When I was walking the dog yesterday afternoon, I saw the friendly face of a familiar man with whom I've lost touch in the past couple of months--his tell-tale brown outfit had given him away from a distance. It was the UPS Man. We waved to each other from across the neighbor's lawn, and I thought of that ubiquitous Gotye song (which even my five-year-old has been singing) about break-ups: "Now You're Just Somebody That I Used to Know." Because the truth of the matter is this: Other than food and absolute essentials, I don't want to buy any more stuff. I have enough stuff. In fact, I have much more than enough, and this year, (as I said in Looking Back, Looking Forward: My Green Year in Review), one of my goals is to find new homes for it, so that I end the year with a lot less than I have now.
I especially do not want stuff that arrives on a big truck (which uses lots of gas and spews out fumes) and is packaged in a cardboard box (made out of long-forgotten trees), nestled among plastic air pillows (polluting the air, water, and land from cradle to grave), or worse: styrofoam peanuts (which I hope will be outlawed someday, when it finally becomes apparent to lawmakers that polystyrene is a very bad thing indeed).
I used to get lots of packages, and there was a certain thrill in hearing the UPS Man driving up the street in his unmistakably noisy, big brown truck, making the turn onto our driveway, delivering large and small boxes from Amazon.com, or One Kings Lane (a hard addiction to break--don't let yourself get sucked in!), or various toy stores for the kids, or Drugstore.com for some beauty or health item that simply couldn't wait, or whatever else I thought I needed, but didn't really, truly need.
Last week, while my kids were selecting books at the library (in a laboriously slow manner that only kids can master when they know their parents have someplace else to go), I picked up a copy of Architectural Digest and flipped to a phenomenally gorgeous house in Europe. It was decorated to the hilt, by a world-famous design firm. Momentarily, I was thinking: "Wow, the owners must love spending their days and nights in this stunning house!" And then I came across a sentence that nearly nauseated me: "The owners have four other homes, also decorated by the same firm." Four other homes?! Before I come across as too judgmental, let me say that I can understand people wanting a warm-weather home and a cold-weather home. However, owning five houses seems, to me, just a tad excessive. Why on earth are people collecting so many houses? To fill them with even more stuff, which they will see maybe two or three times a year, when they pass through for a weekend. Extra homes have become a sort of glamorized version of those orange self-storage rental units that keep springing up along the highways. I've always said to my husband, when passing those infinitely long rows of orange units, "If we ever get to the point where we're renting space for stuff that won't fit into our house, it'll be time to have a big bonfire." (Not that I'm literally for incinerating stuff, but you get the point.)
Author David Owen, in his book entitled The Walls Around Us: The Thinking Person's Guide to How a House Works, writes: "A house is essentially a huge box filled with complicated things that want to break--a box that sits outside, day and night, in the rain and snow, surrounded by creatures that would like to eat it." Adding to Owen's definition, just think of all of the stuff you put into a house: things you need to dust, wash, rinse, dry, repair (good luck!), file, organize, trip over, take for tune-ups, change the batteries in, pay interest on, insure, mend (a lost art), put into storage, take out of storage, and ultimately, throw out (which has its own set of problems).
When I think of all the gifts I've been given, the ones that mean the most to me have almost always been the experiences. Last year, my in-laws took our extended family on a two-week trip to Israel. That ranks right up there as one of the all-time greatest gifts of my life, and everybody else on the trip was similarly overwhelmed by the generosity and meaningfulness of that gift.
Last year, we also traveled to the 100th birthday party of my great aunt, who is like the most beloved grandmother to me. Of course, we got her a big bouquet, but when I surprised her the next day with a visit, where just the two of us sat together--hugging, crying, and talking about her life and all of our happy and hilarious times together--I know that was one of the most meaningful hours of both of our lives.
So, here's what I want to spend money on this year (and beyond): unfussy dinners with friends and relatives, lessons for the kids (and maybe for myself), and travel with my family. Experiences, not things. Because, not to be morbid, but ultimately, at the end of my days, I want my life to have been filled with experiences, with things I learned, with good times spent with the people I love. Not with stuff. As they say (or at least as Kaufman and Hart said), "You can't take it with you", but the memories will live on, for everybody who had the good fortune to share in their making.
Food for thought: What is truly worth spending your money on? What's the best gift you've ever received?
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