eh? I was just in the mood to acquire, also known as retail therapy, which I think does have therapeutic value, until I overdose.
So back to the question, what does that entail and how can I stop it? Once the hunger has me the next step is the hunt, which is enjoyable in itself. Here is another point at which I could have looked, enjoyed and left my credit card alone, an opportunity I let slip. Next is the acquisition, returning home and perhaps some gloating. All this can still be fun, but here is where the real test begins.
What are the real factors of ownership that make it so popular and also the source of such guilt and societal questioning? If you simply enjoy buying and owning and never look back, this last bit will make no sense. I am writing for the masses that feel compelled to participate in acquiring more cool stuff.
Once I have something all the fun of getting it is over and what I am left with is an object and perhaps some memories of the process. So I devised some questions for myself about the dress I bought and hopefully they can be applied to anything you spend money on:
- How do I feel when I look at it?
- Was it a one-off splurge or can I choose to extend its use? Can I be comfortable with either?
- Does it really fit in my space or will it just disappear in the mass of similar stuff?
- Is it related to an experience that has meaning in my life, and thus means more itself?
- Can I imagine it in the future and enjoy the prospect?
- If it is a functional item, is that all I expect of it, and was it worth it in practical terms?
- Did I get it so someone else would approve of me, and is that enough to justify it?
- If was really just “bored around the wallet”, can I return it?
All these might help you examine your own stories about having things; it’s really just a start. The whole question of spending on experiences as opposed to objects is also important. I have found that it really depends on circumstances and where I am in my life overall.
For years when my children were small, they needed stuff. When they got older I chose to save and take us on trips and discourage the need to keep up with their peers’ buying habits. As a result I have a daughter who refuses to pay retail for clothing and makes creative outfits other ways, and a son who spent 5 months on the Pacific Crest Trail with a 20 pound pack.
So how did I wind up lusting after $300 shoes? Maybe because sometimes I can justify having them and other times I laugh at myself. I think the point is, as always, awareness.
Your relationship to space, and objects and understanding of their meanings is the only way to tease it apart. I’ll leave you with an invitation to explore your own dance with stuff, and especially to consider where you are in the shifting balance between having and experiencing.
Remember that September is that other great month for fresh starts.