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My Mother’s HandbagMaja Lucas

Maja Lucas
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Maja Lucas is the Danish author of five books, most recently the novel Gennem natten og vinden (Through the Wind and the Night). She is a founder member of Forfattere ser grønt, the Danish chapter of Writers Rebel.


My mother’s handbag is 30 years old. It’s black leather, and covered in scratches and bumps. On one side the strap has come loose, but she has cobbled it together with green twine. Some of the seams are coming apart where the leather has worn off. But my mother hasn’t thrown it out, because even though it looks terrible, it still functions as a handbag. 

This is my mother’s way, when it comes to her possessions. She hasn’t replaced any of her kitchenware since my childhood. Her address book is one I got in fourth grade, which she took over when I moved away from home. And her leather jacket looks like what it is: a relic from the 1980s.

She was born in the late 1940s, in the post-war era. Although her father was a doctor, she grew up in a frugal home. Nothing that could be of use was thrown out. Gift wrap was recycled. Clothes were repaired or re-purposed. An adult coat could be converted into one for a child. Dress-hems could be extended. In fifth grade, my mom inherited a pair of shoes that were two sizes too big. She waited to grow into them. 

She brought that mentality into the home she created – not in a particularly conscious or political way, but as a reflex. You don’t chuck out useful things. You don’t buy something new unless you really need it. You don’t serve fancy dishes, because food is simply fuel. You don’t spend money on yourself, even if you can. 

When I was younger, I sometimes felt ashamed of our home and its contents. Its lack of flashiness. Although my mother made good money, she had no craving for luxury. Her focus was always on the functional value of things rather than their aesthetic effect. But over time, I’ve become more and more convinced that she got it right. I don’t kid myself that recycling and austerity alone can reduce our CO2 emissions. But I still think my mother’s old handbag embodies some of the challenges we face.

One of the most psychologically difficult things about the climate crisis is that low consumption can easily be perceived as a cranky lifestyle choice. All too easily, a failure to be a “good consumer” can have a negative impact on one’s social status. It’s hard not to roll your eyes at a scruffy old handbag. Hard not to judge its owner as crazy, or poor, or stingy.

In other words, there is a strange coupling of possessions and character: a coupling of the material world that affects our climate and the social world. A coupling of the outer and the inner.

It’s possible that this coupling is ‘natural’. After all, don’t animals judge one another on the splendour of their feathers, the sleekness of their fur, or the volume of their roar? We can get pious and say ‘I don’t care about status symbols’. But that’s not quite true. Some people are obviously more caught up in the material world than others. Some allow themselves to be dazzled by possessions, while others can step back from them to some degree. But I don’t think you can avoid them completely. Unfortunately.

I once went on a date with a nice man. The evening went well, but when we ended up in his bed, I noticed that his bedding was grubby and fraying. It smelled clean, but there was a hole in the sheet, and stains that apparently wouldn’t wash out. I have to admit that I felt disappointed when I saw those bedclothes. I took them as a signal that I wasn’t important to him. 

With hindsight, I see my reaction as strange. The man was lovely, and the conversation was good – but I was left with the impression that he didn’t appreciate me because he didn’t have a proper set of bedding. I saw that bedding as the evidence of an unappealing flaw, when I should have seen it as evidence of his moral responsibility – not least towards the climate. He was a man who didn’t throw out his worn bedding and replace it when he could have done. Because he didn’t need to. 

In this tale, it is the woman who judges the man. But it’s often the other way round. Women are, if anything, more aware of the pressure to present themselves “acceptably”. They use makeup, fix their hair, wear smart clothes and high heels. They opt for thin dresses over thick trousers. They have plastic surgery, beauty treatments, and dye their hair. Aesthetics trump functionality. 

But it doesn’t have to be like that. 

Making an effort with our appearance is a signal to the outside world about resources. In that sense, there is a connection between our outer and our inner lives. But the problem is, even children know that this connection is not without ambiguity. The rich man who drives an expensive car has resources of one kind, but may lack others. You can buy yourself nice clothes, but not self-confidence and spirit. Still, it is immensely difficult to escape the mechanism that causes us to judge a book by its cover. It’s hard to be like my mother, who refuses to replace her absurdly worn handbag.

But we must try – if not for the sake of humanity, then for the sake of the climate. In the midst of the crisis, we still attach too much value to outward appearances, feel dissatisfaction with things that aren’t new, and fear that frugality and renunciation come across as unsexy and weird. 

We must fight those thoughts, by trying to change our judgments about others – and about ourselves.

Because we need not be the slaves of our possessions. 



Be inspired by the way previous generations did things. We have to adjust our perspective on the world, because hard times will be upon us again soon. Look at your old, worn things as old friends. Ask someone you love to wear a tattered piece of clothing. Take a long look at this human being, and let the tattered clothes and your beloved fuse until you see the beauty. Because the fight against climate change  can give birth to a new aesthetic – by resurrecting an ancient one. And check out the exciting new website where you can give away the stuff you don’t want to someone who does:


Maja Lucas is the Danish author of five books, most recently the novel Gennem natten og vinden (Through the Wind and the Night). She is a founder member of Forfattere ser grønt, the Danish chapter of Writers Rebel.