Remember after 9/11, when George W. Bush urged us all to go shopping? Remember how offensive it was to some of us, the idea that capitalism was a natural balm to apply after unthinkable horror? Even if we generously allow that the suggestion wasn’t made in an offensive spirit, at the very least it felt tone-deaf and laughably inadequate. Throwing good money after grief.
But years later, idly trying to unravel the idea behind the suggestion, I lit upon a certain truth lurking beneath the president’s indecent proposal. Shopping can be therapy. Hadn’t I used my own purchasing power in this very way many times? When I was sad, or bored, or desirous of accessing the better self promised by aspirational objects? There’s nothing ethical about shopping, no matter what the fair-trade, sustainable makers-of-unneeded-things would like us to think. So why does it feel so good, that rush we experience on completing a retail transaction, when the brain’s pleasure-response system goes into overdrive? And why does it feel so bad when we decide against buying some item we’re convinced could have turned it all around?
It’s easy to understand on a rational level that happiness cannot be purchased: by the time you reach your thirties or forties you’re largely disabused of that notion. Any dopamine-inducing pleasure invoked by a retail spree is as fleeting as a drug high (and followed by almost as much self-loathing). Inanimate objects do not contain some magic life-altering fairydust that will be imparted to you once you make them your own. But every now and again there it is, that little thrill, the voice in your ear whispering that if you buy that object, if you can only possess that thing, everything will finally change. Say you’re strong and you don’t give in to that voice: then what happens? You skip the self-loathing step, sure, but regret can be just as corrosive. You risk never quieting that voice, which will insist that some of the problems in your life right now can be traced back to the absence of that sacred, spurned object.
This goes double for any purchases that can objectively improve your material position. Real estate, while as illusory a source of happiness as any other, at least has the virtue of providing a roof over your head. I have no doubt that were I in a position to buy a four-story brownstone in Manhattan or the modernist bungalow of my dreams in the Hollywood Hills that certain daily conditions would improve. There would be more space, more light, more beauty. Friends would come over for dinner parties. There would be bath tubs and fireplaces and other things that make life more comfortable and delightful. But comfort isn’t happiness. There’s only really one recipe for happiness, in my experience: receive and give love, and find something meaningful to do with your life. That’s it. No amount of marble foyers or sports cars or Picassos or walk-in closets full of Chanel will make good substitutes for those ingredients. Salvation does not lie at the end of a retail binge. You know this. I know this too, yet I still lust after pieces of art and houses and wicked shoes. How to break this curse?
I finally devised a cheap form of therapy, which was to catalogue the items I most wish I’d bought throughout the years. I wrote them down, stared them in the face, insisted on accessing their true value. At first all those unbought things were haunting; poignant figments scattering the plains of an imagined future in which I have everything I could ever need. But the more I contemplated them, the more their absurdity was revealed. Turns out I didn’t need any of these things at all! I sorted them from the most frivolous, superficial regrets to the most substantial. Each excavation into a lost object revealed a hidden truth—a genuine regret. But it also threw into relief how lucky I have been, to have accumulated these regrets, and survived them.
- I wish I had bought those exquisite burnt orange hand-bound leather notebooks in Venice, you know the ones. They come with a strip of leather you wrap around to close the book. They’re something I’d probably never use, given that I take all my travel notes on my phone now. But like many objects of desire their value is measured mostly in their impractical, ineffable beauty, which as any aficionado will tell you is the best kind of beauty. I could have been filling reams of those books, creating an artifact for display in some imaginary museum, in an imaginary future in which I am revered as a Very Serious and Important Literary Figure. I didn’t take my writing seriously until recently. I deeply regret those wasted non-writing years, all those unwritten words, the disadvantage that dogs me when I compare my output to more industrious peers. These days I write like the wind, as if there is something stalking me (there is), but I fear sometimes I will never make up for that lost time.
- I wish I had bought a beaded evening bag in Mérida, Mexico, that was so perfect and unusual and cost about thirty dollars, which seemed overpriced yet reasonable, but I was in an indecisive mood and when I went back to the store it was no longer there. I still return every now and then in the wistful hope that they’ll get another one, like a cat who keeps returning to the place it once saw a mouse. My husband and I have a home in Mérida. When we were restoring our ruined house, we would often come back to find that one of the workers had lacked a certain tool—say, a broom—so had repurposed objects they had found lying around. A broom head broken from the handle which we’d placed in the trash, for instance, lashed with string to a branch of bamboo that had fallen from one of the trees. Or shards of weathered glass used to strip planks of wood. Laborers arrive at work sites in vans whose windshields are an intricate spider’s web of cracks, whose windows are patched with cardboard. But a car is a status symbol among the Mayan working class, even a crappy car. They could not fathom the point of a beaded evening bag, sixty of which could buy them a decent used truck. Increasingly, I can’t fathom it either.
- I wish I had bought the green tailored Vivienne Westwood 1980s jacket at a flea market in Melbourne. At the time I was dating a guy called Dean with whom I’d started a business, a store selling mid-century modern furniture and design, and we sourced a lot of our merchandise from markets and thrift stores. I got home from the flea market that day, proudly brandishing some dime-or-dozen find (my memory insists it was a 1960s silver ice bucket, but my memory is an unreliable narrator) and I made the mistake of telling Dean about the jacket and he got mad because her stuff is so collectible and he knew someone who would have bought it right away for hundreds of dollars. Sorry, Dean. Sorry, too, for being a self-absorbed girlfriend who didn’t yet understand that the pinnacle of relationship goals wasn’t Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
- I wish I had bought everything at the Armani sample sale I was invited to while working as an editor in Sydney. I bought a blazer at some wildly discounted price—let’s say $200 marked down from $2000—that I still wear regularly, literally fifteen years later, and cherish with a pure and transcendent love. There were whole racks of heavily discounted Armani, and I only bought one thing. I could have filled my wardrobe and justified the expense by amortizing it over the next fifteen years. I’m slightly bitter thinking about how effortlessly stylish I would be now and how that would have changed my professional and personal life in subtle and unknowable ways. At around the same time, my older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She endured the grueling horror and boredom of chemotherapy, and when her hair all fell out she shaved her head and bought a fluorescent blue wig, electing to go out in public looking like an angelic clown rather than pretend that everything was OK.
- I wish I had bought a beautiful hand-woven cream throw rug with tassels in a little village in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I was too ill with altitude sickness to get my shit together to buy it, although it probably only cost a handful of soles. The entire memory is gauzed over with the delirious unreality of a particularly trippy dream. I think there were llamas and guinea pigs living together in a house? The rug probably retails for $1000 in ABC Carpet & Home—those wily fuckers know a good rug when they see it. I felt so unbalanced by the altitude, the sickness, the various remedies I ingested to try to counteract it, I felt at times like my brain had come unstuck. What must it be like to feel like this constantly, as do so many people who have come and gone in my life, and all of our lives? Yet I have been guilty of getting exasperated, making excuses to get off the phone, of throwing the drowning person a ragged life preserver then walking away, when what they needed was someone to jump in and save them. Mental illness is a black dog that waits at the end of the bed to pounce, and it has infinite patience. Unlike me.
- I wish I had bought those Barbara Bui heels I passed over in Hong Kong in favor of a Helmut Lang denim jacket that I never wear. But what if I had bought the heels instead— wouldn’t they have worn out long ago and been consigned to the thrift store or the trash? In that case the jacket was a better investment. But what good is an investment you never use and whose value never appreciates? Doesn’t the utility of something loved but lost eclipse something pristine but unloved? Such questions can become hauntingly existential if you think about them long enough. My oldest friend Jane lived in Hong Kong at the time. We grew up in the same town yet we’ve spent so much time apart. Why didn’t I spend more time with her on that visit? Why were we forever making and canceling dates with one another when we lived in the same city, as we did for twelve years in New York? Why did we continue to act like there would be some shining future week in which our calendars would align, miraculously clear, and we could devote undivided attention to one another’s lives? We should have just canceled everything else but our friendship.
- I wish I had bought travel insurance that time I had my suitcase stolen from the trunk of the rental car in Madrid. This was in the ’90s, and I was young and overseas for the first time and giddy with whatever the Spanish version of joie de vivre is, and I guess hadn’t read the common-sense life manuals outlining the stupidity of leaving anything valuable in one’s vehicle. When I found out that thieves had broken in, I sat in the gutter and cried in the street with such abandon that I’m sure there are Madrileños who still talk about it from time to time. I wanted to be a travel writer and I got my wish, and now I am jaded about the privilege of discovering new places. What I would give to retrieve how it felt at eighteen to arrive in a new city, to wander its damp streets at dawn, enraptured, and swear I was never going home again. Everything in that busted trunk and much more.
- I wish I had bought the beautiful and unusual oil painting in a tiny, obscure art gallery in Venice that was located on the kind of alley that city is renowned for, the kind you know you’ll never find again. Predictably, I never did find it again. For years afterwards, I would think about that painting at odd moments. It had a strange tenacious grip on my memory. Maybe it was a rare and obscure Picasso and my subconscious somehow knew. As I write this, the GOP are preparing to dismantle the arts funding so vital to the health of the creative industries in this country. Not just high-profile cultural institutions or grants for already-wealthy artists, as I think some of the citizens who voted for this president gleefully assume the NEA cuts will affect, but theaters and art spaces and programs for tiny, forgotten rural communities whose only conduit to creative life comes from this funding. I regret that my vote made no difference, that to the people now running this country art is considered an effete, liberal indulgence, instead of the lifeblood of a healthy, thriving society. If they had their way there would be no Picassos or Bachs, no James Baldwins or Ai Weiweis. There would only be money, and spite.
- How I wish I had bought that sweet one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne. When I was in my early twenties, I managed to save up enough—fifteen thousand dollars!—to put a deposit on a small apartment (I called it a flat then, of course), even though I was only working part-time in cafes. Looking back I’m at a loss as to how this was possible. Did money work differently then? Somehow today, although I consider myself marginally more grown-up, it flies out of my hands and leaks out of my bank accounts within days of landing there. My dad came along to the auction and bid on the apartment for me because I was too racked with nerves to raise my hand, but someone else bid higher and I had a strict ceiling on what I could spend so we went home empty-handed. The place is probably worth a gazillion dollars now and could have launched my career as a property kingpin. But going to that auction was one of the rare youthful occasions during which I got to bond with my dad one-on-one. (I have three sisters and grew up with two working parents, so parental affection, like every other commodity, tended to be rationed.) I wish I’d spent more time with my parents, just being an adult, not wanting anything from them. Maybe it’s not too late.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Structo, Travel + Leisure, and New York magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster’s Children. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US, Mexico, and various airport lounges. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley