Spring Dishtowels


No one I love is sick, brokenhearted, or in trouble. I have my health. I love my work. The roof over my head even has a warranty. I am free, for the moment, of the sense of insufficiency that advertisers use to sell to women—and yet, I go shopping.

Throughout the long, gray, rainy Oregon winter, I drink tea and read library books, content to stay inside. Today the sun streams through the windows and illuminates the daffodils in the yard, as exuberant as the day itself: the first full-blown, blue-sky day of spring. I look and look and then decide to clean the kitchen, lest it distract from the day.

That’s when I notice my sad, frayed dishtowels. My weary, wintry dishtowels. The hunter-gatherer in me awakes. I need new dishtowels. Spring dishtowels. Now. Expert shoppers regularly find things that are beautiful or functional or distinctively “them,” like the black leather band ringed with silver that a white-haired man I know wears on his tanned wrist. Their finds bring me pleasure—and sometimes the wistful awareness that if I put in the hours, I too could find such treasures.

Instead, I admire shoppers the way I admire fencers: as practitioners of a demanding and athletic form I’ll never master. I am an occasional shopper, a half-hearted shopper. Take, for instance, the Fitbit electronic pedometer clipped to my bra right now. I was sold on electronic pedometers years ago; I even phoned the local co-op to buy one. But something interfered. Maybe the clerk took too long or my teakettle whistled. At any rate, my attention shifted. This is what I mean when I say I’m not a shopper: shoppers have endurance; shoppers keep going. I solve the same problem—the problem of wanting and getting—by wanting something else, like a cup of tea. It’s not that desires are interchangeable, but that I want so many different things.

Years passed before I thought about pedometers again, this time right before a cab arrived to take me to the airport, where I ran into delays and had to cancel the day’s work. The only way to come out ahead would be if the airport Brookstone carried electronic pedometers. It did. Three brands. Better still, I got the clerk of my dreams: quick to understand what I wanted, willing to name the brand he preferred, and fast-moving enough to get me out of the store in twenty minutes, my outer limit. (Airport delays are not for shopping; they’re for eating soft-serve frozen yogurt and reading paperback= thrillers.) I bought the Fitbit he recommended and, at his urging, paid to insure it.

You could say he was a good salesman; you could say I was an easy mark. You could also say that we were successful collaborators. I surely thought so, particularly when I lost the pedometer and it was replaced at no charge. The Brookstone salesman was the opposite of the clerk I flee: the one who doesn’t have what I am looking for and tries to convince me that what she has on hand will work. I go silent rather than say the snarky things I feel like saying. I remind myself that some customers—probably the ones who love to shop—would welcome an approach that widens their sense of possibilities. Not me. I feel put-upon, a state I work hard to avoid.

I knew it all too well growing up. Worse, it’s a state linked to shopping. Tall by age eleven, I came to dread the words I heard most often from clerks, “We don’t have what you’re looking for in your size.” Trying to help or make a sale, the clerk would then suggest alternatives. A pair of kelly-green lace-up oxfords I was coerced into putting on my suddenly size ten feet horrifies me to this day. Watching my feet (previously good feet, running and jumping feet, feet you could find shoes for) turn long and green and ugly made me cry. Whatever the other choice was—and in those days before the Internet, it regularly came down to a choice between two make-do options—those were the shoes I wore to school that year. It took subsequent generations of young women to make my height and shoe size normal, and for me to understand that I was tall, not misshapen.

Shopping meant scarcity. It meant rejection. It fueled my queasy suspicion that I’d never belong. Mostly it was hard: hard to have reached my full height, nearly five-foot-eleven, by the fifth grade. Hard that I couldn’t afford the Jantzen sweaters and Pendleton skirts the girls I envied wore. Hard that Capezio flats weren’t even made in my size. All exclusion is costly and mine came with an additional twist: my grandmother, who owned a high-end dress shop, sent me her cast-offs, as well as items from her stock. That meant I wore Italian knits and cashmere coats to high school: clothing too old for me and far more expensive than the clothes I wanted.

Shopping was too complicated for too long for the impulse to remain intact. (I think of Parker, the lithe blond thief on the TV show Leverage. She sees something sparkly and her eyes widen and her head swivels to track it.) What I have instead is observation. Noticing—in this case, noticing the gap between what I have and what I can imagine. Reaching for a coat, I picture one that would better suit my mood, the temperature, or the clothes I have on. (A friend gave me her well-loved blue Burberry trench coat, describing it as perfect to wear with jeans. It is.) Folding a dishtowel to put under a hot casserole, I think, Trivet. I could do with a trivet. I even bought a house this way, by picturing the view I wanted to see from the window. After trekking through what felt like an endless run of bad-shoe houses, I remembered that a friend went to open houses for fun. He ferried me around, bless him, providing the stamina and hopefulness I could no longer muster. Seven steps into the house I now own, I saw the view I had imagined.

I phone the friend I had invited for tea and ask her to meet me at a kitchen store instead. There I forage until I find a display table laden with April Cornell prints: runners, tablecloths, napkins, dishtowels. I start at one corner and work my way around, dismissing dishtowels that are pretty but not right. I’m down to the final corner when I spot a stack of daffodil-bright piqué dishtowels. I unfold one and crush it between my hands. It feels right. It looks right. I buy three.

All better now: I figured out what I wanted, I found it, and I got it. The week before, what did the trick was peanut butter balls, a treat from my childhood. Making them was a gamble. Every few years I try a donut or a milkshake, only to discover they aren’t half as good as I remember. But with the initial taste of the first batch (peanut butter, agave syrup, coconut flour in place of the original recipe ’s powdered milk, and raisins), I was happy. You may not think happy is a taste sensation, but it is.

Weather and hormonal changes leave me yearning for something—if only I knew what that something was. Yearning itself is hard to bear and yearning without a discernible object can lead to cycles of spending, eating, and viewing that are cut off from desire. Popcorn and reruns, followed by disgust. The reverse is what pleases me about the dishtowels episode. Following a hunch led to satisfaction. Isn’t that what shopping is? Wanting something and trying to locate it: first internally, then out in the world.

I interpret the sensation of wanting something as hunger, which it is— although not necessarily for food. Sometimes what I want is sleep or company or a movie other than the one I’m watching. (“Let’s find something with a faster pace,” says a friend, teaching me to gauge whether the movie we’re watching suits my mood.) When a houseguest lingers longer than the recommended three days, I want my house back. I want silence. I want to pile dirty dishes in the sink and ignore the phone. Or I want the opposite: a lover to laugh with, the zing of hot and sour soup, the checkout clerks at the neighborhood grocery to ask me how I’m doing. Or something highly specialized, like the masquerade of strolling through a pricy boutique as though I belong there (best done on the West Coast, where the wealthy dress down). Searching for what I want makes me feel purposeful. Grown up. Cosmopolitan. Imagining the blue-and-black hound’s-tooth scarf I wish I could find, I am alive to myself—as is, I imagine, the aboriginal hunter who sings to the animal he ’s tracking.

Market researchers divide shoppers into two groups, those who shop for objects and those who shop for experiences. They study which group gets the better payoff, whether objects or experiences add more to the shopper’s quality of life. I am arguing a different premise: that effective shopping, shopping that leads to satisfaction, is aligned with desire. It doesn’t matter whether the object of desire is a sunset or a nonstick skillet, laughter or a shiny new speedboat. What matters is finding a link between an internal desire and its outward expression. Ineffective shopping—the kind that leads to outfits that age in the closet, untried recipes, vacations spent at someone else ’s dream destination—is shopping unmoored from the self.

Lantern-print dishtowels? Sure, why not. Peanut butter balls? Good call. A hound’s-tooth scarf? Not this season. Despite repeated forays, I return from the hunt empty handed. What matters is staying close. Connected. Reading myself as well as I can, and following through, acting on those appetites I am able to decipher. A fluffy aubergine robe with big pink polka dots that made me grin when I saw it in an English clothing catalogue makes me happy each time I put it on—a stroke of luck, I figure, although I’m proud of myself for taking such an outlandish gamble.

Self-awareness is inevitably erratic, a work in progress, an etch-a-sketch that shifts with the slightest shimmer of movement. Doing the best we can is the best we can do. Who knew that I consider new dishtowels a rite of spring? I certainly didn’t. What are the odds that the ooze and faintly umami taste of an almost forgotten peanut butter candy would satisfy my sweet tooth for weeks? It takes nerve to act on our desires—and stamina to withstand those yearnings that are too diffuse to decipher. (Something . . . there ’s something I want, but I can’t identify it. Animal, mineral, vegetable? Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick?) Wanting is a primal force. Trying to tamp it down is understandable, as is going numb to escape the tension it creates. But most of us don’t want the moon. We simply want what we want. Whatever that is.

A successful day is one in which what I buy and what I eat and the way I spend my time satisfies me. Sometimes I can’t put a name to what it is I desire; sometimes I can’t locate it. Frequently, I run out of steam. Wanting, not to mention getting, takes effort, stamina, and luck.

Experience helps. Had the dishtowels been out of my price range, I simply would have admired them the way I do textiles in a museum. If their pattern hadn’t matched my giddy mood, I would not have unfolded one to take a second look. At long last, I know how to shop—that is, I know how to shop for who I am. I would regret buying a scarf that fell short of my fantasy or dishtowels that were merely serviceable. Nothing make-do for me. I’m better off doing without. That’s how the previous batch of dishtowels got so frayed, come to think of it.

It had been years since I had seen any, either internally or out in the wide world, that I truly desired.

Reprinted from Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship to Shopping, edited by Kerry Cohen, Seal Press. Publication date 10/28/14.