The worthy exceptions: flea markets, farmers markets, all markets overseas, thrift stores, consignment shops, festivals. That’s many exceptions, but they truly are exceptional; they rarely happen. Money is not always the pivotal issue, even though I’m very frugal—I also dislike outlet malls, unless I know exactly what I want and can do everything in 10 minutes. I don’t even have patience for grocery stores, even though they are more benign than malls. I never go to grocery stores during peak hours because I can only stand them for 10 minutes.
Outside of the exceptions, I generally dislike the entire shopping experience. I have no patience for trying on different sizes of the same thing to determine the right size; I’m bored immediately. Malls feel completely unnatural—fluorescent lights, recycled air. Whatever the reasons, nothing in malls can compensate for how unpleasant I find them. I am a Mac user, and I don’t even like the Apple store.
(About every two years I have a big day at one of the exceptions. Given that $50 feels extravagant, imagine how ostentatious I feel on the rare occasions when I spend more.)
Truly, I’d rather be cleaning than shopping. (I hate cleaning too.) Why? I know I’ll always be happier when I finish cleaning.
Swaps, however, are frequent enough that I don’t consider them an exception to shopping. Every few months, several friends gather to trade the unwanted/unnecessary contents of our closets, jewelry boxes, shelves, sometimes even walls or countertops: clothes, accessories, shoes, kitchen appliances, books, picture frames.
Not that swaps are new to me, but never were they so methodical or consistent. We have established protocol—before we start digging, we make categorized piles of items and wait until everyone arrives. Once everyone is present, we begin excavating. Sometimes people have objectives, like work clothes, costumes, even ratty old stuff for gardening.
I love that swaps are advantageous both economically and environmentally. We provide so much abundance for each other. I haven’t shopped for clothes in years, yet every few months I acquire more than I need, which encourages me to jettison what I don’t use. Thus I am hugely grateful my many female friends under 5’4” who have excellent taste and even better generosity.
Ultimately, we all end up with what we like. During the process, we have many hilarious moments of trying on clothes that are too big, too tight, too short, too ugly—in other words, the entertainment of shopping, without any of the annoyances. We also hear the back stories—a sarong from Guatemala, a scarf from someone’s mother, a handmade belt. Regardless of who or what is there, the swaps always have many variations of the following dialogue:
“Oh, this is horrendous on me. No way.”
“You’re right. Bad idea.”
“You should try it though. I bet it would work on you.”
“Oh, yes, definitely.”
“Wow, you’re right!”
“Yes, you should keep it.”
One of the aftereffects is seeing one’s things on another’s person’s body or in another person’s home. In one instance, a person brought a top she thought was too revealing. Someone else tried it on backwards, and it looked great. The original owner was not nearly as dismayed as she was excited that someone found a way to wear her shirt attractively. So now we all laugh when we see it worn more appropriately.
Swaps have been the perfect gathering for a myriad of occasions: moving into a new home, moving to a new city, starting a new job, even divorce. Though of course I knew I would appreciate the financial savings, I did not expect to enjoy the actual swap time, since I hate shopping. Yet what I appreciate most is the community-building. We all recognize that stuff (clothing, etc) is trivial, but that the occasion provides an opportunity for us to share as much personal space as we care to, in a space completely opposite of shopping aggression. We foster an unusual sort of confidence, in which we can all give and receive comments such as, “That doesn’t look right, don’t bother.”
Even more importantly, the swaps have taught me profound lessons in how I relate to others. I have publicized this before, but last July I was told that I had precancerous cells in my cervix. I underwent a biopsy within 18 hours of receiving the prognosis, and I was completely terrified.
I could barely stay calm enough to tell even a couple of people, let alone many close friends and family. The anxiety exacerbated my lifelong perspective that sharing my problems was a sign of weakness or failure. I believed that sharing anything difficult was effectively burdening other people with my problems.
This time, I recognized I was on the brink of a meltdown. Fortunately, a friend was hosting a swap two days later, and I considered the timing a sign that I should share, despite my hesitation. So with shaking hands I emailed everyone to request some time to talk before the swap began—which of course made me feel even more burdensome and pressured.
The next night, hardly composed, I half-sobbed through what had happened, expecting the news to shock everyone. Instead, my friends shocked me—nearly everyone had experienced something similar. They encouraged me not to panic until I learned the biopsy results. We all learned a lot about each other, spontaneously, simply from having a conversation that shame or fear often suppresses.
After everyone shared, another friend asked if I wanted some sound therapy, which I gratefully accepted. She and another friend played their didgeridoos, and the rest of us ended up om-ing, in our own timing, on our own notes.
After several minutes two other friends arrived, who, despite not knowing the reason for the sounds, immediately cheered and joined us. An outsider probably would have considered the scene clueless and cacauphonous. But from my perspective, at the sound end of didgeridoos, everything was energizing and euphonic.
Before the swap even happened, I felt better that evening than I did a week later, when I received a much more optimistic prognosis. Nearly six months later, I and many of those same people were circled together at a Yule celebration, arms around each other. Someone commented how we’d been through so much together, and another person mentioned the crazy night of Stephanie’s news and didgeridoos. Everyone burst out laughing, some people re-enacting the chanting. I laughed so hard I cried, the best kind of tears this time.
In that moment, I realized how something agitating can fortify bonds so strongly. What I worried would only be a burden was actually a beautiful opportunity for many people to share love, very tangibly and directly. So I advocate the consequent community from simple gatherings. And I have learned that I never know what will come from swapping old jeans and skirts.
∞ Deep gratitude to Maya, Alison, Liz, Nima, Laurel, and Cristiana for holding such powerful space.
SK © 2012