The Life-Changing Magic of Turning Five Shirts Into a Zine

The thought of giving something away made my heart clutch. But we were in this together now.

Photo credit: m01229, CC BY 2.0.

We wanted to let go of things, but it was hard. We was me and my friend Megan, and things was all the stuff we kept. She, like me, had grown up in the kinds of houses where television hosts would arrive to count and cull objects for entertainment. What we knew was less extreme than anything shown on Hoarders, but we remembered rooms with too many objects, papers and books and clothing spilling over shelves and out of drawers; rooms that felt like home. Those memories and habits had carried into adulthood: “My decorating style is excess,” Megan joked, and I nodded in instant recognition.

We discussed our magpie genes over coffees and beers and breakfasts, that urge to keep lest we forget. That was the heart of why we kept it all, fear of forgetting, and our possessions had so many memories, so many feelings, so much history. But if we drew and photographed and wrote it out, we could keep the important forever, documenting that star-stuff that lived in frayed necklines and armpit stains. It was worth a shot, we decided: we would give away five shirts, document their stories, and print it out in a neat half-book format.

We needed a title. Good Riddance? she texted. Perfect, I tapped back. We were off.

The thought of giving something away made my heart clutch. But we were in this together now. It was like having an exercise buddy, or a sponsor — but a funny one who could draw. Instead of goal weights and twelve steps, we had words and pictures. We were up for the challenge, we told each other: Those tops and tees we kept out of nostalgia or spite would live forever in our pages, and our closets and psyches would breathe a little easier.

Going through my clothing made my breath come short. I’d give it ten minutes and start crying uncontrollably, sinking to the bedroom carpet in a panic of indecision. Most of my life had felt like an endless cycle of binging and purging, retail therapy and guilt and retail therapy again, throwing away things in a blind fit then spending money I didn’t have to feel full again. Corralling my clothing was a Sisyphean task.

This time felt different. Good Riddance gave me a project, which gave me a purpose. I came at my closet cool and steely-eyed, thumbing through hangers with new resolve. (That’s a lie. I was as much a mess as ever. But I was a mess with a plan to self-publish.)

At first, they came off the hangers easy. I was ready, strong with logic and reason. That black Hanes number with the ice cream illustration and rap lyrics I got at the secret show in the warehouse district reminded me I was cool once, but it was stiff and uncomfortable — it fit so badly I had to slice open the tight neck to wear it at all. A metaphor for my 20s, I thought as I snapped a picture with my phone, itchy and trying too hard. Good-bye.

There was the free shirt I got at the work event, a casual gray affair with the logo of a pretty good craft beer. I decided I could love the beer, but not stretch their name across my chest in poly-blend. Getting a free shirt wasn’t a blood contract. It was just a shirt. Take a picture, toss it in a bag, done. Company-sponsored fun was always weird anyway.

It was harder when I’d paid for them. The baseball shirt with Japanese lettering was purchased on the bus, ten minutes after I saw it on my friend. She looked so cute, I rushed to swipe my card and sit down. I navigated Madewell’s mobile interface, tapping through the checkout steps with an unearthly patience I applied to almost no other area of my life. When I wanted something, I suddenly had all the time in the world. Bought at the height of impulse, it didn’t even look that good. Take a picture, toss it in a bag, done. I wondered what would happen if I applied a fraction of that patience to my work, or relationships, or anything.

I was thinking about it too much, but to an end — the shirts’ stories were going on a page, and the shirts were going away.

The last two were the hardest. This was on purpose; I wanted to choose something that made my heart twinge and sweat, push my limits of indecisiveness and sentimentality. I took a deep breath, and stared at a tank top I never wore. It fit well. It didn’t take up much space. It felt so heavy in my hand.

I remembered when I bought it. The promise of summer fun pulsed in my ears at a Target in Ann Arbor. I dropped $70 in ten minutes, and in the flurry of the checkout line lost my $200 prescription sunglasses. I sobbed in front of my boyfriend and his mother, wracked with shame. When I was excited about a new shirt, everything else melted away. I rode the high of buying until I thudded back to earth, more trapped and broke than ever.

I looked at the tank top. It was a drab olive. It had kind of a textured pattern. I had its twin in red. It was so innocuous. It was everything. I was so sick of my endless, looping clothing thoughts.

My phone buzzed. Megan. I should be done with my pages by Tuesday. Want to meet up?

I took a picture, and threw the tank top in the bag.

The next week, we sat at Megan’s kitchen table, spreading out our memories in the fading evening light. I laughed as I read about her teenaged love of The Strokes and the mall ringer tee that ensued, the soft, blue Bright Eyes concert memento, the My Chemical Romance t-shirt (she had a lot of band shirts). I snorted aloud at the cute striped number with the “maybe it’ll wash out this time” food stain, a paean to realizing you’re not going to fix it. Exploring our common neuroses, I learned the nooks and crannies of her history—and that her music taste in high school was way, way better than mine.

Then we took the shirts to Village Discount Outlet, a local thrift store chain. We made jokes about loyal readers finding our shirts and bringing them back to us. Privately, I thought of how long I’d scream if I ever saw those shirts again.

Printing cost cost $160 for 50 copies at a downtown Fedex. We should’ve shopped around for a cheaper price, but it felt important to get it out as soon as possible.

We both knew that when you wait, things tend to pile up.

Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago, by way of San Francisco and St. Paul. More at The first two issues of Good Riddance are available at Quimby’s, Chicago Comics, and Comix Revolution.

This story is part of The Billfold’s “Resolve” series.

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