Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Unwearable Lightness of Being: My Release from Retail Jail (But Still on Probation)

"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries
And look upon myself, and curse my fate."
--Sonnet 29, W. Shakespeare

I'm rounding the final turn of this six-month self-imposed mall moratorium in which I vowed to purchase no clothes, shoes or accessories. On February 1, I can walk into the sunshine of post-holiday, pre-spring season sales. The question is, of course, am I a reformed woman? Or have I been troubling deaf heav'n with my bootless cries?

First, I guess I should report that I bought a hat during this stretch. It was bitterly cold, I was on Church Street in Burlington, hatless (a rare occurrence for me in the dead of winter because I have these ears that cause terrific pain when exposed to cold wind, and plus, I just feel good in a hat, something that goes back to my childhood when I had to protect myself from my older brothers).
I had to make a choice: whine incessantly for the remainder of the afternoon (the pain doesn't subside for hours even once inside), or break the vow. As Betsy can attest, I agonized over this choice, but she convinced me this was not an "accessory." It was a "necessity" (I suspect the whining she would have had to listen to made it so, at least for her). So I purchased a relatively modest hat that covered my ears. I'll let you be the judge as to whether or not I remained true to the spirit, at least, if not the letter of this plan.

Assuming that I will have no opportunities to shop between today and Friday, which seems likely given my schedule, I will pull into the station having gone six months without new clothes or shoes or, shockingly, boots. The question friends who have followed this adventure have asked, of course, is what will I do on February 1? "Are you planning a binge?" one asked. "What's the first thing you'll buy?" asked another.

No, no binge is in my future, I think. As I had hoped when I began this trek back in August, I have learned a lot about myself, and those revelations are likely to keep me from going crazy next weekend and running up my Visa bill. I have also begun to appreciate what I think of as the unwearable lightness of being, this odd sense of freedom that comes from walking through a mall or into a boutique, or through a craft show that features beautiful hand-made wearable items without any sense of obligation to do more than casually admire the wares.

This unwearable lightness extends to my closet and drawer space, too, which has increased as my belongings have decreased, and I kind of like the look. My divestment of a number of items has worked like this:

1. I am bored, bored, bored with my existing clothes and wish I had something new to wear.
2. I root around in my closet(s) for something I have not worn all season in the hope that it will cure my boredom.
3. I wear the found item, but realize throughout the day that I don't really like it, which is why I hadn't worn it all season.
4. Once home, I put it in the shopping bag, bound for the Goodwill box.

This is as simple a retail equation as I can imagine: to get rid of things I don't like/wear/use. And yet, it's not how I roll, at least not on a regular basis. Like many of us, I do engage in an annual wardrobe purge. But why do I hang on to things I don't like? Aside from those things that have specific utility (a blouse that goes with a suit I wear infrequently, for example), I think I am most inclined to hang onto those things because to give them up would feel like a waste of money.

Let me repeat that (because I have pondered this for six months): a waste of money. THAT I DIDN'T NEED TO SPEND IN THE FIRST PLACE!! And so there, friends, is the koan I've puzzled over: If something is destined to be a waste of money, why am I buying it in the first place? You may argue (as I have) that it's hard to know when you buy something whether it will become a much-loved, frequently-worn item that spends years adorning your body or feet, or will be a one- or two-time wear that you realize either doesn't go with anything else you own, doesn't fit as well as it did three months ago (when you were plus or minus a few pounds), or has a fashion shelf-life comparable to Vanilla Ice.

Exactly. You don't know. So you take the chance, because what does it matter? It's just one more thing to put in a drawer or closet, its fate to be determined by forces seemingly beyond one's control. Except they're not beyond one's control, and they begin with making a really thoughtful, intentional choice at the point of purchase. And that's one thing I know I have learned that I hope to take with me into future shopping expeditions (and I'm sure there will be some, for reasons I'll get to). I will "reconsider" (as Eustace Conway says, along with "refuse," in addition to "reduce, reuse, recycle," which you know if you've been reading along these six months). I will consider, and then reconsider, each purchase before I make it in ways that I am fairly certain will considerably reduce my purchases over time.

So what else have I have learned about shopping and myself? One important set of realizations involves the reasons I shop. Once shopping as an activity was off the table, I still had the reasons, but without shopping to distract me, I had to spend the time doing something else. Pondering the reasons was one of those things. I realized:

1. I shop because I'm bored. It's something to do that's not quite mindless and has a reward that's immediate and tangible. What else can I do that has those qualities?

2. I shop out of habit. A grey and rainy Sunday afternoon without a work or social obligation? That must mean shopping.

3. I shop because it's a social activity. It's sometimes done with others and serves as a framework and venue for casual conversation, learning something about someone, interacting in a way that's relatively low-risk while at the same time, useful, if you are one of those people who likes to get a second opinion on something, or offer one, or both. I've had some great conversations with complete strangers in dressing rooms where I find myself channeling Clinton and Stacy from "What Not to Wear," which, if you know my introvert tendencies may surprise you, but a dressing room offers permission to chat in ways few other spaces do (a hair salon is similar in this way).

4. I shop because I am, like many of us, genetically predisposed to appreciate good deals. I blame this on my mother, who could probably have talked a used-furniture shop owner out of his boxer shorts if she'd wanted (fortunately for my emotional well-being and future therapy needs, she generally stuck to items for sale in the shop).
I often witnessed her looking through racks in a discount store, accompanied her to yard sales and flea markets, saw her sense of pride when she could bring home, at a bargain, something that added beauty to her home or her wardrobe. She was a child of the Depression, grew up in a poor home with a mother who knew how to stretch a meal to feed her 11 children, and obviously inherited those skills. She also, though, developed an appreciation for nice, expensive stuff. She loved her china and silver, happily wore a mink coat, had great hats (hmmm) and criticized me for giving up red meat, taking it as an affront to my parents' ability to provide that for us, something she had not had.

All of which helped me recognize the challenge of being purchase-less through the Bermuda triangle of a) post-holiday clearance sales, b) boredom that arises from serious cabin fever in the dead of winter, and c) a companion, Betsy, who was not doing a shopping sobriety program. Betsy spent a month here over the holidays serving as nurse, cook, driver and Scrabble partner while I recovered from surgery. As I have throughout these six months, I dutifully accompanied her to malls, boutiques and a great pre-Christmas Burlington craft fair. I even took her to a shoe store in Johnston, RI, that I had visited previously and raved about.

Yorker Shoes is a great shoe store, but they did not have what Betsy sought (navy blue pumps, which are apparently non-existent these days). What they did have that day was a local cop and a speed trap just down the road. As an aside, let me just warn you that there is a stretch of Route 6, the four-lane road on which Yorker Shoes is located, that is inexplicably a 35 mph zone. So this is how Rhode Island's municipal coffers are filled? By unwary out-of-state shoppers? Apparently. I am officially listing this as a "shopping hazard," by the way.

All good learning. But I think the most important thing this exercise has taught me, the thing I have wrestled with the most, is this: what makes me happy? [Spoiler alert: I don't yet know.] At some point in the past six months, I was reminded of that post-modern adage: If you want to be happy, don't spend your money on things. Spend it on experiences. It's a nice sentiment, but of course it begs the question, what experiences will make me happy? There are things I like to do, of course, but "liking" something (not in the Facebook sense, but really enjoying it) is not enough to provide profound, marrow-deep happiness. Stopping shopping is one of many strategies I've used over the past year to peel away those things I like in order to better understand why I like them and what the relationship is between doing things I enjoy and being happy.

A while back, I gave each of the deans and directors who work for me a small notebook and told them about research that showed that the mere act of recording three small (or big) good things that happened during the day before retiring for the night actually raised one's happiness level. They dutifully took the notebooks, but I'm not sure how many of them took my request to heart (Most likely: John, who is the most compliant of the group, and still makes references like "that's one for the positivity journal" when something good happens. Least likely? Jack, whose notebook is buried under a pile of stuff in his office, but is generally a happy person, so I'm not concerned). Because I had given them this assignment, I felt I had to stick to it myself, and I did. For several weeks, I wrote things down, and after a while, it became a habit, like saying one's prayers, that didn't require a pen and paper. When I turned off the light, I would quickly identify three things that happened that day that were, in some small way, positive: a nice exchange with a student, a lovely sunset, a moving passage in a book or article. The research shows that if you do this regularly, you begin to notice small delights and appreciate them throughout the day, and that appreciation takes root and grows in you, transforming the way you see even the most seemingly banal moments. This has, it seems, happened to me. I am learning to see those things in my life that are good with more regularity, and give them the appreciation they deserve. A few from the past month:

*An excellent smoothie recipe, courtesy of my Wheaton friend Zoe's terrific food blog, Onebeet.
*The blooms on the paperwhites that came from the bulbs that were a holiday treat from my colleague Gail:
*A Facebook post I can't read (because it's in Spanish) from my friends Hutch and Shari who are in the Dominican Republic brushing up on their Spanish before entering the Peace Corps.
*Realizing that the only two people left in Park Hall at the end of the day are the Provost and me, and that she can almost always be tempted by a glass of wine and conversation instead of answering more email.
*Just this morning, a Sunday: up really early, outside to get the NYT in the driveway, cold, quiet, and the kind of light that only occurs at sunrise in the winter.
*The excitement my betta fish, Karma, shows every time I enter the room. She is beautiful, yes?
*For the record, any time you wake up in recovery after surgery and hear the nurse say, "You did great!" is hands-down a good moment.
*Back-to-back dinners out with good food and great conversations, courtesy of smart, funny and faithful friends Kim and Craig.
*A voicemail from my niece Kim that was so funny and sweet I played it three times.
*The perfect seabiscuit I found on a beach on Anguilla last year that prompted an ill-advised Ambien/Pinot Grigio-influenced Facebook post (removed the next morning, so don't bother looking for it) that, despite the embarrassment, still makes me smile when I see it every morning, as I did today:
*Having someone in my life--Betsy-- who would spend a month looking after me, capitulating to my recovery-related demands, uncomplainingly preparing meals, monitoring medication (see previous item for the one time she failed at that), editing the volumes of output I produce, graciously losing at Scrabble (except when she wins), and encouraging me to not shop for six months. She got me through some moments of great temptation and thus deserves the last two lines of Shakespeare's 29th Sonnet.

What has taken the place of shopping? My now-reflexive habit of seeing good moments, good people, good health and letting these things take root. It was absolutely worth six months of deprivation (I hate to even call it that, honestly, because it is nowhere near real deprivation; I'm just running out of synonyms). While a number of people throughout this stretch have shared that they couldn't imagine doing this, it's never been about provoking materialism-related guilt in myself or others. It's been more about challenging myself to do something different for a limited time, seeing what happens and, of course, because it's the 21st century after all, blogging about it as a way to explore my own head. In that way, it's no different than the many people who blog about committing to a diet or workout routine, traveling for a year to better understand food and food culture (like Zoe), having a "mid-lifeventure" (like Shari and Hutch) that shows what really is important in life (and it ain't things), or any of the many blogs we come across every day that challenge, inspire and/or entertain us. Honestly, just knowing I can do something for six months that feels unnatural gives me hope that I can tackle some of the other challenges in my life. Six months, I have learned, is not that long to do something that is at least moderately difficult. It is, though, long enough to carve some new grooves in the way I live my life, which was always the goal. And maybe a new groove leads to a new road, a new adventure. Who knows? All I know for sure is that I'll have less luggage to pack.

Thanks for reading.