On Having

Yesterday Simone and I went to Nordstrom Rack. Both girls need shoes for summer and I've had luck there in the past. I entered the store with a set jaw and a firm mindset: we were there for shoes. We were going straight back to the kids' shoe section, picking out one pair each for Simone and Beatrice, paying for them, and getting out. On the way to the shoes, we saw bathing suits, dresses, makeup, scarves, lingerie, chocolate covered gummy bears, candles, water bottles, Instax cameras, stuffed animals, Barbies, and children's clothes. Simone wanted all of it. She pointed at a bra and announced THOSE ARE FOR BOOBIES. I found zero shoes for Beatrice, and one extremely impractical, ill-fitting pair for Simone that made some kind of sense in the flurry of the moment, but that I'll be returning later this week, when I can steel myself enough to go back.

I have a fraught relationship with buying, because I have an even more complicated relationship with having. I have two pairs of underwear (among others, obviously), from the Victoria's Secret BODY Collection, that I've had since college. That's twenty-year-old underwear, folks. My underwear are millenials. I keep a pretty trim closet, and have given stuff away, inexplicably, that I really like, simply because I grew tired of having it. Most concrete items in my life weigh heavily on me--even the ones I love dearly--and eventually become a burden. 

The turbulence of the stuff-dilemma has intensified since having children. We kept our baby-stuff minimal--babies really and truly do not need much--and I was lucky to get a lot of hand-me-downs from my sister. Beatrice wears a uniform to school each day, and next year, Simone will do the same--this means that they can get away with having some play clothes and a few nice dresses and that's about it on the clothes front. It's difficult to "invest wisely" in the stuff of children, because they play hard and grow fast. A few times a year, we try to be ruthless in our paring down of the toys--especially before, say, birthdays and Christmas--but as many parents know, this is tricky, because kids become apoplectic over whatever toy suddenly isn't there. Sometimes we swap stuff out, putting a bunch in storage and then bringing them out so they're "new" again. But even when they're out of sight, they stay in my mind, bothering it, cluttering it.

I know that the key to not having a lot of stuff is to not buy it in the first place. Once it's bought, it needs to be placed. Once it's placed, the timer starts ticking: how long before this too is a piece of junk that I resent every time I see it? Kids love junk. Those party bags filled with cheap yo-yos and whistles and impossible-to-peel stickers? Those have sat on my kitchen counter for days, weeks even, before I throw them out and, when the kids ask, blame Brian.

Sometimes a vicious need to throw things out arises in me and I have to breathe through it or let Jesus/Brian take the wheel. At least once a month I want to get rid of every single thing in my house and go live in an ashram. I'm not kidding.

As for other people's clutter, or even other people's richly decorated spaces: I love them. I'm not being sarcastic. Somehow, being in the presence of other people's stuff is eminently calming to me. It's not mine, and I'll never have to deal with it, and therefore I can enjoy it for exactly what it is. Minimalism is less of a conscious aesthetic, for me, and more of a coping mechanism, a way to survive the savageries of my mind.

 Edie Beale in one of my favorite photos of all time. I am never not thinking about Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens is my resting state of mind.

Edie Beale in one of my favorite photos of all time. I am never not thinking about Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens is my resting state of mind.

It's rare that I'll buy ingredients to make a certain recipe. Usually I'll let what I have dictate what I'm making, and if I am following a recipe, I'll adapt it accordingly. My mom taught me this, by example. I rarely remember my mom ever using a cookbook, and her meals were pretty much always good. On the other hand: my mom has had closets, one in each of the homes I've known, the one I was raised in and the one they moved into here in Birmingham, filled with stuff she buys and intends to give as gifts. She'll buy potholders, dish towels, picture frames, etc., on sale, and then they're just there, along with gift boxes and wrapping paper, for whomever needs a gift. The closet's inventory never seems to dip. Every time she disappears upstairs, my stomach starts knotting: how do I politely turn down a kitty cat figurine? My dad, on the other hand, is as Spartan as they come--gift-giving occasions make him visibly uneasy. I am very much his daughter.

I know, for example, that I could spend money more prudently, by using my Amex to "get points" which would make it possible for me to get other things, via the points. I have done this and it has stressed me out. If I could pay for everything using cash I kept under my mattress (so to speak), I would. Credit cards scare me. And I'm not interested in making profits for vile corporations, any more than I have to. I do use credit cards for travel and other non-tangibles, and I'm pretty grumpy about it.

What's confusing are the moments when I walk into a store, a store like, say, Nordstrom Rack, and I go into a weird fugue state and suddenly feel holes in my life where stuff should be: my sports bras are threadbare, I should buy three; this looks like a good face mask; that dress is only $25; might as well look for new sandals; what are these sunglasses doing; am I a straw handbag person; should I try on this sarong. I have thrown myself into fitting rooms with armloads of stuff, only to sit in the middle of it, nearly hyperventilating, and walk straight out minutes later, having not tried on a thing. I have ordered things online and put the unopened boxes in my closet for days, sometimes weeks, because I can't deal with the material reality of the thing in my house, needing its own space.

I have also occasionally been an adult who buys things thoughtfully and deliberately, without any kind of accompanying nervous breakdown.

You reach a certain age and start thinking more about landfills. I think about landfills quite a bit. I read an article earlier this year about how, exactly, Goodwill stores process their clothing donations, and it's true, there are many opportunities for sale or salvage (i.e. textile recycling) before they wind up in the landfill. But make no mistake: a lot of clothes wind up in landfills. Last year I attended a brilliant lecture by Natalie Chanin about slow fashion, the true cost of mass-produced clothing, and the ethics of handmade/DIY. My friend Julie Maeseele makes beautiful garments from upcycled fabric, a few of which I've been lucky enough to purchase. I did so gladly, lightheartedly, even, because I knew I was buying art that I could and would wear for a long time. Why would I give my dollars to Old Navy when I could give them to a hardworking artist?

 Image via HuffPo

Image via HuffPo

Honestly, the amount of stuff in America seems more pornographic to me than, say, porn. You go into Michael's, a craft store, and there is an aisle for snacks, reminding you that you might need to eat while or immediately after picking out your glue gun. There are about twenty types of Cheerios--twenty variations on one kind of cereal. There are stores so filled with junk nobody needs that they don't even know what to call them so they call them Tuesday Morning, as though any old Tuesday morning is a good time to buy a giant fake wood sign that says KITCHEN in Italian. I know this is everyone's dilemma. I know we all see it and do our best to navigate through it. I know there aren't many of us who wake up in the morning and just buy shit until sundown. But for me, every time I make a transaction, I go through about ten steps in my head. Most of the time, by the time I come to zero, I've convinced myself that I don't really want or need the thing, and as I fold laundry or organize my desk, I'm grateful that it's not there. I am grateful for empty drawers, space in my suitcase, zero debt, lightness. But good grief: protecting the void requires constant vigilance and a lot of work.

 Schwarzschild black hole simulation, aka me in a store

Schwarzschild black hole simulation, aka me in a store

Another reason I'll always return to poetry: all the blank spaces. All the room to breathe, to unfurl.

 from Mary Ruefle's erasure poem, "A Little White Shadow"

from Mary Ruefle's erasure poem, "A Little White Shadow"