The Universal Notebook: We are living in a material world

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When I was much younger I liked to think of myself as anti-materialistic.

Of course, you don’t need much when you’re 17. Your family provides everything you need – a house, a car, three squares, etc. A few books and records, a change of clothes, and you’re good to go.

As I approach 70, however, it’s much harder to reject consumerism.

This Christmas was an orgy of pogo sticks, Hot Wheels, art supplies, fairy castles, karaoke machines, books, socks, sweaters, flannel shirts and a half-dozen bejeweled masks to delight the grandkids. Add to that the Christmas feast and all the beer and wine a family of young adults can drink and we’re well on our way to wretched excess.

If I hadn’t already been guilty enough about all this spending, I read an article in the local daily about a fellow who had taken up author Ann Patchett’s challenge to give up (unnecessary) shopping for a year. What an insidious, subversive idea coming from a publication that survives on revenue from advertisements designed to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.

Apparently, an anti-consumer movement has developed called the Buy Nothing Project. Started in 2013, it has chapters in 30 countries. There appear to be 20 Buy Nothing groups right here in Maine promoting the creation of a gift/swap economy.

Daughter No. 2 started a Buy Nothing kick of her own long before 2013. She prefers hand-me-downs, thrift shops and Craigslist to buying new, her concern being that there is already way too much “stuff” in the world and we just need to make better use of what we’ve got.

Of course, every once in a while we politely remind her that her mother, who works at L.L. Bean, would be out of a job and Maine would be out of thousands of good jobs and millions in charitable donations (such as those that support the nonprofit she works for) if everyone shopped the way she does.

Daughter No. 1 went through a purge of possessions a year or two ago after reading “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. I know how good it feels to lighten one’s material burden, having disposed of many wagon loads of books, papers and the accumulated clutter of 32 years four years ago when we moved from Yarmouth to Brunswick. The space freed up has now filled up again.

In my idealistic youth I imagined at this point in my life I would be living the Spartan minimalist life of Mahatma Gandhi. I was inspired by a famous photograph of the few worldly possessions Gandhi left behind when he was assassinated in 1948 – pocket watch, sandals, spectacles, spinning wheel and a brass bowl and plate. Of course, a man of such historic stature does not pass through this world without leaving a much longer debris trail.

Just checking the contents of the Gandhi Memorial Museum, I see 34,111 letters to and from Gandhi, 1,371 journal articles, 210 films, 612 audio tapes, 6,000 photo negatives and 50,000 books. Then there is the fact that Gandhi’s iconic possessions sold at auction in Manhattan in 2009 for $1.8 million. Add to that the brisk business the National Gandhi Museum does in reproductions of the great man’s nail cutters, glasses and watch and the holy Mahatma starts to look like just another free-market capitalist.

I feel better about my excess already.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.