On July 1st, 2011 my husband and I decided to commit to a year of buying nothing new other than food and health and safety related necessities. The piece I wrote at the start of that venture has recently been republished on the environmental blog Next Starfish, and so I’ve decided it’s time for a little follow-up. How has it gone, these past nine-and-a-half months? Have we been able to pull it off? What have we learned about our lives and about ourselves?
First, I want to offer you the confessions. Yes, I have broken the Compact. I’ve cheated! Or, as No Impact Man’s wife (repeatedly) said, “I had a slip.” Mine started innocently enough. Since our Christmas gifts consisted of hand-made items and home-made preserves, I splurged on new canning jar tops, so my loved ones wouldn’t die of botulism. I also, at Christmas, bought both my daughter and myself two pairs of new wool socks. We live in Vermont, and I consider wool socks (without holes in them) a necessity. Both easily justifiable in the “health and safety” category, right?
But as the winter months have passed, things have begun to get iffier. A few weeks ago my family made a quick jaunt to Florida where my elderly great-aunt lives, and, um, I made a few purchases. First, a bathing suit that my seven-months-pregnant body would fit into. When we entered this pact in July, I had no inkling that I’d find myself pregnant two months later. Really: no inkling. And though I could have worn a large t-shirt on the beach, or a bikini that no longer fit where one would like a bathing suit to fit, I decided that flaunting a large, Vermont-pale belly was enough self-consciousness for me and that I’d just damn like a bathing suit that covered what I needed it to cover. And then, while I was at it, I bought a sun hat. In our last minute packing I couldn’t find one that could be stuffed in a bag, and I’m as fair skinned as milk, so: new hat. But don’t those things kind of fit into the underwear and health categories? Kind of?
The only problem being that those purchases helped spawn yesterday’s all-out blunder. It was springtime and seventy degrees and my daughter were in town for the first time in a week. We got ourselves some baked goods and hot beverages and, while we were waiting for the library to open, stepped into my favorite, locally owned bookstore.
I love books. Being unable to purchase new books has been, by far, the hardest part of the Compact for me. I’ve been able to find many amazing books second hand, but I have missed, dearly, the delicious sensation of browsing in a bookstore you love and catching sight of a book and hearing that book literally sing to you from a shelf and so buying that book, compulsively. It’s such a lucky thing when the right book comes to us at the right moment—such magical confluence—a confluence I’ve dearly missed. I’ve also dearly missed supporting my local, independently owned, politically radical bookstore. I believe in books. I believe in supporting living authors. I believe in (yes!) buying new books. And so…yesterday, in that seventy-degree, slightly caffeinated buzz, I bought some. Yes, some. But here is the caveat (since I now always have one close at hand): they were in the bargain section, marked down to heartbreakingly low prices, and they were books I have long wanted to read. Plus, they sang to me. They were singing to me and it was springtime and seventy degrees and I hadn’t bought a book like this in eight months and I was seven months pregnant and my baby would come before the year of buying nothing new was over and when, oh when, would I ever have another chance to browse in bookstores and buy the books that sang to me if not now? So I bought them (two of them), and then my daughter and I went to the library, and checked out more books, and then to the playground, where she climbed and swung and slid while I sat in the sun with my new books and read the poetry of Galway Kinnell, which had been singing to me from there on the bargain shelf, which made me cry with its heartfelt beauty.
So there you have it. I broke the Compact and bought some flagrantly not-within-the-rules things and one of those things, at least, brought me deep, deep joy.
Those are the confessions. And now, what have we learned about ourselves? Last July I wrote, “I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing…to discover how the pact will (or will not) affect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.”
Simplification is an utterly magical act. This past year I threw out every catalog that came our way without glancing between its pages. I made no shopping trips to malls or clothing stores. I spent no time on the Internet looking at things I covet but can’t afford. Instead I fixed a pair of clogs I’d been meaning to fix for several years and cut the legs off a pair of pants when I wanted new shorts. I made Christmas presents with my daughter and frequented used bookstores and the library and occasionally went to thrift stores. Basically, I discovered there is very little we actually need, and even less that we can’t find in good shape second hand. From our (very small) town’s free-cycle site we acquired a filing cabinet, a winter sled, a teakettle and a 15x20’ Persian rug. From Craigslist we bought a second-hand queen-sized mattress. From e-bay I acquired a good pair of walking shoes, several pairs of yoga pants (to accommodate my burgeoning belly), and, on a materialistic bender, a beautiful pair of Frye boots for half the price they cost new. In other words, this year turned out not to be about doing without so much as learning how to find the things you want (the things you really, really want) without either supporting a corporation you don’t want to support or unnecessarily using up the world’s resources or going broke.
And when July comes? Why yes, I am most-likely going to celebrate by going out and buying myself a few things. A book or two, for sure: not from the bargain rack. Also, most likely an item of clothing from the local boutique I love so much I haven’t been able to look inside its doors for eight months straight. But I don’t imagine the shopping binge will last too long. Or that I’ll drive to the mall. Or that next year will actually look that different from this one. I’m willing to say, at the expense of sounding sentimental and romantic, that a year of buying nothing new actually has made our family happier. It has distilled and clarified who we are and who we want to be, what’s important to us, and yes, helped differentiate between want and need. And all of this—though it’s barely making a fingernail scratch of impact on the amount of waste in our overly wasteful world—has given me the finest gifts I could ask for: time and freedom. Time to do more important things. The economic freedom of doing without, or making do. And the psychological freedom of disengaging my sense of self from the act of buying or the things I can afford. And those, by my book, are more valuable and covetable than any pretty dress my hard-earned cash could buy. As John Prine and Iris Dement just happen to be singing on my radio this very moment, No we're not the jet set, we're the old Chevro-let set, but ain't we got love.