The New vs. the Renewed: Something to Hold On To

by Kim   |   October 30, 2009

Thrift shopping has been a way of life for me for a long time. I've grown to value a garment or household item with a few imperfections more highly than I would a new one. Imagining what unknown recipes a wooden spoon was used for prior to arriving in my kitchen adds something to my life. My love for old things goes back as far as I can of my first favorite books was a story about a little girl who had been given a new, starchy china doll but preferred an old one made out of wood and straw. I know that for others, however, used stuff carries a different connotation.

Someone told me once that only a middle-class person would be drawn to shabbiness; anyone who has known want would be already too well acquainted with second-hand goods, which would have a painful connotation. I'm not so sure that is true. I have known elders who certainly did know hard times in their lifetimes and who expressed a horror of thrift stores. These were the same folks who used things until they were absolutely used up, and didn't mind passing on gently used items among family, so maybe it was the impersonal nature of second-hand stores that bothered them. The idea of wearing a stranger's history, rather than a family member's. Regardless of their source, I think that used things offer a fundamental challenge to modern culture, with its high premium on the new.

The new (as in unused), and the novel (as in never experienced before), have been conflated: portrayed as shiny, wrapped in plastic, pristine. The unnecessary shrink wrap on nearly everything is meant to give a feeling that you are the very first person to have touched it. Once it has been touched, once something shows the first evidence of wear, it has lost something that can never be regained. Whereas I think of shine as something that can be renewed, maybe with a little effort, like on a wood floor.  Old clothes could be restored to something to be proud of by practicing the lost art of ironing.  Which would you rather have: something that is new, once, or something that can be re-newed, for a long time?

The subject of old things reminds me of a short story by the Chilean writer Jose Donoso. An elderly couple, who are well off and a little bored, happen upon a coffee-table book featuring sumptuous photographs of homeless people. The couple is so drawn to these photos that they start dressing up like the people in the pictures, eventually leaving their comfortable apartment behind because they are drawn to the textures of a worn world. The moral of the story seems to be that their life had been so orderly that they felt it had no hold on them. While most people don't erupt into this craving for worn things, I think it does happen that we surround ourselves by a revolving flux of new things. When we look around and don't recognize ourselves in anything around us, then the emptiness that is the precursor to shopping sets in.

What would happen if the longing for the new was channeled into the desire to re-new? Rediscovering the book that has languished on the bookshelf, updating an old shirt with repurposed buttons, refinishing old furniture... There are lots of ways to renew, while still making our lives more recognizable to ourselves. Maybe our culture is moving back in the direction of holding on to things. It's good practice for creating a life full of texture and grasp-able things. Tellingly, when something is really worn it becomes well-worn. Worn the way it's supposed to be. Here's to the old, the renewed, and the new with the promise of becoming well-worn.