Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I grew up in a family of shoppers. My grandmother's home was filled with items large and small: gemstone rings, TV-offer-only Cuisinarts, Coca-Cola collectibles, random flea market tchotchkes, fake flower arrangements, trinkety Walgreens finds, candies and family heirlooms and little kleenex packages and all the items sold on 2am infomercials.

Her favorite quote from my childhood: "Paw-Paw makes the money and Ma-Maw spends it!"

I think she found shopping relaxing, or perhaps elating. My guess was it grew out of her childhood of poverty and her experience of the depression. She was a cupboards-jammed-full kind of woman... finding a sense of stability and assuaging her many anxieties in the process of possession.

What is interesting, however, is the way her behavior then passed to my mother - another shopper at heart. Like my grandmother, my mother (I think) has integrated shopping into her modes of communication and introspection.

We were a greeting card family - a care-package bunch; my mother, I suspect, sometimes uses trips to the store as a form of meditation or solitude... and she communicates her love, in part, through things that resonate, for her, with the frequency of the intended recipient.

I find that much of my understanding and meaning-making when it comes to family, parenting, home-life is linked to a lifetime of shopping. I enjoy window shopping, gift-shopping, grocery-shopping, card-shopping, bath-and-body/decor/artwork/furniture/music, books, and more-shopping. I spend hours on errands that should only take minutes, and I find myself fighting the urge to buy my daughter something on every trip. So that she will know I am thinking of her. That I love her. That she is important to me.

Even though my relationship to consumption of goods has changed in the last few years, I still find myself drawn to the act of buying... of selecting and owning and carrying things... as an emotional touchstone. I go to the store when I'm sad. I sometimes equate my sense of self with the things I possess. I wish to believe (if I am honest with myself) my love can be communicated with a thing - because I so often fail to adequately communicate my heart through my words and deeds.

Consumption is a funny thing when you begin to really notice it... a sort of integrated and inescapable thread that runs through infinite aspects of our daily lives. It's so ingrained in our culture - in our senses of self.

Food, clothing, cars, homes, media, technology, electricity, gas - necessities and luxuries and everything in between. It is such a wide spectrum along which we tread, sometimes it's hard to know whether we are filling a need that is real or one that is an illusion.

As I seek to become more aware of my relationship to consumption and to consider the legacy I will pass on to my daughter, I have started to seek out what might best be described as a sense of insatiable hunger. It is the empty aching longing of the hungry ghost... and when I am awake to it, I notice it showing up in many areas of my life. Today I realized that every time I am a hungry ghost, I begin to consume.

This translates to eating cookies when I am not hungry, plodding mindlessly through Facebook when I am lonely, buying Starbucks when I am directionless, searching real estate listings when I am restless, driving my car when I am emotionally stuck, watching TV when I am resisting, and looking for clothes my daughter does not need when I am missing her.

It is no mistake, I think, the definition of consumption includes both the act of consuming and the state of being consumed. It may be impossible to consume without, on some level, being consumed by the thing you are consuming. The hungry ghost is suffering personified. It is the self of attachment and longing and mindless consumption driven by illusory goals.

The Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta (founder of Buddhism) said:

Peace comes from within.
Do not seek it without.

Of course, sometimes the simplest of notions is the hardest to put into action. But I am trying. Striving to consume mindfully and consider my legacy and confront the ghost within so I may replace her with a sense of peace.

May you be alert to your needs and your desires - and strive to discern the difference between the two.


  1. Really love this -- my grandma was a shopper too--and I remember noticing that during an especially grueling work week in Tokyo I had spent more money that I had in months. It surprised me when I realized it, the gesture was reflexive--it gave me a feeling of control when work was out of control, a feeling that I was treating myself well, even though I was working 18 hour days. I also remember reading the 5 love languages and realizing that in our culture, present-giving is so often a way to express love. Even more so in Japanese culture where physical or verbal expressions of love are so rare.

  2. I wrote a response to you long ago and it got deleted and then I never rewrote a comment! Your mention of the love languages is so important - I too have noticed how our (loved ones, family members, friends) intended communications through giving and receiving can get so muddled when we speak in different ways. It's such an integral component of married life and parenting both. And I know just what you're saying about "treating" yourself. I have to remain very mindful in times of sadness not to seek out comfort through purchasing. It's such a strange response to feeling vulnerable - that attempt at accumulation. Thank you so much for your thoughts. xoxo