Betty Duffy

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Buying stuff for a life I don't live

My daughter left her seat in the car to run inside and grab something before we left, and when she came back, her brother was in her seat.

"YOU …..VULTURE!" she said to him after filing, in that brief millisecond, through her vocabulary for just the right insult. Vulture seemed the perfect word indeed, for someone who picks on someone else's leavings. A word for the day, perhaps, because we were on our way into town so that I could sell a bunch of garbage at a consignment shop.

Coming home from the lake, having lived sufficiently on a duffle full of clothes and nothing else for three weeks, I felt an urge to purge all the clutter I've stuffed into the eaves around my home. I began in the kids' rooms, filling two contractor-size garbage bags full of tiny pieces of stuff that I've harbored in their closets and bins even though they don't play with them, because once upon a time, they cost money. I got three garbage bags out of my closet, and a box of books. From the kitchen, a box of retired tupperware containers, giant wooden salad bowls and specialty cake pans.

It's time to admit, that just as my kids don't play with the wooden toys I'd prefer them to play with, I don't wear half my clothes; I'll never read half my books; and I don't bake specialty cakes. And yet, over the years I have accumulated an outrageous number of artifacts for a multi-faceted fantasy life that no one in this house actually lives.

Here is something that needs to come into the light: I'm a compulsive thrift store shopper. I buy things I don't need because they are a bargain and they help support whatever my fantasy du jour happens to be. If something can be got for nothing, I want it. If something grossly expensive can be got for a few dollars, I'll put out.

I once happened upon a pair of Tods loafers at a Goodwill; shoes that retail new for $400, I found for four dollars. I purchased them on the spot, and have kept them in my closet for nearly a decade, occasionally getting them out to pet and put on my foot to admire.

In these shoes, I'm the casually preppy New York socialite who can't be bothered to put on heels for lunch, rather than the Indiana mom, who wears mostly shorts and t-shirts, who doesn't lunch regularly, who has no need for luxury loafers, except occasionally to pretend to be someone who is so cool, she doesn't have to pretend. Clearly, this is a vice.

For a long time, I have pretended this is a harmless vice. For the same amount of money, I could buy myself a latte. But which is more fun? Sitting over coffee contemplating my existential loneliness? Or gambling time and money on sorting through racks of other people's discards for the overlooked pot of gold?

My friends think I'm a cheapskate. Pedge gets annoyed that I never buy anything when we shop in outlet stores, or malls. I tried on every article of clothing at a Cabi trunk show recently and didn't buy a stitch. This is irritating behavior on my part, and makes me an un-fun shopping companion. But it's also testament to the depths of my disorder. I'm too snobby to shop at outlet malls or Kohls. I have a taste for luxury goods, and the only way I can afford to satisfy my hankering is by scavenging for other people's castoffs. Also, as with most disordered behavior, I prefer to do it alone.

The downside of my addiction, and there's always a downside, is that I accumulate too much junk. Because I can afford them, I'll buy five pairs of jeans in search of the one perfect pair. I may only spend twenty bucks, and have five pairs of name-brand jeans, but who needs them? Who can store them? Who has the lifestyle to support five pairs of name-brand jeans? Not me. And to be real, I probably have three times that, because I have my normal jeans, my pregnant jeans, and my fat jeans wardrobe. Also a skinny jeans wardrobe, just in case.

So there, I have clothed myself, and all my potential selves, on a dime. Yay me.

The kids went to their grandparents' Sunday night so my husband and I could go see "Tree of Life." It was a great movie, a beautiful and thought-provoking movie, but one of the nagging thoughts it provoked in me, is that the mama in the movie was awfully well-dressed for having so little money. How did she do it? How did she live a life with kids in Texas, always wearing pretty dresses, and never breaking a sweat? Would she have held such an angelic presence in her son's childhood memories if she had spent her days in work-out clothes rather than ethereal skirts? Or if she'd gone out running instead of waiting at home for opportunities to administer loving caresses to whomever would receive them?

I have a wonderful imaginary life about being that kind of a mother.

For the date with my husband, I'd worn a skirt and heels. It was one of those occasions I hold in my mind when I'm shopping; the holy grail of occasions for which to get dressed; my husband and I are going out on the town; we're going to dinner and a show, and I can dress up. Mission accomplished.

The best part of our date was in the morning, however, when my husband and I got up at 6 am and went for a run together. The air was thick and muggy, even at that early hour, and visible moisture deposits floated over the soybean fields. We were both dripping within minutes, and breathing too heavily even to speak. But by the time we made it back to the house, we were both feeling the endorphins and the mutual relief of having worked for our rest. We sat on the front porch to cool down. We said our prayers. When the sweat dried, we drank coffee. Then he had to get going to work, and I to pick up our children.

And it occurs to me that the real life that our particular family prefers living is one that doesn't accommodate fine clothes, and needs actually, very few clothes at all. I am a less involved and loving mother when I'm done up like a movie star.

So away with the Tods loafers, and twenty other pairs of shoes I've collected over the years. Away with five purses. Away with three pairs of boots, with six pairs of earrings, with a scarf, two skirts, two aprons, and a number of tops. The consignment shop took about 2/3rds of my offerings, and priced the entire lot at somewhere near 200 dollars, of which, if it all sells, I stand to make half. It's not really a way to get rich, buying clothes and reselling them. But it's not a way to be free, compulsively shopping and stuffing things in any available space in the house.

I don't want to be a vulture anymore.


Sol said...

great post. I think I just read this and saw myself.

Thanks for the inspiration for a purge of some of my clothes. Tomorrow pm is ear marked now.

entropy said...

I just finished reading Little House on the Prairie to my littles and was struck by how Pa just decided that they were leaving tomorrow and they did. They took what they could and didn't cry about having to leave the plow they'd just bought or the garden they'd just planted.
Then they ran into that couple who'd lost their horses but wouldn't leave their wagon because they loved their stuff too much. Stupid.

It's just stuff.

Why do I have to be reminded so often?

wv: ashing

Kimberlie said...

Lately I have been feeling the dissatisfaction of too much stuff. Things that we have purchased but then never use. I have a computer armoire that I paid $700 plus then some more to have it put together, and I have actually used it for it's purpose about 5 times in 4 years. Mostly it just collects stuff. I find I don't like using for my computer desk.

I have a house filled with these types of things. I feel an "Amish" phase coming on.

'becca said...

Did you get rid of the strappy heals from VV on 10th? ;) I still remember them.
With our last move, I purged and purged and purged. We are down to using our wedding china daily because I gave away our everyday dishes. And my bundt pan too.If the china breaks, it breaks. There is always a thrift store where I can buy a few replacements.

BettyDuffy said...

Oh, Bec, I DID. I kept one pair of strappy heels, brown to go with everything, but the yellow ones are gone.

Anonymous said...

I think you and I are twins somehow separated at birth. I've thought that for awhile now but have not said anything because, well, it just sounds weird and creepy. But the whole thrift store, imaginary, potential self, who is a new york preppy socialite that goes to "lunch" without actually spilling it on herself, junk collector who owns many different sizes of jeans because well, it has seemed like an ever changing process even though in reality I stay right between a size 12 and 14 depending on the fit and actually only ever wear my raggedly old banana republic jeans (bought off eBay at a bargain though!) all of that was just all to familiar. Of course I can't write as well as you, wish I could!
I just read somewhere and it escapes me where, too many blogs, but about a contrast between an African family's possessions and a typical American family. In the first case it was something like a pot and a bed roll, and in the second it was literally, literally! A football fields worth of's humiliating. Long story short, I'm a thrift store junkie too. You are inspiring me to rethink it again though.
For awhile I gave it up, but then I found this cool little one
Right near me. The upside is the money goes straight to food to the poor.the downside is I'm just wasting money on crap I don't need. Must rethink! Mel

Karly said...

I, too, loved the mother's clothes in "Tree of Life"--classy yet simple, well-made, and rich with color (which made even more of a striking impression against her red hair). I found myself coveting her wardrobe and her clean, uncluttered house.

And I have a similar thrift-store habit...actually, when Steven and I got out for our date night to see the movie Saturday I was wearing a new, uncharacteristically feminine (for me) brown pleated skirt that I had just purchased at an estate sale in my father-in-law's condo complex. Going to that estate sale was a strange experience--the woman lived below my father-in-law and had been a bane of our overnight visits there because of her constantly blaring TV. I never met her, only heard second-hand about her defensive reaction when they complained about the noise..and then to see her condo where she lived revealed that she had a serious clothing addiction...made me sad. She had rooms full of youthful, stylish brand new, tags-still-on clothes, including enough workout clothes to allow a person to do yoga in a different matching outfit every day for 6 weeks. We were the same size. I ended up buying myself almost a whole new wardrobe, justifying it saying that I need work about vulture. But when the rare shopping spree happens it is accompanied by an urge to purge the old, ill-fitting and un-loved items in my home.

I also realized recently that if we were to win the lottery I don't think I would change much about the material conditions of my life--I'd still live in the city in which we live (though I'd winter in Mexico), our daughter would go to the same school, etc. But the one thing having more money would change for me, I realized, would be in the wardrobe department...I'd have clothes I actually loved, instead of the ones I found in the luck of the thrift store hunt.

Lizzie said...

So this is definitely sychronicity, grace, God-incidence, whatever you want to call it.

This post follows so perfectly from the previous one as having just moved to this new home where I want to feel connected and open to grace, I am truly horrified (that word is chosen carefully and is not hyperbole...!)by the quantity of 'stuff' I have hauled with me to this new flat. It's stifling my ability to connect to God and others.

Friends helped me move and even they were shocked by how much I'd fitted into a one room flat. So, the purge begins...

Thanks for the encouragement as I switch off the internet for a few days, switch on the music loud (Iron and Wine among others) and get CHUCKING!

Anonymous said...

Coming from your friend with persistent urges to purge, I'm so proud of you! I've often found two of the barriers to purging an item that should be are the belief that I'll use it later and a silly sentimental attachment. There are two things I've learned. 1--I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually wished I hadn't tossed/donated an item(though now I can't recall what they were). 2--If it's a sentimental attachment, especially to an item I don't particularly consider useful or beautiful, I can simply take a photo and make a memo to self for the keepsake box, which consumes much less space.

Moving to a smaller house has forced me on so many occasions to critically examine how much less stuff we should have consuming our space, our life, and our time. By stripping away so much that is not essential we leave so much room spatially and temporally for that which is so critical for the best life God has intended for our family.

"Do not keep anything in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

William Morris

Dawn Farias said...

We moved to WA a few months ago for a 9 month work contract for my husband. We only brought with us what would fit into our SUV and minivan. I have only some clothes and the kids' toys consist mostly of their Legos. We packed our entire DVD collection, though.

And we're fine. I am very tired of wearing the same clothes everyday and my one pair of church shoes that I brought. But we don't seem to REALLY miss everything else. And there's a lot of that stored back in our house in TX.

But like you said, as a SAHM my days don't require a large variety of clothing and I've only really bought some workout clothes since we joined the Y last week and I didn't have any of that sort of thing packed.

I always enjoy your writing and am glad you are back from vacation!!

Oh, and I remember when one of my sons, a few years ago, searched through HIS available vocabulary and could only come up with the very scathing "you chocolate strawberry!" to retort to one of his siblings. Not as accurate as "vulture" but noteworthy, nonetheless.

Pentimento said...

Great post, BD. My closet is stuffed full of the awesome clothes (almost all of them from thrift and ebay) that I used to wear when I was an adjunct professor in New York City. Oh, and lots of awesome shoes to go with them.

My mother was a clotheshorse, and she has a hard-to-find shoe size -- AAA narrow -- that I happen to share. She has become disabled from Parkinson's Disease and can no longer walk, so she's given me about a dozen pairs of her shoes, many still unworn in their boxes.

I took them, just in case I am ever an adjunct professor again. Which is kind of embarrassing.

eaucoin said...

Great post! It reminded me of when my daughter started calling her sister and "interloper," (she had been looking for a new way to say nosy). And I hate to be a debbie downer, but tomorrow some event will require exactly those Todd loafers and someone will need a specialty cake made by you "because you're so good at everything." You're probably safe giving away all the skinny jeans though, lol.

JMB said...

Believe it or not, but Dan Ho has changed my life in ways that I could never have anticipated. You need to get the book "Rescue from Domestic Perfection". After you read it, and you will love it, you will never be the same. Seriously.

Julia said...

Sounds like you:clothes::I:books. But I'm so, so ready to hire a dumpster and toss it all...

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

I came over from Like Merchant's Ships. What a great post, I went through something like this a few years ago but it took downsizing to a smaller house to make me realize it.

I have collected teacups and tea party accessories for years but I'm in a stage of life where I rarely have that kind of party.

I gave away a lot to my daughter (who does actually have tea parties), some to charity, and a set of English china has been promised to my daughter's fiance when they get married next Spring.

I love the way you put it... I will have to remember that I need not purchase items for the life I may want to live (or dream about living) but for the one I DO live.

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

Sorry... that should be my son's fiance... my future daughter-in-law. It is hot here and my brain is fried. :)

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
allison welch said...

It's funny, I just posted about this today, right before I read your blog! God keeps trying to tell me to trust Him. To live with less. To know He will provide. What I didn't admit in my post was that it killed me when my husband left the "found" umbrella at the hotel. Thanks for keeping me honest!

Gardenia said...

Dear Betty, Every time I stop by your lovely blog, I tell myself i need to stop by more often. you always say it so well! and you've inspired me into cleaning out my closet and all those purses, shoes, and jeans that I've been saving for "just in case" moments!

Sharon Kieffer Steele said...

Huh. I totally get it. But I am a better mother when I dress up. Not a commentary - just an observation.

Mary said...

Thanks to Meredith from Like Merchant Ships for sending me your way. I posted a link on my blog tonight. My husband will thank you later after I get serious about decluttering and send more out than I bring in.

Gweny said...

WOW... This post came at a very good time. I'm so depressed over the shape of my home and all the "CRAP" I can't seem to let go of. As I go through a room purging, I have to pry every item I choose to let go of from a death grip of my own hands. OH My! I think I need therapy. I'm told it is a truly freeing experience to clean and purge of all the unneeded things in you life. Hopefully someday I will actually experience that feeling.

Dixie Sargent Redmond said...

Beautiful. And timely for me. I was at Borders today, which is closing in our town. I was there to fondle the store fixtures - those sturdy tables that probably take 9 strong men to move. I was planning to go there tomorrow with my son who has autism because the caregiver cancelled. What is wrong with this picture?

Putting your blog on my "blog list" blog. :-)

Mark and Heather Buckwalter said...

i stumbled upon your blog and appreciated your humor and perspective on thrifting,motherhood and life. thanks! I could so relate!

Ash said...


This is how I've felt since comming home from camp...but I didn't quite know how to word it. Thank you soooooo much!

pendy said...

Here from The Nester...and I'll be back. I'm gradually working on purging, but it definitely is a process!

MarySue said...

Came over from The Nester. Never thought about the thrifting thing that way. Thanks for the insights to ponder.

Gina said...

Thanks for putting into words what I've been working towards. You have given my de-cluttering purpose. Freedom from the stress of being someone in my dreams.

Christa Sterken said...

Reading this WAY after you wrote it, but so glad to have come upon it today. Well done