I once found a book at a bookstore which I simply had to have. The need to acquire it was a powerful and familiar feeling, a formless but imposing presence in the room which I feel often when I see the woolen throw with the perfect texture or a slotted spoon with a superior grain. It was hunger, near the throat, a thrumming desire. Acquiring this book would somehow ennoble me.
So I bought it. Took it home. And realized I already owned a copy.
It was that day that I realized there is a difference, in my mind, between acquiring a thing and owning it. I’ve observed this many times since, with fascination and a queasy shame. Before acquisition, the object – book, spoon, throw – is everything, full of a promise to remake and uplift me, to craft for me a life somehow grander and better than my current one. Once owned, its pixie dust loses all sparkle and falls wordlessly to the floor, leaving the thing not just without magic, but invisible.
This goes beyond petty acquisitiveness – although there is enough of that to make me uncomfortable admitting this – and plunges into something else, some deep, poor-girl’s need to have the capacity to have. There is a certain self-soothing element to “I can have this if I want to.” This despite the fact that it’s not the having that provides the comfort, but the acquiring.
Often, the things I’m drawn to are enmeshed with thoughts of what “real Americans” would have, formed in some reptilian part of my brain where logic doesn’t filter in. This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when my brother sat on my couch looking at a decorative arrangement I’d set up across the way, under a picture window. It is fabulous basket I’ve arranged with faux fur throws that have never been taken out of their original, tight packaging, bound up with some kind of leather harness one might see on a sled dog. Behind the throws, stuck out at angles, are two oar replicas aged to look like they used to be used on a family boat but which have gotten too old to be of service as anything but decorations. It is the kind of thing I might imagine you’d see in the Cape Cod beach house a fifth generation has just inherited. The set of 3, brand new, faux-aged, cost $200 in Pottery Barn (the third one lives in the yard).
Yes, I understand how silly this is.
I have a certain peace with it, because it’s not like I’m a spendthrift. I give myself a little treat on payday but I don’t get into financial trouble for it. Still, there’s a certain hollowness I’d like to outgrow. If the things gave me continued pleasure, it would feel better. But if the feeling fades, then there must be a better replacement that puts less of a dent in my wallet. One that is more than a momentary pleasure.
And, lastly, there is an uglier side I’d really, really like to get away from. Today, looking for something in a closet, I found the most exquisite leather handbag someone gave me as a gift a few years ago. Because I hadn’t gone through the “lusting” phase with the bag, I didn’t pay very close attention to it when I received it, and I put it unceremoniously in a closet. Things that come easy, without longing, often feel unimpressive to me, a cousin to “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I feel ambivalent about having because on some level I’m not sure I am supposed to have, so it’s easier to dream about having than actually opening my eyes and appreciating what is already around me. Which is plenty, by the way.
I’ve often heard of the power of gratitude, its ability to transform a life of longing into a life of satisfaction. It’s always sounded a little trite, but then that might be because gratitude takes a certain lull in the breath, a pause in the madness, a moment to reflect. Thumbing through a catalog lives on the surface of the mind, alluring, chatty, a painted lady promising a good time. Gratitude is gnarled and deeper down, not so easy a place to find. But oh, so much more textured. Gratitude, leave me some signs so I learn better how to find you. I need you and your sweet silence.
PS – if you’re looking for a laugh, I found you the listing for the oars. They are on sale now, but I paid full price. Because of course I did. Click here.