Desire is unquenchable. Likewise, it is our attachment to things that causes suffering. Learn to detach from desire, and you’re on your way to enlightenment. Or, so I’ve been told.
These days I’ve been thinking a lot about attachments and desires and, well, stuff. All the stuff. From all the shoes that fall out of the hall closet every time I open it to the books that are stacked two-levels deep in every bookcase in my house (and I have a bookcase in nearly every room of my house). There’s a lot of stuff. And like the fabled tribbles, it all seems to multiply when I’m not looking.
To be fair, I don’t live alone. There are two other people living in my house who consume their share of goods. Indeed, my husband owns more shoes than I do. (Runners!) And don’t get me started on my daughter’s toys. (And her slow take-over of bookshelves in three different rooms.) With three people in a home — more than that for some of you — a space fills up fast with stuff.
I have an uncomfortable relationship to stuff. It is a love-hate relationship in which I often feel like stuff is winning.
While I have a genuine loathing for shopping, I am no stranger to the thrill of the sale (especially if I scored a good deal). I have a particular weakness for well-crafted handbags (which always seem to cost a mint, damn it). I covet the well-decorated home of a much wealthier person with much more free time for such things. (And who probably have a live-in staff to keep track of jelly fingerprints and grass stains from cleats.) Indeed, I really do have chocolate martini taste on an apple-cider budget. I am always dreaming of a vacation in Hawaii. Because why wouldn’t I dream of a vacation on a tropical island?
But as plenty of psychology types tell us, those formative years leave a lasting impression. And I was a poor kid. Welfare and food stamps poor. I can remember many Christmases and birthdays in which I got only one gift from my parents. And I was grateful for it. I survived the heat getting shut off in Alaska. I survived the humiliation of the free lunch line at school. And my shoes were always too small.
After a childhood steeped in deprivation, it has been an uncomfortable journey to relative comfort in the suburbs. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not crying, “poor me,” over here. Hell, I think it’s obnoxious when celebrities complain that their wealth is a burden. Cry me a river! And believe me, I’m far from wealthy. But I do live in a state of security in a time of widespread insecurity and modest ease (well, maybe frazzled, sleep-deprived ease, if there’s such a thing) in a world where ease is in short supply.
However, this place where my past and present intersect is often a disquieting one. I often question the value of the things I buy or fret about wasting something that is, to quote my grandmother, “perfectly good.” I received a Kindle for Christmas a couple years ago and felt guilty for coveting the new ones this past Christmas. What a greedy, selfish person I am, I kept thinking. People are struggling to put food on the table and I am seduced by the slick Kindle Fire commercials. (Don’t worry, I didn’t get a Kindle Fire, so there was no need for self-flagellation.) And again, every time I have to take my laptop to the guest room and plug it in to the printer, I am reminded of the conversation I had with my husband in which he urged me to consider a wireless printer and I countered with, “But isn’t it wasteful to get rid of a perfectly good and nearly new printer just to get one that is easier to use?”
In fact, this winter I finally broke down and bought myself some new clothes in my actual size after spending the past two winters in baggy old maternity clothes (that were perfectly fine, I kept telling myself). Last winter I only had two pairs of pants and three shirts in my actual size to last the whole season until the weather got warm enough to go back to my summer clothes. I mean, who does that? Well, me. I do.
Meanwhile, I’ll go to the kid’s outlet stores and load up on cute things for my child, in practically a trance state in which I don’t worry about how much any of it costs because it’s for my kid. Likewise, I get a deep sense of satisfaction and even joy in finding and giving just the right gift at Christmas. But unlike shopping for my daughter, I get a money hangover every year after Christmas. I worry myself into knots all of January as the credit card bills come because I do a lot of internet shopping, as most of my family lives out-of-state. And I usually get it all done (online) between Black Friday and Cyber Monday because of all the free shipping deals, the coupons I clip, and the special deals. But even with all my careful hunting and clever deals, I can’t shake the guilt of over-consumption. It is not that I think that my loved ones are undeserving of the things I buy them. And it’s not that I can’t afford what I buy. (I’m actually probably too meticulous in planning budgets for things like Christmas. I’ve been known to do spreadsheets!) But I get this panic attack when I see that dip in my bank account. Even as my rational brain tells me — it will bounce back — my irrational fear-monster kicks in.
The fears of my inner poor-child go deep. To the child inside me, security is fragile. Nothing is promised. And everything you think you have can be gone in an instant or through the slippery slope of bad choices.
But then, like someone on a far-too-restrictive diet, the pendulum swings the other way. I work hard, I tell myself. I deserve this! Every now and then, it’s like my adult mind just has to break free and break the rules! I buy the way-too-expensive designer bag (not even on sale!). Or, I go crazy late at night on Zappos (thank God they have free return shipping and a great return policy). It’s like I have this need to binge every now and then.
I don’t know if our consumption of goods is at all related in our brains to our consumption of food, but lately I’ve been pondering the possibility that it is. As regular readers know, I am an accidental vegan, as that is a diet that allows me to function despite severe food allergies and IBS. It’s a pragmatic approach to a complex problem that has been debilitating and even humiliating. There are some parts of being a vegan I like as I’ve never really been a huge meat-eater. And there are things about it I don’t. But those things have much more to do with my attachment to foods I can’t eat regardless of what my diet is called. Whether I’m vegan or not, if I eat dairy, there will be a full-on riot in my gut. I think I miss macaroni and cheese on a weekly basis. I still mourn the sudden allergic response to chocolate I got this past fall. Don’t even get me started on deep-fried anything. I miss those foods with an intensity that feels like it will overwhelm me sometimes.
It doesn’t help that all those things I love — like, say Valentine’s Day chocolates — are everywhere I go. I was at a frame shop last week and they were selling chocolates at the cash register. Et tu, frame shop? Is nowhere a safe harbor where I can just move through my day without constantly having to face that which I covet? Most of the time, I can just ignore it. But, I’m human. I have weaknesses. I have attachments to certain foods, desires for those foods… and it causes me suffering. And if I do give in… oh man, there is very real, painful suffering.
The silver lining to my diet is that I have lost weight and kept it off. My skin is clearer than it’s ever been. And my cholesterol, iron, and vitamin numbers in my bloodwork have never been better. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And since I’ve been a vegan for more than two years now, I have started to sort of sink into it. I enjoy many vegan dishes and would eat them even if I weren’t vegan. I have even found some chocolate chip cookies that I have served at parties and the guests have devoured them, a look of genuine surprise when they find out later that those cookies were vegan. So, it’s not like it’s all torture or even that hard to do, really. I don’t think living a vegan diet is hard at all. What I think is hard are the food allergies that prevent me from eating my favorite foods no matter what.
So, this brings me back to the idea of consumption and balance. For Christmas, I bought my daughter one of those multi-packs of mini sugar cereals. It was something that my husband used to get as a stocking stuffer and I thought it would be fun to do the same for my daughter, since we don’t allow her to have sugar cereals normally. And it was fun! And then, when I was looking at the different boxes, I noticed the Frosted Flakes and Tony the Tiger looked so friendly and inviting, I tried a bite. And it was sooooo sweet! I eat very little that has processed sugar anymore, so it was kind of a shock to my system. But then, a little while later, I was craving those flakes! And when the little boxes were gone, I went out and bought a big box. And I ate the whole thing. By myself. In one day. And then… I got very sick.
After that happened, I felt a deep sense of shame about the incident. And before I go on, I want to be clear that I didn’t sit in a secret place and eat all the cereal all at one time. I poured myself a bowl at breakfast and then at lunch and then for a snack and then after dinner… and so on. Right out in the open. Sitting at the table with my family around me. So, I just want to be clear on that, so I don’t get a bunch of emails about food disorders. I was just kind of on a sugar high and kept eating more as the day went on. I kept going back, more like a sugar addict than any kind of emotional eating kind of thing. And that is where my sense of shame came in. I saw how much pride I had started to take in being a vegan and that I had somehow conquered my old habits of over-eating sugary foods. Because I have a very big sweet tooth. Maybe even a kind of addiction. I love sweets that much. But since I haven’t been eating any for a long time, I thought that maybe I had learned some lessons because of dealing with my food allergies. That maybe I had evolved to not be such a sugar addict. I thought I was above that. And what I found out, in a very painful way, was that I am no more enlightened or empowered about sugar now than I was before I had to stop eating it for health reasons. It felt almost like a kind of humiliating defeat.
And that is when I started thinking about that random binge on the sweet cereal like the random binge on buying stuff. I can’t do much about the restrictiveness of my diet, but maybe I can try to figure out a way to become less attached to my inner fear-monster about money. Maybe I can learn how to budget little me-time kind of indulgences for myself so I don’t have a pent-up need to dive off the deep end and buy a crazy-expensive thing that will only make me feel guilty and I return later. Money is just a tool. It is not good or bad. (Same goes for sugar, too.) And same goes for stuff. Stuff is stuff. There are very few stuffs I actually need (safe housing, appropriate clothing for the elements, etc.) But I don’t think it is healthy to feel guilty for wanting some pretty stuffs every now and then. As long as I’m not bingeing on stuff, but rather, keeping the stuff equilibrium in balance with my budget and my spirit.
It sounds good. Now, to figure out how to do it. Hopefully, I will get a better handle on all this soon because I really don’t want my daughter to inherit this guilt-trip cycle about stuff or sugar or anything. I don’t know if that’s enlightened or not. But it sounds good to me.