Many of us have heard these two words so often that they now seem clichéd. Here in the US, we often receive injunctions to appreciate the small things in life. The magazine Real Simple (which, incidentally, is several hundred pages long) encourages us to clear the clutter in our closets and living rooms. At yoga studios, paring down to the basics—the breath, the body, and Enya—is an essential element of many teachers’ philosophy and style. And very often, advertisements entice us to buy products by sending the message that, if we purchase that latte or eyeshadow or blazer, we’ll somehow have access to more of life’s simple beauties. And there’s no time when, in popular culture, shopping is more linked to beautiful simplicity than during the holiday season. Allow me to explain.
Go to the mall nearest you. Buy nothing. Just windowshop. Take in the displays, the floorplans, the music. Explore the way it all makes you feel. If you’re like me, you might creep into the following stores: Teavana, Anthropologie, Zara, Williams Sonoma (Trust me.), Pottery Barn. You’ll regard the overpriced merchandise the way you would museum artifacts— fun to look at, but not to own.
In all of these places, you’ll find coziness and comfort. You’ll be the recipient of messages that beauty, family, friendship, laughter are indeed possible. If only you bought that $200 parka, that $50 bottle of mint lotion, that $70 cheese grater, that book A Hipster’s Christmas (price on request).
A professor in Washington, DC once told me, with laughter in her eyes but gravity in her voice, that the only place in the United States where people can gather publicly without a permit is the mall. This half-joke, half-truth brought another observation to mind: that the mall is the place where we can most easily find affirmations of the simple things that we want out of life. Shops that sport yogawear also feature images of skinny women meditating (?) in sun-soaked studios. The models featured in makeup stores pose against dazzling, glittering backdrops. And during the holidays, marketing geniuses bring the environment into the mix with full force…
A well-dressed twenty-something drinks coffee and smiles out the window at a bright red cardinal—who is holding a sprig of holly in his beak for good measure. Kids snuggle up to their mothers and fathers on a sofa that, somehow, has made its way to the center of a snowy landscape. Jewelry hangs on bare branches, creating a sort of aesthetic symbiosis that makes both look more beautiful. These images of people coexisting with nature fuels one of my (sort of) guilty pleasures: admiring what advertisements have done to transform the way we imagine global capitalism. When faced with such attractive images—such depictions of simple pleasures—we forget how extraordinarily complicated, and shrouded in secrecy, global capitalism actually is.
I don’t know about you, but I have no idea where most of the goods I buy come from. I don’t know their stories. I don’t know the ecological and social sacrifices that were made to bring all these products to a mall near me. And thanks to advertising, it’s all too easy to forget to ask these questions.
What is enough? I’m humbled by this question, from the very first. I don’t feel equipped to answer it. But I feel confident in this: that without simple pleasures, it is very difficult to enjoy this life. And simple pleasures are, by definition, available to all people, regardless of how much you earn or where you live.
Or at least, they should be available to all people. We should all be able to enjoy the friendliness of a flower if we wish. To sit for hours over a cup of tea without being rushed. To appreciate the beauty of a smile. To walk alone and contemplate the trees in our neighborhood at night, without fearing for our safety.
But here’s the problem: we do not live in a society that honors simple pleasures. We are all encouraged to be too busy, and congratulated when stress forces us to forget the things in life that matter most. In our minds, we’ve transformed the environment from a source of sustenance and inspiration to a product—something to be coveted, priced, owned.
Environmentalists of diverse persuasions generally agree on this simple message: that consumerism is rapidly destroying our environment, and the environments of our brothers and sisters all over the world. And though we are not encouraged to think about it, the truth is that we need a healthy planet. Without it, would not be able to drink. Or eat. Or rest. Or hope. Or laugh. Or breathe. I challenge the makers of the $200 parka, the $50 bottle of mint lotion, the $70 cheese grater, or the book A Hipster’s Christmas (price on request) to meet such absolutely essential needs.
Advertisements often tell us that consumer products will satisfy our most simple and beautiful wishes. And they do so with spectacular success. But this holiday season, we hope to challenge ourselves, and others, to seek beauty and simplicity in the Earth, and in each other, instead of in the mall. I promise that the world around us can be just as lovely as the world represented in store windows and the ad pages of our favorite magazines. And it is up to us to see it.
Let us ask the question ‘What is enough?’ and answer it in our own way. In a nutshell, my answer (or at least, part one of my answer) is this: when it comes to shopping and the holidays, creativity is enough. Making our own presents. Learning to see the wonder in our world. Discovering the joys of laughter, music, and art. Realizing that the act of consuming has nothing whatsoever to do with simple pleasures. And understanding that finding simple pleasures for ourselves is, at the end of the day, more fun than you might have ever imagined. For real.