On Being Materialistic

July 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

I would say “recently” but time flies for me these days, so I’ll just skip the time frame. A couple of those closest to me (by blood if not by heart) have called me “materialistic” in a derogatory manner and it’s been gnawing away at me. Materialistic? Me? The word conjures up McMansions with too many rooms than any single family can fill, more cars in the driveway than get driven every day, perhaps an extra house on the beach or maybe just a yacht on the lake. Materialism, in the derogatory sense for me, implies a strong desire for money and for objects, societal demonstrations that equate success. I don’t really see myself as Materialistic.

I don’t crave money to impress other people, I just want enough money to survive.  I think most of America would agree with me that I would be happier without the stress of overdraft fees on top of overdrafting your account already, without the stress of coupon counting at the grocery store after you’ve already skipped a number of meals, without the stress of deciding whether to buy dog food or go to the doctor because you have a kidney infection. When I first moved to DC, I worked 7 days a week. I had a full time job with erratic hours on top of a part time job 45 minutes away from my basement apartment. And I still didn’t make enough to feel “comfortable” with my financial situation. This isn’t a “but I wanted the Mercedes instead of the BMW” kind of comfortable, this is a “I’d like to eat three meals a day and still make rent” kind of comfortable.

Things are different now. I got a new full time job where I get paid enough to afford to only work one job. I have a great benefits package and they even pay for my transportation two and from work. My savings account has been growing in preparation for tight financial times again when graduate school starts this fall. But it won’t ever be like those 7 day work weeks, like those desperate times last year. Do I want more money now? Sure, an extra 10 grand a year would have been the difference between student loans and being debt free. I could cook a lot more because I could justify spending the money to stock a kitchen. I could paint a lot more because I could justify buying more supplies. But I know the difference between “want” and “need,” something I don’t think people who are truly materialistic understand.

I really thought it was odd, almost shockingly off-base, when my brother told me I was small, selfish, and materialistic. All the furniture in my apartment I bought for myself. I bought it all with cash (thank you, craigslist and flea markets) and I didn’t pay more than $100 for any item. Everything I have is second-hand. The one exception to that is a bookshelf my father made. I didn’t ask him to make it for me, I didn’t pay him to make it for me. Materialistic? I don’t think someone materialistic would be quiet so…. thrifty.

But I am materialistic. I am deeply materialistic. I love second-hand furniture not just because it’s affordable, but because it has its own history. I could spend hours just looking at my furniture, going over every knick, over every blemish. Their histories are told through their materials, preserved in their physical existence. I cling to that, to the reminder that something existed before me and will exist after me. You can look at my closet and say “lord, girl, you must be Materialistic because you have so much clothing!” It’s true, I love clothes. But that’s not why I have so much. I’ve tried to purge my closet of the things I don’t wear any more, but so much of what I have was given to me. I can go through my closet and tell you that my grandmother bought me that dress, my aunt gave me that top, that that pink sweater was my mother’s. How can I get rid of it when that item of clothing represents the hour they spent shopping for me, the hours of work they spent earning the money to buy that for me, the care they took in wrapping it up, and the anxiety they felt just before I opened it? I can’t just throw that away because my closet is a bit crowded.

I have a lot of my mom’s old clothes. I’ve had them for years, stolen during one of her own closet purges when I was in high school. A big, pink knit sweater that I cried into as a child. It has large wooden buttons and deep pockets and a coffee stain on the right side. I have a long-sleeve, blue shirt that my dad designed for a family reunion they had before I was born. I have a shirt from Doo-Dah-Day, a dog festival in Birmingham that my mom and I went to together. It was the only festival we took Cleo and Willie to together, and now that Willie is dead we’ll never have another chance to go to another one.

Even the things I’ve bought for myself have memories woven into their fabrics. A dress I wore to my first dance in high school. The tee-shirt with a zebra on it from college when a group of students stole a zebra from a farm nearby and locked it on the top floor of one of the classroom buildings. They made the tee-shirts to raise money to repair the damages the zebra caused to the building. I bought a shirt. The heels I wore to dinner on our one-year anniversary. The dress I bought for our two-year anniversary that I couldn’t bring myself to wear.

So, yes, I’m intensely materialistic but not in the way that I need materials to possess, need them to feel successful or important or alive. I am materialistic because I am at heart an artist, and my memories are intertwined with materials and my emotions are expressed through materials. Materials are the texture of life and they remind me of all the complications of living, the good and the bad. They remind me of history, both my own and the general path of growing up and growing old. That path that all people take. My memories, grounded in materials and objects, are both intensely specific and wholly general to the human condition. They are beautiful and complex, even if they just look like an old tee-shirt to you.

I am materialistic. And I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

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