Orphaned Objects

Despite acquiring the bulk of my wardrobe from thrift stores for most of my life I have an emotional allergy to the retail experience presented at thrift stores.

I have to wash clothes from the thrift store twice, usually, because the smell of the industrial detergent they use will occasionally trigger migraines. .

This phenomenon seems mostly limited to resale shops or second hand stores–I really only visit one antique store and I walk a proscribed route and avoid the booth in the back corner that is a sort of crawling chaos of hoarded junk.

This experience is also noticeably distinct from the panic induced by poorly organized, chaotic and high-energy retail environments like TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Joann Fabrics or Trader Joes. Those are all stores I have had to leave and decompress from by laying in a dark room.

I think what’s happening is what the Buddhist suttas would call a failure to guard my sense doors, in essence, an inability to regulate my imagination . You see a garment at J Crew, for example, and you might wonder about the design decisions or the supply chain that went into creating that garment, but it is just a garment, a “just so” story with no real history. Roland Barthes would call the garment possessed of essence rather than history.

A garment at a thrift store, however, has a history rather than an essence. It was purchased by someone, worn, given a narrative of sorts, then ended up on the $2.99 rack at the goodwill. In examining each object one is forced on some level to examine the history of the garment and its previous owner, the chain of custody from original sale to resale. Taken singly this can be fun (what was the weather like at the charity 5K? What sort of person would wear a floral shirt with contrasting floral pocket and cuffs?) but taken en masse, either through active participation or passive observation, the experience of being confronted by all of these orphaned objects is overwhelming–too many ideas about too many people living too many lives. My head hurts just trying to condense the experience for easy communication.

I used to call the experience being oppressed by the inanimate, or oppressed by objects, and it was a key indicator of my emotional state. If I am tired, or depressed, or drained, I have significant difficulty controlling my mind’s eye–every object oppresses with the weight of its individual history. I think the mental breakdown in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is of a similar species, as what nineteenth century writers used to call “brain storms” or “mental storms”–in the most extreme instances I lose executive function and more or less black out.

I ran into two concepts over the past year that shed some light on what I experience and by writing this I hope I can connect them and maybe shed light on common experience.

The first is the notion of papanca, a difficult-to-translate word from the Pali language (in which the earliest Buddhist texts, the tripitaka, were written) Papanca basically refers to the tendency of concepts to self-proliferate While briefly stated here, the concept is rich with scaffolding ideas–if concepts can self-proliferate, they have agency outside of the mind. If concepts have a tendency to self-proliferate, that suggests involuntary mental activity basically weaving a web of perception for our “active” brain–effectively setting up the screen on which we view the world. I think I am going to discuss papanca and dependent origination at length later after I have (consciously) thought about it more.

Basically, a lack of mental control causes a flood of concepts that in turn generate related concepts and the mind swims along in the flood, until exhausted and disordered, it can’t. Certainly sounds like what I experience, not that giving the experience a name guards one against it.

The second concept comes from Marie Kondo, whose book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up I read this spring. I am fascinated by the book and Marie Kondo generally not just for the strength and clarity of her main idea, but as a cultural object–of the many people who know enough to make jokes about what they think her book/theory/life is like, how many have treated with her ideas on their merits? It’s like when people talk about capitalism, or communism, or democracy–what people think they are talking about is often not at all representative of the ideas themselves.

Anyway, Marie Kondo has lots of phenomenal ideas about organizing and decluttering–I rearranged my closet and dresser according to her system and it worked wonders for me, also I strive to keep the bedroom completely tidy (we have a toddler so our dining room and library are both sacrifice zones to clutter) and there is a sense of deep and abiding calm that comes from a well-organized room that I wish I had understood at any age prior.

Marie Kondo’s idea about treating our objects as emotional beings (thanking them for their service before throwing them out, e.g.) is the idea that elicits the most snickers and eye-rolls from people. But having used the practice, it works.

So here’s my grand synthesis: By acknowledging the emotional weight you give objects (and you do, you have a history for virtually every object in your house and history is both cognitive and emotional due to the neurochemistry of memory) you can clarify your relationship to the object, contextualize the difference between how you feel about the object and how you feel/who you are now, and in a sense exorcise it. You can trim the conceptual thicket that comes from objects by recognizing how they overstep their physical boundaries in your thinking. By acknowledging the irrational nature of of our relationships to the inanimate, we can more easily detach ourselves from burdensome attachments to the inanimate, letting go of what we no longer wish to carry.

It’s hard not to end a discussion on the emotional lives of inanimate objects on a self-deprecatory note, so I will close by reminding you that Labor Day was created by more conservative members of the American labor movement to divorce workers from the politically charged nature of May Day, which was selected as an International Workers Day to commemorate the Haymarket Affair.