Packing up my closet to move to a new house has made me realize that my wardrobe is haunted. Don’t get me wrong—there aren’t any spirits lurking there (although my abandoned bridesmaids’ dresses rustle menacingly from time to time). No, what haunts me are the empty gaps: the clothes, shoes and accessories I should have bought, but left behind. That bag in Edinburgh. That scarf in Paris. Those really, really cute shoes in the mall a mile from my apartment. Their absence floats around in my closet and mind, ghosts of lost opportunities.
American culture is in a mindfulness frenzy right now, with our desire for more meaningful lives crashing into our consumerism, inspired by Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo wants us to think seriously about how much joy our belongings bring us, but we’ve somehow turned that into buying more organizational baskets and paring down our closets to a capsule wardrobe of five items. We don’t quite get it. But the idea of mindful minimalism is so appealing! Even I smugly enjoy the bare walls left in my old apartment from packing, the closest I’ll ever get to it.
But, alas, I’m a pack rat by nature, so when I do ask myself whether I really need 20 pairs of sneakers and a T-shirt from a trip taken 15 years ago, the answer is always, Yes, of course, you do. I’m right, in a way. I know myself well. I may not need more things, more clothes, scarves, bags or shoes, but I do like having them, taking pleasure in owning them. So I miss those things I did not buy with a ferocity that belies the number of years it’s been since I last handled these items.
Take that bag in Edinburgh, a small coin purse with a rose design worked in beads. I found it at a street fair. It cost less than five pounds, but I was there as an actor with a theatre troupe at the Fringe Festival, unsure of how much money we’d ultimately make. Besides, I was reluctant to shove more stuff into an already overpacked suitcase. I left it behind, decided a day later I should have bought it, and returned to the fair the next weekend to find, of course, that it was long gone.
Or that scarf I found on a trip to a conference in Paris, which draped beautifully around my shoulders, a pattern of the night sky picked out in gold thread on a navy background. Again, it cost almost nothing, and again, I left it behind due to fears about finances and over-packing. I left Paris the next day, and still can’t stop thinking about it, four years later. I had the money and the space; I should have snapped it up.
I miss those things I did not buy with a ferocity that belies the number of years it’s been since I last handled these items.
These losses might be tied to having to leave those beautiful cities, it’s true, but I regret leaving behind things much closer to home also. There’s a mall just a few minutes from my apartment where I found a pair of sparkly Converse high-tops in my size. I could afford them. I didn’t have to pack them. But I still decided no, and now curse myself every time I put together an outfit that would look great if only I could add a pair of sparkly Chucks.
It’s not just the places where I found these things, it turns out. It’s also the times in my life they’ve come to represent. Edinburgh was my last job before abandoning acting. That trip to Paris marked the beginning of the end of graduate school, the last time I felt relatively unconcerned about my career. And those shoes? Well, these days my feet need more support than sparkle. The melancholy of each of these times, in my memory, has become tied up with the items I left behind.
The things I didn’t buy have gained power over time, holding a kind of clout over me they wouldn’t have if I had actually purchased them. Buying them wouldn’t have changed much, really: I’d still have left acting, finished grad school, and developed slightly aching feet. At the same time, not buying those things didn’t change me from a pack rat into someone whose wardrobe is two sweaters and a sarong I can tie into 15 different outfits. My suitcase wasn’t suddenly light, and I didn’t become independently wealthy because I passed on a €30 scarf. I still miss those things I didn’t buy.
A skipped shopping purchase isn’t a road dramatically not taken, and I’d never make an argument for hoarding. But I still see those gaps in my closet, and think of those shoes, that bag, that scarf, and where I might have worn them, the outfits they might have perfectly completed. In short, they would have brought me joy. After all, the things I did buy—that skirt in London, that watch in Brooklyn—remind me of happy times, and I’m glad I bought them, even if I had to sit on my suitcase or eat ramen for a week to get them.
From now on, I’m going to practice my own kind of mindfulness when it comes to shopping. Yes, I should need what I buy, and of course, I should have good use for it. But I also want to remember that when I find something I love, and at a price I can afford, I should buy it. Life can be short, and busy, and hard. Owning little things that make us smile are a way to remember that it can be joyful, too.