Making Room In My Mind: Halfway Through A Year of No Shopping

I’m six months into my annual challenge for 2018: no shopping for clothes, shoes, handbags or jewelry. When I wrote about the experience three months ago, I felt cleaner, as if I’d cut something pleasurable, yet toxic, out of my diet. Now that the initial detox is done, I feel like a fog has cleared and I can better see the inside of my shopping mind.

The first time I ran a marathon, I learned about the concept of the negative split. That’s when you run the second half of the marathon faster than the first. No easy thing. Only once have I achieved that goal. No surprise that was my best marathon, and I’ve run my share.

I’ve been thinking about how the negative split applies to this no shopping challenge in the six months coming. Can it be smoother and stronger in the second half?

So far, I’ve made it through the seasonal change temptation — that moment when I was sure I needed a few new “fun” dresses for the warmer months. Overall, I’m beginning to find it easier not to shop. I think about it less. The whole “capsule wardrobe” trend may pass me by. I may never own the perfect basic from Everlane, because that overcapitalized company will be out of business by 2019. I’m okay with that. And when I do see something I might normally buy, the moment of admiration is for the pleasure of my eyes. Then I turn away without a twinge.

Sometime in May, I stopped making lists of the things I want to buy next year: a marshmallow winter coat like a friend’s, a “going out” maxi dress, base layer bottoms for cross country skiing, new bras, tights, more black pants, always more black pants. I realized that making a list is exactly what I don’t want to do. If I really need or want a particular item, then I’ll remember in 2019, and if I don’t, then obviously it’s not important. There are things I’ll no doubt remember on the list I’m not keeping anymore, because I’m just plain wearing clothes out. Three tops sprouted holes in ten days. A pair of yoga pants is thinning. Running socks are slipping down inside my shoes — I won’t be negative splitting any races in them.

One of the big moments when I might have broken stride was on May 2nd, when I bought eight black dresses — but not for me. A suddenly widowed friend tasked me with finding her a dress for her husband’s memorial service. He was only 54. I am never sure how best to support friends at a moment of loss — this was a close friend, but not so close that I felt free just barging into her life and staying over and making meals for her. So I was glad she helped me to be helpful. Plus, selfishly, I was interested by the test. Would I be tempted to buy for myself? The answer — yes, but not nearly as much as I thought I’d be. It was more than sufficient to be buying for my friend.

I’m enjoying the transgression of not buying, of opting out of one small aspect of consumerism for a period. I like the idea that I’m screwing with some big data algorithm’s head, so it can’t predict my shopping habits anymore. I feel like I’m reclaiming a little piece of individuality.

Some days, I beat myself up for taking pleasure in the challenge — after all, how privileged is it to have the option of enjoying not shopping? And I beat myself up for not having given up enough. Why not eating out, too? Or travel? Or movies? I justify those ongoing life frills as things I do with my partner, and I don’t want to impose my experiment on him. Yes, I recognize that I have the luxury to choose my frugality and for that I am grateful.

I have noticed that I feel more grateful generally. Materialism can make it hard for us to experience gratitude, according to the Network for Grateful Living, because it causes us to dwell on what we don’t have. My own anecdotal experience is that this is true. I not only feel grateful for the fewer clothes I’m wearing over and over again this year. I am more appreciative of other areas of my life. I feel looser, easier, both in what I’m wearing and in my openness to the world. Just the other day, for the first time in my life, I went out to a park with a friend and we performed a theatre piece we had rehearsed, just for the sheer pleasure and any passers by who happened up on us.

As Alain de Botton points out, we are not so much materialistic, as we desire material things as signifiers, which then elicit admiration, approval and, yes, we hope, love from others. So far I haven’t lost any friends. I suppose there may be people who have elected not to get to know me, because I’m not wearing new clothes. I’ll never know.

These thoughts would not be complete without mentioning that my birthday was in May and I did receive a few gifts: A running tank top in a beautiful blue from a friend. A necklace and ring from my partner, which I find that I want to specify were not expensive. Also a tailored black jacket that I would probably never buy for myself, but I love it. Plus, the jacket hearkened back to the very first gift he ever bought me, a black Donna Karan jacket that I kept for more than a decade and always felt powerful when I wore. One of the first places I wore the new jacket to was an exhibition of 200 portraits of women change makers, which felt just right. Last, another friend handed me down a linen summer top she no longer wears.

No surprise that these gifts feel extra-special this year.

Perhaps these gifts require a discount against my credit for not shopping. I’ve noticed that credit is an issue that’s come up for me. I started this no shopping challenge with several friends. One is still in it with me, but a few others have elected not to continue (or they are modifying, with shopping breaks). I find myself resenting the ease with which they rewrite the rules. I want credit for sticking with it. Why? The whole challenge is self-manufactured to begin with. No one cares whether I do it or not, except me. I’m a stick-to-it person and sometimes I wonder where that’s gotten me, even as I stick to it. But I will not fall down the rabbit hole of how to define life success here. Suffice to say, I plan to stick with this. The durational element of the experiment is an opportunity I don’t want to miss.

In mid-May, I went to Sarah Cameron Sunde’s art installation. On my way there, I knew nothing except that the show was a two-hour “experience”, though we could arrive and leave anytime. I decided in advance that I would leave after the first thirty minutes, once I’d gotten the idea.

Her piece was an immersive experience in a darkened rehearsal studio, with a set consisting of angled surfaces, on which videos of abstract and natural landscapes were projected. The audience were invited to sit anywhere in the space, move around as we wanted and even take pictures. Performers presented disparate, yet tightly choreographed bits of dance or text.

I didn’t leave. I stayed for the whole thing, simultaneously soothed and intrigued by the quiet, cumulative effect of the space and movement. Though I never looked at the time, I know that my pleasure in the experience heightened as it moved into the second hour.

As the end of the two hours approached, the performers raised the blinds in the room. Evening light flooded in on us. Everyone turned toward the windows; our patience rewarded by the gorgeous revelation of the sunset, the orange-washed skyline over the Hudson River.

I think about what reward my patience and steady pace will yield at the end of this year. When I passed the halfway mark in that marathon I managed to negative split, I felt a surge of energy. I wasn’t nearly exhausted. I could feel the reserves inside my body. I let my mind settle into the rhythm of the exertion. I crossed the finish line with a rush of joy. Though I hope for certain revelations or changes in behavior, I’m not expecting a spectacular sunset or finish line accolades. For the most part, I am simply curious to see what these next months will find inside me. I can see the finish line. Whatever I learn, I will no doubt have to re-learn more than a few times. Now is the time to settle into the rhythm.