There is a table, a library table I think you might call it, in our dining room that used to sit up against the front window in several of our houses. Right by the front door.
I had proudly purchased it for eight dollars at an estate sale when I was in college. It was clunky and plain, and kind of unsteady and stained and cracked on the top, but it helped fill empty spaces. And, I imagined, it had some sort of history, being nearly antique, anyway.
As it turned out, history or no history, that table became the convenient place to dump things as my children returned from school and play. Notebooks, backpacks, empty lunch bags, soccer gear.
I was horrified, of course, because with the curtains open, anyone at all could see from the street that we were just a bunch of disorganized slobs, with the stuff clearly spilling out all over that table.
We argued about that stuff, and punished over that stuff. But no matter how many times they were nagged and fined, my kids never could get why it was necessary to put their things somewhere else.
When we moved to Georgia, to a very small old bungalow with almost no living room at all, I left that table behind with my sister-in-law who said she might get it re-sanded and refinished and put it in her house somewhere. I must admit that I was relieved to leave that source of family friction behind.
One less place to stack stuff. One less thing to nag about.
But that table would not be separated from us, and my mother, thinking this would be a wonderful surprise, took back the table (in her role as mother-in-law), fixed it up herself, and sent it UPS.
So there it is, gracing, well, haunting actually, yet another house. Only this time, I reasoned, only one child was left at home. Surely, this time the table might know some dignity, with just proper and pretty things atop its newly smooth and varnished surface.
Flourishing house plants. Candlesticks. Perhaps some pottery, tasteful and artistic, of course.
Yes, that is so. There are plants and things made of wax and pieces of art.
There are also books and unread magazines, old mail and bills to pay. What my children once did as a matter of habit, my husband and I now do. We toss and stack things on that long-suffering old table, groaning under the weight of our messy and overflowing lives.
Now, there was a point when I was young and childless (and under-employed) that I vowed to, and did a pretty good job of, keeping my living space clean and cleared out. Of course, I was more than 25 years younger, was living on a graduate student income, and had 25 fewer years of accumulation. I had a couple of pictures, a few pots and pans, and a half a closet full of clothes, at best.
I was never going to live in the kind of, now that I think of it, very nearly bohemian and often embarrassing clutter I grew up in, with its shells and rocks and flea market finds, some of which, I must say, turned out to be quite valuable.
My life and my surroundings would be different, of course, simple and orderly and serene.
Funny how that doesn’t seem to be the way it turns out for those of us who thought that we could escape our stuff.
Like my friend Bonnie, who told me how, while her father was an elder in the Mormon community she grew up in, and her mother quite the respected and prominent person, as well, beyond the prim and proper parlor of her childhood home were rooms and rooms and closets stacked with yellowed newspaper clippings that her mother spent hours clipping every day. Couldn’t ever get herself to sort through and throw them out. Just let them pile up higher and higher.
My father hated that his wife couldn’t manage the mess, Bonnie told me. But he could never stop her from making it. That was the one thing, she had come to see, that he couldn’t control.
And now Bonnie, who is the resident property manager for a low-income housing complex, lives, herself, in perpetual physical chaos, cheerfully making her way through the uncontrolled mounds of papers and toys and New Age icons that she has allowed to take over her own apartment.
And, as one famous columnist always writes, so it goes.
Over the years, the only times our household has even come close to any semblance of Zen Buddhist or Thoreau-like simplicity has been just before and after a major move. Every few years we would have to make choices, give things away, throw things away.
Our decision to make do with less was not, I will admit, an ecological one or a spiritual one, for the most part. It was an economic one. The less we had, the less to take it with us.
But now, considering we have now lived in the same house for nearly a decade, the longest time ever, with no plans for an immediate relocation, one can only imagine the state of overflow now.
I take whatever comfort I can in the indisputable fact that my family is not alone in our inability to get a grip.
As comedian George Carlin observed, the essence of life is trying to find a place to put all your stuff.
One Georgia father, interviewed for a series of articles on “stuff,” ended up doing what so many folks are doing, leasing a storage unit for the family’s excess: TVs, books, files, furniture he admitted that they had just accumulated: your mother’s stuff, your daughter’s stuff, your own stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff.
It has been pointed out frequently, that Americans are overweight in higher numbers than other cultures. It now can be said that we also have more possessions than any civilization that has ever existed, and, as reporter Jim Auchhmutey tells us, have become gluttons for stuff. So much so, he discovered, that we have created an entire industry to indulge our appetite for conspicuous retention.
Since the first mini-warehouses appeared during the late 1960s, these units have spread, he discovered, coast to coast, like burger franchises. There are 32,000 of them now. Including new ones up this way, along Highway 400, and on side roads where roadside fruit stands once stood, proving that mountain folk, too, are troubled by too little space for too many things we can’t give up.
Now some, if not most, of these things are not heirlooms or treasures, but just the too-many toasters, blenders, televisions, and, in my case for sure, clothes that we felt we absolutely needed or absolutely wanted, purchased in one or another chain store along the way. It is certainly true, in my case, that for much of my life, I never saw a store I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to buy from. As my husband often reminds me, it now takes at least two closets to fit all the outfits I just had to have.
After all, as one of my ministerial sisters told me just yesterday at a conference on eco-feminism and simple living when I admired her sweater and just had to know where to buy one like it, there’s beauty to be considered as well.
It is just so easy to have too much stuff, according to psychologists who are studying excessive shopping, collecting, and hording.
In centuries past, they point out, most people couldn’t read. There were no books or magazines or junk mail to stack up. What most people owned could fit in a small trunk or wardrobe, so there were no closets at all.
There were no machines, these scholars of clutter point out, so we didn’t need or own CDs, cassettes, game cartridges, filing cabinets, and shelves.
So here we are, surrounded by things to buy and things to play with and things to just hold on to and enjoy.
A few among us may have no interest or need to gather things. Who only wish to have a place to sleep, a way to cook (at least once in a while), a light to read by, and a way to listen to music. But most of us, when pressed, have at some time or another collected something. Or a lot of things.
We may not sweat the small stuff, but we sure love finding and keeping it.
Some of us collect those few things we are, for some reason, drawn to — like stamps, or collector’s coins, or, in my daughter’s case, toy pigs of sort and size.
For me, it used to be things with butterflies on them, but for the last decade, it’s been snow globes, not the fancy ones sold in gift stores, but the cheap ones to be found in every airport in the world, that run out of water and look pitiful, but I can’t seem to part with any of them, boxes and boxes of them.
Some folks seem to save random things, as one among us wrote me, like an antique demitasse cup and some 1920s sheet music given to her by a friend, or metal wind-up toys bought from those “ten-cent stores” that are now of business. The tattered children’s books she once loved. Or, as she confesses, “silly things” — a tiny red plastic monkey from the top of a sonic drinking cup, or the head of Sylvester the Cat which had a prominent place in her spice rack until all the features faded.
Why do we keep so much stuff? Again, folks who are studying the psychology behind hobbies and collecting say they believe that the urge is primal.
We used to be hunters and gatherers, so we were ingrained to find and hold on to stuff. It is hard-wired in us.
And besides, it makes us happy. It makes us feel secure and safe.
On a spiritual level, things can be life-enhancing. As Mary Ann Brussat wrote in her book on Everyday Spirituality, we tend to think of things as outside and separate from ourselves. But when we read the world spiritually, we discover that things often set us on pathways that lead us back to the meaningfulness of our lives. Things, she believes, house our feelings, memories, and connections with others, both living and dead. When we regard things this way, our interactions with them become spiritual exercises.
As Eliza Calvert Hall wrote in her book A Quilter’s Wisdom, I’ve had a heap of comfort all my life making quilts, and now in my old age, I won’t take a fortune for them. You see, some folks have albums to put folks’ pictures in to remember them by, and some folks have a book to write down the things that happen every day so they won’t forget them, but, honey, these quilts are my albums and my diaries… I just spread my quilts and study over them and it’s like going back fifty or sixty years and living my life over again.
Things punctuate the key moments of our lives and serve as a reminder of what we value.
Not always, of course, if collecting and keeping things is masking a depression, a fear of deprivation or poverty, a lack of energy to sort through and clean up our houses and our lives. Or the absence of basic love and affection, whose hole we can fill with the accumulation of objects. Bought and paid for.
Collecting can, someone said, become a substitute for living.
For example, the fictionalized William Randolph Hearst, in the classic film Citizen Kane, who filled his castle with expensive art and furniture, when all he really wanted at the end of his lonely life was his childhood sleigh “rosebud” and the family that went with it.
There is a kind of collecting things that turns into chronic cluttering, and even toxic hoarding, which is a behavior that needs professional intervention. But at some point or another, most of us look around and are horrified by the amount of stuff we have and no longer use or need. Things we were convinced we couldn’t live without, or things that we once had use for but no longer do.
Or we finally just do a wholesale purge of our accumulated stuff, for example, when my parents divorced and my father wanted to rent out the house they had shared, so he paid someone to remove everything from the basement, including my beloved Ginny doll and my brother’s baseball card collection, losses, I will admit, we are still recovering from.
From my experience working in a homeless ministry, the holiday season and the weeks afterward seem to be a time when folks go through a frenzy of clearing out, which turns into a kind of dumping. When piles of tattered linens, banged up and rusted cookware, chipped dishes, and just plain junk appeared in boxes and bags on the front steps and in our halls. Forlorn, ugly, abandoned things left unceremoniously in the hope that someone less fortunate would find them useful, even pretty.
I have wanted to put a sign up saying don’t just dump your stuff, and don’t give us things you wouldn’t have yourself, at least at some time in your life.
Just this past week, Japanese Buddhists observed “National Needle Day” to honor all the needles which have been killed in action over the past year. Perhaps we, too, should plan an annual observation for things that have worn out, expressing gratitude for them and for the spirit of the universe that is present in or through them. Or as someone else suggested, have a party for our things, gathering all our gadgets and giving them a good dusting and cleaning. Giving out exceptional service awards to signify gratitude to the things that have served us and the stuff that has given us pleasure and preserved our memories.
Of course, we need to be more mindful of accumulating things for the sake of material security and prestige, mindful, as our Unitarian Universalist study action resolution last year declared, that irresponsible consumption endangers our future, as it wastes raw materials and precious resources, depriving people in other countries, as well as our own future generations. That our commitment to justice and equality for all includes carefully challenging the level of our own consumption.
As ecologist Sharon Parks counsels, using the term used by members of her faith community, in our choices about accumulating things, we must learn to recognize what “cumbers” us — a Quaker term for that which burdens us, that which is just consuming — a definition of which is complete destruction. Of our spirits and of the Earth we live on.
Given who we are, as a group of people living in this mountain community, we have already made some conscious choices about simplified living. From what you have told and written me, as a matter of fact, our attachment to things comes down to those precious books, photo albums, family oil paintings, letters, that hold a sacred place in our lives and our hearts.
Our concerns about “stuff” seem to be about the emotional “stuff” we work always to be rid of: ill health and pain, resentment and anger at past hurts, memories of unpleasant experiences, negative attitudes, and general mind clutter.
Still, we have a responsibility to look outside our own household and church walls to promote the tenets of what Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau called for in his book, Walden — with his heartfelt plea to simplify, simplify.
That we strive for conscientious consumption, uncluttered domestic life, contact with nature, social service and philanthropy, and material contentment.
That we live consciously.
That we live deliberately.
That we live sustainably.
That we live within our means.
That we live with beauty.
That we live in harmony with others
and in harmony with the Earth.