Today I said goodbye to a shirt that has lived in my wardrobe for three years.
It was a good shirt, subtle and plain, white with short sleeves, a mandarin collar, and cream buttons. It had been sitting patiently in my closet awaiting its debut since the day I bought it, but the hanger is all it’s ever known. I have never worn it because, apparently, I failed to try it on before buying it. It has survived three years’ worth of closet sweeps, dodging both the Goodwill bag and the “maybe this time I will get more than $6.36 at Beacon’s Closet” bag. Every time I try it on again, after another year filled with losses and gains and shifts, it still doesn’t really fit, and I still hang it back up.
The last time I checked back in with my little shirt was a few months ago. With a sharp inhale I was able to button it, thinking, This is good. Now I can wear this lovely shirt to something, so long as that something does not require breathing. I pulled my spine straight and turned sideways in the mirror. If I keep riding this fitness wave I have been on, it might actually fit by July. I imagined myself on the boardwalk in blue swim trunks and my white shirt with the three top buttons open, eating a mango on a stick.
I turned from the closet buzzing with determination, or delusion, both the drug of it will be different this time.
It’s not entirely clear whether my attachment to this shirt, among other prized and useless possessions I’ve struggled to part with, is an expression of compulsive hope or hopeless disesteem. When I hold on to clothes that don’t fit or books I never read or a plant I already killed, am I pushing myself to be better, or punishing myself for being who I am?
As I continued to clean, I began to see in my amateur hoarding a pattern I’ve repeated in both trivial and troublesome ways, holding on to shirts that are too tight on the belly, and people who are too loose with how they treat me. But I have never found it particularly inspiring to try on clothing that wasn’t made for my body or invest time in a person who doesn’t want to match me. I find it disappointing and unsettling. It’s reckless self-criticism that is not energizing or encouraging but draining and unproductive.
I know we have to envision what we want and what we are capable of to be able to work towards it. But opening my closet and seeing that shirt every day has not encouraged me; neither will daily badgering in my brain. I can’t build success using disappointment and deprecation. I can’t bake a sweet cake using garlic and salt.
The white shirt, the stacks of blank notebooks, the withered money plant, they all make a donkey out of me. They are my carrot on an impossibly long stick. But I don’t want an apartment filled with things I don’t use, as if my best self were a roommate who will show up as soon as I get my shit together and deserve their company. By spending all my time looking at the carrot, I’m missing the nourishment that’s already within me.
Last month I was at my parents’ home preparing for Passover, helping with the traditional process that involves removing all bread items and non-Passover food and deep cleaning every corner of the house. The night before the holiday, when every room is supposed to be crisp and kosher and ready to go, we purposefully place 10 pieces of forbidden bread in one of the downstairs rooms. We wait until it is dark and then, by candlelight, search for the bread, using a feather to sweep each piece and every crumb into a napkin.
The next morning we tie up the napkin and burn it. As was true for the ancient people who created this practice, and is still true for us today, the bread is meant to represent all the stale and stagnant pieces of our lives, all the baggage that blocks us from our freest and fullest selves. Through that expulsion, we open space within for everything than can help us grow, bring us comfort and inspiration, and take care of us so that we can take care of others.
So today I gave my white shirt away. This year for my secular spring cleaning, I am picking 10 “pieces of bread” in my house to seek and sweep out. By the time I am done there will be no more shirts in my closet that “will fit in a few months.” That stack of magazines “I am going to collage with” will be on the curb. That fountain pen that has been waiting five years for me to script a legendary tale on some sort of scroll will find its way to a vintage shop. My drawers will be purged of all pants that “almost zip.”
I am getting dressed today. I am who I am today. This is the body that I have today, so I need jeans I can walk in today, not in July. I need people, pants and plans that open me up, not keep me stuck, that give me space to reach towards whatever is my best. I need a white shirt that lets me breathe. And when I find it, there is now a hanger open and waiting to hold it.
Animation by Madeline Montoya.