consumerism: “the dirty life” by kristin kimball, reflections part 1 of 3

I just finished reading The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball and as is the case when I finish a good book, I have so many thoughts and I am bursting to share them. I certainly recommend the book, and if you would like to read summaries and reviews, there are many. However, I feel more in the mood to reflect than review.

Adjusting to a sudden change in lifestyle, from city life to farm life, Kristin Kimball writes, “The last old habit to fall away was shopping. I could feel the need to shop building up in me during the week, like an itch. I’m not talking about shopping for clothes, or shoes, or any of the other recreational kinds of shopping people generally do. I mean only the oddly comforting experience of flowing past shiny new merchandise, the everyday exchange of money for goods. In the city, most of the landscape is made up of objects for sale, and it’s nearly impossible to leave your apartment without buying something–a newspaper, a cup of coffee, a bright bunch of Korean market flowers. When I went for days without buying anything, without setting eyes on commerce, without even starting the car to burn up some gas, I felt an achy withdrawal.” (Kimball 156).

When I read this passage my first thought was that Kimball was so honest to share this longing to shop. To me, it isn’t the most appealing quality, and it is just one of so many strikingly honest confessions that she makes in the book. But my second thought was realizing how I completely have this too. And since reading the passage I’ve been conscious of it more than ever. Specifically because I am having a challenging time right now, there is a constant capitalist rhetoric repeating in my mind that if I just buy the right thing I will start to feel better. This is made much worse by the fact that I work in a bookstore. Sometimes when I am cleaning and organizing the self-help, religion, spirituality, and poetry sections I begin to observe the inner conversation in my brain:

“Maybe if I buy that book and read it I will break through my depression.”

“Get it from the library.”

“But what if I want to write notes in the margins or underline my favorite passages or dog-ear a life-changing page.”

“Get it from the library first, if you even end up reading it at all and really do love it so much, you can always go back and buy it.”

“But I want the copy that gives me such a life-changing transcendental experience to be the copy that is mine, that I own.”

“Just get it from the goddam library.”

Or something like that. We have been told so many times, over and over again, that money and material goods will make us happy. I can know in my heart and soul that this is not true, and yet I still wrestle with the constant message that we just don’t have enough, and that if we did have enough, we would be enough. This is one of the core tenants of consumerism and capitalism, connecting our quality of life with the things we purchase. I know it’s not real, and yet every time I work at the bookstore I usually find a book that I fixate on for most of the shift. Leaving work and not buying the book feels unsatisfying and disappointing and an emptiness is certainly there, but halfway through my walk home I usually forget all about it. Wanting to heal is real. Buying things to make it happen isn’t.

Taking stock of all the changes my life has abruptly undergone in the last year and a half, I can certainly relate to Kimball’s “old habits that fall away.” Some of them needed to leave. Some of them I want back, and I need back, and I am working to get back. But the big thing for me is noticing. The fact that I have been observing my desire to fix my problems by buying books, and that I have not been buying them, has been challenging but also made me aware that I am not my thoughts, nor problems. I don’t know what I am, but I know I am glad not to be my “achy withdrawal.”

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