How to Stop Wanting Stuff...
Local author and poet, Anna Elkins, offers me some good investment advice for these volatile times...
(by Christina Ammon)
Last fall, I was seized by a sudden desire for a camper van. The model I wanted was called the “Tofino” and was the modern version of the classic Westfalia van—simple and cool, with two front swivel seats if I wanted to host dinner guests. Most importantly, it had a pop-top bunk on the roof.
My desire was rabid.
It was a terrible time to want such a thing –there were supply chain issues and high demand. Prices were rising. But my imagination was lit, and in my mind I took that camper on cross country trips, cruised back and forth to Brookings, sidled up to hot springs in the Nevada desert. I dreamt of warm nights camping with the sound of summer crickets breezing into the pop top’s upper bunk. If I had that van, I was certain, I’d be free and unencumbered; my home would be the whole-wide-world without limitation. And in this unstable era of floods, fires, smoke and pandemics, I’d be nimble. I would drive it to wherever the weather was good.
I’d also be totally broke.
Thankfully, close friends intervened before I made this massive financial mistake. Instead, I settled for camping out of my little VW Golf with a tent. As good-enough as this set up was, I was surprised how long it took me to get over my camper van dreams. I was embarrassed to feel something akin heartbreak—for an object!
I recently talked to my dear friend and local author (and this year's Oregon Book Award winner for poetry!), Anna Elkins, about the nature of wanting stuff. She wrote a book a couple of years ago called “Living Large on Little: How to see the Invitation in Limitation”. In its pages, she explores how to live the good life without indulging in all of our desires. I was intrigued when she pointed out that the older English meaning of the word ‘want’ is ‘lack’. “In short,” she explained, “when we want something, we are actually living from a place of lack.”
She wrote the book when she was trying make the best of a tight budget. We traveled together a lot in those days and were always trying to come up with ways to explore the world affordably—by hosting writing workshops and mastering the art of air miles.
Things have changed a lot since then. She is now married and living in a two-income situation; she feels a lot less pressure. I interviewed her the other day to see what in her philosophy has changed, and what’s stayed the same.
CHRISTINA: It was fun re-reading the book recently and realizing how much your life has changed since we were traveling on a shoe-string together.
ANNA: I know! I had a weird sense of urgency when I wrote the book—like I had a hunch it would expire. But I recently re-read it and remembered how much I love all those hard-won lessons. Even if I don’t worry as much about finances, I like the way of seeing limitations as opportunities.
There are still some parallels in my life now. I might not have the financial limitations, but I have a different set of limitations from the marriage that improved my situation. Marriage means you have to make decisions together—a sort of limitation. But the book helped me see this constraint as an invitation. I now think: “What a beautiful thing to have someone to check in with”.
CHRISTINA: I was recently plagued by desire for a camper van. Do you struggle with this kind of persistent longing?
ANNA: For a time, I actually think I was addicted to the longing. There were times I wanted a really good pair of boots, or a nice backpack. But I’m now trying not want things and to be aware that the culture is always trying to sell us things. I’ve learned that the longing will be there no matter what: even if I get the thing I want, I’ll want something else. So, I learned to live with the tension of longing.
Now when it comes up, I try to focus on feeling the wealth of what I already have.
CHRISTINA: In the book, you provide quite a few clever "hacks" for living luxuriously without spending money. I like your use of oatmeal-honey masks instead of high-end face creams. Do you still use those strategies? Have any of your habits changed with your new financial stability?
ANNA: I still rub papaya skins and avocado rinds on my face--or gather the "milk" off the top of cooking rice and use that as a treatment. I put a honey-oatmeal masque on my face today!
I’d like to keep this way of thinking, even when I don’t need to. I’ll still keep shopping at Grocery Outlet and Goodwill. There is this joy of finding a treasure! But, honestly, these days, I enjoy going to the Goodwill drop-off more than the retail store. There is a joy in not having a cluttered house.
I also like to put some restrictions on myself. The world gives us so many restrictions. I feel more empowered when I make them myself.
CHRISTINA: How did this apply to the pandemic experience?
ANNA: The pandemic was a reminder that when we do have limitations, they can be a gift. People started cooking at home again, making bread, enjoying family time. That was possible because of the restrictions we were all facing. I say this realizing that the last season was more difficult for some than others, but I try to focus on the good that comes from the bad.
CHRISTINA: Tell me about the phrase you learned from a friend: “Cream of third shelf”.
ANNA: My friend lived on the Little Applegate River and would need to make dinner for her family. She didn’t always want to drive all the way to town to get groceries, and so would make do with what she had. You can make a delicious soup from just about anything.
CHRISTINA: Let’s talk about your writing life—in the book you talk about living in that spare one-room cabin in Redding for a year. Tell me about the idea that “every writer should live in a poor room for a year.”
ANNA: For me, it helps the creative process to be undistracted by all the trappings of things. In that one-room cabin there were no distractions, no place to put things, nothing to manage. There was no ‘inventory’ as a friend of mine calls it. If we have lots of inventory, we have to clean it, fix it, insure it, track it, etc.
CHRISTINA: How does limitation apply to the creative process itself? To writing and art?
ANNA: Writers often say there is nothing as frightening as the blank page. Now I see the blank page as an invitation. There is a certain size to it for one, and it is a certain medium—it’s not filmmaking, it’s not music. It’s going to be filled with words. So, I think there is a beautiful limitation to that 8.5x11 sheet.
CHRISTINA: Any investment advice?
ANNA: I came up with the idea of “compound gratitude” around the time I was trying to learn about the stock market and get my financial life in order. The stock market is one thing, but I have to say, I think compound gratitude is far more valuable than compound interest.
To buy the book Living Large on Little, click here.