MY YEAR WITHOUT MACYS Catherine Campbell
New Year's resolutions are neurotically attractive, like the very habits they are supposed to break. The resolution and the habit seem like warring appendages, part of oneself, yet out of one's control. I knew this about resolutions, having made hundreds of them only to break every one, so in this particular year, I didn't exactly make a resolution. I tried to leap out of the resolution neurosis and break a habit that hurt the world.
The First Try
The idea was that I would not buy anything new for a year, and it came to me -- the first time -- a few days before New Years in 1990. In this initial guise, I saw it as an ecological resolution, a plan to buy less, recycle more, and thereby live more simply and less destructively.
At the time, I was living an urban life, an ideal urban life. Here I resist the universal human tendency to dismiss one's former life in favor of one's current life, as in, "I was so naive then," or "That was before I really knew myself." It was a good life, not lacking in meaning: I had a troubled marriage to a good person, and lots of friends, genuine and interesting people doing creative work. I was practicing family law and finding it rich with gossip and stories, if not intellectual challenge. For all this, or in spite of it, I was deeply unhappy, and I knew it.
At the annual New Years Day party my husband and I gave, I thought it would be fun to have a tablet on an easel and allow others to make resolutions after I announced mine. The crowd was a diverse group of entrepreneurs, lawyers and intellectuals, all with some interest in the health of the globe.
But except for my little vow, the tablet remained blank, and nobody said a word about my resolution. This was my first intimation that my idea might make other people cringe. I knew I was slightly nervous about the plan, but I didn't then understand the depths of other people's reactions to this particular form of self-denial.
Almost immediately it was hard to stick with the plan. I was living in a San Francisco Bay Area filled with commercial temptations. I couldn't buy the Japanese tatami mat I saw in the window at Japantown, nor could I buy cards in the Castro. Macy's was off limits, a harsh fact which eliminated long, solitary and utterly enjoyable evenings of shopping, and then eating at the counter of Original Joe's. I walked by bookstores, discovering that I wanted to purchase books, not just browse around them. I could drink coffee, walk through museums, run in the park, and listen to authors read, but I couldn't acquire a thing. I was surprised to discover how much my experience of San Francisco as an interesting place depended in my commercial relationship with it.
After a couple of months, I began to feel as if I had given blood. It wasn't awful, but there wasn't much of a reason to get out of bed in the morning either. I started to seriously wonder about the role of buying in my life.
My small resolution was no longer solely ecological.
And so, four months after I began, I failed.
I broke the vow in Czechoslovakia. We traveled there in the Spring, right after the end of communist domination but before capitalism had begun to work its dubious wonders on eastern Europe. We arrived in Prague on Earth Day, and Alan Ginsberg was reading poetry in Wencheslas Square. Young travelers were there from all over the world to revel in this hiatus between the domination of one ideology and another. There was no neon, and there were no billboards. Prague was a village that stretched for miles. In all the excitement, there was a sadness too: the virtues of communism would be lost, along with its quiet. I felt the absence of commerce like relief from a small, irksome but constant distraction. In this odd absence of temptation, I let down my resolve.
On our last day in Prague I had the Czech equivalent of 100 dollars in US currency that would convert to mere paper when we crossed the German border. To not spend it would be like throwing money away. Somewhere, surely, in the labyrinth of Prague streets, I would find a shop of some kind. I left my husband and friends waiting, and ran off. I immediately became dizzy, the way I do in large department stores, and I got completely lost. It began raining. I saw a small corner shop with a raincoat in the window which I quickly bought, spending all I had. I've never worn that raincoat since.
That was the end of my first attempt to live a year outside the reach of new commodities. I had a good story to tell about why it didn't work, and the story quickly drew conversation away from the reality of my failure. I put the whole idea away, thinking I would never try it again. But I did, four years later.
My Friend Failure
During the interim, I thought about my first attempt, and what it meant to me. My relationship with money had been exposed to myself, and I was no longer quite so unconscious about the ways money affected every part of my life. Financial discord broke up my marriage, although I knew then and know now that money was only the material representation of much deeper disagreements between my husband and me. I had observed the same phenomenon watching other people's marriages disintegrate. People who prolonged their divorce often had one little material item as the final battleground. I knew all this, but in this arena knowing didn't change much. I wanted control, and I wanted clarity.
This was not something I talked about, only what I thought. Rarely do people talk about money, and when they do, they are embarrassed, feel guilty, seek conversational retreat. My parents never talked about money, and in spite of our pretense to unbridled conversation, my generation isn't really all that different.
The second time I tried, I was divorced, living back in my home town, and comforted in all my life failures (this being the least of them) by good friends, the immediate presence of my children, a marred but essentially rural landscape, and a commercial base that depends heavily on table grapes. My home town is Fresno, California, and, for all its mostly invisible attractions, it's not a sophisticated consumer's paradise. By relocating 172 miles into the Great Central Valley, I made my resolution achievable.
My reason for giving up buying new things was different the second time. I wanted to save money, pay off bills, clean up my financial life. I wanted a kind of simple solvency that would give me greater freedom to pursue my home-grown interests. Month by month, I attacked my credit card debt, and by the end of the year it was gone. I used all the money I would have spent on buying things to pay off the debt I had accumulated buying things.
I didn't tell a soul. I was shy about it, and I didn't want to make anyone nervous by implying a kind of criticism. My Fresno friends are pretty poor. They live month to month as writers, artists, teachers, organizers, and through an assortment of odd and not very remunerative jobs. No one I know here has much money, and no one I know here spends much money.
My resolution was the same: buy nothing new for a year. I exempted the obvious consumables like food, toilet paper and batteries. The line between what is consumable and what is not is pretty easy to draw, although everybody might draw it a bit differently. I did not exempt the things that tempted me: books, music, clothing and gifts. I did exempt art -- one has to support friends.
Oddly, this time I experienced no cravings during the entire year. Instead, one channel in my brain was suddenly quiet, no sound, as if I had just turned it off. Advertising became irrelevant to my life and I didn't notice it anymore. I began to enjoy an unencumbered feeling, and one day, within the first month, I went through my closet and drawers and cleaned everything out, keeping only what I thought I would definitely wear.
Then, while I was piling old clothes in stacks on my bed, I realized that by the end of the year I would have fewer things than I had at the beginning. I shivered with a small dread. It was as if accumulation and age were necessary corollaries, and I was breaking some secret pact having to do with staving off death. I was not supposed to allow myself to become lighter.
My 15 year old son and I were living together in a modest, inconspicuous house in a semi-rural neighborhood that didn't have sidewalks or a ban on roosters. At first I had an office in town, but soon I couldn't figure out why I was leaving the house every day to work on criminal appeals, so I set up my office in my home. I began to find research and writing for people convicted of crimes a much more engaging work than trying to mediate, or ? worse yet ? litigate battles over custody of the kids, or the living room couch. I brought much of my Bay Area experience and learning to my new, less urbane life in Fresno. Slowly, I healed from the divorce.
What was ultimately most pleasurable about the experience was the time it gave back to me. All I gave up was shopping but suddenly I had hours of free time I didn't have before, time I filled mostly with work I wanted to do. I took on new projects of uncertain income, and threw myself into them. I became very interested in the criminal justice system and began writing articles and book reviews for legal magazines, journals and newspapers. I visited with the women at the nearby women's prison, and they told me horrific tales about their inability to get adequate medical care, so I organized a legal team for them and we filed a huge class-action against the entire Department of Corrections. I received a call from a poor, hispanic grandmother whose grandson was shot at a high security prison near the northern California border, and I began an investigation that led to another lawsuit.
My evenings were busy in a vegetable garden behind my house. I was reading poetry again. On some days, I felt like a kid on a hot summer day when it seems as if the afternoon sun will stay at the same glorious angle forever, burning my back, making me slightly sleepy on the hot grass. It was not so much that I had given up shopping. I had given up wanting.
And Then It's Christmas
I thought when the year began that I would spend time shopping in thrift stores for the few things I really needed, but I didn't do that except once, when I ran out of drinking glasses and went to the Cancer Society Discovery Shop and found ten drinking glasses for one dollar. Otherwise, I never went into a store for the entire year except to buy groceries. When I went to a museum, I looked at the art and never drifted toward the shop. I collected no souvenirs that year, although I took photographs. I socialized at crafts fairs. I donated money to political causes. I gave some money to my kids, but I never bought them a thing.
I thought the hardest time of the year would be Christmas, when the social pressure to spend money and buy new things is a bullying compulsion.
All year I gave gifts of things I already had, but Christmas requires a bit more than foraging through the books and CDs on hand. I decided to take the time I would have spent shopping, and really look through my house for gifts my children, my brothers, my parents and my friends would be thrilled to receive. Initially I was elated by this plan, and began sorting through prize items, pulling out a gold bracelet for my daughter-in-law, a painting for my older son, silk scarves for my daughter.
But Christmas was difficult. I felt compelled, particularly with my kids, to be munificently generous. Even without shopping, I felt myself pulled into a kind of Christmas vortex, where I give and give without thought, compulsively, as if to appease avaricious gods at the door. I gave away valuable, precious things I had owned for years. I passed on family photographs and art. My mother had given me an old Singer featherweight sewing machine, and for the first time in thirty years I sat by the window, watched the leaves fall from the Ash trees outside, and sewed a dress for my six year old granddaughter.
On Christmas day, I told my family about my resolution. I had to. They were opening boxes containing things they ate on last week, things that were on my wall just the day before. There was little discussion. It was almost as if the subject was tender, like an old family injury. Spending money, not spending money: it's all very intimate.
What We Need
Not long ago, I was sitting at my round dinner table with some women friends. It was late, we were full of a good dinner and wine, and for the first time among friends I mentioned my year of not buying. "I just couldn't do that," said one friend, a painter. She laughed as she talked about how much she buys shoes. "I'm compulsive," she said. "How many pairs of shoes can a person wear?" "Where do you shop for all these shoes?" I asked her, noticing for the first time that she was wearing quite lovely purple shoes on her very small feet. "Everywhere," she replied. I could see why.
I realized that night that my friends had highly individualized buying obsessions. They could give up buying for a year if they didn't have to stop buying books, or 50's pottery, or plants for the garden. "It wasn't exactly a contest," I explained. "I exempted art. Anyone can exempt anything. The idea for me was to disrupt my patterns of buying."
Nobody signed on. The subject was dropped.
I learned much about money from this experiment. It is the only truly alchemical matter, meaningless in itself, but convertible into anything. The way we transform little coins and pieces of paper into the things we surround ourselves with has a way of defining us and illuminating the degree to which we are controlled by forces beyond ourselves. But it is too simple to say this should not occur; in almost all ways we are creatures of our contexts, and respond to our surroundings, bending to meet the expectations of those who form our circles of family, friends, society. Because of its magical properties, money can be invested with our neuroses as well as our dreams, and spending can be as unconscious as it can be conscious. My experiment did not convert me into a conscious spender, it merely took me outside the cycle of earn and spend long enough to become conscious. The rest of it is daily, and forever. And all those projects of uncertain income? They've made me richer than I've ever been. I have everything I want ? an absolutely beautiful old home with thick walls and wood floors and a library of books to read. I have a loving marriage, and good children and grandchildren. I have many friends, and apparently an infinite number of interesting projects of uncertain income to capture my attention. I have a bit of money in the bank, and my bills are paid.
Are We Pious Yet?
There is no sanctimony in a small gesture, carried forth with determination for one year, given that most of the people in the world worry every day about feeding their children and staving off disease. It's a pitifully small gesture, and one that surely benefitted me more than the world I set out so righteously to save. But it's better than nothing, a move toward a kind of global consciousness and connectedness that is also a beginning.
This year, I'll drive every other day. I'll exempt emergencies, travel, and spontaneous parties, so I'll give up little and, once again, I'll get more than I gave up. Lucky me, and lucky us: we have so many forms of self-denial from which to choose.