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I am specifically posting this today, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, when every retailer is enticing us to buy, buy, buy material goods.
1. To lose physical substance; become immaterial
2. To reduce the amount of material required for (a product or process)
3. To convert (records, for example) from paper to digital or electronic form
and, I would add, to change one’s viewpoint to value non-material existences—such as thoughts, feelings, ideas, creating, and the like—over material items.
While looking for something else, I found this piece that I wrote in 2002, but I think was never published. I want to give it to you now because one of the things I have on my list to write about is the the need to overcome the rampant materialism of our industrial culture. Here were my thoughts in 2002, which are still true today.
We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl. – Madonna
I am currently in the process of selling and moving out of a house that I have owned and lived in for twelve years. After living within thirty-five miles of San Francisco my entire life, I am picking up and moving all across the country to Florida.
Because it costs a dollar a pound to move my things, I am going through my house, weighing each item carefully for its importance.
This is not the first time I have reduced my belongings, nor the first time I have considered the mass accumulation of material things in our culture.
When I was twenty-four, my mother died. It was left to me to sort through all the things she left. In addition to her belongings in the house, we had a 30’x30’ two-car garage that housed no cars because it was completely filled with things that belonged to my mother.
Even at that young age, before I had any environmental awareness at all, I began to question what good had it done for my mother to spend hours and hours working, away from her family, just in order to buy all this stuff. And why keep it if it was never used?
As each of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles passed on too, I was either responsible for or involved in the disposal of their things, as well. Each had much more than was necessary to live.
I have been guilty of this too. I haven not just been a good consumer myself, I have also educated others to be good consumers -- to make choices that are better for health and the environment. My life and income have been immersed in the material world. And along the way, I myself amassed a lot of stuff.
In 1987, I was living alone in a two-bedroom house that was full of things I had accumulated not only from my own life, but from multiple inheritances. Things that “I might use one day” or which were “too nice to get rid of”. I had a spiritual awakening that, in part, made me realize I needed to “de-materialize”. I wanted more freedom to be able to have experiences, to go places and do things, rather than have to house and care for material items. I had a massive garage sale, at which I made $3,000, reduced my belongings to what fit into an 8’x10’ storage locker, and lived out of two suitcases for a while.
But we can’t just push something away that seems abhorrent and have it stay away. The Universe isn’t arranged that way. Getting rid of almost everything wasn’t the answer. What I found was, while our consumer culture is way too material, we do have an inherent human need for home, our bodies have a need for food, clothing, and shelter, and as beings of spirit we have a need to surround ourselves with beauty. All these are a necessary part of life which support our existence and our ability to function in the world. We each need a stable physical place from which we can go out into the world and to which we can return.
Once again, though, I fell into the trap of materiality. Wanting a home of my own, I bought a house, and even though it had much less stuff in it than before, the house itself became a burden. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, housing is relatively expensive, so for a person of average income to be able to find a house and qualify to buy it is quite an accomplishment. And once you become a homeowner, the well-meaning advice is always “You’d better hold on to that house, because it will be hard to buy another one.” Every time I would consider selling the house, financial advisors, family, and friends would all tell me the best decision would be to hold on to it. So the house always came first. When it was a struggle to pay the mortgage, I dropped everything to come up with that money. I didn’t own the house, the house owned me.
My whole life has been about living in the material world and being a material girl. But there is more to life than accumulating stuff.
Recently, I made a decision to have my life not be about the acquiring and maintenance of material things. I began to ask myself how I could provide for my physical needs in a way that didn’t occupy most of my life-hours. How could I spend less time earning money, how could I spend less time preparing food and cleaning my house? How could I have more time for increasing spiritual awareness and abilities, writing more books, enjoying my relationships, playing music, gardening, making the world a better place, exploring my creativity, and other non-material pursuits that are deeply satisfying?
This is not to say that I am giving up the material world entirely. Not at all. As beings of spirit we operate in the material world through the material world. Life is spirit and matter together, in balance -- not all material or all spiritual. The shift I am making is about changing from the demands of the material world being the guiding factor in my life to the expression of the spirit being the guiding factor in my life. From this perspective, material goods serve my expression, rather than me serving them.
While I’m packing all my things, I am remembering the advice of William Morris, “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I am asking myself, “How does having this serve me? Is it necessary to my self-expression or physical well-being or is it superfluous?”
The hardest part was making the decision to sell my house. But when I really looked at it, continuing to keep this house occupied more of my time and money than any single activity in my life. I finally came to a point where I said, "It’s only a house…is it more important that I have a house or have a life?” When I chose having a life, instantly new possibilities began to open for me, including, ironically enough, having a different, bigger, better house, one in which I could actually live.
Now I need to tell you what happened next.
I moved to Florida. We had a realtor and went looking for a small cottage comparable to the house we had in California, about 700-800 square feet. We found several that would be acceptable. Then at the end of the day, our realtor said, “I just need to stop by my house for a minute to see if the exterminators came.”
It turned out the exterminators had not come, she was renting and the owner was putting the house up for sale. Since the exterminators had now not shown up for the third time, I said, “Let’s look at this house.” We walked in to this house through the back door and when I walked into the 30 x 15 foot living room with 10 foot ceilings and crown molding, I burst into tears. This was the house I had always wanted but would never be able to buy in California. 1600 square feet. Surrounded by mature oak trees. Nice neighborhood. Wide streets. We bought it immediately. It wasn’t even listed yet.
Larry and I lived in this house for fifteen years. The mortgage wasn’t a burden because we had made a profit on our house in California so we had a large down payment and then paid off the small mortgage. But it was big and of course, we bought a lot of things.
I am embarrassed to say that when we left this house in 2017, I had already spent a year reducing my belonging and having garage sales. But even then, when after spending three days packing a 24-foot moving truck, we had to just leave things on the lawn and drive away because we couldn’t fit everything in the truck. When we arrived back in California, we had to rent a storage unit for a year while we decided what to do with everything that wouldn’t fit in our current quarters.
The past three years has been a continuous paring down of things we actually don’t really need, in order to fit our two lives into the 280 square feet of the tiny house we are building. And we are loving doing this.
It is a process to dematerialize. It takes time, and it takes letting go.
But on the other side, what is happening is that I am emerging as myself, rather than being an industrial consumer.
The programming we all receive living in this industrial culture is falling away, leaving me more free to make decisions and create a life of my own, based on my own values.
Now in 2020, I am no longer a material girl, and I no longer live in a material world. I am a self-determined individual spiritual being living in nature, and I love it.
After writing this post, I looked up “dematerialization” and found that apparently I am not the only one dematerializing. This word is used widely to refer to the transition of physical activities to digital.
I like this graph showing the falling volume of the US mail, giving way to the use of electronic communication methods such as email, text, and other means to transfer documents from one place to another.
Though there are environmental effects of digital technologies, and I myself have lost files that cannot be retried (and was very happy I had paper printouts), and I do not have confidence that the digital information will not be sabotaged or destroyed, it appears the world is dematerializing.
But stilll, this does not address the ever-increasing pressure put on us to buy ever more and more and more, or our need to possess ever more and more and more to fill the emptiness we experience in a world where spirituality is missing.
But I know this can change because I’ve changed this in myself. There is a world beyond consuming, beyond industrialization. It’s a world of having our real needs met to survive sustainably, supporting our bodies so we can lead creative, loving, caring lives.