Nothing you buy will change you

The magical thinking of stuff

I say “nothing you buy will change you” even though I, A) work in advertising and B) love stuff so much. Or maybe it’s because of those two things that I feel uniquely qualified to talk about stuff. I think about stuff a lot—how to sell it, how to rationalize buying it, or how to answer my husband’s question “Is that dress new?” with “No, it’s old” since if it’s vintage my answer is *technically* the truth.

I have loved stuff since I was a kid. And now, since I’m smack in the middle of life (I hope), I feel confident there is a genetic component to collecting things. The last few years of my grandmother’s life, when she was in a nursing home and her stuff was greatly reduced, she would still rearrange what she had into piles. We are a family who not only likes stuff, but we also like to see our stuff.

I can’t speak for my grandmother or mother or aunt or daughter—all ladies who have an eye for color and design and certainly know their way around collecting and their preferred kinds of stuff—but for me, there has certainly been one component to my accumulation of stuff. There is a belief that buying certain stuff will fundamentally change who I am.

When we were house hunting five or six years ago, I was determined to get a house in this one neighborhood that had access to Lake Champlain. This sounds quite fancy but this neighborhood was relatively affordable, with lots of modest houses and some mid-century ones mixed in. Nothing too crazy—hello, this isn’t California—but fair enough for Vermont. And I would rationalize this move to my husband with “We can be in a neighborhood with lots of kids” “We can go to the beach all summer long” “I can make new friends and go hang out at their houses whenever I want” “People can drop by our house.”

He listened to all of this and replied, “But you hate people.”

I do hate people. I hate neighborhoods with lots of kids. I hate running into people when I’m out in public—even people I genuinely like. I hate being seen in a bathing suit, full stop. And I hate, hate, hate the drop in. Or translated from the ancient Seinfeld text, “the pop-in.” God I hate it so much. But I was convinced if we bought this particular house in this particular neighborhood I would change. I would fundamentally become a different person. I would become a better person. I wouldn’t be me, I would leave behind the things I didn’t like about myself. That’s the real takeaway. I would stop being so difficult and I would be a normal social person who interacts in socially acceptable ways with other human beings.

Yeah, well.

We never moved into that neighborhood. Our offer fell through. Then more and more people we knew moved into that neighborhood. And every time I think about my parallel life, going to that beach, in my bathing suit, running into 15 people I don’t want to see on a regular basis, a chill slithers down my spine and I thank the universe for not letting me have what I thought I wanted.

But make no mistake, when we bought our current house my magical thinking was still very much intact. I looked at our mantel and the front porch and thought, “I will become the kind of person who decorates for every holiday and I mean, goes-the-fuck-for-it.” I started buying vintage milk glass coffee mugs because I envisioned a regular, possibly weekly, ladies’ coffee meet-up. Sort of like something you’d see on Mad Men but without all the smoking or kids running around with dry cleaner bags over their heads. And I thought we would have BBQs in the summer and invite all of our neighbors, we would socialize all the time with our neighbors. Because the purchase of this house would change me. That was the deal.

Our first year in this house, I managed to decorate for Valentine’s Day and, in a panic, the day before Halloween. Four years later, that remains Peak Holiday Decorating. Last year, when my daughter was eleven, she asked me to bring up the Halloween decorations so she could just do it herself since I clearly wasn’t going to do it. I had a ladies’ coffee exactly once. It was great. I wish I had done it more, but now all the ladies who would’ve come have full-time jobs and more obligations now that their kids are older. And we definitely have never hosted a neighborhood BBQ and, more to the point, if I can walk my dog without being forced into a conversation with a neighbor I consider it an unmitigated victory. So a BBQ? Seems like several bridges too far.

Needless to say, the money we’ve poured into this house or just living in this neighborhood in general haven’t changed a thing about me. The insecurities I had before, I still very much have. Now I’ve been able to add new insecurities like—are we the only people in this neighborhood who don’t have a lawn service? Who don’t like gardening? Who can’t afford to get their whole house repainted? Whose house occasionally looks haunted due to lack of upkeep?

I haven’t limited magical thinking to houses, of course. I have also extended it to second houses. I have solely tried to manifest a summer cottage by flea marketing and Etsy-ing and eBay-ing my way to nautical lamps with delicate 60-year-old paper shades, vintage nautical dresses, vintage tea towels and napkins and stoneware sets with fish on them, needlepoint/paint-by-numbers/wooden seascapes, and vintage juice glasses with warm gold pinecone patterns. Recently I decided to consolidate all that crazy bullshit into boxes and pack it away. Not get rid of it (Haaaa ha ha be serious, the shit is just too good) but suddenly seeing it all in one place made me realize we could buy a 5000 sq. ft. summer “cottage” and it would still be entirely too much nautical shit. No one stuffs that much nautical-themed shit into a summer cottage. They just do not / should not.

I’ve spent many weekends bogged down in what I’ve come to refer to as “stuff management.” Sorting boxes, consigning clothes, Goodwill-ing things, shipping hand-me-downs to friends. And that inspired me to commit to a A Year of No Shopping this past January. Or, in my case, A Half-Year of No Shopping. It was incredible. It changed many long-standing habits and made me realize how much emotional energy I poured into rationalizing purchases. It made me realize that “I deserve this” was the story I told myself for buying things or, for that matter, eating things. I worked hard? I deserve this. I was sad? I deserve this. I was happy? I deserve this. I was away from my kids on a work trip? I deserve this. I was on vacation, on deadline, lonely, celebrating? I deserve this, I deserve this, I deserve this, and yup, I deserve that too.

From January through June I traveled the most I’ve traveled for work in ten years. And I went on book tour for my first book—a vortex of anxiety and stress and exhaustion like no other—through 7 cities. And that entire time I didn’t buy a thing. I didn’t window shop. I didn’t go looking for trouble. I didn’t buy shoes I’d never wear in real life or get my kids presents from airport shops that they’d toss over their shoulders 5 minutes later and I didn’t justify an overpriced vintage something-or-other in another city because I was lonely-stressed-happy-worried. It took an entire category of decision making out of my brain. And although I fell off the wagon over the summer, my habits fundamentally changed. I plan to return to this resolution in January, because my magical thinking needs some real-ass boundaries.

Make no mistake, I still love stuff. I will always love stuff. I love to look at an expertly constructed vintage dress or a crazy needlepoint of the ocean or old packaging from the ‘60s. But I buy less and I give more away. When I’m considering buying something I ask myself, “What am I hoping for from this?” and 9 times out of 10 I leave empty handed. Most importantly, I no longer look to any of it and think, how can you change me, thing? How can you make me better?

SPEAKING OF STUFF, the one category of stuff I never ruled out this year was books. I sorted them, I got rid of them, I left them on the free shelves at the airport, but I also kept buying them and reading them! So in that spirit, I’m sharing my favorites from this year. Hey, maybe not a ton of shockers in here, but for what it’s worth: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album by Joan Didion, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs, Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, Everything is Horrible and Wonderful by Stephanie Wittels, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (1. I am still not over this book and may never be and 2. I just saw that it has a 3.6 rating on Goodreads. Honestly, go fuck yourselves), Calypso and When You Are Engulfed In Flames (OKAY EVERYONE, I’LL FUCKING LIKE DAVID SEDARIS FINALLY, JESUS) by David Sedaris, We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, New Erotica for Feminists by Caitlin Kunkel/Brooke Preston/Fiona Taylor/Carrie Wittmer, I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro, Life After God (a reread 24 years later) by Douglas Coupland, and my absolute favorite Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (wow, a 3.7 on Goodreads. Keep it up, assholes.)

P.S. Yes all the photos in this piece are of my stuff. And you can’t have any of it.

• MEDIUM: Speaking of shopping, what’ve you got after Black Friday and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday? “Your Christmas Shopping Calendar, Unabridged”
• RAZED: The latest quarterly issue of the parenting humor site I co-founded and edit, RAZED, went live this week! Read ISSUE #3: SLEIGH RIDE TO HELL.
• KIDSVT: Well no one is more surprised than I am to be considered an “accomplished Vermonter.” Especially since no true Vermonter would ever consider a 15-year resident a Vermonter at all and how dare I. I was asked to contribute to a piece about Vermont winter memories (preferably one that doesn’t involve screaming into a pillow for 5 months straight and praying for it all to end.) Read it here.

• HUMOR: Nothing has been, is, or will ever be funnier than this masterpiece that I reread every year and cry-laugh EVERY. DAMN. TIME. “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas.”
• POLITICS: Maybe one of my favorite political stories of the year. Just trust me.
• DEATH: “I think that underneath the layers of contention and strife and angst and disappointment and worry, is a good, good heart in each one of us. A heart that very much loves this life, this world, the people in it. And we don't want that heart to stop beating. Probably because we know next to nothing about what happens after we die. Also because most of us have screwed up so much in this life that we always want a little more time to set things straight. I see it all the time, the shoring up of a life when a person is moving slowly toward the exit.” Read the rest here.
• JUST INCREDIBLE FUCKING WRITING: “I was an odd, solitary child with an early and all-consuming compulsion to seek out wild creatures. Perhaps this was unfinished business related to losing my twin at birth: a small girl searching for her missing half, not knowing what she was looking for. I upended rocks for centipedes and ants, followed butterflies between flowers, lay facedown in meadows breathing in the perfume of roots and decay, transfixed by the sight of tiny insects the size of punctuation marks making their laborious way up blades of grass.” From last year but behold and read the whole thing here.
• AUTISM: “Her findings show that nearly 20 percent of young people on the spectrum have had a run-in with police by age 21, and about half of those by age 15. About 5 percent are arrested by the time they’re 21.” Read “When Police Officers Mistake Autism for Suspicious Behavior” from The Atlantic.
• THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME: A wonderful interview with author John Irving, 40 years (!!!) after the release of The World According to Garp. An excerpt: “I even imagined as I was writing this novel that it would be out-of-date before I finished it. It seemed to me that the kind of sexual discrimination I was writing about was truly too backward to last. Well, I was wrong.” Listen here.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe, share, forward it to your greedy friends.
You can find my copywriting work here and my writing-writing work here.
You can find me on Twitter.
You can find me on Instagram.
Please do not find me in real life. I think you know how I feel about that by now.