Tag Archives: materialism

Off the wagon, shopping-wise

ticketsWell, now I’ve gone and done it. This is bad. I went on a shopaholic spending spree. You probably sense that I’ve been doing worse over the past month, and this afternoon, I realized how bad things have gotten. I’m embarrassed to confess this to you, but I simply went and spent a lot of money without thinking hard about it. I thought I was doing better with the shopaholism, but here I am off the wagon.

I’ve been very unhappy at work, and recently, things got even worse. But applying for jobs hasn’t been enough to fulfill my hunger for satisfying work. One advantage is that I avoided buying physical objects. The other is that I’m not going to be able to afford many physical objects for a while. I have now spent enough money that from now at least through this spring are going to be belt-tightening times. Avoiding physical objects is not enough of an improvement — I simply should have not spent as much.

Zummara_MedievalOver the past few weeks, I bought tickets to 4 early-music concerts in February and March, and I prepaid for Saturday to Sunday single nights at four-star hotels for 1) the weekend before New Year’s last month; 2) this weekend; 3) Presidents’ Day weekend; and 4) Memorial Day weekend. Oh, and I’m planning to visit the nuns for three days at the end of this month, which is $400 including the bus fare.

It isn’t enough to say the concerts are cheap and that I got really good deals on the rooms, that I could bring my own sandwiches to the hotels (room service doubles the cost of a hotel stay), and that the nuns almost certainly would accept less money than I intend to give them. No, I have to admit sadly that I simply spent too much.320px-Waiter_pouring_Zardetto_sparkling_Prosecco

And regardless of how grim my finances now look for the next few months, I am very happy to have all these experiences to mull over or look forward to. I’m still on the shopaholic high at the moment.

There’s a shrill little mosquito buzz of worry about how I am going to keep up with the payments as the bills come in, and some thumping sounds of embarrassment at trying to buy my way out of my unhappiness, both muffled by my shaky confidence that as much as I am a shopaholic, I have never gotten into financial straits I couldn’t get out of. Nevertheless, despite these alarms, I still feel happy to look forward to these experiences. They are anodynes that will (um, I hope) ease the pain of my work situation.

I went back to Wikipedia about “oniomania,” or shopaholism:

Compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers. Those with associated disorders such as anxiety, depression and poor impulse control are particularly likely to be attempting to treat symptoms of low self-esteem through compulsive shopping.

Well, that fits my situation to a tee. My once rock-stable work identity has been shaken by some nasty events at the office; I’m anxious about landing a new job and learning it; I’m depressed at the prospect that it may take years to find a job that I can do this well in, in terms of both competence and pay; and very strongly, I feel like asserting class markers, as pretentious and shameful as it is.

I want to tell my boss: “I stay in good hotels where they call me ‘madam’ and offer to summon the bellhop to pick up my matching luggage, and I eat good room service there, where the waiter lifts the lid off the entree with a flourish. I go to sophisticated early music concerts. I have a convent I like to visit and give money to, as if I were a medieval noblewoman. I want you to know, Boss, that I am still a smart, dignified, hard-working, professional helper, the way you used to treat me.”453px-Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Stareta_Manastirii_Ratesti_

So as happy as I feel that I have all these pleasant events coming up this spring, it’s all rooted in bitterness and resentment, and that is not a good thing. The only positive about this is that the purpose of the convent visit is to talk with the abbess about how to handle my work situation with less bitterness and more patience, while retaining my firm decision to leave this job. But she can’t do the heavy lifting. That’s up to me.

I’m ashamed at being so pretentious and resentful and shopaholic, because compared to millions of Americans in dire straits, I’m doing all right. But I know that I am no longer in the right job if my work situation brings out traits such as shopaholism that put me in a bad situation.

Nothing that drastic

Some years ago, I discovered that I love staycations, rather than traveling. My style is to call them “mental health breaks,” aspirationally staying in a local four-star hotel for a night a few times a year. (My latest conquest was the InterContinental, on which I used points to get an absurdly low rate on a top rate room. My next conquest is the Langham.)

These places provide numerous amenities I don’t have at my SRO: A bed, a bathtub, movies, a pool, fine restaurant food served to me on a ceramic plate at a table with a cloth instead of handed over a counter in a styrofoam box, and access to alcohol, the latter prohibition in my SRO probably to prevent fights or people drinking themselves into a stupor alone every night.

In a hotel, unlike the smallest real apartment I could rent at three times my SRO rent, I don’t have to clean the bathtub, tub, and sink, change and wash the linens, go out in the weather to watch movies, and lug home a bottle of wine that will half spoil because I cannot drink the whole thing in time. A hotel room for a night or two gives me true appreciation of amenities for a fraction of the cost of having them where they are merely burdens. (And, as I mentioned in my post on interior design, they have given me a taste for simpler design combined with finer, more durable materials.)

I have made these mental health breaks often enough over the years to sense how hotel clerks size up the customers. But, as I’ve told you before, I tend to look like a bag lady at the best of times.

Frame Traveler in Venetian PaisleyBringing one’s luggage in plastic grocery bags means bad treatment. Using black fabric bags means routine, mindless treatment. Bringing three or four largeish bags in a loud, matching Vera Bradley pattern means being treated like C’mell in Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia.” A generous 20-oz. cold bottle of water appears from nowhere, the lightweight bags are gently lifted onto a giant brass luggage cart, and upon arrival at the room, the bellhop carefully explains how the thermostat works before bowing, accepting his tip, and literally backing out of the room.

The bear-man leapt from his stool with astonishing speed. “Cat-madame!” he cried, “A thousand pardons. You can have anything in the place. You come from the top of Earthport? You know the Lords of the Instrumentality personally? You would like a table roped off with curtains? Or should I just throw everybody else out of here and report to my Man that we have a famous, beautiful slave from the high places?”

“Nothing that drastic,” said C’mell. “Just food.”

So it is with embarrassment at my pretentiousness that I admit that for years, I have wanted a fine leather designer purse. Not the tacky fabric kind with an “LV” or “CC” logo; I mean the real real thing, leather. And classically styled, no fringes and useless buckles hanging off it. If humble Vera Bradley can get me this far, what will Longchamp or Coach Classic or Chanel get me? On the rare occasions I have had a chance to examine them, I am impressed by the scent and flexibility of the leather, the attention to rounding off the ends of the stitching, and so on. If you don’t have one of these real bags, and you can afford it, get the real thing and not a fake.

Coach classic duffle leatherBut I also know I have an almost magical, magnetic predisposition to walk clumsily into the tongues of doors hard enough to ruin shirts and, doubtless, ruin a fine leather bag. A good watch will keep running on time, A Vera Bradley bag is loud enough to hide the marks, a leather bag is scarred forever.

And, well, there isn’t much I want from the hotel, not worth spending that kind of money on something that has to be handled with such care to present a social clue that may or may not register. Nothing that drastic. Vera Bradley you can’t miss, it punches you in the eyeball at a fraction of the price.

So I must confine my admiration of fine leather products to the other side of the screen or the window. I’m all set now. Thanks for the free bottle of water!

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.

motherofgodnourisheroflife

Christ was a baby who needed milk

 

New “best posts” page

I’m excited to tell you about a new page in the top menu (the red ribbon). The page links to what I think are the best posts from my blog to date, things I don’t want to get buried. If you were brought here by a search engine, these posts probably relate to your interests. If you’ve been reading this blog already, take a look to see if you missed any of these posts when they were first published, with my thanks to you. Click here to go directly to the “best posts” page.

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