My mother, in the great tradition of all mothers, says things sometimes that: 1) crack me up; 2) speak some depth of human truth; and 3) plainly and pithily state facts that could never be otherwise articulated, even if the task were undertaken by the whole complement of talents of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoevsky, and J.K. Rowling combined. I occasionally feel that I have failed as a mother myself because I do not have a mom-ist voice. If I have one, it surely isn’t pithy. I often find myself spending four hours in a graduate seminar, lecturing on some aspect of Christology and ministry or the like, only to summarize the whole thing with a “momism” that better said what I was getting at all along.
Today, in conversation, I came back around to one of my mom’s oldest and best bespeakings of truth-to-power. Some years back, we were talking about a sale at Macy’s, observing that the base prices on things seemed to go up and down in relationship to sale percentages, such that one always pays about the same, whether the item is “on sale” or just “for sale.” Even the language of “on sale” seemed ridiculous, we mused, since everything in the store was being sold. If the sale is “on,” I guessed that means it is “on,” like a string of pulsing Christmas lights or a kettle of boiling water or a revving engine, as opposed to a static, dusty package of picture hangers forgotten in the bottom rack of a narrow row in the bowels of a hardware store (unless, of course, the picture hangers were, well, on sale).
In the miasma of this discourse, my mom answered the ponderous wonders of retail deal-grabbing with a sterling-spoken clarity: “You must shop the store. Don’t let the store shop you.” Her Yoda-infused-Dillon-fortune-cookie-treasure had me in stitches, mostly because the conversation was ludicrous, yet she spoke as though it were deadly serious. However, in the wake of the years that have passed, I have found myself often returning to that little bit of wisdom.
You see, I think it has become something of an allegory for my spiritual journey through this life. It is and has been far too easy to let life shop me, so to speak. I have responded to event days, the big ticket items with their energetic flashing lights, red tags, and loudspeaker summons to check out the brooms in aisle 7. (You should see how many brooms I have, still nothing feels sufficiently swept.) I haven’t really even been aware that I was doing it, this, this thing we do. In fact, quite to the contrary, I have been thinking, as in actively, critically thinking all the while. Yet even as I considered the whole of it, I find I have been still following the script, still buying, still eating, still consuming, still participating, still wasting the products and patterns of modern life (including those noble ones like traveling and educating myself and going to church), in all their permutations, that are for sale and on sale.
When my father died, the doctors wanted to feed him through a tube, even as they were draining his waste through tubes. His body was being consumed by itself, even as he was himself consumed in his home by the things he had consumed. He had become ill by things he had eaten and imbibed. He was drowning amidst the boxes of foods he had delivered to his home for him to eat that he couldn’t throw away fast enough, and worse, by things he had purchased to help him reach, and push, and grab for, out-of-reach things he had purchased. The confusion of stuff overtook him. The snake was consuming itself; the store was shopping his life. I don’t know if he could have done otherwise, or if any of us can ultimately do otherwise. But this which I witnessed, it was a powerful lesson in merely stopping.
Or, in the words of my mom, to shop the store rather than let it shop me. To not go down that road of being consumed by life, but actually to live it, as long as I am able.
Somehow in what I experienced in that loss, I see that my work should not work me, but I it. My home should not enslave me but serve me. My food should not kill me but nourish me. My stuff should not own me, but facilitate me. The freedom of being an agent, I begin to understand, the freedom of creation, is in purposeful, quiet, space-caring breaths and little more. It is, most-assuredly, not in role-ascension; ladder-climbing; or stuff-acquiring.
Now, dear reader, I have to say a little word here, because to read the essay here scribed one might imagine me flaunting around in Prada and Givenchy that I bought discounted or rented on the used-high-end circuits. Nothing could be farther from accurate, as I sit here in my four-year-old tank top, torn pantyhose and running shoes with a hole in the toe. I’m just saying that on a really deep level (a level that sits beneath even my conscious awareness of my own cogito-ergo-sum self), I am just beginning to realize I’ve been playing along with the patterns and sales and scripts and rewards that came in with the drinking water and the free weekly mail. It is very easy to be distracted by what seems like stuff to do or eat or have or achieve. And, I just want to stop all that so that I can simply be and be simply in uncluttered gratitude.
The course is not terribly difficult. The sales do and will go on. I don’t even have to protest them. I just have to chose mindfully where, when, what, and why to buy, to buy in, to bite, and to walk away.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.