03 July 2011

Happiness: It's in the Bag

Hedonic adjustment: just a fancy way of saying that the things that make you happy right now probably won't 5 minutes, 5 days and especially 5 months from now. I know full well of the theory that humans are wired to acclimate to the highs of new sources of happiness, until they wear off completely and we are forced to go out looking for something else to get us Up. I'm well familiar with it. And on a mission to move beyond it as best I can, in fact. But in the meantime, I'm on one of those hedonic highs; so let me introduce you to the current cause.

I have a friend who, for the sake of convenience and privacy, I'll call Lucy (since that's the name she gives the baristas at Starbucks, to save them from butchering her real name). Lucy recently hitched her wagon to a company that makes one-off, incredibly high-end handbags. Haute Couture in leather, suede and hand-stitching, if you will. She showed me one of the breathtaking creations and I was floored.

It was the kind of bag that, if you were to find yourself lost on the Pearblossom Highway on a peyote trip (that someone slipped into your scrambled eggs unbeknownest to you, if you're reading this Mom), once the sun went down and your feet screamed "Stop!' and you tasted on the air a campfire where you weren't too sure but there may have been sepia-skinned men in braids and feathers in a trance around it, but the idea was too crazy so you propelled yourself into a deserted miner's shack to Pull It Together and found a pot of coffee on the wood burning cook stove, still warm, and you lay down for a while to catch your breath and as you curled into a ball on the dusty sunset-hued wool rug, your eye fell on something hanging from a peg on the timber-slat wall;  deep bark-colored suede, fringed, with abalone splinters and trade beads hanging from it, with the kind of embroidery it must have taken someone days or even weeks to complete. A bag. Was it a medicine bag? A miner's satchel? You weren't too sure but as you tried to decide the wall dissolved and the peg turned into a Joshua tree and began to undulate to the music you spontaneously began humming, a song you didn't even know you knew,  while the stars behind swirled concentrically, and still that bag hung on until you realized it had grown out of the tree, it was part of it and yet somehow distinct, like a big cactus flower, but one born of a mistaken, one-time only mating of a fawn and a hawk (how they managed it you were too afraid to ask). You worked up the courage to get close to it, open it up. The only thing inside was a Lucky Penny, Lincoln's profile gleaming copper, promising all the secrets of the universe. In the morning when you woke up next to a fire ant hill and brushed the grit out of your eyes, and you contemplated the bizarre visions you'd imagined the night before, you stood up, laughing at your own gullibility; only to find the bag next to you, exactly as you'd remembered it.

That kind of bag. Not an item designed or manufactured, but organically burst forth from the landscape with a little human coaxing, patience, and magic.  If you've ever read the Marion Zimmer Bradley feminist re-telling of the Arthurian legend, The Mists of Avalon, there is a long passage describing the heroine Morgaine crafting a cloak while in a trance over the course of several days, imbuing each strand of thread with intention and supernatural power. At the end of the process, when the cloak is completed, both she and the reader are utterly exhausted from the exertion. These bags feel like that cloak must have. Talismanic. I wanted one, but could never dream of being able to afford it.

However, life's lesson to me of late is "never say never". I'm beginning to learn that once I declare something's impossibility, it in fact transpires with a breathtaking effortless I could never have dreamed. Sure enough, out of the proverbially blue, this week I received an invitation to visit the place where the bags are created.

At the artist's atelier up a steep canyon in Malibu, with a wedge of the Pacific shimmering to the west, I was nearly knocked out. The bags were unbelievable, each one more beautiful than the next. Each one made by hand of the butteriest leather and suede. Smelling the way good leather should, dark and rich like a foal sleeping in a pile of clean hay. No two bags are anything alike - each one has the kind of detail that makes it seem like it sprung forth fully formed, like Aphrodite from the mind of Zeus.

But don't take my word for it; take a look yourself. If you find yourself in Santa Fe or Aspen or Neiman Marchus, do yourself a favor and spend a little time in the presence of one. Here's the one I fell for, Number 56. Did I mention that each one comes with a tiny hand-sewn wallet encasing a lucky penny, and a hand-numbered card of authenticity? No messing around here. The creator is an artist in the true sense of the word. The studio is filled with the sculptures and painting that were her media until she serendipitously found herself making items for personal transport.

I once worked with an extraordinary woman I'll call Bird of Paradise. She was an avid collector of interesting, beautiful and often-overlooked objects and people from around the world. In her house one morning I noticed a strange something on a dress-maker's form. I went up closer to inspect it - it seemed to be a shawl of some sort.  Having never seen anything quite like it, I was fascinated and wanted to study it.   "That's a shaman's cloak from (insert African country whose name escapes me)",  she stated, by way of explanation. It was a rough and dark cloth, covered in tiny cowrie shells, brass bells, seed beads, strips of hand-printed cotton, small bones. It was asymmetrical and imperfect and dirty and fragile and felt imbued with a force; its presence was palpable, almost audible. I could not move any nearer to it than arm's length. It had a strong smell I could not begin to describe, partly animal, partly sweat, partly the soil and air of a place compositionly so different to Los Angeles it may as well have been another planet. How the shawl had been used, what energy had gone into it, what actions undertaken and hopes imbued and tears shed and songs sung in it's presence I could only imagine.

You could wear a Louis Vuitton purse for half a century through one hell of a remarkable life and it would still never have as much to say as that shawl, or as much as my bag will speak after I've taken it with me through the twists turns and transfigurations my life will bring in the next decades.

Thanks, T. Smith Knowles, for the conversation, the pecans and espresso, the encouragement and the glimpse of your artistic process. See, it's not just the handbag that has me so happy. It was the experience of receiving it. Social scientists tell us that it is wisest to spend money on experiences, rather than objects, because while the Things We Obtain fade in our esteem, the memories are perpetual sources of joy. The arduous journey (which included at least a half hour driving the wrong way on narrow gravel roads on which I couldn't turn around) was redeemed by the ultimate destination and the expansive view of my future afforded there.  That's a lot for one bag to contain.


  1. and the soundtrack of Riders on the Storm plays in the background as Morrison smiles at your newly acquired treasure....

  2. wow! i'm impressed not just with your writing, but with how well you caputered your experience. thank you for being apart of this! :)lucy