New Year, Not-so-New Resolution
January 5, 2023 § Leave a comment
Happy New Year! I hope your winter break brought you ample time for family and friends, long walks and good food, and quiet moments to read. If you gifted any of my recommendations, I’d love to hear how they went over!
I’m not always one for New Year’s resolutions, but I did something at the beginning of last year, and I liked it so much that I’ve decided to do it again. The idea came out of Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, which I devoured a few days before 2022 kicked off. These personal essays not only filled up every ounce of my being, but they once again affirmed Patchett as my favorite living writer (and the platonic soulmate who doesn’t know I exist, though that’s a topic for another time). In one of these essays, “My Year of No Shopping,” she talks about how she gave up shopping for the entirety of 2017. Tired of buying things she didn’t really need for a quick endorphin fix, only to begrudge them when they piled up by the door and demanded unpacking, she decided to go cold turkey for an entire year. “The trick of no-shopping wasn’t just to stop buying things. The trick was to stop shopping.” The idea was to free herself, not only of the mental space that shopping, or contemplating acquisitions, took up, but of the way shopping obscured the simple truth that “what I needed was less than what I had.”
The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: we can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss too many of life’s details.
I figured if I already looked to Ann Patchett to tell me what I should be reading, it couldn’t hurt to let her run the other parts of my life, too. She made not shopping sound so nice that I decided to try it. For nearly five months into 2022—OK, I did not last the full year, but five months still felt terribly impressive—I followed her same rules. She could buy food and flowers; she could buy toiletries, but only when she’d used up every bottle or tube she’d tucked away; and she could buy books. (That last one was critical: I wanted to spend less money, I didn’t want to go INSANE.) But no clothes or shoes. No home goods. No gadgets. No trinkets. No stuff.
I have never been a huge shopper, but I do have a tendency to linger on the J.Crew website long after I should be in bed with my book. I’ve been known to click through links on social media, only to end up with stuff that doesn’t look half as good in real life as it did on an influencer’s feed. How many times have I fantasized about how much prettier/organized/productive I’d be with [fill in the blank]? May I plead the fifth on that?
Everything Ann promised came true. I started paying closer attention to what I already had. I stopped getting distracted by promotional emails (actually, I unsubscribed to them). I stopped craving the rush that comes from newness, from the promise of re-invention. I didn’t have to worry about buyer’s remorse creeping in to taint my enjoyment. I felt more in control, more at peace. I felt happier.
I almost caved when I had to attend a bar mitzvah. It was my first time seriously dressing up since the pandemic, and my clothes, shoes, and make-up all seemed wanting. I was seconds away from clicking the checkout button on a gorgeous dress I was sure would make my re-entry into society easier, when I walked back into my closet, took a deep breath, and thought, I can do this. I can wear something old, something that doesn’t fit quite how it used to, and it will be OK. I did, and it was better than OK.
I started to fill the holes in my life with less want and more gratitude. It’s an immense privilege to be in a place to contemplate a reduction in shopping as an experiment of self-care, as opposed to an urgent financial necessity. That only underscored the importance of more actively considering my blessings, what really brings me joy, what I actually need to live fully.
The benefits carried over even when I started shopping again. If I thought about buying something, I sat with the decision for a bit. How would I feel when that thing showed up on my doorstep? Would I begrudge all the packing material, the fuel it consumed to get to me, the hit to my wallet? Or would it feel like something to be cherished, something of lasting impact?
And then fall arrived. There’s nothing like the holiday season to convince you that opening your wallet will guarantee merriment. I found myself heeding the call of sales (those pesky emails found their way back in), and every time I set out to buy something for someone, I somehow came home with something for myself as well.
So, when the dust settled on this year’s Christmas wrappings, I thought about the peace I’d felt in the early part of 2022 and decided to try for that again. No shopping (except books!) for at least the first part of the year.
I also thought about Howard Schwartz’s 2022 picture book, All You Need (ages 4-8), a poetic tribute to life’s essentials—and a gorgeous one at that. Illustrated in watercolor by Jasu Hu, who drew inspiration from the countryside of Hunan, China, where she spent her childhood, the artwork is as light and ethereal as the subtle anti-consumerism message of the text. What do we really need for a rich, fulfilling life? It’s an answer that might be as important for us to hear as it is for our kids.
While the book’s universal text speaks to the miracle of being alive, the pictures tell a specific story of a young Chinese girl growing up to become an artist—specifically, a children’s book creator. What makes this dream possible is what makes all dreams possible, and young readers will enjoy identifying parallels to their own lives.
“All you need/ is a planet to live on,/ a sun to give you light/ and warmth,/ clouds to gather rain,/ seeds to take root/ and trees to clean the air/ for you to breathe.” The book’s opening line—one of only three in the entire book—is spread across thirteen pages, as we behold a girl’s childhood spent strapped to her mother’s back in the rice fields, playing games with neighbor children, and sketching on the forest floor.
More requirements are added to the list, from good food to fresh water to “plenty of sleep.”
We then move into essentials that are less tangible, less measurable. These may be the most intriguing to young readers, will certainly invite the most discussion. “[Y]ou need a land/ where you are welcome,/ someone to watch over you,/[…]” What does it mean to be accepted, to be cared for? The pictures hint at different manifestations, drawn from Hu’s own journey from China to New York City to study art, including a teacher standing beside the young woman as she paints, to an umbrella under which she huddles with a lover.
The book’s final pages ask us to consider the essential role of communication, of art, in making a life: “words to share your thoughts,/ a hand to write those words down,/ and a beating heart.” We watch as the young woman sends home proof of her well-being in the form of a letter, along with the book we’re holding in our hands.
If we look carefully, we might notice that the same black swallow on the book’s final spread has been there all along, watching over our protagonist. In her Illustrator Note, Hu tells us that in Chinese culture, the swallow is a “messenger that brings happiness.” Perhaps, in this New Year, we can all become more watchful for the messengers in our lives that signal our good fortune, that remind us that our needs are often less than our wants, and that our own beating hearts are nothing short of miraculous.
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Book published by Neal Porter Books/ Holiday House. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).