The simple life
I spun fantasies with the threads of $250 sweaters on the covers of the J. Crew or Anthropologie catalogues in the recycling bin. I ran around our messy, sprawling Redmond house with its random pieces of furniture cobbled together from garage sales and Craigslist, and wished desperately for real décor. I wanted dining table placemats, the kinds of thin black bamboo ones they have at fancy restaurants for chic twenty-somethings. Placemats were my imagined pinnacle of upward social mobility. I never had them growing up, and so the first thing I did after hauling in a giant wooden dining table for my new apartment in Berkeley was run to a nearby store and purchase them. They were only 6 for $6, making me realize that all along this “pinnacle of upward social mobility” had been decidedly, affordably, in my reach.
Perhaps it was a dangerous thing to realize just how much was within my reach. Last Winter Break I found myself bored at 1 AM, too tired to write but unable to sleep. So I started looking at clothes online. It started with high fashion--runway pictures from the Carolina Herrera Fall 2014 bridal collection. Custom-made dresses that cost more than some luxury cars were too unreachable to be tempting. That was when I made the mistake of visiting Hollister’s website.
It was a mistake on many levels. It is a fact universally acknowledged that shopping at Hollister makes you look like an overgrown tween. In my defense, their clothes are more attractive when they’re not saturated in the excessive odors of mall perfume. They were doubly attractive underneath the words “30% OFF.” I spent the next hour or so browsing dresses and pants and shirts I didn’t need--all because it was so damn cheap. I wouldn't have blinked an eye for Forever 21 or H&M or some other store I was used to being inexpensive. Hollister was different. I wreathed those clothes with the holiness of remembered longing. As a kid, I inherited barely-worn Hollister clothes from an older friend, but never bought them myself. All the other kids were wearing Hollister, but my conscience couldn’t stand spending $30 on a ruffled skirt. The site's winter discounts made me feel like I could make up for all that lost time, and rise up the proverbial ladder through a cheat. I went to bed that night about $100 poorer, and when the clothes arrived I realized just how little I had needed them.
In the repentant wake of my online shopping excesses, I rashly made an oath in Seattle while pacing around Macy’s with my friend Kevin: from then (mid-June) until the New Year, I wouldn’t buy a single new item of clothing (essentials like undergarments and socks, in case of need, excepted). Kevin snorted and expressed his doubtfulness. “Yeah right,” he said.
“I will though,” I replied petulantly.
There have been countless moments these last few months when I’ve been sorely tempted. When I interned at TED-Ed this summer, I walked down one of New York City’s prime shopping streets in Soho every day on my way to work. The vacant faces of beautifully-dressed mannequins, swimming in ruffles and black-and-white lace, stared me down as if to say, “Don’t you want this?” Then there were the Black Friday clearance sales online, and the final straw: my go-to pair of jeans developing an unfortunately placed tear developing, meaning that I’ll be going to most of my classes in either a dress or sweatpants. But then I remember that I have so many clothes that they spill out from their drawers and fill boxes pushed to the back of my closet. So many clothes that my mom has taken some of the free T-shirts I’ve gotten at events and pulled them over the backs of chairs, relegating them to apparel for furniture instead of flesh. Sometimes I still look at clothes online and scroll through the runway photos from my favorite designers. But I don’t hit “Checkout.” And when the New Year comes, I won’t go on an online shopping binge. Maybe I’ll go to the mall, and maybe I’ll buy one—and only one—pair of jeans.
The clarity I’ve gotten from this brief exercise of not buying clothes has made me realize that what I miss most isn’t anything material, but rather something social. I feel nostalgic for the time I went to Value Village in Redmond with my best friend, and tried on a leopard-print dress that barely hit mid-thigh. I had to put one hand behind my back to clutch the back with its 6 hook-and-clasp closures shut while posing with a jokingly seductive expression, leaning up against the fitting-room door. I remember picking out items for my mom off the clearance rack and poking fun together at anything that looked too “country,” “oldie,” “hippie,” “flashy,” “scary,” or my favorite, “Communist.” (You’d be surprised: there are a lot of Chairman Mao-esque jackets out there in Macy’s Petites.)
All along, my desire for things was more social than material. On some level, without even thinking about it, I wanted what my friends’ houses had, buying into the fallacy that everyone had better décor, bigger houses, nicer clothes. I wanted to fit in, so I based my aspirations on other people’s realities. Sometimes on family outings, on the way back from a hike or the nights before Christmas when homes were illuminated with twinkling lights, we’d drive slowly past the really nice houses in a neighborhood, pointing out what features we liked and didn’t like. I didn't have my own phone then so I took mental pictures, filing away these snapshots as starting points for the floorplans of my idealized future home.
Fast forward a few years, to this Thanksgiving Break. I went to visit my parents in their new home in Sonoma County, where my dad started teaching in August, and found myself taken aback by how well-appointed the whole place was. There were big square windows with white borders looking out onto picturesque views of the garden and trees, like built-in Instagram shots in the living room wall. The couches had matching pillows and sheepskin throws. There was a tapestry of an elephant, a gift from a family friend, hanging over an abstract painting behind a vase. It felt like walking into the gift shop at the Met. I admired how gorgeous it all was, felt enriched by its beauty and glad that my parents had pulled it off, but this alone didn’t make me happy. Some part of me missed the chaotic messiness of my own room in my apartment. The décor, if there is any to speak of, is some accidental hybrid of Cal pride and nationalism—there’s a mini American flag stuck in a plastic cup that says “GO BEARS” with some pens and bookmarks on my bedside table. I missed not the things, but the feeling of being at home. It felt strange, after having lived in a cramped dorm room with two other girls and my medium-sized apartment, to once again have so much space between other people and me—so much empty space that sometimes my parents and I traversed it with Facebook messages or yells.
It made me feel suddenly lucky to be young and in college, where everyone—the well-heeled scions of business titans and Pell Grant awardees alike—is perennially “broke.” I am lucky that none of my friends occupy McMansions, even if their parents do. I wonder why it all has to change someday—why, if you make a certain amount you’re expected to suddenly upgrade to a certain kind of lifestyle even if the one you’ve had up to that point makes you content. Maybe after graduation, when some peers begin to take high-paying jobs and start families necessitating the kind of space you get from nice houses in the suburbs, the nagging social worry of “Am I keeping up?” will worm its way back into my mind. But if that happens, I’ll just remind myself that once upon a time I wanted placemats, too. They’re admittedly quite nice, my $1 placemats; but they’re also quickly and quietly rolled up, shelved, and forgotten in the dust.