As you may or may not know, I have had to suddenly vacate half of my already-small apartment in Harlem. My rent increased by almost 50% (42.8% to be exact) suddenly last week. It was an increase I was expecting, and it came during a genuinely friendly and mutually compassionate conversation with my landlady.
Her husband died suddenly of pancreatic cancer right before I originally moved into the building. He was in fact the only person who knew that I had been promised the second floor apartment. I ended up getting a third floor studio that came open at the same time because she gave the second floor apartment to her housekeeper-nanny, who had also apparently lovingly tended to her husband at the end of his life. How could I object? So, I didn't.
So, I lived quite comfortably in the third floor studio, except for it's being on the third floor. That added pretty significantly to the amount of trouble it was the do things there. The laundry room was four floors down, for example. So, when the ground floor apartment came open, I asked her if I could take it. She wanted me to take it. She offered me a 22% reduction in the rent she was asking from everyone else to encourage me to take it. I took it.
It was pretty cavernous. I wanted a cool New York apartment so I started buying furniture. I bought some furniture I didn't really want in order to please a friend. This was, of course, completely the wrong reason to buy furniture, and my friend wasn't that invested in my decision anyway, but I felt I needed to have furniture.
Why? Because I felt like I was less than something I should be if I didn't have it. Not because I wanted it, not because I used it, but because a man my age is supposed to have furniture. Just as if someone was going to drop by like a census-taker to count my lamps and bookshelves, I sought to prove something to myself, mindlessly, on some consumerist autopilot, to fill some lack, some hole in my self-regard, with a chest of drawers, a couple of cabinets, a rug and some broken lamps (projects!).
Guess how well that worked?
So, my landlady left the rent at the same rate for 3.5 years. It was less than 60% of the market value of the apartment this last year. So, she raised it 42.8% and it is still less than 85% of market value. I'm not going to bitch about that, and I'm not going to move. I told her that on the phone. Her relief was palpable.
But, that doesn't mean I'm Daddy Got-Rocks. I'm an underpaid nurse informaticist. I can't really afford the rent increase while I'm still in therapy and fighting a legal battle over my father's estate. So, I have to find a roommate and one dropped right into my lap, literally five seconds after I first let it be known to the world that I needed one.
So, guess what I have to get rid of? That furniture I bought mindlessly when I moved into the apartment, plus I have acquired some better pieces that displace even older pieces. That hasn't been so hard except it really drives home the point about what a slave I have been to consumerist mindlessness.
What do I mean by consumerist? I mean the notion, so much a part of our culture that we don't notice it, that one becomes something important in life through the acquisition of stuff, constantly newer and better stuff, which you're supposed to have to be fully actualized as a modern human. There's a complementary notion that people without stuff are somehow disabled, or worse yet, sort of stupid. Or if they don't use this best stuff, they're the loyal losers in the getting-the-best-stuff competition. They're the team playing the Harlem Globetrotters. We have to have losers to have winners, so that's the people with the zune and the new Windows Vista machines.
Why does the stock market always have to go up? Why do this year's sales always have to surpass last years? Why must there be ever-increasing profits? What do we need more of? What do we lack? Are we meeting that lack with more stuff/dollars?
Do you see how consumerism was at the root of my notion to buy furniture I didn't want and didn't use? It still amazes me what I have realized about all this in the last three years.
In addition to the mindless furniture I possessed, it was also time to get rid of the stuff I was holding on to because it wasn't "in my way." I'm not really sure what I mean by that, though, when I think about it. I know I like space, so potentially everything is in the way.
I think the "not in my way" declaration was a veil over something deeper. I know from the emotional reactions that i had to the purge I conducted on Thanksgiving Day that I still invested my sense of self in a lot of that stuff.
It is important to note at this point that I did not throw out or recycle a single item I have used in the last year other than an appliance I dropped and broke accidentally, some books I had read and saw no reason to keep, and a large number of books I had never read.
That brings up a point I want to make. I am beginning to question the habit I have of buying paperback books. I was able to take a tote bag full of hardback books to a used bookstore and get $35 for them last week, plus they put them right on the shelf for someone else to enjoy at less than half price.
My paperback books I only recycle. My used book store, The Strand, doesn't take paperbacks if they are not in new condition. My books travel with me, they do not get read and stay in new condition, so they're recycling, which is fine but there's a lot of organization there, those words on that page, that gets lost because it is, in essence, a disposable binding compared to hard-cover.
So, why did I buy these books in paperback editions? Because they are cheaper. What do I want with a cheaper book? More for my money. More of what? By the time the book is in paperback there are hard-cover copies at the library, if I really want to read it, why not just check it out? Because maybe going to the library doesn't satisfy me the way that buying books does? Hmm? What's having this book really about? It doesn't seem to be about reading it, does it?
The paperback books I have that are in new condition are the ones I bought and never read. Usually I planned to read them in order to improve myself in some way (another consumerist notion), i.e., that if I read this book I am somehow better informed, or more well-rounded, or more interesting to others in some way. I don't ever read those books, and I had a lot of them, but chances are if I *owned* them and didn't read them that they aren't that compelling to start with, so I just recycled them instead of trying to dump them on The Strand. I feel like a part of a community at The Strand, I don't want to injure that community with crappy paperbacks that are of more use to humanity as wood pulp.
I recycled about 75% of my library on Thanksgiving even though I did not recycles a single book I plan to open the cover of again. I reduced three bookshelves worth of books to part of one. Something about that still bothered me even though these books were clearly possessions I didn't use or anticipate using. There's another guy I heard or read about who is doing a similar divestment of possessions who exempts books from the count he is keeping of his possessions because he regards them as a different kind of possession. I don't think I followed or really understood his rationale, it just sounded like a rationale to me, so I dismissed it.
I think I'm right. The fact is there are libraries which my tax dollars go to support which do a lot better job of preserving books than I do. I can use one of the greatest library systems on planet earth for free. I have the Internet, I am not vested with the responsibility for preserving the collective wisdom of the published word nor any part of it. I'm clear on that.
But, I really do wrap up a sense of myself in having books. That hurt.
I also went through my CD/DVD collection again and this time I eliminated all of the packaging and put the disks on spindles. This also was less than comfortable. Even though I am well aware that I purchased my Simpson's collection to watch the result of the decoding of the ones and zeroes stored on the discs (and to obtain permission to do so) it dawned on me that I liked seeing the boxes up on the shelf, that I felt like this says something about me too. Why do I feel like I'm losing something about my self when I separate the plastic from the cardboard recycling parts of the package and spindle the storage media?
So, I am about mid-way through the process I need to complete to make room for the roommate. I have a closet to empty, a chest-of-drawers set to empty, and some cabinets to empty. Most of it is going to be discarded or recycled, I haven't been using about 75% of it, either. I'm not looking forward to this with my usual enthusiasm for the task. Again, none of this stuff fits the criteria I have adopted for my target 600 possessions (utility and/or beauty), I don't want it, I've made that decision, but I have not yet detached. I am still on the karma wheel, this is loss because I thought this stuff represented gain in the first place. I am having trouble seeing through to that even though I know it.
But, that's what practice is like. You don't do it to gain anything. You do it because it is what there is to do, not from a sense of accomplishment or achievement, there's pain there, this pain, that I'm in now, but the possessions didn't create that, they didn't relieve it either, there just the chips in this card game of living.
But it's not like I'm supposed to be doing something else. I'll get back to you when I'm finished with this intensive.