I’ve been reading a lot lately about the hugely fashionable method of de-cluttering popularized by the Japanese tidiness guru Marie Kondo. Many aspects of this method appeal, particularly for someone who feels an attachment to belongings, clothes in particular, that probably borders on the obsessive. Especially attractive is the way Kondo celebrates emotional investment in objects rather than disavowing it. Keep only the things that “spark joy,” she instructs, exemplified by images of herself embracing a T-shirt and murmuring to it (“Thank you for keeping me warm!”) before folding it into a origami wonder.
But what does this method have to offer a depressive personality like myself, for whom joy is often an elusive feeling? Rifling through my wardrobe it occurs to me that I hold on to clothes not necessarily for the joy that they spark, but for affect itself, of whatever flavor. The things that spark connection.
“In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time,” Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space; “that is what space is for.” What if, I wonder, our clothes are like fluid houses for our bodies, condensing and compressing time: the times and places they were worn, or acquired? Each fold of fabric like a page, filling with stories each time it is worn. Bachelard cites the poet Czeslaw Milosz: “A wardrobe is filled with the mute tumult of memories.”
Some objects are so heavily freighted with experience that they are akin to a portal in a fantasy story, an object that pulls the character into a different place or time, like the old boot in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that provides a nauseating instant pathway to the World Quidditch Tournament. The square gold scarf with retro pink roses on it that I bought at Top Shop in London for a couple of pounds will always take me back to King’s Cross Station the following day, where I almost missed my train to the Edinburgh Book Festival. I had been invited there to talk about my first novel. When I met the aggrieved publicist at the platform she admired the scarf, the only compliment she ever paid me, and I was embarrassed to confess its origins to this woman who seemed the epitome of taste. This square of fabric manages to condense the whole complex emotional cocktail of that trip — the fear that I would be exposed as some kind of impostor in this charmed situation, all my anxiety and wonder, overwhelming whenever I pull out the scarf to think about wearing it, and put it back in the drawer.
As a teenager I trawled thrift shops, mostly because they were what I could afford, but also because I loved the sense of history sewn into those sixties coats and delicate old frocks. There was a massive Salvation Army shop on Parramatta Road a couple of blocks from my house in Sydney, a cold concrete space with ceilings high as an aircraft hanger, housing racks of clothes from every decade of the twentieth century. There were long shallow boxes of little gloves and shoes from the nineteen forties that gestured towards a whole generation with impossibly small hands and feet. I didn’t love the smell that came with the clothes, which suggested not the individuals who wore them but rather the dead stale spaces in which they had been kept for years, unworn. Wearing these things I quite liked the sense of my own experiences being subsumed to those already embedded in the clothes; it brought a strange sense of freedom.
My family was something like the opposite of hoarders, when it came to my belongings in any case. I noted the carefully curated boxes and shelves of my parents’ old toys and books with a certain bitterness when I was made to give up my own. Perhaps I hang on to things now as a reaction to all that. Attachment itself feels inherently neurotic, and more than that: precarious, ambivalent, addictive. It makes you vulnerable to loss. I am probably five or six years old in a fuzzy memory of sitting in the back seat of a car, driving away, and realizing with anxiety that we have left behind my younger brother’s security blanket, a threadbare square of fabric. I alert my parents and am made to understand this unthinkable thing, try to wrap my mind around it: the blanket has been left behind intentionally; it is time to give it up. (My eldest son never formed an attachment to any object like this, so I missed out on the opportunity of allowing him to hold on to his blanket or bear or duck or whatever as long as he wanted to.) I’m not sure whether it really is my brother this is happening to, or me. Maybe it happened to us both. In the car I looked at the new toys we had just been given — a plush grey dolphin, in my case — and I understood that they were substitutes, and resented them.
I have moved a lot, both within Sydney and then overseas, back and forth multiple times between Australia and the US as I travelled for graduate school and then for my husband’s fieldwork and then for jobs, and other jobs, and sabbaticals, and other jobs. Clothes are relatively easy to pack and transport, less breakable than other objects, and perhaps that is why I have held on to so many of them; they provide a line of continuity between these multiple places and selves. They remind me who I am, where I have come from, where I have been, for better or worse. On the days the black dog visits and brings down that transparent wall of grey between myself and the distant land of the living where people walk around feeling things, where things matter, these belongings with history — any kind of history — remind me that life has been lived and felt, that maybe it will be again.
A certain embroidered 1940s pink linen dress doesn’t spark joy exactly, but reminds me that I survived 1991, the year I bought the dress from a stall at the Paddington markets. My first year of university, marked by violence and an abusive relationship, and other experiences I would like to forget. It is the same color as the old ceramic water heater in the bathroom of the inner city share house I lived in at the time, a hideous machine with a pilot light that needed to be lit with a match before every shower, and switched on with a terrifying whoosh. The window outside the bathroom showed a patch of sky that at sunset would become alight and awash with just that pink, shading into mauve. My housemates and I would sit on the balcony overlooking Cleveland Street near the intersection of Abercrombie and drink Southern Comfort and watch the car accidents happen one by one of a Friday night. Not all of that year was so terrible, the dress reminds me, no matter what that body of mine went through when I wore it.
I have an acute sense of memory not only for occasions I have worn particular items of clothing, but also the circumstances of when and where they were bought. I hold on to a boxy black velvet duffle coat because of the happy memory of buying it with my mother, a gift to celebrate the end of high school It was beautiful and soft and expensive, and surrounded me in a soft fabric cloud. It was from the Esprit shop in the newly renovated Queen Victoria arcade, a place I usually could never afford to patronize. It would have been summer, at the end of the school year, and I wonder now what I was doing buying a black velvet duffle coat at that time of year, or whether I am misremembering. The bronze silk lining fell apart over time, and was replaced with lining that was never quite the right color or feel. One of my friends borrowed the coat once, having admired the cut, wanting to sew a copy of it. He took a long time to give it back and even though I hardly wore it by that point I felt a dreadful stab of loss at the idea that it might be gone for good. And so it sits in my closet now, still inside the plastic dry cleaning bag from the last time I tried to shift the smell it acquired from sitting in a box for years in our storage unit in Sydney.
Going through my wardrobe just now I have put into a bag several items to discard:
- A long dark red linen dress with an especially beautiful hue, the color of the dye attached to the fabric in a way that looks alive even after all this time. (Bought in Melbourne, early 1990s. Deliberated over whether to buy the shorter version, always wish that I had.) When I wore it a few years ago an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for a long time asked me if I was pregnant. I wasn’t. I put it away until recently, when I was actually pregnant, and wore it once or twice. But it was too saturated with memories of other times: I wore it constantly for a while when I was active in student politics, and it speaks to me now of stress and conflict, speeches that didn’t go as I wanted them too, moments of embarrassment and confusion, although enough residual memory of all the friendships I made in that time and moments of happy comradeship exist in it to have made me keep it all these years, up until now. I bought it around the time I met my ex-boyfriend, the one I treated badly in the end and eventually split up with after months of long-distance misery, the one who died thirteen years ago. This dress has kept him alive in some sense, along with the box of photographs that I keep inside another box, the box of my twenties, not yet discarded.
- A pair of overalls I bought in Colorado at a second hand store a couple of years ago when I interviewed Joan Baez and was entranced by her butch, sexy style. I wore them twice and couldn’t get comfortable. They reminded me of a pair I owned long ago, soft and indigo blue, that were reliably, weirdly attractive to men, discarded when the denim literally fell apart. I wanted these Colorado overalls to be like that, but they were always stiff, too long in the leg, never really mine.
- A crocheted dress my mother made in the seventies. I tried to make it my own by dying it, although the rich magenta I had been aiming for turned out dead brown. I cut it down from ankle length but made it just too short, which was fine at the time when I was twenty but seems ridiculous now. It has always carried with it the guilt and shame of kissing someone I shouldn’t have while wearing it, and perhaps I have kept it as a kind of hair shirt, and because it seems wrong to discard something that has so many hours of labor wrapped into it.
- A pair of knee-high boots with clunky, cute, boxy little heels I bought at Century 21, a discount department store in downtown Manhattan. The shoe department was always a scene of chaos, with just one of every pair on display to discourage theft. I waited for the matching pair for forty minutes, proud of my stamina in the service of a bargain. Century 21 is across the road from the site of the former World Trade Centre, housed in a monolithic stone building that used to be a bank. When I visited it for the first time after 9/11 it seemed incredible the store had survived. The interiors had a brand-new kind of brightness, and I searched the ceilings looking for the new light fittings. What I saw when I looked up were wide, tall windows that had always been there, letting in the sun for the first time in years now that those towers were no longer blocking the light. One of those scattered moments that opens onto a deep shaft of grief and horror, splitting open the present, pulling me towards that impossible hole in the ground across the road, the surreal hole in the air itself above it. My feet have grown by at least a half size since my first pregnancy ten years ago and the boots no longer fit. I have other mementos of Century 21 that might one day find their way into the discard bag but I’m holding on to for now (pink Prada jacket, I will love you until I die).
The year I lived in Darwin while my husband completed his fieldwork, 2003, we had a bad car accident. The nurses cut my clothes off me when we arrived at the hospital in the ambulance. “I hope it’s not your favorite shirt,” the nurse said, and it was a joke but not funny. No, yes, no, I said, but she hadn’t expected a response and kept cutting. The pale green camisole from the Glebe markets was wrecked but I kept the pieces of the shirt I wore over it, the one I had bought from a shop in Berkeley with a friend just before leaving the States for Australia earlier that year. I tried to sew it back together, to salvage it, and it sort of worked, but it was a zombie version of itself by then, drenched with the feeling of the accident. I couldn’t wear it, didn’t want it near me. That shop closed only just a few months ago, and now I live not far away from it. I know it is the same place but the Berkeley I know seems like a different city entirely from the one I visited all those years ago; I can’t match up the geography in my head with the interior of the shop itself; last time I visited felt all upside down and wrong way around, not lining up with my memory at all. My friend liked to buy lavish, unwearable evening gowns there, on sale for a fraction of their usual price. She wanted to wear one to the opera with me on our last-minute cut-price tickets on that visit, but her fiancé talked her out of it, which made me never quite trust him again. The place is the same, of course, just as the Rose Garden we visited is the same, even though it seems to face in totally the other direction from what I remember. It is me that is different, having tried to create as much distance as I can between myself and the person I was, tense and apprehensive, leaving my beloved Brooklyn behind, already starting to crash hard from anti-depressant withdrawal, about to face, for the first time, the death of a friend as heroin began to cut a swathe through my peers.
There are things I discarded that I regret: A dress by iconic Australian eighties designer Katie Pye, the fabric a gorgeous mess of muted hues, worn to my first big concert (Culture Club at the Entertainment Centre); another by Morrisey-Edmiston, the color of alpine grass in a Heidi story with pleats that seemed somehow witty and demure at once. My new at the time kitten tore a hole right through it and I always meant to get it fixed and never did, and now I can’t remember how either of these garments came to leave my possession or what I was thinking when I let them go. Maybe I wanted to repudiate that little girl eighties self. Maybe the tear became an unbearable sign of my own carelessness, procrastination, incompetence. If I still had them now, maybe I could forgive those flaws or embrace that former self (“Thank you for keeping me warm,” I could say, or some variation: “Thank you for making me feel at home in my skin from time to time.”) But that might be an optimistic, sentimental sort of illusion.
Then there are the objects that spark affect not through the memories they encode but the aspirations they embody. The four-inch heels that I imagined myself wearing with nonchalance, striding tall and looking fabulous in a slinky frock. Impossibly, cripplingly uncomfortable as it turned out, worn every six months or so when I have managed to forget just how impossible they are. Boots not made for walking. I have accepted the truth of the shoes now and they are on their way to the bag of discarded things for donation.
The hangers on my closet rail move a bit more easily now, less cramped, and there is a little more space on the shelf that will quickly be filled by other shoes now cluttering the hallway. I will put the bag in the back of the car where it will wait until the next time we drive past the Good Will store downtown, where it can join the eternal jumbled pile of bags and boxes of donations outside the store entrance. Already the boots, the dress, the overalls, seem sapped of energy; aura drains away from them almost visibly as they are crushed together with my son’s old jeans and the shirts he has outgrown. That small piercing sense of loss that attended the act of relinquishing quiets. By the time the things reach the sidewalk outside the store all those associations will be erased, and they will become blank and muted objects for the next person who pulls that dress off the rack, those boots from the shelf.
—Kirsten Tranter is writing yet another novel about secret passages to other worlds.