I had everything else I needed to make cranberry sauce. I just needed one single orange.
The fruit and vegetable stalls on Portobello Road are a few blocks from home, so it was meant to be a quick trip. I went to the first stall and bought my one clementine for 90p from a reluctant seller who doubted whether it was worth the energy to bother paying attention to me and making pleasant talk for the price of a single fruit. Now, back home I went …
But the next thing I knew, I was in a Happy Socks store on the corner of Portobello Road and holding a pair of socks printed with Andy Warhol’s neon “Flowers.” I do not remember making a conscious decision to go into the sock store. It just happened somehow. I was at the fruit market, and then I was in the Swedish socks store.
That is one of the beauties/curses of living in a city. You do not have to set out with the intention to drive to a particular store; you just end up strolling by shop windows and stopping inside on your way home. The problem is that you see, and then decide you need, things that would never otherwise cross your mind, like socks printed with Warhol’s “Flowers.”
I have mixed feelings about Warhol, but I like his ‘Flowers.’ More accurately, I think his “Flowers” look great printed on socks and swimsuits and the like. I think Warhol would approve of those feelings.
I saw those socks and wanted them. Just imagine, on a grumpy rainy day, getting onto the train, sitting, looking down, and, what a surprise!, you’re wearing Warhol flower socks! Really, I thought, I needed the socks as a precaution against future grumpy days.
“NOOOOOOO! DON’T DO IT!” I hear you say.
But here’s the tricky thing. Socks are not technically off limits under my rules for myself. This year of nothing is an exercise in figuring out what I actually need in life, not an arbitrary exercise in self-denial and embarrassment. Under the rules for my year of nothing, I am allowing myself to replace things like socks and undergarments. Because, well … I think you get it.
“Ok, but do you really really need Warhol “Flowers” socks right now?” I hear you ask.
And there is the rub. I may allow myself to buy new socks when I need them, but that means when I need them because I am running out of socks without holes, and not I need them because I might like having this particular sock pattern in addition to all the ones I already have. Right now, I am not running out of socks without holes. So no ‘Flowers’ socks for me, for now, although I will keep them in mind in case holey sock situation grows more desperate in future. Sigh.
I resisted the temptation of the “Flowers” socks, but on the way home, I did indulge in some actual flowers, which are definitely not off limits. The beauty of flowers is that the knowledge of their approaching wilt forces us to enjoy them while they last in a way we seldom appreciate our things that are here to stay.
(In case anyone else really wants the socks, they are available here.)
It felt like cheating, I’ll admit. I prepared for my year of nothing by buying a few things.
it wasn’t technically cheating, and thinking about what I might need to buy before my year of nothing started was an insightful exercise. It forced me to ask what I might actually need (or at least find very useful) during the upcoming year.
The answer was principally sweaters. I love sweaters. They are a comfortable thing to wear with jeans every day. I can wear them with jeans now that I am working from home as a writer (more on that in a later post for those who don’t already know about my (temporary? permanent?) career change exploits), but even when I was still working at a law firm, I had started wearing sweaters with trousers most days. They are comfortable, and they are easy. And that’s what matters.
My closet is full of pretty dresses. Looking at my closet, you would think I liked wearing dresses every day. I continued buying them even after I started wearing trousers and sweaters to work most days. I bought them because they were pretty but also because I felt the need to at least imagine myself as a ‘well dressed’ person who made an effort. But I rarely wore them because, while I like thinking of myself as a pretty dress wearing person, they just aren’t that comfortable (especially with tights – ugh, I cringe just thinking about them), and there were no reasons to wear them that outweighed comfort.
The reason to wear them would have been to look nice – but who would I have been trying to look nice for? Who was I trying to impress? I could try to look nice for myself, but my revealed preference is comfort over looks. My office colleagues who I saw everyday? Sure, I needed to look nice for interviews and client meetings, but after getting to know me well, my office colleagues were not even going to notice whether I was in a dress or a sweater, much less be impressed by it. (As an aside, I once had a boss who wore black pants and a sweater every single day, and I thought she was literally the classiest person ever. I am pretty sure everyone else did too.) Random people on the street who would have no idea who they were being impressed by even if they were impressed? My dog? I am pretty sure she would like me just the same if I wore a paper sack.
I think the ‘dressing up for’ instinct fueling a lot of my clothes buying is propelled by this idea from social media that some hypothetical snapshot of my life might be taken at any point in time and shared with the world as a distillation of my essence. Instagram (and previously Facebook) has created this impression in my mind of all these people existing in a perpetual state of ‘dressed to the nines’ perfection, and I feel that I too need to be perennially prepared, just in case, for a snapshot of ‘who I am’ to be taken, with the names of the makers of all of my possessions tagged for the world to see and judge, so that I can convey the right image of myself. Just in case that happens, I need to be prepared with pretty, expensive things that will impress the hypothetical viewer who I do not know but about whose opinion I seem to care terribly.
Anyways, this constant feeling that I need to be ready to meet some standard of hypothetical social media observer expectations propels me to buy lots of nice things, but it is not usually enough to get me to actually wear them. Most days I wear sweaters and trousers. And having come to the realization that there is literally no real person or animal who cares what I wear daily, I feel happy and free to wear them proudly.
So, I bought some sweaters. Not fancy expensive sweaters the designer label of which literally no one will ever see, but comfy bulky sweaters that were on sale at the T.K. Maxx (the UK version of T.J. Maxx) for £40-60 each. (One of my biggest weaknesses, by the way, is buying things on sale for cheap, so I expect there will be a post to come on the temptations of T.K. Maxx.) Cashmere is supposedly nicer, but I prefer 90/10 wool and cashmere blends because in my experience they neither pill nor itch as much as cashmere (and they are usually cheaper).
Most of the sweaters I bought were made by Jaeger, a British brand that was popular in the 1960s and has more recently been described using words like ‘dowdy’ and ‘frumpy.’ I may be the first person born after 1970 to say so, but I think Jaeger is great! Feel free to call me dowdy or frumpy, but its sweaters are the best, not least because they are available for reasonable prices at T.K. Maxx! It is too bad that Jaeger has been in financial trouble for the past few years. I don’t think my year off from shopping will help it out ..
Puppies love small fluffy things. My 14-month-old miniature poodle, Hettie, is no exception. About a month ago, just as as we were heading inside from the communal garden behind our house where Hettie and a few other dogs had been playing, I saw Hettie spy a small, bright pink fluffy thing on a garden bench. Before I could shout “No!”, she had grabbed it and was off across the garden, ready for a game of chase.
“Hettie, come here!” I shouted, as a sour-faced woman, who I had seen dragging her own dog around the garden by the lead attached to his collar a few minutes before, stood by the bench and shrieked. “My earmuffs! My earmuffs!” she screamed, her face twisted in desperate concern.
“Come and get me!” said the look on Hettie’s face as she play bowed and wagged her tail at me.
“Hettie, come here!” I shouted again.
Seeing that she had not yet enticed me into a game of chase, Hettie tossed the ball of pink fluff a few meters away and then ran to pick it up. Foolhardily thinking that she could beat Hettie to it, the sour-and-now-desperate-faced woman lunged for the ball of fluff as well. Fat chance. Hettie had the pink ball of fluff in her mouth before the woman could even get close and, now that she seemed to have a taker for a game of chase, Hettie headed full speed for the other side of the garden.
The sour face was turning purple. “YOU’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING!” the sour-faced woman screamed at me. “GO AFTER HER!!! YOU’VE GOT TO GET HER! SHE’S GOT MY EARMUFFS!”
There was no point to my chasing Hettie. She is too fast. She only gets caught if she wants to get caught (which, luckily for me, she eventually does want). I knew that Hettie was more likely to bring the earmuffs to me if I stood still, but the lady was growing apoplectic that I was not chasing Hettie. Fine, I thought, it won’t do any good, but fine.
I zig-zagged across the grass after Hettie for about 30 seconds before the sour-faced woman realized it was pointless and decided to take matters back into her own hands. She picked up a long tree branch and ran after Hettie trying to hit her with the branch, as though this was somehow more likely to cause Hettie to stop and not run away even faster.
“Chill out – I’ll buy you new ones!” I yelled, hoping to prevent the sour-faced woman from hitting Hettie and trying not to laugh at the image of the sour-faced woman, in her sleek black boots and with her weirdly shaped little python-skin handbag, flailing a tree branch wildly as she chased my impish little poodle through the mud – all for a pair of pink earmuffs. My repeating that I would buy her new earmuffs seemed to calm the sour-faced lady. She dropped the stick and stopped chasing Hettie.
Bored now that the game seemed to be over, Hettie brought the earmuffs, dropped them at my feet, and stared up at me with a look that said, “Well, that sure was fun wasn’t it?!” I pretended not to agree with her and kept a serious face while the sour-faced lady, now looking even more sour-faced than before, pursued discussions about how I would go about replacing her earmuffs, which had suffered a few mud stains from Hettie’s romp.
Hettie no longer being in danger of a swatting, I rather balked at having to replace the sour-faced lady’s earmuffs (which rolled into a ball strikingly similar to many of the toys sold for dogs) when she had left them sitting out unattended in an area where many dogs (including her own) were playing. Still, in the heat of the moment, I had made a promise, and now I figured it was better just to pacify her and avoid an argument that might lead to her making a nasty complaint about Hettie to the garden board. Naively thinking from my own experience that earmuffs do not cost more than £15, I gave her my name and phone number and went inside, pretending to chastise Hettie as we went.
It was only as I went up the stairs that the thought dawned that perhaps a pair of earmuffs about which a lady who carries a python-skin handbag when walking her dog throws a hysterical fit might cost a little more than £15. My concern steadily grew over the next day as Google taught me just how much one can pay for a pair of earmuffs. (People were selling used Prada ones for upwards of £350!) By the time the sour-faced lady texted me that she had been able to replace her hot pink fox fur pair for £70, I was relieved that I would not be having to hand over my full November paycheck for an item that was a dead ringer for the wing off the ‘Flo the Flamingo’ plush toy I had bought Hettie for £15. (I had even seriously hesitated before spending £15 on a dog toy. Most cost closer to £5, but Flo the Flamingo was especially charming to this native Floridian.)
As much as I wish Hettie always came when I called her, I cannot but thank her for teaching me a valuable lesson through this episode. To Hettie, the sour-faced woman’s £70 designer earmuffs were indistinguishable from the cheap dyed sheep’s wool tug toys we buy her. And yet, slap a label and a high price tag on them, and they can make a woman act deranged.
Except, as much as I judged her and patted myself on the back because I would never buy £70 earmuffs, the sour-faced woman’s behavior was not deranged. It was manic and unreasonable, but not that abnormal. Most of us probably would not beat a dog (I hope!), but we do obsess over our things.
Upon reflection, I am in many ways just as bad as the sour-faced woman when it comes to obsession with things. I put too much stock into things – into whether they are pretty, into whether they are stylish, into who made them, into how much they cost. Many of us do, and it is hard not to do because we are bombarded by shop windows and Instagram ads and ‘influencers’ telling us that we should care terribly about things.
For me, it may not be as much about having expensive or designer things as it was for the sour-faced woman, but the daily barrage of flash sale emails and Instagram posts fuels a compulsion to have lots of pretty, trendy things – none of which I need, and very few of which will bring me happiness or pleasure after that initial ‘zing’ of satisfaction upon purchase. Hettie is as happy with an old sock as she is with a brand new fancy toy, and in my own way, I suspect I would be as well.
So, all this thinking about things led me to thinking about trying nothing – a year of nothing. Starting from today, I will try to buy nothing – no new clothes, jewelry, shoes, purses, scarves, other fashion accessories, or decorative housewares – for a year. I can imagine no better way to learn to appreciate the things I already have, including the non-thing ‘things’ that matter most, like the joy of watching the peevish Hettie pup cause havoc in the garden.
Over the course of the next year, I will chronicle my temptations, frustrations, and insights from my efforts to buy no new nothing. I hope you will follow my progress and enjoy this opportunity to have a think about things and the power of nothing.