Letter #10: Advice about shopping

Dear Aglet,

I’ve noticed two attitudes toward shopping: in one view, it’s a fun, recreational activity; in the other, shopping is a cringe-inducing, groan-worthy chore to be gotten out of the way with as soon as possible.

I’m somewhere between the two extremes; I act like I have the second attitude because I suspect I inwardly have the first one and I don’t want to admit it. Any shopping spree tendencies I have, I actively suppress. Repress. Squash.

(This is mostly because I hobnob with Job’s proverbial turkey, as will you unless your parents do something extraordinary. I’ve got no plans to be a business tycoon or a world dictator, so you, Aglet, will probably start out your life without much excess.)

Both kinds of people, curiously enough, are prey to the same trap of impulse buying. The first sort does it out of a desire to have the thing–whatever it may be–and there is pleasure in obtaining it, so there, they’ve bought it. Dangerous habit, maybe, unless you’ve got plenty of funds to spend without thinking through what you buy.

But the other sort of person might do the exact same thing, just for a different reason! I’ve seen it and done it myself, Aglet. You finally succeed in dragging yourself to the store for some long-contested necessity, and then one of two things happens: either you spend as much time as you can, comparing price and quality and agonizing over the perfect, thriftiest choice; or you scan around for the nearest, cheapest thing that will fit the bill.
Depends on the day.

And then you just…buy it. You probably don’t go home to think about it first, because that would mean coming back up later and shopping again. And when you finally take the thing to the counter and it rings up and IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ON SALE LIKE THE PRICE TAG SAID IT WAS, you probably don’t contest it, because like whatever, just get me out of this place.

And that’s where you have GOT to strike a balance between the two extremes, Aglet (talking more to myself here). You MUST choose between saving your money and saving your pride. The silly part of your brain is going to tell you, “Now, Jo, just man up, tough it out, and pay the extra money.” But Don’t You Listen, Son.

The person who rationally thinks through “I have this much money set aside for this, and I can’t afford to just buy something on impulse” will probably make herself motion to the cashier and ask to put the thing–whatever it is–back. And it will not feel good, or cool, or adult-y.

It’ll probably feel cheap, and miserly, and OH-My-Goodness-It’s-Just-A-THING-Why-Can’t-I-EVER-Make-A-Decision? But you can handle it, Aglet, and the next morning will be a new morning, and you can try again to find whatever-the-thing-was-that-you-needed.

And (cross your fingers), maybe you won’t have buyer’s remorse.

So here are two practical pieces of advice about finances–and they’re pretty much the only assets I have to give you, so far, so listen up:

  1. Decide whether you care more about (a) taking care of the resources you’ve been given or (b) avoiding feeling “weird” because you realized you can’t actually afford that thing just now.
  2. Ask God for enough, and no more. There’s a great proverb (30:7-9) that goes like this:

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches–
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

What I’m not saying is that having a lot of money is inherently bad or evil, or that you must take a vow of poverty to please God. What I am saying is that “poor” and “rich” don’t always mean what we think they mean, and a very little may be enough if, through it, you are reminded that it is God who provides what you need.

You may be given lots of money to take care of, Aglet, in which case you’ll need godly wisdom and a generous heart.

Practically speaking, a smaller budget (if you stick to it) might give you a built-in defense against your equally built-in bent toward materialism.

Love from your future (hypothetical) grandma,

Jo

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Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

I’m heading west with my parents and a sister–it’s my turn to drive and I find myself completely Hyped. Up. on caffeine, mentally penning a letter to you, my dear, future, hypothetical grandchild.

You might be tempted to think it’s because I’m bored by the treeless terrain of the Texas panhandle. Most people where I live say there’s nothing here.

But I find the nothing beautiful.

I love being able to see to the horizon, feeling how the land goes on for so long. And as the sky expands, growing bigger and bluer and wider, I feel my soul expand in a way I can’t explain, quite. I start feeling more hopeful, maybe, more at ease, than when my view of the heavens is restricted by the tall pine trees.

Not that I don’t like trees–I do like them (just ask my college president)–and I’m glad to be where I am, generally, but every now and then, it’s nice to go west and stretch a little.

I’ve inherited it from my dad, I think: the restlessness that occasionally comes and can’t be shaken off or distracted. Herman Melville prescribed for this rising of the spleen a good long sea voyage, but for my family, the cure is going west until the wonderfully desolate land meets the sky. Perhaps the two cures are not very different–both satisfy the urge to see far on all sides. Both calm, at least for a time, the crawling feeling of confinement.

I used to dream of living out here, of having a ranch near Saint Jo, Texas, where I’d live, hermit-like, in a small yellow house with a little dog named Joe Gargery and a big sheepdog named Chesterton (“Chester,” for short). The dream is still appealing, especially when I feel the impatience of loving imperfect people or the ensuing, awful realization of my own glaring flaws. Then the independent spirit comes upon me and I want to be off where uncertainty is gone and I can see with clarity.

I crave certainty, Aglet.

But when I am told what to do, or how to do it, I resent it like the wretch I am, and I prefer the former ambiguity. At least control my own indecision.

Paul, in his letters, said he’d learned the secret of being content in any situation. I think I’ve learned the opposite–I manage to be restless and discontent any time, any place. But I wouldn’t call it a secret or a gift.

Slowly, very slowly, maybe I’m learning that I’ve had many plans and many dreams, but that happiness doesn’t depend on them turning out perfectly, or even coming true at all. That’s not to say I should suppress all my desires and ambitions, more that I should be wary of where I hang my hope, and my heart, and my happiness.

I find myself in my early twenties and I’m thinking about what I want my life to be like, about what would possibly fulfill me, and I sense that the stakes of living a worthwhile life are at once terribly high and wonderfully low.

If I think that this is all there is, I ought to scramble to get all I want and make all the happiness I can, even if it only lasts for a little bit.

If I think there’s something else, though–something beyond this world and this life–it at once raises the stakes and lowers them. I would have more of an urgency to do what’s worth doing, regardless of how exciting it feels at the time, knowing that my source of satisfaction is in Christ. It would mean I could choose what I do and be motivated by more than simply what makes the most money, and yet my job wouldn’t be what fulfilled me.

And it would mean that your future, hypothetical grandfather (my “Mr. Mister”) needn’t be a flawless sort of Mr. Darcy in order for us to love one another or find joy together. It would mean, even, that I might never meet Mr. Mister and my life would still have meaning and fulfillment. I might go on great adventures and weather awful sorrows.

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

Sometimes tears come in the loveliest of situations, reminding me that this isn’t all there is; that I haven’t experienced perfect joy yet; that there is a longing that won’t be quite answered by anyone or anything, wherever I live. Even the open horizon becomes monotonous, and I grow bored with the same mountains that astonish me. My capacity for gratitude is smaller than I want it to be, and my appetite for wonder is really pretty dull.

It’s curious that such a yearning could be a comfort, or that a desolate place could be beautiful. Strange, that horizons bring hope, or that feeling so small could bring joy.

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo