To suggest that we Americans live in a “consumer society” that overspends, overeats, overworks and overpollutes is to flog a truth so obvious it feels clichéd. You can’t skim a newspaper, open a web browser, or click on your television without hearing about the perils of our over-consumption. Our children will never know what a glacier is, and even if we don’t manage to destroy our earth, we’ll never take the time to see any of it. Besides, our kids will be too busy playing video games and eating Cheetos, which is fine with us—we need the newest blah, blah, blah and we’ll be at the mall with our credit cards in hand.
Put together, those clichés seem ridiculous, but we’ve all hear one iteration or another of such dire predictions. So why don’t we care?
When I got my first job out of grad school, I moved into a two-story apartment near downtown Columbus. At that point I had been a student so long that my possessions were very few. Sure, I had a futon, a rickety old papasan chair, and about a million well-worn books, but that was about it. Couple my new huge apartment with my new huge (compared to a TA stipend) salary and you get a vendor’s dream. I spent hours shopping and spending. Gone were the days of slipcovers—I bought a sofa. Gone were the days of ramen noodle dinners and grilled cheese eaten out of the same pan I’d used to make them—I hit Williams Sonoma for all my kitchen equipment and started splurging on goat cheese and kalamata olives. Gone were the nights of quiet reading with a glass of wine—I went to movies, saw bands perform, and sipped $10 cocktails. And, of course, I simply had to have all new clothes for work. Right? Yes, of course. Easton was my Mecca; I went there once a week, minimum.
One day I went to a natural foods store in Columbus for some fresh shitake mushrooms (for a fancy recipe, no doubt) and I saw this flyer: a quick guide to living a more simple life. The third suggestion hit me like a ton of bricks: Don’t use shopping as entertainment. Ouch.
A few weeks ago, I did go shopping with my mom. After performing a seasonal “purge” of my closet (giving to Goodwill everything I haven’t worn in two years), my wardrobe was in desperate need of some basics. So, I spent a fair amount of money on some new duds—money, I might point out, that I had saved up over the winter for this purpose. After the spree, I felt sick about how much I had purchased (even though, in truth, I needed the stuff). I felt wrong for buying so much and expressed concern that maybe I didn’t need some of it. I said as much later in a conversation with a woman of my acquaintance. She replied, “Oh, I love shopping. I love buying stuff. It makes me happy. It relieves stress for me. And if it feels good, then you should just go ahead and do it without guilt.”
You know when you have a difference of opinion that is so wide there is simply no way to bridge it with a response? Yeah, me too.
After my encounter with “the flyer” (which, by the way, lives on my fridge as a daily reminder), I took steps to change my lifestyle. I moved to a smaller, cheaper apartment; I quit buying shit just because I could afford it; I put myself on a “book-buying freeze,” denying myself any more books until I had read the ones I owned; I instituted the aforementioned seasonal closet purge; I stopped going out and started reading more; I pretty much quit shopping altogether; I started going to museums instead of movies. I’m still working on saying “no” to stressful commitments, but at least I’m trying.
However, even now when I consider how much of my time I spend engaged in consumption of one form or another, I feel a little sick. As a graduate student/teaching assistant, the vast majority of my job-related tasks demand that I consume something: student papers, e-mails from committees I’m on, class lectures, texts I read for teaching, texts I read for my dissertation, texts I read to “stay current,” e-mails from my students, journal articles, guest lectures by scholars in my field. On the way to and from school, I listen to NPR—I consume my news that way—or I listen to one of six CDs that I have in my car stereo at any one time, CDs which, of course, I buy. I eat (occasionally more than I should). I drink (also occasionally more than I should). I read books for pleasure. I watch Grey’s Anatomy and 24 on a weekly basis. I subscribe to Netflix.
It makes me feel full. I hate feeling full.
I sometimes envy my brother. He’s in construction. He goes out every day and builds houses. He uses his hands and PRODUCES something at work every day. He’s always hungry.
I want to read this book on consumerism. But then again, do I? I can’t imagine it will ease my mind.
For the past year or so, I’ve been on a knitting tear. Last spring I enrolled in a community knitting class through the University of Cincinnati’s Communiversity. Since then I’ve had at least one project on needles at any given time, often more. Right now I have two shawls, two bags, one scarf, one baby hat, one baby sweater, and one knit hat on needles (mind you, few of these items are for me; most notably not for me? the baby stuff.). I get itchy fingers sometimes just thinking about starting a new project.
Knitting has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Some say the trend is celebrity-driven; others believe knitting is part of a larger move toward crafting of all kinds (scrapbooking, sewing, quilting); still others point to the savvy marketing of yarn companies, who have increased production of fun, fast-knitting “novelty yarns” that bring instant satisfaction. I have my own beliefs.
Last February, I hosted a “Stitch and Bitch” (some knitting, some wine, some snacks, and lots of talking) at my apartment. We maybe did more drinking and talking than knitting, but it was still a sight to see—young women, knitting needles or crochet hooks in hand, participating in an activity we had been (as products of a feminist era) encouraged to shun as “matronly” and “old-fashioned.” As I looked around the room, I wondered how many of us were, for the first time that day, or even that week, making something, CREATING something, rather than simply consuming. We could have been at a bar or a restaurant, we could have been watching a movie, we could have been reading, or listening to music, or eating. But we weren’t. We were knitting.
I’m not saying that knitting is the panacea for all our consumption woes. Obviously, others would argue that we have a lot more to do. But for me, knitting eases stress, it stimulates my brain (patterns are like puzzles—there’s actually a lot of logic and theory involved in knitting), it forces me to sit still and focus on one thing (at least for a while), and, most importantly, it allows me to create something with my hands, to produce something meaningful and beautiful, and to share it with my friends and family.