Sunday in the Park
It’s a question I keep meaning to pose to the ethicist in The New York Times and I think I would be asking on behalf of, really, millions of people. About this time of year, when the onslaught of holiday mailings take place and you receive, by no invitation on your part, holiday cards and address labels from charities you do not plan to support, is it ethical to use those cards anyway, or should you just toss the whole package in the trash? Part of me thinks it’s a crime to throw away the cards designed by Indian children, cancer survivors or a fancy charity’s art department when so much effort and expense was taken to produce them. Isn’t it a form of charity, really, to share that artwork? But then, I am taking something I didn’t pay for and was asked to pay for, in a kind of good-faith agreement.
My mother’s Scotch side is screaming in my ear during these debates. Hell, you didn’t ask to be mailed those things. They’re yours now. Waste not, want not. (Maybe there is Amish in my background, too.) And though I’ve never asked her, I wonder if my mother would only use address labels from charities she might emotionally support but chooses financially not to. Say the cancer association or the Red Cross. Not, say, some environmental group or ethnic group whose politics she opposes. Or does the value of the free gift override the politics of the labels? Or is there a perverse joy in using something from an organization she opposes and does not plan to ever support? As she ages, these are moral questions I should probably ask and understand her answers to.
This is not a new problem. I remember when this form of fundraising started and my own children were still at home. If I had the poor judgment to open these solicitations while the children were around (and no, I never did learn to wait ’til they were in bed) the kids wanted to play with the "stickers" right away. I told myself then, as a struggling single parent, who wasn’t going to actually use the labels for their intended purpose, it was OK for the kids to play with them. The cards were harder to justify when the kids wanted to give them to their friends and relatives. They would add their own drawings and colors and words and therefore render the cards useless for their original functions.
Just this week, two charities sent me a request for funds. One sent along holiday cards and the other not-overly-cutesy labels. Neither was from a charity I feel any affinity to. And the minimum suggested for both would have made the price per piece, well, rather pricey. So, what if I just send a check for what I feel the value of the cards are and not the amount the organization suggested? Or should I just toss the bunch in the trash and go buy new cards and different labels of my own design or at least my own choosing. For someone who was raised, neither Jewish nor Catholic, I seem to have acquired a disproportionate amount of guilt
By contrast, I have always loved the catalogs that come in the mail this time of year, though I admit, nowadays, the volume of the catalogs is a bit hard to keep up with. These don’t give you anything to make you feel guilty except the possibility to melt down your credit card in record time. My kids and I would drool over these and dog-ear pages for weeks on end. My daughter knew she was not getting the camel hair coat from Neiman Marcus and ditto the very cool item from Sharper Image my son always wanted. But we would carve out nights in front of the fire spending pretend money on gifts we wanted for ourselves or each other. One Christmas, we cut things out from catalogs and created collages of gifts we would give each other if money was no object. It was actually great fun to see how close we all came to each other’s stated and somewhat hidden desires. (Magazine ads were fair game, too. And yes, there were real presents — this was not entirely the Cratchet family.)
The other night I came from work at a reasonable time and looked at the stack of new catalogs waiting to be cracked open. I drew myself a bath with an excessive amount of cheap bubbles and stepped in to spend all the money I wanted. I dog-eared pages of artwork from museums, fancy outerwear and snow boots in every color. I moved on to the cozy pajamas and Western jewelry. Household items to improve my life followed and finally, for me, the real icing on the spend-a-thon came with the book catalogs from sellers far and wide who for years have kept me on their lists. Historical fiction, modern chic lit, travel tomes, gardening secrets, mysteries and stories from other cultures. And then, in the last few pages, beautiful, elegant, seasonal cards. The very kind that would speak for me in ways I was in alignment with and with beautiful illustrations representing the joy and magic of the season. Of course I didn’t want to think this all the way through and realize this would mean spending hours writing thoughtful notes to people I care about on various levels. But the stately cards did help me make a decision about the piles of cheap, mass-mailed greetings not of my making in the kitchen.
I will keep them for the grandchildren and neighbor children to draw on just as I would other mail that can be recycled into youthful art supplies. They can add the labels if they wish. I will not use these cards. I did not pay for their intended uses and therefore I will assuage most of my guilt in keeping them. I will send checks to charities I support, sometimes without ever being asked. And should I decide to send out holiday cards, I will be certain they will be something of my direct choosing. This all may seem rather silly to you, but in this season between seasons, it is about as deep as I want to be this given Sunday in the Park
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