In the wake of earthquakes and aftershocks (almost as strong as the initial quake), a thunderstorm that took down the last of our front yard trees, and an impending hurricane that may be the worst we’ve seen in 20 years, let’s talk about something really serious . . . clothes! I gave myself a challenge.
I went to five different Goodwill stores in our area, over five days (not consecutive or my husband would wonder if this was my new job), with $100. When I spent the $100, I stopped. In the photo above, you see my bed heaped with goodies. I photographed them, not very well, I’m afraid. It was too light in my bedroom (trees gone!). But you’ll have an idea what I snared. After my summer with the Goodwill Goddess, I learned that it helps to look for something specific. I needed a long wool coat. And a short wool coat to throw on with jeans. I tend to wear “puffy” jackets that make me look even dumpier. These coats have some style and shape. The cranberry long coat was $5! Our Goodwills have tag sales–50% off that color tag each day. I hit the “yellow tag” week and that’s how I got many things. The yellow tags were last season. Do I care what season a coat is? The peacoat coat was $5.50. I don’t often need business-type outfits, but if I do, this ponte knit coat dress is perfect for luncheons. I added the ruffled shirt between so you could see this is two pieces. The pieces were sold separately, about $5 each. I learned to look for labels from good clothing makers. I found a number of things from Talbot’s. The paisley vest I adore. I will wear it with menswear jackets or pants and lace scarves and pearls. The ivory blouse on the left isn’t a brand-name but it’s silk. This purple bloucle knit has velvet trim. I loved the color and was thrilled to find flannel pants that pick up the brown in the jacket at a different store. I hardly ever see Pendleton any more, but this yellow tag wool jacket jumped in my hands. I paired it with a Christopher and Banks long riding skirt, the silk blouse, and the vintage pearl necklace I snapped up ($2.99!).
The faux-suede dress actually makes me look curvy, not fat (this is new for me–I was a stick for so many years). I love the unstructured Coldwater Creek knit jacket with it. I love jean jackets with skirts. This jacket is in dark brown corduroy and I found this turquoise and brown long skirt. The ivory Lize Claiborne blouse is pin-tucked and ruffled. On my first trip to Goodwill, I nabbed this Jones New York jacket. It looks dark gray in the photo below, but it’s really dark brown and cream teeny-tiny check and will go with anything. Like the paisley vest and pearls. I picked up jackets willy-nilly, for the most part. I knew I’d find a use for them. The photo doesn’t do either piece justice, color-wise. This blue and black mohair jacket will go with jeans or black pants. The Express taffeta shirt jacket is really a deep garnet and purple, depending on the light. I’ll wear it with summer skirts or with gray pants. And that’s a vintage black purse with a Lucite handle, $2.50! I love unstructured, boxy jackets. This suede-like caramel-colored jacket is perfect for throwing over the shoulders on a fall day. The mock-neck sweater is dark brown. And yes, that’s a genuine Coach purse (I did the fake test), like new. I love menswear. I may not wear this combination of a glen plaid jacket and menswear trousers with the burgundy sweater. But I might. That’s the beauty of all these pieces. I can wear them any way I want!
That’s it! The 5 Goodwill stores in 5 days with $100 yielded 26 items: 1 long coat, 1 short coat, 2 skirts, 1 vest, 1 coat dress, 1 dress, 2 sweaters, 2 slacks, 3 blouses, 1 necklace, 2 purses, 1 shirt jacket, and 8 jackets.
My tips for a successful Goodwill adventure:
1. Go early and go often.
2. Go without kids and husbands, if possible. You have to do a lot of rack-sorting.
3. Look for name brands. I don’t buy Wal-mart or Target or Kohl’s brands–those stores are cheap enough. But don’t be slavish to name brands either. You may find a wonderful piece in an off-brand.
4. Check clothes for pit stains, loose buttons, and stains or thread pulls. Unless you can fix it, put it back. 5. Look for specific items (like coats) or specific colors.
6. Look for good fabrics. I picked out wool, mohair, corduroy, silk, taffeta.
Our Goodwills are arranged by color and size, thank heavens. I check the racks for anything in wool and silk, and the colors ivory, brown, navy, and gray first.
See if your store offers discounts–anything I donate I get a 20% off entire purchase ticket.
Or how I found good will at the Goodwill and salvation at the Salvation Army.
Thrifty doesn't come naturally to me. If I have a dollar I will spend it, immediately. I grew up wearing hand-me-downs, homemade creations, and Washington's Birthday sale bargains back when you could get a new TV set for fifty cents, if you were first in line. None of this mattered until I hit middle school and was thrown in with girls who wore brand-new outfits from good department stores (not Sears).
When I got my first job at age 17, I was paid once a month. On payday I hit Tyson's Corners shopping mall and bought clothes not on sale from Garfinckel's, Woodward and Lothrop, and Lord and Taylor. There was that gorgeous paisley jumpsuit, that sweet little hot-pants dress (yes, I wore them to work and no, my job didn't entail standing at the corner of 14th and E). If my mother hadn't made me save $50 from my paycheck, I would have starved the rest of the month. But I looked good.
For the next forty years or so, my wardrobe fluctuated with trends and my dress size. I remember my Gunne Sax phase, my Limited phase, my Laura Ashley phase. As I grew older (and bigger), clothes became less important. I put on a decent outfit to make public appearances and teach. This summer I needed a new dress for a tribute I was giving. I spent exactly two seconds picking out the dress. It fit. It didn't look horrible.
Malls and department stores, once places I practically worshipped in, filled me with dread. All the clothes looked the same. Someone else (buyers, fashion magazines) was telling me what to wear. And I didn't feel like "giving up" and going to Chicos just because I was dumpy and old. So I started buying clothes at Kohl's and Target. Convenient. Cheap.
But not exciting. Buying clothes was like getting my teeth cleaned. I missed the thrill of the Swap Shop.
This was a hole-in-the-wall my mother began frequenting when I was ten. You brought stuff in, earned points, and got stuff. My mother started collecting milk glass. I added to my cat figurine collection. The Swap Shop was only open on odd days, like every other Shrove Tuesday and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but the board shelves were always stocked with goodies.
Around that same time yard sales became popular. Unlike my mother, I hated "yard-sale-ing." Pawing through other people's driveway-strewn junk was the equal of dump-diving. If a nice old lady happened to clean out her dish cupboard and set out Depression glass to sell, fine. Even when I took up antiquing in earnest, I went to quality antique stores and paid the freight.
Yes, I am getting to the point. I cottoned on to Goodwill a few years ago for furniture. Last year I snapped up a vintage Bassett desk for $30 and a nightstand in the same style for $3, at two different Goodwill stores. I painted them cowboy red for my husband's sitting room. But I never spared the clothes a second glance. They looked so dingy and sad and limp. Or just plain weird, like those purple men's shoes in the photo.
In steps my friend, self-proclaimed Goodwill Goddess, to the rescue. This summer she dragged me to Goodwill–three stores in one day!–and proceeded to close the joints down. I'd race the cart to the register when they turned the lights off but she'd just yell from the dressing room, "Relax! They only do that to scare you!" and took another thirty minutes making up her mind what to buy. To get me in the spirit (or hooked, like her), she became my Pesonal Goodwill Shopper.
"What about this?" she'd say, pulling out a purple dress. "Too purple," I'd reply. Or, "Too hot. I'm burning up just looking at it," or "Too weird at the neckline," etc. Then she held up a sleeveless gray dress, apparently never worn. "Your size," she said. Well, actually it was the size I tell everyone I wear because I can't bear to say my real size. I loved that dress. With Spanx it would fit perfectly but without foundation garments it's close enough for government work, as we say. $3.50 and that Calvin Klein was mine.
The gray dress was a defining moment. I could find great clothes, often with tags still on, for a few bucks. At first I hunted for "safe" pieces–simple dresses, jackets. Age appropriate. Last week, as I click-click-clicked hangers along the rail, it occurred to me I don't have to wear safe clothes. With clothing this cheap, I can afford to mix it up. Why not wear that rose-printed silk blouse with the Mandarin collar as a layering piece? Suddenly I envisioned a closet filled with different tops and bottoms and jackets–not things that went together. And I could wear them any way I want. I could endulge in my love for menswear and lace and pearls and corduroy and the colors navy and brown.
Yes, I know this is called Boho Chic. I was around in the 70s when they rolled that style out the first time. And in the 60s when it was called Edwardian romantic. I stood in the middle of Goodwill and realized what women figured out years ago–it's a store filled with possibilities. And how I love me some good possibilities.
I am freed from the two-second-department-store-dress dilemma. Just because I'm on the ragged edge of my fifties doesn't mean I'm consigned to Alfred Dunner. So the next time you're in your local Goodwill or Salvation Army, you might see me, cart heaped with possibilities, like a Paris label, beautifully-made wool jacket (that's too big for me no matter how many times I try it on, willing it to fit), a long caramel suede skirt, a black sheath dress, a strand of vintage pearls.
My mother is probably looking down with a smile, thrilled her squandering daughter got thrifty at last. But I still won't go to yard sales. Not unless some sweet little old lady cleans out her quilt trunk . . .
Next time I'll show photos of some of my Goodwill finds (and some the Goodwill Goddess found for me) and discuss how Goodwill changed my life in other ways.
In the current issue of Poets & Writers (the one with the startling young agents on the cover), there's an article about Bonnie Jo Campbell, 2010 National Book Award finalist for her short story collection, American Salvage. Her new book, Once Upon a River, "one of the most anticipated books of 2011," is getting rave reviews.
The first thing you learn in the article is that Campbell is proficient with that Marlin Golden 39A, the same weapon her teenage character in River uses. You learn that stance makes all the difference in aim. "Standing on two feet, your body waves a little bit." Better to kneel or sit or lie on the ground–"Just being in physical contact with the earth, you know, helps"–when making a kill shot that determines whether or not you eat. Campbell wrote the novel facing an old poster of Annie Oakley, the world's most famous trick shooter. Her character Margo, living the 1970s, is also fascinated with Oakley.
And I'm fascinated with Bonnie Jo Campbell. Unlike George Plimpton, a journalist famous for his experiences with different sports, Campbell doesn't join a pro football team, then return to her penthouse after she's done her research. She knew Margo's river intimately as a child, paddling a canoe. Campbell knows a lot about the natural world–birds, trees, wildflowers, snakes. She knows horses and, as a kid, rode her horse six miles into Kalamazoo late at night. Just clopped around the streets. In high school she led bicycle tours in eastern Europe and later, cycled from Kalamazoo to Boston, alone, camping along the way.
Riding a horse into town at night! When I was that age, I was in bed by eight o'clock, willingly. I knew a lot about birds and trees and flowers, too, but I never camped out. (To this day, my idea of roughing it is no room service.) But wait! It gets better. Campbell hitchhiked from Chicago to Phoenix in college and there she joined the circus as a Sno-cone vendor! She traveled the West Coast with a trainload of elephants and clowns.
Eventually she earned an MFA in fiction at age 35 and began writing in earnest. Despite a Guggenheim fellowship and her recent success, Campbell has both feet firmly on the ground. "It's real dangerous to get yourself too identified with success." She's taken her lumps like all of us–dumped by an agent who thought the short story collection and River were uninteresting. The next agent saw merit in her work.
When I read this article, I realized that my method to "write small, travel small" seemed a little anemic next to the rambunctious Bonnie Jo, who has a second-degree black belt in kobudo. I haven't been anywhere or done anything, except write books. Now at the age of 59, I wish I had at some point in my life grabbed a handful of granola, a 35 mm camera, and hopped in my old Ford pickup with my dog and set off in search of adventure. Lived those things instead of just writing about them.
But the die was cast early. I didn't just go to bed at eight o'clock willingly. I went to bed on my own. I laid out my clothes the night before school. I didn't lust after a rifle (we kept one in our kitchen for shooting varmints) but our insurance saleman's briefcase. I craved adventure and found it in books and the pompous "novels" I wrote in elementary school.
I still crave adventure. But I think that boat has drifted down the river, out of reach. That's okay. I have Campbell's American Salvage on reserve at the library (doesn't that say it all? reserve? library?). I'll read all about rural Michigan from the comfort of my bed.
Our gate is still marked. This practice harks back to the days of the Depression when hoboes scratched symbols in gates or fence posts. A cat meant the woman of the house would feed strangers. For a while every time I came back from a residency or summer term, there was a new mouth to feed. Some stayed forever (Winchester, Persnickety, Mulan). Some ultimately met a bad end (Pinkerton). I had one blissful summer (last summer) in which I left two pets behind and came home to two pets.
This summer we added a new pet and it's not a cat. It's a box turtle. My stepfather always called them terrapins. Although they are true land turtles, their Latin name is terrapene carolina carolina. My husband mentioned once on one of our regular phone calls that he'd found a turtle in the garage. He took it outside and put it in the nice green bird garden. But that turtle was merely biding his time until I returned.
The day I got back there he was, standing in the garage where my car is usually parked. I took him outside and put him in the nice green bird garden. The next day the turtle was back in the garage, drinking from Persnickety's water dish. He had also polished off the rest of Persnickety's lunch. As I painted our initials on his shell, he hissed with indignation. Now I would know if it was the same turtle.
It was. The next day and every day after Boxcar Willie showed up for lunch. At first I gave him Snick's scraps. But then I found myself preparing a little blue-plate special–canned cat food, lettuce, minced apples. Box turtles are omnivores–they'll eat anything. Not ours. He turned up his beaked mouth at the vegetables. Like all the other animals in this house, he wants the very best. So it's premium Friskies canned food and nothing else.
Boxcar Willie waits for me every day. He comes right up to the steps leading from the garage to the door going into the kitchen and stands there, his little neck stretched out, clearly looking up at the door. If he could climb, he'd knock on the door, I'm sure. Persnickety tolerates him but can't understand why that ugly old turtle gets fed first now. I have to pick her up and move her so she won't eat Boxcar Willie's food.
When the weather gets cooler, Boxcar Willie will go off somewhere to hibernate. But I suspect he'll be back next spring, waiting for me to feed him lunch. Or maybe he won't leave at all. I guess I'd better start looking for a turtle-sized sofa for our den.
I know. I said I wasn't going to post here until my new blog is ready on WordPress. I lied. I just have to show off my fabulous class.
Here we are on the last day of the term. Traditionally, we have a last-day party in the faculty guest house where I stay. As you can see, my students were all women and all ages. When I walked into class in June, I only knew a couple of these gals. By the final class, they had handed their lives and hearts to me on a plate.
The title of my class was "Memoir and Autobiography in Picture Books, Middle-grade Novels, and Young Adult Fiction." I packed eleven lectures with quotes, excerpts from books, theories on memory, exercises to prime the writing pump, and assignments designed to access deep memories. We discussed the memoirs of children's book authors such as M.E. Kerr, Betsy Byars, Lawrence Yep, Jean Fritz, Chris Crutcher, Jack Gantos, Ralph Fletcher, and Kathi Appelt. I shared the childhoods of Rick Bragg, Edna Lewis, Annie Dillard, Jonathan Franzen, Ruth Reichl, Eudora Welty, Michael Chabon and others.
I suggested my students keep a journal and discussed various benefits and approaches to journals, but I did not ask them to turn in their journals. I also threw out the workshop model. You know, where students print their work for everyone ahead of time and then in class everyone critiques the manuscript while the author keeps quiet. Instead, my students were invited to share, if they wanted. They read their work cold and no one critiqued. The author of the piece spoke about how the assignment worked or didn't work. Written comments came from me and me only. Did students learn from listening other students' work? You bet. And no one had to endure hearing comments such as, "You used the word 'shanty' twice on page four." I believe these modifications gave the class a trusting, more relaxing atmosphere.
The class was structured to take students back into their childhoods (for some, it was a pretty short journey!) using small steps. They made a map of their childhood bedroom, a floorplan of the house they grew up in, a neighborhood map. The maps served as jumping-off places to access deeper, more meaningful memories. They created field guides, color albums, menu memoirs, tour guides, took field trips, and worked with photographs. And they wrote. As the term progressed, they experimented with turning essays into fiction rich with the authority of real details and attendant emotions.
What was so amazing about this class? The generosity of the students. One student made a Zebra Cake from her menu memoir and we lapped up the whipped-cream-chocolate-wafer creation as we listened to her essay. Another student made her mother's Pig Cake for our last class. Fattening desserts aside, my shape changed as I took in their stories. In my class of twelve, two had been models. Three were ballet dancers. Four were teachers. Others had been teachers, or worked in a children's bookstore, or in high-end boutiques and retail stores, or in publishing. They were mothers, daughters, and sisters.
They had grown up in the city, in the country, on a dairy farm, and even in an old camp built by the CCC. Their various accents mingled–Detroit, upstate New York, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Maryland–blending into the music particular to our classroom. Their stories were hilarious, nostalgic, insightful, and–privately to me–heart-breaking.
From the first day, these women were supportive, open, and unfailingly kind to each other. They will never know how much I learned from them. How much I loved them.
Back from Hollins! A fabulous summer! The most amazing students and class! But I'll blog about that when I move to Word Press. Yes, I'm moving, too. Too many shenanigans at LJ. My webmaster and I have been working on the switch since March, so this isn't a sudden decision. But we put the migration on hold while I was away at school.
Meanwhile, my new notebook is a clue to a slightly different direction. Place-based writing. I'm working on a "formula," my very own writing criteria for both fiction and nonfiction. I'll be speaking about aspects of place to writers in November, to elementary school teachers at a conference at William and Mary in October, and to elementary school students also in October, and teaching the regional children's novel at Hollins in 2013 (if I live that long!).
I have lots to share but I'm saving it until I move to Word Press. And when my blog switches over I have a wonderful handmade give-away.
I'll keep you posted!