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My Year of Buying Nothing

That time everyone was staring

By Lee Simpson

When I first discovered someone pawing through my grocery cart, I was taken aback.  “Just checking to see you bought what you are supposed to,” the person stated, unblushingly.

Well, what could I expect? An illustrated feature about my Year of Buying Nothing (YBN) ran on the front page of The Halifax Chronicle Herald that weekend. There I was wearing the same distinctive blue parka, my one and only winter coat. The article created a bit of a stir, locally. Letters to the Editor were evenly divided, both supportive and suspicious. I get that: as clergy, as a member of an educated middle-class, I may come across as having a motive for sacrificing the very purchasing power readers have fought desperately to acquire and preserve. Clearly, the person’s unhealthy interest in my groceries (was there contraband plastic wrap under the cabbage?) was a manifestation of this skepticism. Still, I felt a tad exposed.

To be fair, strangers have also come up to me (that darn coat!) to declare their role as cheerleaders. But those experiences lay in contrast to yet another supermarket encounter. While price-checking bread flour recently, I turned back to find a young woman with her hands in my cart. “Just curious about what you are buying these days,” she said as cool as the organic cucumber she was handling.

Of course, I should have known that my acts are public domain. My original idea of a end-of-year essay quickly morphed into this blog with attendant successful media campaign. Radio interviews in Kelowna, B.C. and St. John’s, spots on national TV and innumerable print and Internet pick-ups. The buzz was mostly in the order of “You go, Girl.” I even remained sanguine in the face of an on-air attack from a talk show host: “You’re just trying to guilt people into doing what your god wants!” My god? My God!

Full disclosure: this is not the first time I have experienced celebrity. As publisher of Chatelaine, I did the rounds of The Shirley Show, Vicky Gabareau and The National for the magazine industry. Within congregational ministry, I frequented local TV and represented our church — the kind of awareness-building I am pretty passionate about. But in those roles, I was a spokesperson for something else. However closely I identified with that cause, it was never personal. Conversely, the promotion of my YBN is unsettling precisely because it is about me and what I am doing.

Occasionally, I hear the lyrics from that R.E.M. tune in my head: “That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.”  This is not only about faith: it’s about the future, about my pledge to do my best honouring a greener, less stuff-obsessed world. “That’s me in the spotlight, consolidating my religion and my life (yeah, I know, musicality is not one of my gifts).”

Also, I am going on record, promising that my first purchase of 2015 will be a discreet black coat. Second-hand of course!

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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