The Shape of My Want
LOST AND FOUND - Rica Bolipata-Santos (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2018 - 12:00am

I have discovered this new freedom in wanting less and even more pleasure in finishing what one already has until the very last drop or swipe.

My strongest memories begin when we were poor, a few years after my father had declared bankruptcy. On Sundays, we would go do the groceries. My mother taught me all of life’s secrets as we passed through the aisles. As she paid, our father would shepherd us to the stores that lined the front of the grocery, selling what he liked to call kuchi-kuchi: earrings pretending to be diamonds, bracelets pretending to be real gold, ribbons pretending to be real silk. He’d buy us each a pair of earrings or a bracelet or a ribbon and in the car he’d ask our mother to guess how much we spent. We made elaborate pretend games from pretend valuables. Four pesos would become 4,000, 10 pesos, 10,000. My mother would pretend surprise and pretend scold my father for buying us expensive things. It was a well-oiled script.

This memory is a place of much mystery for me, unaware as I was then of what the words “rich” or “poor” or “valuable” meant. What was that game about? This was always a happy memory for me. But now, having undergone all kinds of economic adventures, I can glean a layer of sadness. I can feel, in a kind of reverberation, the sadness of my parents over not being able to buy us anything real or valuable.

You can see where this is going, right? The only way this is ending is when I come to some realization over what is truly real or valuable. Well, you’d think by now that I would know this… and yet, and yet… I am still often beguiled by the shine of false things. Perhaps one offshoot of the experience of having little is the wanting to always feel one has plenty?

I see this in the mad accumulation for things, in the obsession to always have something new. Sometimes, buying another pair of shoes, or earrings, or lipstick, I’d hear my father whisper an innocent query: how many pairs of ears do you have hija? But there are days when I couldn’t help myself. It was always possible to prove that I needed something, or worse, deserved something. Purchase begets purchase I suppose and my often-clear head became muddled with confused wants and desires.

And so in January, I made a vow. I wouldn’t buy anything for one whole year. Oh, what an adventure the past four months has been. I am calling this exercise: knowing the shape of my want.

On some days, what I have learned to want… is nothing. In a culture where spending is key to entertainment and pleasure, to come to a place where one wants neither entertainment nor pleasure is… an entertaining and pleasurable thing. My days are much freer than they used to be. Oh, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. It required redefining what a good day meant. In the olden days, I looked forward to purchasing something to feel better, to punctuate a difficulty or a success.

Over the months it got easier. Weekends are now spent finally enjoying all that I have already acquired, and in particular a massive amount of books. I have gone over this collection of mine, from years of being a student and teacher of literature, and I’ve decided to keep only what I love. Suddenly, I have discovered the joy of rereading, reevaluating what I thought I liked, re-walking myself through a childhood of books. More time for reading has brought with it other quiet pleasures like falling asleep unexpectedly from the languor of reading. Wanting nothing has lengthened my days, too, and the definition of accomplishment is no longer the purchase of something but the earning of peace and quiet.

On other days, all I want is to want even less. When I do have to purchase something, my mind automatically attempts to see if I need to buy it at all. I have discovered this new freedom in wanting less and even more pleasure in finishing what one already has until the very last drop or swipe. And there is even deeper pleasure in finding creative ways to answer needs. Oh, the thrill of borrowing, of recycling, of re-purposing! To need so little is a kind of tiny accomplishment. I plan to give up more, not in order to bring in new things, but to see the edge of my longing to see what I truly need. “Want” and “need” are words I want and need to understand more.

You see, the greatest mystery that lies at the heart of this character exercise is in pondering the differences between austerity and frugality and plain simplicity. To be austere and frugal is a kind of deliberate withdrawing from the world as punishment, or as an act of control, as though one had a fear of pleasure. There is a tight-fistedness in the value.

But to be simple is something else, rather a letting go, confident in the sufficiency of the gifts of the world; meekness in the face of material things, a strength in knowing the true value and non-value of things; a childlike appreciation of pleasure the way one used to wonder at the natural adornment of the world with its stars and flowers. This is ultimately what I want: to be just a little bit more aware of a life already full.

My father was right. I see this now. My fake jewelry was worth all its weight in fake gold because its pricelessness came not from the thing itself, but from what his desire sprung from: his simple desire to give me the world. The earrings are no longer in my hand but I no longer need them.

BANKRUPTCY WANTING LESS
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