The Lenten closet.

Yesterday I went to Minneapolis to buy some sorely needed new clothes. Just a few good pieces that I was lucky enough to find on sale.  This afternoon — energized by what Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping called the “swift, watery wind” blowing all around my neighborhood, and feeling it disarranging me in a good way, I decided to do a Lenten purge, in honor of what I hope and believe is becoming a new me in several ways:  I put on some Stevie Wonder and took everything out of my closet and sorted through it and put back only what I wanted to keep, Amelie-style.

The maelstrom: first you take everything out.

I did this a couple years ago, too, but the need feels more urgent, the Occam’s-razor deciding question sharper and more ruthless:  Is there something inside me that would secretly sink if I were to put this on? That would feel like I had given up, like I needed to kind of shrink from notice so no one would notice anything about my clothing beyond the fact that it was (oh, that bane of purgers) Still Technically Good Enough to Wear?  That I even found this question occurring to me signals how many old-me spending habits are still holding on where clothes (a deep-neurosis mother lode) are concerned.  Because a lot of the stuff in my closet did make me answer yes:  the self holding onto it is the make-do, this-is-good-enough-for-little-old-me self that bought so much cheap stuff (on credit) anyway.  That is the self that shouts – going all the way back to my teenage years — You’ve found something that fits you! Miraculous! Better grab it! But now, looking at the parade of stained and stretched and shrunken coming out of that closet, I wonder why I waited so long, and why I kept this stuff although I haven’t worn some of it in a very long time — knowing, secretly, that it wasn’t good enough to wear anymore.

The shoes that made the cut – although I actually subtracted a couple more pairs of high-heeled sandals from the blue box after taking this picture and put them in the consignment pile.

After the initial attack of the protesting “But they’re still good!” voice, it was such a relief to let guilt be replaced by necessary firmness and to plunge in: so much just needed to be thrown away.  A bag full of tired, shrunken sweaters and turtlenecks of synthetic materials washed over many years until they are faded, rough, and shapeless.  Another bag full of cheap, tired shoes and sandals — most now more than twelve years old — bought in grad school and worn to parties until the heel padding started to lift.  Pleather high-heeled boots I’ve worn until the heel wobbles underneath me; unfortunately, pleather only looks more like pleather as it ages and goes through winter after winter of snow.  My proudly worn “professional black pumps” which now look oldladyish (and are worn out.)  Cheap silver sandals bought for a wedding I attended with an ex-boyfriend. In the photo in which I am wearing them in 2000, I am at least thirty pounds heavier than now.  Send them on.

And then I get to the cache of beautiful, high-quality, barely worn high heels.  So many, all bought ten years ago – really ten? Yes, at least ten, during the grad school frantic phase – with the credit card and worn maybe a handful of times, if at all, in an early attempt at self-reinvention brought on by too many Oprah magazines (where despite the emphasis on health and being yourself everyone is always wearing heels.)  Gorgeous light-brown, pointy-toed Italian pumps, literally unworn, still in the original box. A lovely pair of bone-colored mules that will not stay on my feet.  Green summery pumps with lacy cutouts that rub the tops of my toes.  Red patent leather sandals: as cute as they are, my memory of them will forever be of trying to recover them from a strung-out dude at a grad-school party who spirited them away after I had slipped them off to dance.  (And have I worn them in the last year? No.)  Teetery, pink, delicate sandals: regretfully, I let them go. As much as a part of me still yearns to be teetery and pink, I’m just not.  They need to go, along with the beautiful handbags that were gifts or handmedowns but that I have not touched in years.  White lowtop and black hightop Chuck Taylors, fond relics of the grunge era – I loved them but somehow never ended up wearing them much past age 21.  Somewhere out there, another teenager is waiting for them.  Send them on.

I just don’t yearn toward heels anymore. I yearn toward boots and skirts, Fluevogs and Merrells and cute flats, shoes (like my beloved, in-need-of-refurbishing Dansko Mary Janes) that you have to pay more — and more mindfully — for up front because they will last for years.  “You bought those heels because you look good in them, when you are all dressed up,” my mother says, helpfully.  True. And I still have some left, when I need them.  My brown alligator pumps, and the happy, collegial conversation that turned a whole MLA convention around for me when I was wearing them, are still linked together, and the pumps are still in my closet.  More importantly, I can feel good knowing everything left in my closet was paid for in cash (either literally or figuratively, now that all those anxiety-ridden credit cards are paid off) and mindfully chosen and kept to fit the me I am now.  There are still a few pieces in here – but only a few – that I’m making last for just another season or two before replacing.  There are still quite a few gaps.  But I know what they are. Now I can see what I have and what I need to buy.

Since Lent is about clearing your mind and your life to focus on what’s really important, and since I am taking several other measures — like going off Facebook — to help deepen my attention, maybe this closet purge is appropriate.  It’s about being mindful, remembering that you do not have to be driven by the demons of anxiety or overspending or imaginary inadequacy anymore. I thought about counting exactly how many pairs of shoes or items of clothing I had ditched today in my two trash bags and two big heaps and one box.  But I didn’t.  Why cling to that, why build that up? Why not just say thank you for the use of these things and let them pass on out of your life, to free you for more conscious and joyous use of what is left?

Yesterday in the mall, I saw exactly how far I have come.  Before I went in the first store, I balanced my checkbook — right at a table in the mall, kind of the cheapskate-intellectual version of a sit-in — and reminded myself of how much I have in my account and how much I had planned to spend. I stuck to it.  In one store, I discovered a pair of beautiful tall black boots – exactly like I have been looking for to replace the old pleather ones, except these were one size too small. I put them on and walked around the store.  The leather is soft, that little spendy voice argued inside my head, baring its teeth in an eager pleading grin.  You can make it stretch. You can make it work. You can make it do.  And you might not find another pair! Ever ever ever ever!

But I can’t spend $200 more today, I answered it.  I won’t.  They are almost right, but I don’t want “almost” anymore.  And it’s just not true that I will never ever ever ever find another pair of black boots. The salesgirl has written down the name and code. I can look them up online and order them next month IF I still need to. See? Here’s the post-it note right here.

And the little voice fell quiet, and I thanked the salesgirl and walked away.

Lent is a time to be quiet, to clear the decks and look more closely, inside and out.  I’m looking forward to seeing where else the season leads.

4 thoughts on “The Lenten closet.

  1. This must have been the weekend of the cathartic closet purge. I did the same. For me, it was an exercise in gratitude — appreciating the things I have (that are still good and useful), appreciating my abundance (the sock drawer over-full), and working with what I have. Shoes that might have previously been tossed aside will be repaired and reworn. Stains were removed from my favorite white sweater. Buttons were re-sewn. There’s a satisfaction that comes from not spending money sometimes.

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