“You only lose what you cling to.” — Gautama Buddha
“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddamned stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That’s all your house is – it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it. It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” — George Carlin
I come from Southern folk. When it comes to wealth and affluence, I come from “not much.” Looking back on childhood photos, there were sheets on the windows of our modest home on Wilson Street in Mississippi – sheets on the windows of a house we had lived in for quite a while. The bank teller cashed our father’s weekly check and counted out the money each Saturday: “Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, one … twenty forty sixty eighty two …”Finis. $200 dollars per week equaled $800 per month, in addition to a small Army retirement income. Our mother did not work outside the home. We were a family of five. To say we were not living in the lap of luxury would be an understatement.
I left home at the age of 15, and life was a struggle to say the least. I “borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.” I juggled bills. I faced shutoff threats and collection notices. I worked odd jobs, demeaning jobs, and dead-end, thankless jobs. I graduated from high school.
I continued to work full-time in college and received some financial aid, but one particular quarter I was determined to see what it would be like to devote myself entirely to my studies. My grades improved, but my bank account was empty. The end of the term came, there was no money coming in, I started a new job, and I would not earn a paycheck for two weeks.
I had $10 to my name. I purchased the ingredients for chili – hamburger, various cans of beans, and canned tomatoes. It was to be my sustenance for two weeks. As I transferred the finished pot from the stove, it fell from my hands, covering the “I wouldn’t eat off it if you paid me,” unmopped for months, college apartment kitchen floor.
I sat down and cried. Then, I scraped up as much chili as I could salvage, careful not to skim the floor.
I started the new job the following day, working at a community health clinic. I reviewed each patient’s chart, retaining those less than 10 years old or with special medical circumstances, shredding the rest.
For weeks I stood in a dimly-lit basement room under a flickering florescent light, feeding charts through an industrial shredder. Carcasses of dead potato bugs clung to the files as I pulled them from their perch, which always scared and disgusted me; have you ever noticed that the head of a potato bug resembles a human face? Vincent Price comes to mind. But, I digress.
The clinic sponsored regular blood drives. Cookies and juice for blood donors was stored in the basement where I worked. Two weeks after my employment commenced, a memo was circulated regarding the mysterious case of the missing juice and cookies.
High fructose corn syrup is a fine complement to kitchen floor chili.
Why in the world would I tell you all of this? I tell you this to explain the context in which I became … The Rampant Consumer.
I went to law school. I passed the bar and became a lawyer. I was a baby lawyer for a while, still struggling to make ends meet.
Then, “it” happened. I remember the first time I paid all the bills at the same time, in the same month. I remember another time, when I did not balance the checkbook down to the last penny to ensure sufficient funds. I remember the first time I took a piece of clothing to the cashier at Macy’s without first looking at the price tag.
I did not exactly lead the “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous,” but of course I know and understand how much better I had it, and still have it, from so many people in this country, and on this planet. I had found my upper-middle class existence.
2002 was a banner year. I won the big case, made partner, went to Europe, and bought a house. With success came more money, and with money came things. My home is a 2,700 square foot joint, too much really for a single person, and it sits on a 5,700 square foot lot. It has 11 rooms, and I filled those rooms with glee and gusto.
Early in the ownership of my home, my adopted mom, Maria, came for a visit. She said, “Tammy, I am so proud of you, and I am happy that you are happy. But, I hope that someday, for your sake, you realize that possessions and things are not the source of your worth or your happiness.”
I replied, “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?” I was thoroughly engaged and enthralled, having the time of my life, bargain hunting, eBay shopping, and furnishing my mid-century modern home with vintage artifacts and curiosities. I boasted to friends that no matter the age of the glassware, dinnerware, clothing, handbag or furniture, I used all my belongings, even if that meant they might be broken, ruined or destroyed; I owned my possessions – they did not own me.
In approximately 2011, I began to feel dissonance. The house felt gargantuan. I considered the landscaper, the housecleaner, the pest eliminator, the power washer, and the gutter cleaner, and I realized I was my own little economy of scale, which I no longer wished to support. The parties and social events I had hosted were fewer and farther between, and I could not justify the expense of living in such a large space.
Yet and still, I did not move. Instead, falling out of love with the law, I began to seek employment in other areas which would pay me a salary commensurate with “the lifestyle to which I had become accustomed.” Slowly, I began to realize that I did not own my possessions; my possessions owned me. I was seeking a different career merely to keep my “stuff.” The truth was, I did not want to work any longer, my medical condition was telling me in no uncertain terms that I could not work any longer, and it was time to let go of material things.
Well, at least most material things.
Okay, at least some material things.