I spent much less money this year than I used to spend for the holidays. I spent less time and energy shopping, too. And, if I read my social world rightly, so did a lot of Americans. I spent more time in conversation, more time reading and resting, more time taking walks. Today is New Year’s Eve and I will step into 2015 with no buyer’s remorse, at least none from these winter holidays, having had more time and energy than I am accustomed to having at holiday’s end!
Today, on the very cusp of the year, I look back to the beginnings of 2014 and forward to the dawn of 2015 from the same geographical place, a moderately large house on a big lush and beautiful lot in a wealthy small town near London—or to express it in properly understated British idiom, “a least deprived area.” Perhaps it is ironic then that in this place of abundance I’ve had a longish course unpacking the meaning of the word conservative, as in conservation of resources: time, money, and energy. In this house the ethos is one of “quiet keeping and taking care” rather than one of mad dashing, doing, and dumping. As a consequence of conserving and caring, there is sufficient time and energy to manage life, to rest, even to play. The effort to conserve in one resource domain makes for abundance in all of them.
When I first arrived here, I was dismayed by my designated towel in the bathroom, assigned to me by color and expected to last until the next laundry day. (There are no superfluous ‘quick loads’ performed here.) It was a quarter the size of my American bath-sheet, at best. I remember thinking “Wow! Which half should I dry?” Haven’t they heard of plush cotton bath sheets, the kind that I own by the dozen, and consider a hosting necessity? Then I stayed in a Japanese Buddhist monastery on Mt Koyasan, with its lovely gardens and bathing facility. Again I was assigned my towel and told I could keep it. It was a quarter the size, weight, and plushness of my British bath towel! And, if I was careful, it really was sufficient to the task of drying off after bathing. By way of contrast, the British towel seems now to be the “just right” bath towel, neither needlessly large and decadent, nor so small and insubstantial as to require four to do the job.
I could go room by room through our conservative British family house describing for American readers (and the many Brits who have adopted our ways!) the strange lack of disposable conveniences. And it would no doubt be instructive. But suffice it to say that a very civilized life can be imagined without so many things we assume: plastic baggies and containers, seasonal or themed multiple sets of dishes, a plethora of paper products. I’m so much more attentive when eating without benefit of a napkin!
When I first arrived here, fifteen years ago, I found it all to be insanely backwards, and oddly deprived. The kitchen contains a small set of shelves for the two sets of dishes, formal and informal, the handful of simple coffee mugs, the very few cooking dishes. There is a small refrigerator and cooker. There are no appliances—no mixer or blender, no coffee maker, no microwaves or toaster ovens, no food processors. There is one cooking knife, a peeler, kitchen scissors, a cutting board.
The kitchen is a big open room, made vast by lack of clutter. In the center of this room is a tiny red formica-topped table on metal legs, purchased in the mid 1950s, with one matching red and white stool from the same era. Two small wood stools were at some point added to accommodate the two now near retirement age children. All have been in place for many years, cared for such that they are still going strong. We most often eat here in non-mandatory silence. Likewise, we wash and dry dishes in choreographed and non-mandatory silence, using a plastic tub in the single sink, and paying attention to the water used. There are no specialized cleaning products.
With this setting and way of being providing a point of contrast for me, phrases like “overly large and extravagant,” and “needlessly wasteful” have entered into my American “boomer” sensibility, not because my British family uses such expressions, but because they have coughed up from within, making me aware that somewhere along the way, I’d become infected with a consumer-cultural pathogen. Surprisingly, these phrases and concepts not only shame me, but serve to unwind me, to turn down the heat, to ease the pressure, for which I am deeply and tenderly grateful.
Sufficient plus a bit for pleasure and personal preference feels like an ideal balance for most things most of the time. When more is wanted, it can likely be gotten from the reserves of time, money, and energy not spent frivolously. I suspect this is dawning on other Americans, other boomers, too. It may be at least one of the reasons why we Americans have been falling short of our shopping quotas recently. We’re finding that, really, enough stuff is enough, and too much stuff is just too much. And it’s nice to have enough energy, enough time, even once in a while.