Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eschewing consumerism

About 12 to 15 years ago, I was neck deep in a retail managment career. I kind of fell into that particular career path by accident. Wait a minute, let me step back futher.

As a child, I wanted to be a number of things. Doctor, vetrinarian, oceanographer, lawyer, etc. I ruled out oceanographer pretty quickly when I discovered my tendency to get motion sickness. The doctor/vet idea got thrown out when I dropped Chemistry my freshman year in college (don't ask). I kept lawyer in the back of my mind, (even taking quite a few criminology classes as part of my sociology BA), but never really pursued it. Somehow, I thought I'd follow in my father's footsteps and get an MBA. Toward that end, I entered the 'Executive Training Program' at Jordan Marsh after graduation. I worked as a department manager for Jordan Marsh. Then as an assistant buyer (in training) at Bradlees. Then I went back to store-line and worked as an assistant manager, then an associate store manager and then a store manager for Gap and then Old Navy. Then I left Gap, Inc. to work as a store manager for Polo Ralph Lauren. I ran one of their large volume factory stores for three years. I was located in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and this is where I first discovered my personnal disconnect.

Here I was, runing a large volume store in the midst of a complex of factory outlets. Consumerism at it's most glaring. I was afforded the ability to dress to the nines and to outfit my home in only the BEST. I was making good money and living where the cost of living was extremely low. I also got a 50% discount on everything I bought. I learned to appreciate amazing quality in my shoes, my clothing, my bedding, my china...yes, we even sold china. My wardrobe alone would have put some rich, prep school girls to shame. Two things were wrong with this...1) I didn't concern myself with credit card debt and 2) I didn't NEED all that stuff. I lived alone and yet I had a three bedroom apartment because it was so cheap. I drove an SUV...but to be fair, I lived on the top of a mountain and I actually did need that 4x4 more often than I like to remember! But, I was also surrounded by gorgeous land, many, many old homes...some of which were horse farms... I loved exploring the small historic towns, the rustic inns, and the out of the way antique shops. We did live in a 200 year old house when I was a child, so I thought all this nostalgia was for my own past...not for THE past. For some reason, I felt suspended between two worlds. I was living the 'glamorous' fashion life in the midst of country small town living. It was out of sync and I felt it from the start.

I immediately attributed my unhappiness to my lack of mate. I was in my late 20's and had no 'husband' prospects. I don't think my 'biological clock' was ever installed, but that doesn't mean that I didn't yearn for a partner. I also thought my feelings of discontent stemmed from my career choice. I knew I didn't want retail forever, but I didn't know what I did want outside of a fulfilling career that would still afford me the lifestyle I'd decided that I enjoyed. BUT, in retrospect, I can recall times where I was spending to feel better. I would buy nice things, and more nice things, and more nice things...because I'd feel a little better each time...but ultimately, it wasn't the answer. And yet I got great joy in strolling the grounds at this one inn I frequented. I used to want to peek in at the kitchens (it was also a restaurant) to see if they were cooking on old fashioned wood stoves! I was at peace when I got to spend nights there where there were no phones and no TV. I used to imagine what it would be like to run an inn like that myself. I ruled that out thinkng that I didn't have the right personality to do that...and of course, the idea of living that way, just to live that way never even crossed my mind.

What I only wish I'd realized was that I should have been looking for a fulfilling career - regardless of earning potential. But I couldn't. I was caught up in it. Caught up in the 'lifestyle'. Caught up in proving that I was as successful as my peers. Caught up in having nice things that would make me happy. Caught up in meeting the traditional markers of success and my need to live up to some imagined expectations.

Unfortunately, I stayed caught in this 'web' for many more years. I eventually moved to Florida, went back to school, got a new degree and a new career, met my husband, bought our first house, and so on. All this time...still caught up in this idea that I needed to prove my success at life by the things I possessed (how nice our house was, what I wore, what we drove, vacations we took, bikes we kept going). This web basically had a life of it's own and in a place of rampid consumerism like Pinellas County, Florida, it flourished unchecked.
Then we moved to NC...and all of a sudden could once again afford MORE. Cost of living was less, our earning was good and we'd made a nice profit on the sale of our house in Florida. We bought in a nice neighborhood, with a nice house, with a beautiful lawn. I had a nice car, nice clothing...and luckily, no credit card debt anymore. I had a great job, with a great company in my great new career. But my H wasn't happy there and neither of us really fit in...and again, something just wasn't right. I wasn't satisfied with my life but yet I didn't feel like I had any right to feel that way. I had everything, didn't I?

It wasn't until I was slapped in the face by the concept of Peak Oil that I began to wake up for real. This idea was the catalyst that set the ball in motion. The more I read, the more I realized that I finally had my REASON to do what I really, really wanted to do all along but just couldn't justify. I wanted to get out. I didn't want a big house. I didn't want a fast car (well, ok...I did want the car...selling my MINI just about killed me and if I still had it, it would be my one vice). I didn't want granite countertops, stainless appliances, and crown molding. And of course, I already knew that I didn't want 2.5 kids, the PTA and the volvo SUV.

So, here it is, just over a year later (I can't believe it's only been a year!) and we now have a small house, are working towards growing our own food, and are down to one car. I walk in chicken & goat shit every morning. I don't wear my engagement ring except for special occasions. My favorite piece of clothing is a toss up between a wool hoodie and a pair of long underware bottoms. Our house is a toasty 61F. I look forward to saving my money for things like solar panels and I can't wait to get started on building a composting toilet. Hell, I bought my 'farm' jacket (the one that is perpetually covered in mud) from Goodwill for pete's sake.

I'm a very, very LONG way from the girl who dressed in head to toe Ralph Lauren for her 5 year college reunion. And the part that is the most exciting? I'm truly happy. FINALLY.

So my point? Eschew consumerism. Don't buy into it. Be true to yourself - find what makes you happy and do it, now. Even if it means living in two worlds (like I am right now) for awhile as you get situated. It's worth every single drop of sweat. I swear it.


Wendy said...

Great post! I can definitely relate to the long and winding road that brought you to the present. I grew up on a dairy farm in New England, and live a conflicting life of an IT person by day, and a homesteader by night and heart. I started serious canning and food storage this year, and we are slowly working towards self-sufficiency.

Really enjoy your blog-thanks!

Anonymous said...

Super post Cat!!! I am a few steps behind you, so it's nice to look ahead! Congratulations on the eggs!Barbara

Anonymous said...

Damn Hippie!

Don't worry, I'm burning enough hydrocarbons for both of us.

How's Chuck doing?

Michelle said...

Hi Cat! I came across your blog when Google Alerts noticed the title of one of our books in it - we publish The Renewable Energy Handbook!
Like you we left behind city life and moved to our little oasis in the woods about 10 years ago. We live in a century-old farmhouse that has just never been hooked up to the "grid". We looked for a book that would tell us what we needed to know about living off-the-grid and couldn't find anything! Luckily at that point we met a fellow off-gridder, William Kemp, and encouraged him to write the book!
We use the sun and wind to make our power, heat with wood from our property, have a huge organic vegetable garden and are able to work from home, avoiding any commute!
I've really enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to future posts!
All the best!