Volume 74, Number 32 | December 15 - 21, 2004


Notebook


The incredible lightness of being without consuming

By Wickham Boyle

Most cultures celebrate the darkest time of the year with festivals of light: The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is upon us and so is the entrenched holiday shopping season. The Christians, Jews and Druids are the three cultures whose festivals come immediately to mind. There are elaborate celebrations with candles, twinkling lights and enormous trees dragged inside and decorated; all of this hearkens that we make it through the dark time and reemerge safely into light.

I usually love this time of year where excess is the norm and every nook and cranny of our homes and street corners can be frosted, iced and adorned, but I must say I am in a spending overload. This fall, for the first time, I had both my teenage children in expensive schools and my father needed long-term care. All of this bleeds cash. And I don’t want be a scrooge because I believe these lovely kids and ancient father need to be carefully lavished with life’s quotidian and beyond. The glitch is, it all costs a fortune. I cannot tell my son, who was plucked by a professional tennis coach at 16 and hauled to L.A., that he can’t have new rackets if the old ones break before Christmas; nor can I tell my daughter that $1,500 for books at Columbia is extravagant and she should choose classes with less reading. At the same time, I can’t tell my father that he has to keep his heat down this winter and cancel physical therapy. So I trudge on with monthly bills where I borrow, charge and overextend.

So when the prospect of Christmas stared me in the face I blinked. I told my family that this year we would be having a noncommercial Christmas. No bought gifts. None. Not buckling at the last minute and stuffing gifts under the tree; really nothing that comes from someone else or someplace else. No gifts other than what we can offer each other: special dinners, foot rubs, a scrubbed shower, a shared poem, knit a funny hat, sharpen all the knives, stuff notes into the stockings that say why we love each other, drive someone to a meeting in the rain or initiate a night of cards not TV.

My life has been a torrent of cash out, so this winter festival of light is all about putting light back into our family. My kids and husband already think I am a big weirdo because I attempt to eschew the commercial culture in a sometimes-extreme way. I keep questioning why anyone would need more than one pair of blue jeans, or why sneakers have to match outfits and that means you need many pairs. I am befuddled by the technology that proliferates when my husband gets gadget-lust and I am sure they are equally stymied by my wanderlust. I have a powerful need to be in different time zones, eat exotic unknown foods and have foreign tongues swirl around me. We all have desire.

We are all covetous consumers in so many ways. We see things we want in advertising or on others and we begin to believe that we can’t live without the proffered whatever. I am anticipating there will be some momentous pangs of passion to spend this season. My daughter and I took a long walk through Soho and the Village this past weekend and did purchase some great yarn for our hat attack. We also stopped for chai tea and as the French say we “licked the windows” in many cute shops on our wander. When we got home we took down a few boxes of holiday ornaments and set out candles and silver gee-gaws, garlands and giant sparkling snowmen. I lit the candles for dinner and put on some seasonal music. I practiced my rusty cello, singing along with “Adeste Fidelis,” one of the only carols I still remember from childhood Latin. I tied a ribbon on the cat and he roiled in raucous circles at my feet while I sawed away.

I baked my husband an apple pie, we played two games of backgammon and turned off the news while dinner cooked; I gave my girl a back rub to soothe her achy yoga muscles. It seemed like a good prelude. I imagine there will be some revolts waged during the two weeks while everyone is home and holiday-gotta-have-it is at fever pitch. But still, we are attempting a different kind of light, a lightness of being rather than consuming, a luminosity of love rather than shining consumerism.

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