Adventures in Anti-Materialism I

August 19th, 2006

My partner and I are moving away from the East Coast. Our lease is up at the end of the month, and while I have several exciting job applications out in the world, I don’t yet have a position. We’re excited about the fact that we have a truly wide-open future; we’re terrified about having no metaphorical anchor of any kind – no home, no job, no necessary destination. Our plan is to get rid of everything that doesn’t fit in our car, head out of town, and drive west. We’ll visit friends and family across the country, check email and voice mail in case someone offers me a job, and otherwise keep going until a compelling destination presents itself.

We are alternately ecstatic, and horrified. The lure of adventure, of paring everything down to a minimum, of starting over, of taking a leap of faith of enormous proportions is heady. Being the architects of the destruction of our life here is pretty painful. I seem to alternate – some days I’m a mess, I can’t believe we’re selling or giving away objects that we love so much: my beautiful transparent cobalt blue cups and saucers, the bike we found on the side of the road and nursed back to health, the perfect bookshelves. They’re all symbols of course; as a lifetime grad student, I certainly can’t afford anything that would cost real money. But we came here with nothing, and filled our house with beautiful objects that reflect our beautiful life by accepting gifts from friends, and doing strategic shopping at the dollar store. It’s not like we’re giving away money, but we’re giving away the physical proof that we can, and have, manifested something beautiful and tangible from the raw materials of love, openness, and faith. Other days, I’m totally clear about what’s going on. Material objects ought to circulate like food, or air, or library books. You take them in, use them until you’re done, then put them back into the life cycle so they can benefit others. That’s how you stay healthy. If you try to stop up the passage of food, air, or library books, that’s when you get problems: constipation, death, overdue charges. On the good days, I’m know without doubt that it is the act of giving away our objects that guarantees we’ll be able to manifest what we need when we get wherever we’re going.

There are three especially interesting challenges in this situation: navigating the emotional roller-coaster on a daily basis, deciding how to feel about the fact that we’re doing something that no one else we know has ever done, and finding the best way to put the objects back into circulation. The first challenge – the quotidian emotional rollercoaster – seems to be something we just have to live through. We just have to keep breathing, keep reminding ourselves that we have a goal and that it’s a good one. The alternative is to stop the process every time we have a doubt or a bad day. And that would mean that the end of our lease would get here, we’d have a house full of furniture, no plan, no job applications out in the world. In short, a crisis resulting from failure to act. That possibility keeps us pretty motivated to do what we have to do, even when it feels awful. What’s worse, after all, selling or giving away things we love? Or contemplating a midnight panic-fueled jettisoning of all material possessions in the dumpster behind our house?

The second challenge is less literal. What is the best way to deal with the fact that we’re doing something pretty rare, that no one we know has ever done? I tell people our plan, and they blanch; they say things like “you have got to be kidding; giving away everything that doesn’t fit in a car? Are you serious?” Today we decided to think of this struggle as a war. Normally I don’t like war metaphors, but this time I think it’s apt. Everything around us tells us that materialism is good. That success is measured by the quality and quantity of one’s possessions. That people reflect their personalities to the world through their choice of objects. In deciding to define ourselves in opposition to this model, it’s not always enough to know what we want to be, it’s important to know what we’re choosing to define ourselves in contrast with. We’re waging a personal battle against materialism; having a clear idea of the enemy makes it easier to know who we want to be, and why.

Finally, what’s the best way to put our objects back into circulation? We’re having a garage sale today – I’m writing this from the ground floor of our townhouse, stopping from time to time to show people around. On one hand it seems like the thing to do; people come, occasionally they buy. We’ve gotten rid of a few big ticket items this way – the bed, desk, shelves, couch, stereo – and a handful of smaller items. On the other hand, it takes a huge amount of energy to plan and administrate a garage sale: designing, printing and posting the announcements, putting them online, arranging the house so that everything for sale is easily seen, fielding phone calls and visits from people who want ‘advance showings,’ being home all day while strangers walk in and out, and for the most part, decide our possessions – things we love – aren’t worthy. It feels demoralizing, exhausting, and like there must be an easier way. We received many of our items as gifts; should we be giving them away as well? Is it the money that’s tripping us up? I certainly feel like I’d rather give our things to good homes than haggle over them with people who won’t love them. I feel like that would be an ideal solution, but the fact that we’re jobless and soon to be homeless and definitely in need of cash makes it seem a little shortsighted. For the moment we’ve compromised and set one room aside for “donations” – nothing in the room has a price, but we’re asking people to leave a donation of their choosing. The rest of the stuff we’re still trying to sell. So far, several people have taken things from the donations room and no one has yet made a donation. The day is still young, however, as is our adventure, so I’ll write with a follow-up!

Entry Filed under: Anti-Materialism

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