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What $25 Can Get You at the Thrift Store

I remember those days, so far gone now, when I would spend $25 on a single item and think that I was getting a good deal. I cringe now recalling my years as a struggling graduate student when I would, near-empty-bank-account-notwithstanding, spend several hundred dollars a few times a year on clothes. Sometimes I would go to a store, spend $200 and only have a few items to show for it. I also recall, quite vividly, the tightness in my chest and general feeling of dread as I would watch the cash register ca-ching its way onward and upward. Shopping was a stressful affair and any feelings of euphoria I thought I felt were fleeting and certainly not worth the trouble.

Talk about night and day. Thrifting has put the joy, playfulness and sexy back into shopping for me. Whereas in times past, I would feel overwhelmed by the prices or the limited prospects of finding something flattering in my size, now I feel transported through the 7 heavens as I walk through the garden of abundance that is my thrift store knowing full well that I can and will find every thing my heart desires . . . and pay almost nothing for it.

* * *

Brief intermission while I get on my knees to praise God for bringing me to THE store: Thank you, Jesus . . .

* * *

Alright. Now what can $25 get you at my store? 15 items. FIFTEEN. That’s an average of $1.67 per item.  Estimated value: $300+  Let us slowly and soberly examine the contents of a recent haul:


Perhaps the most unusual and interesting find was the red, vintage Gunn Trigère dress I snagged for a dollar.

Poppin' Tags

Why I Love Thrifting

Black pin-dot fitted top: $1, Vintage beige top with shoulder reveal – Crescendo by Michelle E. Golding: $4, Tote Bag – Ahava: $4, Sea green silk blouse with ruffled shoulders – Kenneth Cole: $4, matching dark green stone necklace (not shown): $2, White babydoll top – Express: $3 – Total Haul: $18, Estimated Value: $175

I am not the kind of thrifty fashionista who tracks down all of the thrift stores in an area and goes from town to town hunting for bargains. When necessary, I have gone to a few different thrift shops when looking for a particular item. This happened, for example, when I had to furnish my apartment.

But, the reason I do not generally hunt for bargains at multiple places is quite simple:

I have found heaven on earth.

I have been to the mountain top.

I have seen El Dorado.

I have unlocked the secrets of the universe.

“Where?” “How?”, you might ask?

In the warm embrace of “my” thrift shop.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve fallen in love with thrifting, slowly, but surely, over the last few months. It began as a brief affair and flowered into something that none of us could have ever anticipated . .

I cannot fully convey just how special “my” particular shop is in this solitary post, but here are a few brief glimpses into the unfathomable joy generated by this special place:

  • The shop is really a vintage boutique masquerading as a thrift store
  • The staff is incredible
  • I regularly buy suits worth $100-$200 for $1. Yeah, I said it: $1. As in “one dolla”.
  • It is a non-profit organization that has raised millions of dollars for charity
  • There is a changing room, so you can actually determine if the clothes look good on you
  • The shop almost always sells everything half off and hundreds of items are always $2 or $1, every single day . . which is to say that I thrift shop AT the thrift shop.
  • 99% of the clothes are in impeccable shape – barely worn, sometimes never worn, with the tags still on, often freshly dry cleaned with the pleats still crisply ironed
  • In addition to clothes, they also have housewares and an amazing bookstore
  • It abuts a spiritual center. A SPIRITUAL CENTER! Lawd have mercy!

When I get compliments on my clothes, I love telling people that I paid an unimaginably low price for the item. I proselytize thrifting whenever possible for several reasons. First: I love blowing people’s minds with the notion that you do not have to spend a lot of money to dress fabulously. Secondly: these are tough economic times and being thrifty is smart for everyone. People who make donations get tax write-offs (yay!), clients get gorgeous clothes and save money that can be spent on more important things and charities get much needed funding . . . Yes, technically thrift shopping isn’t exactly a boon for the economy – but there are better ways to improve our economic woes than rampant consumerism.

I also love bringing attention to the good that can be done by thrifting for fashion instead of buying overpriced, cookie-cutter clothes that everyone else is buying at the same department stores you frequent. Not only do thrift stores carry vintage pieces and unique items that you are unlikely to stumble across at your next cocktail party, but you also have an opportunity to directly help agencies and charitable organizations that are often affiliated with non-profit thrift stores.

In addition to thrifting, I also regularly donate clothes to the store and delight in seeing my old things on the racks (they don’t stay there for long!). The combination of (1) paying 1% -10% for the price of beautiful designer clothes (2) saving a huge amount of money as a result (3) knowing you’re directly contributing to charities (4) getting to know the fantastic staff (5) amassing a gorgeous wardrobe for PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR (6) undermining our materialistic culture and (7) helping the environment by recycling clothes is a heady, intoxicating elixir that quickly leads to untold levels of joy and inevitable addiction.

And as if it could not get better, I have also grown spiritually from my conversations and exchanges with people I have met there, including the friend whose mantra inspired the name of this blog. Spiritual growth, gorgeous clothes, giving back to the community and saving money. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Some examples of my recent thrift finds:

  • A pristine Etienne Aigner handbag: $3
  • Royal purple Kasper suit (skirt and blazer): $1
  • Liz Claiborne leather handbag: $2
  • Black leather open-toed kitten heels: $1
  • Ann Taylor blouse: $2
  • Handwoven Moroccan tunic: $3
  • New York & Company jeans: $2

It’s insane.

Once you have been spoiled by a good thrift shop, you’re never the same again. You cannot fathom paying full price, half price or even a quarter price for your haberdashery – except certain items which you’re better off getting at a regular store. Your whole understanding of what is a reasonable price to pay for clothing gets so thrown off that paying more than $2 or $3 for something – even something quite beautifully made, never worn and with the tags still on- makes you think twice. At this point, I only go to the mall to pick up things I cannot get at the thrift store – like a custom blend of Ayurvedic chai from Teavana. Occasionally, I may wander into a store I used to frequent, like Caché, to mourn the thousands of dollars wasted on retail clothing in times past and to gather fashion ideas for items and outfits that I plot to assemble at “my” thrift store.

In any case, that is the long and the short of why I thrift and the reason fashion will make an occasional appearance on this otherwise ethereal blog.

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Tips for Getting Your Thrift On

  • If it’s your first time at a store, ask to speak to a staff member or volunteer. 

Introduce yourself and ask if there is anything you should know about the shop.  Inform yourself about the charities involved.  Many thrift stores color-code items and have discounts on certain colors.  Ask if there is a changing room.  You also want to ask if they are cash only or if they also accept credit and debit cards.

  • Take a tour of the shop before you dig in.

Get a lay of the land and figure out where everything is.  Some stores have “dollar racks” or special sections or rooms for kids clothes, menswear, housewares, etc.

  • Inspect your clothes.

Look for imperfections, holes, stains and anything untoward.  If you’re as lucky as I am, most of your store’s inventory will consist of clothes in pristine shape, but this is not always the case.

  • Try on everything before you buy.

You don’t want to get home and discover that you can’t zip up those hot pants.

  • Try on anything that looks like it might fit you, no matter what size it is.

Thrift stores and vintage shops carry items from the past – which means that the size may not be commensurate with today’s standards.  Develop an eye for the size of your waist, chest, etc.  My rule of thumb is to try on anything that looks good in my size plus or minus 1- 2 sizes.  These days I wear anything from an 8 to a 14 depending on the item (skirt, pant, dress) and its fit (high-waist, low-rider, etc.)  It’s also a good idea to keep a few pieces in your wardrobe that you know are slightly larger than you usually wear, for days when you’re bloated.  In general, I avoid buying anything that is too tight.  There’s simply no point in being uncomfortable.

  • Never buy anything that you’re not 100% sure you love. 

If you have to think about it for more than 30 seconds, don’t get it.  Absolutely do not get anything that turns you off for any reason.  Trust your gut and follow your tastes.

  • Think about gaps to fill in your wardrobe.

Do you have a sufficient variety of clothes for work, socializing, physical activities and lounging at home?   Know what your priorities are by getting very clear on what you already have at home. When I first started thrifting, my priority was getting suits, blouses and dress pants for the office.  Next, I turned to casual slacks, skirts and dresses.   Only after getting a solid wardrobe for work did I begin to explore more playful items and loungewear.

  • Know yourself and your preferences but also allow yourself the flexibility to change.

Are there certain colors and fabrics you like?  Styles you love or hate?  Develop a sense of your own personal style by seeing how you spontaneously respond to items.  Go with what you’re drawn to.  Pay attention to your heart.  As you expand your wardrobe, you will find yourself buying colors and styles that you’ve never worn before.  Trust yourself as you begin to develop your sense of what looks and feels good on you.  My old wardrobe consisted mostly drab, dark clothes –  many of which were ill-fitting.  As I relaxed into thrifting, I began to get a sense of what suits my figure. I also  discovered that I love a variety colors besides beige and black: pink, blue, red and to a lesser extent orange, yellow and green – colors that I almost never bought before. I also found myself drawn to fabrics that feel soft to the touch — silk and jersey cotton, for example.

  • Be considerate, positive and friendly.

I find myself naturally picking up around the store when the spirit moves me: I’ll hang things up that have fallen on the floor or clean out the changing room.  I don’t do these things because I’m trying to be a good thrift shop citizen.  I do it because I am having a good time and I enjoy keeping things neat and orderly.  If you’re in a good mood, you’ll spontaneously spread positive energy and simultaneously build up good thrifting karma.

  • Don’t go on an empty stomach or when you’re in a rush.

Have a bite to eat before you go to the thrift shop and choose a time period (preferably at least an hour) when you have time to look and try on clothes at a leisurely pace.

  • Don’t bring a lot of crap into the store.

Sometimes all I bring into the thrift shop is my car keys.  I don’t like to be weighed down by my purse, sunglasses, etc.  You can always go back to your car for your wallet once you’ve finalized your purchases.

  • Meditate.

I’ve actually found that thrifting helps me practice mindfulness.  I pay attention to my breathing.  I notice my own reaction to the items I find.  I pay attention to what’s going on around me.  I interact with the other clients and the staff, enjoying the aliveness and spontaneity that emerges from our conversations.  I touch a silk blouse and luxuriate in the feel of its fabric.  I allow the vividness of a blazer’s color to delight and penetrate me.  All of this, when done mindfully, is really quite a sensual and meditative practice.

Spiritual Musings

When You Know Better . . .

There’s an old quote that Oprah likes to use: “When you know better, you do better.”

No matter what you think about the full spectrum of Oprah’s work, she has directed millions of people toward wisdom and that’s quite a beautiful thing.  Her free, intensive web series with Eckhart Tolle on “A New Earth” changed my life — though not immediately.

In any case, the “Know better/do better” quote is something I sort of shrugged off in agreement when I would think about it over the years.  Intellectually, it made sense.  But the core principle is something that I’ve come to understand in a much more profound way than I did before.

I used the quote recently with a friend when describing how I interpreted the behavior of someone who had, according to traditional moral standards, “done me wrong”.  (We won’t get into the interesting question of what I mean by ‘me’ right now, but you nondual affcionados know what I’m getting at.)

The conversation went something like this:

“I told [redacted] how I felt about their behavior.  I think in the light of day, reasonable people will acknowledge past wrong doing and apologize.  But I am not waiting for an apology.  I really do believe that when you know better, you do better.”

“Oh I don’t know about that.  I don’t agree.”

“Well, yes, there are many people who are ‘aware’ that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

“And that’s sociopathic.”

“Yes, but the capacity to do what is right is also a kind of knowledge.”

After our conversation, I simmered on the quote and used it a few other times with other interlocuters.  The truth penetrated for me more deeply.  Yes, right action is a kind of knowledge. But what is more fundamental than “doing” is “seeing”.  When you see things as they really are — when you see the truth clearly and correctly — you will know the truth and “right” action will spontaneously and naturally flow from “right” perception.

Ruminating on this reminded me of the kind of ‘knowledge’ it takes to put God and spirituality “first” in one’s life.  In the past, I thought – intellectually – that I “knew” the value of God in my life . . . I thought, with all the hubris and ignorance that such a misconception requires, that God was my homeboy.  I thought we were cool – despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. systematically putting my spiritual life on the back burner after everything else).  I “believed in” God, prayed occasionally, sent up gratitude for my “blessings” when I felt like it . . . Of course, looking back, I realize now how superficial my so-called “knowledge” of God’s existence was.  I did, however, have other kinds of very concrete knowledge.  I knew very clearly what it meant to put my work, my education, my romantic relationships or my idle interests first, but putting God first was not something I could really grasp.

For me – like so many on “the path” – it took a fundamental crisis to bring me to my knees and help me begin to consider – ever so slowly – what it would really mean to put my spirituality before everything else.  In the midst of this crisis, I found myself praying a very simple but sincere prayer: “Please God, help me understand how to put you first. I want to want to, but I don’t know how.”  And ever since I prayed that prayer, the universe has spontaneously, beautifully and in the most direct and clear ways unveiled Itself.

What came to me very clearly was this:  if one understood the depths of peace, joy, equanimity that await us in the light of God’s love, of course we would want to put that first.  But knowing such things intellectually or conceptually is insufficient . . . it requires the kind of knowing that is beyond words, beyond concepts . . . the kind of knowing that penetrates your being, transforms your consciousness and burns away the delusions that clouded your ability to see the unchanging truth of God’s fundamental oneness with not only who You really are, but who everyone else really is too.

It is a bit like this:

Imagine your ship has capsized and you’re struggling in the water, fighting for your life.  There is a life raft right next to you, but you cannot see it.  It’s red – and you’re color blind – so it passes by you unperceived.

As you draw what you think may be your last breath, out of desperation you reach out toward the raft.

You reach out – not because you see the raft – but because something inside of you compels you to reach out as an act of faith.  You reach out – not because your eyes see something – but because your inner eyes begin to open, eyes you’ve never used before – eyes that can see things your ordinary perception cannot.  You reach out on faith – maybe just the faith of a mustard seed – just a tiny grain of hope that something can save you.

Now you grasp the raft – except you still do not know what it is.  You have only begun to open your inner eyes, but you can sense the presence of something powerful and stable that can and will save you.  And this is a beautiful moment, because in the grip of desperation and terrible fear of your own annihilation, you begin to glimpse the possibility of salvation and eternal life.  In that moment, when “you” were trying to escape “death”, you actually do die.  The concept of yourself as some individual entity floating in the sea of creation dissipates as the true concept of your Self as the All-There-Is emerges.

Yes, you would have found the raft much earlier if only you could have seen it.  If you had known better, you would have done better.  But what a beautiful thing it is to reach out in blindness, to act on the infinitesimal faith of a mustard seed, to throw your hands out in the darkness.  This moment of surrender in the midst of desperation, of seeing for the first time, is such a sacred, precious thing – something to treasure no matter how much suffering such a realization requires.


Forget about Enlightenment

What I love about this video is the way Mooji reminds us of this central truth:

There is fundamentally nothing we can do or need to do to “become” enlightened.

What I like about this teaching — though I haven’t heard Mooji put it this way exactly — is that it very much jives with the Christian doctrine of grace.  In other words: there is nothing you can/must do to become liberated/free/enlightened.  From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, the Self is already awake. What is necessary is not a particular action, but rather a correct recognition of reality as it already is.

From the Christian perspective, there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation.  It was already accomplished by grace, through Christ.  And of course, we spiritual straddlers who draw from multiple traditions know that Christ *is* the Self.  For the uninitiated, please note the distinction between the “Self” (capital ‘S’ – denoting God/All-There-Is) and the “self” (little ‘s’ – denoting the delusional egoic identity and sense of particularistic personhood that pervades most people’s everyday consciousness).

Spiritual Musings

Popping this Blog’s Cherry

This blog is a space for me to share realizations, questions and musings related to spirituality.  It is inevitable not impossible that you may also stumble over posts about academia, France, thrifty fashion, cooking, champagne, cigars, social theory, activism, Mad Men and the existential angst of Blackness.

My spiritual practice draws upon two main principles at the core of a variety of Western and Eastern traditions:

(1) We are all interconnected

(2) What is real in existence is the conscious experience of the present moment

Improving group relations through harmonious cooperation, compassion, empathy and reconciliation depends upon our ability to recognize our fundamental ties to all other living beings. This is what Buddhist monk, poet and activist Thict Nhat Hanh refers to as “inter-being”.

My spiritual work lies at the intersection of nondual theology and philosophy within Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. The common thread running throughout my academic, spiritual and social projects is an interest in promoting compassionate action and conscious awareness by bringing attention to the tools we can use to alleviate human suffering.

I’m principally influenced by the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Mooji, Alan Watts, Ernest Holmes, Joel Goldsmith and Thich Nhat Hanh.