A Retail History of the Pandemic
What does it mean to "buy nothing" in the time of a global pandemic? What does "essential-only" mean when life is so thoroughly uprooted and the future so uncertain?
When I started this challenge, I had a deep fear that the novel coronavirus outbreak that was only then surfacing in Wuhan would grow out of control. But then again, I have health anxiety. So, I'm kind of afraid that *everything* will get out of control. And as the days of January and February ticked on, I watched the numbers grow with dread in my heart, desperately clinging to all the tools in my post-therapy tool kit. I was doing my best at keeping a lid on my anxiety until the virus went intercontinental. And we all know what happened next (even as we still don't know what's left to come).
What unfolded in the weeks following my last update in mid-February was, in no uncertain terms, my nightmare come to life. It was my fever dream suddenly thrust into the realm of the living. And no amount of therapy could have prepared me for it.
What's all that have to do with buying nothing? Well, nothing. And everything. In the last 3 months, I've found myself buying things that I never thought I would need, things I never would have deemed "essential." I'll explain more on that below. But I've also bought differently (non)essential things. Since the stay-at-home orders started rippling through the world, I've also left my home and come to stay with my parents. That means I'm also away from all my stuff - all the stuff that had originally convinced me I didn't need to buy any more stuff. I brought with me only what I could pack in the span of a single morning. Everything else I needed once I was here, I bought.
In this post, I'd like to take some space to reflect on my 2020 challenge in light of all that has changed. I find that my buying history in the COVID-19 world tells both a story of things and a story of self. The things are a filter for processing the speed and breadth of the changes to my world. I'm sure your world has changed, too. So I hope reading this reminds you that you're not alone in feeling weird and being unsure if your actions are right or reasonable. We're all just doing our best here.
Below, I offer a retail history of the pandemic. What would your history be?
February 23-29: The Lead-Up
It's the last week of February, and I'm anxiously preparing for the big domestic shake-up happening in my apartment. My roommate has moved out, I'm doing small repairs and having the place cleaned, moving bedrooms, and getting everything ready for my new roommate to move in on March 1. The week goes by smoothly, but frantically. I've already bought most things that I need for a smooth transition, and every other purchase is on the provisionally-approved list.
On Tuesday, the CDC Director makes the now-infamous "not a matter of if, but when" announcement. On Thursday, I listen to an episode of "The Daily" podcast, where the guest explains that the virus has potential to be as disruptive as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. I decide, at that moment, that I need to act to prepare myself and my home for the worst case scenario. Maybe the reporter is overreacting, but maybe they're not...
I haven't touched my face in weeks. I already wash my hands to excess... health anxiety for the win.
March 1-13: The Load-Up
Fueled by a potent combination of health anxiety, general uncertainty, prepper-mental-gymnastics, and quiet resignation, I begin what I can only describe as my pre-pandemic shopping spree. In a ten-day period, I purchase everything I fear I might need, and then some.
The next time I would go to a store: May 15
It's hard to say what all of this buying does to my mental state. On one hand, it helps me feel in control. I'm not panic-buying toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, or Gatorade (hellllo, I did that 3 days ago!). There's a kind of comfort in knowing that I have enough supplies to last me for a while. There's a kind of satisfaction in feeling just a day or so ahead of the curve.
On the other hand, all this buying sends me into a tailspin. I obsess over supplies. What have I overlooked? What's missing? What if I actually need tons more VapoRub?? It's a kind of minimally-acceptable mania, a mere outlet for the feelings of utter helplessness that overwhelm my heart when it's late at night and I lay in the dark waiting for sleep, hoping the fear doesn't follow me into my dreams.
March 14-15: Settling Into Chaos
On Friday, March 13, my work team and I determine that I'll start working remotely come Monday. All week, I've been struggling with my phone (an iPhone 6), it won't hold a charge for more than 40 minutes. I really don't want to buy a new phone (I absolutely hate buying new phones). But on Friday afternoon, the battery fires its last circuit. The phone won't work unless plugged in. I'm faced with the question of what is worse: buying a new phone or sending my phone into Apple to get the battery replaced (and being without a phone for 4-5 days)?
My folding table, which definitely has height-adjustable legs.
At this point, it's official - I've done (and bought) almost everything within my power to prepare for this thing. It's time batten down the hatches.
March 19-20: Stay at Home/Hit the Road
The Governor signs the state-wide shelter-in-place order on March 19. Such an order was one of my pre-determined trigger points and I consider whether it's time to get out of town. I'm so scared of everything and everyone being a vector of contamination that I can barely rest. I contemplate whether I can spend months in my bedroom, a kind of post-modern pandemic prison cell.
I'm snapped back to reality the following morning. I decide to leave San Diego to go stay with my parents in Central California. I'm not sure if it's the right decision - there are more people in the house, both parents are working outside the home, and my stepdad works in healthcare. But I'm comforted by the words of my boss and mentor, whom I call that morning to deliberate my choice. He says: "More than most people I know, you're uniquely suited to both excel in this crisis and be fundamentally shaken by it, so go to the people who know you in all of that complexity. Sometimes it makes more sense to expand your circle, not shrink it."
I pack up most of my newly-bought supplies and as many day-to-day items as I can fit into my car. I shove as many clothes as I can into my laundry hamper and a small duffel bag. I even pack up my bedside lamp and my plants. On the road from San Diego, I feel a tightness in my chest that won't go away. It sits on me for the whole 5 hours. It's only after I see my mom and unload my things that I feel like I can breathe again.
My new multi-purpose room.
March 21-April 15: Setting Up (a Socially Distant and COVID-Prepared) House
It turns out that there are tons of things in my apartment that I relied upon every day. These items were the invisible scaffolding around the Buy Nothing challenge - their presence made it possible to go "without." Things like: a soap dish, a shower drain protector (to prevent clogs), dry shampoo, band aids, an HDMI adapter, a jewelry organizer, bra strap converters (yes, they're a thing), my Nutribullet and Blender Bottle, sunscreen. I buy all of these - and more - in my first few weeks of staying with my parents. At each turn, I keep finding new things that I "need," things that I would have at my apartment in San Diego. Should I buy them again here? Did it count as essential now that I was in a new place and unable to use what I already owned?
As the weather warms, all my cool-weather clothes that I had shoved into the hamper start to be too warm to wear. A new round of questions crop up: do I need a few more shorts and tank tops? Could I make do with the few that I had brought with me? The answer is obvious - of course I could. But in a moment of weakness - overwhelmed and seeking retail therapy - I buy them anyway. 6 tank tops, 2 pairs of shorts, and a bathing suit.
Then I buy things that I definitely do not need for day-to-day life, but worry about not having in this new world. With my stepdad in healthcare and the numbers skyrocketing, I think hard about what I would need if I really needed to distance myself from the rest of the house. The two most notable purchases from this period: a water filtration pitcher (so that I could drink water from the bathroom faucet) and a pulse oximeter (in case we got sick and needed to monitor our blood oxygen saturation). Are these items essential? To this I find only one answer that feels reasonable: not yet.
April 16-24: Creature Comforts for the New Normal
With the wave of initial purchases behind me, I find myself completely unmoored from the discipline and conviction I had cultivated from the months leading up to and the first few months of the challenge. I buy birthday decorations for my mom and myself, various bug sprays and insect repellent to combat the mosquitoes, books, a paint-by-number project.
It's at this point that I realize enough is enough.
April 25-Today: Renewed
My last non-essential purchase was on April 25. Since then, I've purchased only 1 other thing: a handful of fabric face masks from Etsy. It's the kind of purchase that feels essential in this new normal, but the kind of purchase that I would have only fearfully anticipated 5 months ago. And yet, here we are.
What It All Means
I have no idea! I couldn't have guessed when I dreamt up this challenge that it would have occurred alongside a world-history-shaping pandemic. With so much still in the air, with everything unknown and unknowable, I have been so tempted just to drop the challenge completely - to pick it up again in 2021 when going to a shopping mall is even an option, when abstaining from commerce doesn't feel like an act of economic warfare that will ultimately take it's toll on the worker, not the executives.
But I'm not going to drop the challenge. Because at the start of this challenge I said that it was ultimately about re-defining my relationship with stuff, and I meant it. There is a kind of comfort to be gained in accumulating stuff, especially in times like this. I recall the many panicked purchases I and others made in the first several weeks of this crisis, grasping desperately for the things that would make us safer, that would make us more prepared, that would make our homemade masks more effective, that would give us some kind of comfort when comfort feels so, so far away.
But things won't save us.
Only we will.
Only the people we love, who also love us, who "know us in all of that complexity," will be the comfort we seek. Only nation-wide competence in testing and contact-tracing will make us safer. Only an ethos of weathering through it together, of taking care of strangers through the simple recognition that our actions extend beyond ourselves, will make us prepared. It's not things. It's each other.
And so, here we are. I just had my 33rd birthday, so now feels like as good a time as any to recommit to the spirit and the intention I set out at the beginning of the year. How luxurious it will seem, one day, when we can meander through the walkways of a store, touching various objects, picking things up to inspect them, standing in line thumbing the gum and magazines. But maybe, maybe, it will also feel a little bizarre, like a norm from a bygone era long left behind in favor of the things that really matter. Maybe.
Stay safe, everyone. I'm sending love to you and yours, always.
What really matters.
Update: 6 Weeks (and Counting!)
Well, folks, I am over 6 weeks into my buy-nothing challenge for 2020 and I am proud to announce that I am going strong! So far, anyway!
Things I've Bought Since January 1
Purchases on the approved list (category)
As I look at this list, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel like this list is too long! There are 19 items on this list, the equivalent of buying about 3 items a week! So I definitely feel like I can buy less. But considering its the initial intro period of the challenge - and that I'm preparing my apartment for a new roommate, to boot - this seems maybe okay. Outside of the approved list, I can count the number of maybe-not-quite-essential items on two hands. So that feels maybe okay too.
Ultimately, I feel better about this list when I consider all of the opportunities I had to buy things. Some opportunities that stand out to me:
Repairing my wallet, rather than buying a new one.
Around mid-January, my wallet somehow ripped and there was a big gash causing my various cards to slip out! Usually, I would just buy a new wallet, but this time I had to repair it. I MacGyver'ed a solution and ended up super-gluing the tear shut. Now it's good as new!
Tackling a rusty soap dispenser rather than tossing it.
I have a mason jar soap dispenser in my bathroom, and the lid to the dispenser keeps rusting all the time! (Not surprising, I know.) I've been fighting a losing battle with the rust for months now, but I've only shown up halfheartedly to the fight. No more! I used vinegar and baking soda to get as much rust off the lid as possible, then I put a sealer on it, then I painted it, and then I sealed it again! Who's boss now, rust?!?!
Avoiding random purchases during a trip.
I recently traveled to Florida to visit my niece (see: birthday presents above). Normally when I visit somewhere I like to pick up a little souvenir from my trip - like a magnet, or a picture, or a book, etc. But not this time! It was tempting to pick up something small while we were in a gift shop, but my challenge kept me accountable.
Generally avoiding Target.
You know the deal with Target, don't pretend. When I went to Target to buy cosmetics (AFTER I had used up what I already had), I strategically parked next to the entrance closer to the cosmetic section so that I wouldn't need to walk through the store to get what I needed. Random Target purchases are kind of a thing for me, so this move definitely helped!
Bracing Myself: Anticipating Future Cravings for Retail Therapy
All in all, I feel like these first several weeks have gone relatively well. I've learned some important lessons about the loopholes I give myself in order to justify buying things. Loopholes like: "this is broken," or "dealing with this is too much of a hassle," or "I'm traveling," or "a few extra items in my cart is no big deal." It's been helpful to mind those loopholes and find ways to avoid them in the past month.
But I think the relatively smooth sailing I've been enjoying lately will soon turn into rough chop. Full disclosure, y'all, it's about to get pretty real for me. For starters, my beloved roommate of 6 years will be moving out in the next 2 weeks and I'll soon be processing the loss of seeing her every single day. Though she'll still be nearby, it won't be the same as living together. We'll both be navigating new life chapters and it'll certainly be an adjustment for both us. On top of that, I'm a couple weeks post-break-up. The break-up itself was mutual and the right thing to do, but I'm adjusting back to the single life and, eventually, I'll "get back out there" again. Then on top of all that, some craziness in my work life has lately been leading to lots of long days and a fair amount of work stress.
All that feels like a perfect recipe for feeling overwhelmed, and when I feel overwhelmed I often find myself craving retail therapy. And as much as I'm not looking forward to those cravings, I am oddly looking forward to noticing them and tracing them in greater depth and detail. I think the lessons of this challenge will get real at the same time that life gets messy, and odd as it may sound, I'm anticipating that with a curious heart.
Till next time!
One thing I've learned through past challenges (and life, generally) is the importance of setting boundaries. Without boundaries, I can easily find myself looking for loopholes - little escape doors through which I can shirk my original intention while still being able to rationalize/justify my actions. If I want to avoid the search for loopholes and the temptation to fall into them, I need to set some rules!
So here they are - the rules that will guide my purchasing choices in 2020.
What's NOT Allowed...
What's *Conditionally* Allowed (and why)...
This year, there will be a pretty major change in my domestic life as my roommate of 6 years moves out (and on to a new, exciting chapter). When that happens, she'll be taking some of her things with her and I'll be moving to the other room in my apartment. In anticipation of this change, I am going to allow myself to buy a few domestic items.
When in Doubt, Use the Chart!
For this year, I will define need as something I require for my day-to-day life. Something that could be useful, or could be helpful, or seems good to have is not a need. If I'm not sure about whether something is necessary enough to purchase, I will resort to the following decision flowchart.
As much as possible, if I MUST buy something, I will have to do my homework to see if I can get the item secondhand or sustainably/ethically sourced.
And There They Are...
The rules for my 2020 challenge. Stay tuned for what happens when I actually try to live by these rules! It's one thing to write them out and think about them in the abstract - it will be something else to actually put them into practice!
Got a Question? Or an Idea for a Rule?
Let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts and ponder through things with you! Your questions/ideas only help me clarify things I haven't yet considered, so please share them.
Okay, here goes nothin!
2020: Buy Nothing Challenge
If you're anything like me, the onset of 2020 feels... big.
Like holy-shit-the-future-is-now BIG.
2020 is the year that always felt CRAZY far away to me. And now, it's here! Right around the corner!
A BIG Challenge for a BIG Year...
It feels only right that as I start this year, I am gearing up for a challenge that is going to push me farther than any challenge has pushed me yet! This year, I am going to commit to buying nothing except for daily essentials FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR!
I thought for a while about what to call this challenge... Shopping Ban. Spending Ban. Buy Nothing. No New Things. Stop the Stuff. Live with Less. Good God Erica You Already Have Enough! And so on...
The important thing is not so much what this challenge is called, it's what the challenge aims to do. To help unpack the purpose of the challenge, allow me to first tell you a few stories from this past year. Times when I found myself questioning my relationship with "stuff." From each of these experience, a seed was planted. Those seeds are now the basis for this 2020 challenge.
1) Visiting UCSD Surplus Sales
Surplus Sales is a department at UCSD that re-sells and recycles used equipment from the campus. Anytime an office or department refurnishes their space, or when a grad student hauls out of the office they've been parked in for years, they can call Surplus to pick up the old items. The crew hauls the stuff to their warehouse, sorts it, sells what they can, recycles what they can, then disposes of the rest.
Y'all, you seriously should see all the stuff. ALL. THE. STUFF.
We're talking an airplane-hangar-sized warehouse filled, floor to ceiling, with stuff. An entire corner of this place is filled with wheely chairs. Another wing - all filing cabinets! I couldn't count the number of used printers on all my and your and your mom''s fingers and toes!
Seed #1: Visiting surplus and seeing the sheer volume of all their stuff hit me like a bolt of lighting. As I wandered through the aisles, I kept re-realizing that there is just so, so, so, SO much STUFF! On display were only the things deemed fit for re-sale (less than half of the total items taken in), only for one campus, in a state where there are 8 other campuses of comparable size, countless other university campuses, let alone public and private organizations that also refurbish their offices. Multiply that times 50 states, and then multiply that by all the other places in the world that may also be accumulating all of their used stuff. THERE IS SO MUCH STUFF!
2) Bye Bye, Charming Charlie
I'll admit it - I'm a bit of an accessories fiend. I have a fairly large collection of dangly earrings, and post earrings, and statement earrings, and simple earrings. Plus there's the long necklaces, and the short necklaces, and the fancy only-on-special-occasion necklaces. Add to that the bracelets: the bangles, the beaded, the ones with pendants, the ones with gems real and fake, the ones that get in the way of typing on my laptop, and the ones that pull my little arm hairs. And don't even get me started on scarves!!
So, it may not be surprising that I was a HUGE fan of Charming Charlie, a store full of accessories, organized by color and all so very cheap! Charming Charlie was one of my favorite places to shop for accessories.
I say WAS - because Charming Charlie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August of this year, and within a few short weeks sold off as much of its inventory as possible and closed all its stores forever. And all of that happened without my knowing until, one Sunday afternoon in early September, I ventured to a mall to shop at Charming Charlie, only to find the doors to the store locked and the place deserted.
I'm ashamed to say what I felt in that moment. Sure, I felt a little annoyed (I drove 20 miles to that particular mall for the sole purpose of going to that store). And yes, I felt disappointed (the color-coding was truly a sight to behold). But more than anything, what I felt in that moment was grief for all the future accessories I wouldn't be able to buy. Despite the hordes of accessories waiting for me at home - some of which I hadn't worn in YEARS - I felt sad because of all the hypothetical accessories that I couldn't have. I felt sad because I wouldn't get anything new from that store again.
Seed #2: As I sat dumbstruck in that mall, staring at a darkened shell of a store, I realized that I need to examine my personal relationship with stuff. Why had I driven 20 miles, burning precious oil and fuel, to purchase a handful of cheap accessories that I may only wear a handful of times, to the neglect of the things I already owned, just to repeat the same consumption cycle again in 5-6 months? And why did I feel so sad about not getting anything new? Stuff doesn't deserve grief unless it is truly priceless. Some cheap blue earrings among a sea of cheap blue earrings were NOT priceless.
3) Building Awareness of Consumption Culture
Over the past year, I've read and watched a number of things that have given me a visceral, gut-punch view of how mass consumption takes its toll on the world (and everyone in it) and that have helped me see the underlying forces that perpetuate mass consumption culture despite its human and environmental costs.
Seed #3: Consumption is a social system, just like any other social system. And there's nothing I like more than interrogating the social systems into which I've been enculturated, learning more about who benefits from these arrangements, and smashing/subverting these systems accordingly. My mindset towards consumption can be just as critical and galvanizing as my mindset towards racism and patriarchy.
Okay, back to the 2020 Challenge
I mentioned above that what this challenge is called isn't as important as what it aims to do. In light of the seeds planted throughout 2019, here are the goals/purposes of the "Buy Nothing" Challenge in 2020:
And What of the Blog?
I'll be using this blog to share updates and lessons from the challenge. I'll also share resources I find that help me along the way. For example, in preparation for 2020 I've been reading The Year of Less by Cait Flanders. I'll share more about this wonderful little book and the way it's inspired me, as well as other resources I find throughout the year.
On top of being able to share about the challenge, the blog will also force me:
Disclaimers and Next Steps...
For now, this challenge is all about consumption of material goods. I know that lots of people will have lots of feelings about other kinds of consumption - like going vegan, or practicing zero waste, or giving up plastic. These are valid, but just not the focus of this challenge. One thing at a time!
And before anyone tries to @ me on this - this is not a minimalism challenge. I imagine an entire future post where I talk through my feelings on voluntary minimalism and the ways in which minimalists and the minimal aesthetic are a new kind of privileged, conspicuous consumption. But for now, just know that I'm not about to become a so-called "minimalist."
That's all for now! In the days to come, I'll share the rules for the challenge and my plan for working within them. I hope you'll stay tuned and follow along!
Thank you for reading. :)
A brief history...
Most of my friends and family know that, at any given moment, I am in the middle of undertaking some kind of personal challenge. Seriously, you could ask me "What's your current challenge?" at just about any time and I'll have some kind of response. I call them challenges, but since there's no competition or prize involved perhaps a better name for these projects is DARES (as in truth-or-dare).
In the Beginning...
When I first started out with challenges in 2014, my close friends and family were the source of each new endeavor. They would, essentially, dare me to try something for a month, and together we would create the rules/boundaries for the challenge. Okay, I know what you may be thinking - "you let yourself be a guinea pig for other people's weird interests?" Not exactly! Behind every dare there needed to be a clear, constructive purpose. The challenger had to think of something I could benefit from learning and/or experiencing, and then design a challenge that could be a conduit for those kinds of lessons.
Each of these earlier challenges lasted for exactly one month, and I described what I was doing and learning on my first blog, Thirty Day Endeavors. During 2014, I spent May through December undertaking challenges such as:
This initial set of challenges jump-started a new way of being in the world for me. And in the years that followed, while I didn't keep up with the blog, I did keep up with the challenges. After doing so many challenges suggested by others, I decided to get into the driver's seat. I dared myself to do (or not do) things for a certain amount of time to see how that disrupted my habits, changed my mindsets, and helped me learn something I didn't know before. These challenges ranged from 3 months to a year, depending on what I was doing.
And what was I doing?
When it comes to deciding on a challenge, I have exactly one rule that I live by:
If it scares me or seems impossible, I have to do it.
It is this rule that led me to forego shaving my armpits, that caused me to leave my phone in another room the moment I got home from work, that prompted me to remove Amazon (yes, including Prime) out of my life as much as possible (AWS is almost impossible to escape!), and totally changed my relationship with television.
The Past Becomes Present, and the Present Becomes Future
One thing that I've learned over the years is that every challenge, no matter how big or small, makes an impact in my life. Not only do I learn something about the challenge topic, I also learn a lot about myself. With each challenge I build up my sense of resilience and capability. I look back on these times and think "I did that! What else can I do?" But I also cultivate a lot of self-compassion and patience. It's rare to complete a challenge without at least one slip-up (sometimes even one colossal fuck-up!), but I've learned not to throw in the towel just because I had one or two (or five) missteps. Reflecting on and coping with these missteps becomes a crucial part of every new challenge, even more so than the surface-level behavior changes that come with trying something new.
The other thing that challenges have given me is a broader view of possibility for myself. It's hard to describe, but I have greater awareness of potential challenges now than ever before. I'm subconsciously on the look-out for new frontiers within myself, new ways of being in the world. As a result, my sense of myself has become more flexible and ever-evolving. When I started my first Thirty-Day Endeavor, I could not have foreseen this greater mindset shift. I had no idea that I would integrate a challenge-oriented mindset into my life for years to come. And yet, here we are.
As I look forward to 2020, I am eager to see what new lessons I will learn, and to share whatever insight I can. I have a new challenge lined up, and it is possibly the hardest challenge I've ever undertaken.
More on that later. :)
Challenges are my jam.
My favorite pasttime is challenging myself with regular, time-based endeavors. Follow along with my latest challenge(s) here.