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.
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