Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stuff and nonsense

I've written before about domestic paleontology, my friend's mom's house, packed to the gills with the results of a life of hoarding. The image here, by the way, isn't from her home (I wanted to protect her privacy), but it is representational of what it was like when we started.

We're almost done. After many trips, countless bags of trash (let's see, 8 years x maybe 6 trips a year x an average 25 bags of trash a trip = far too many. And that doesn't include bags to goodwill, stuff hauled to the dump, etc), stuff sold on eBay, given away to worthy organizations, put into storage, offered to family and friends - the house is livable. It's a kind of nice place.

It's a little surreal.

We're not done yet. There are still corners of the basement we haven't explored, we keep finding treasures and nightmares, but now it seems like a place you could build a life in. For the most part, it's a home again. We've reconstructed it by emptying it, building it by creating space. In the course of doing so we've discovered just how much of the structure was held up by detritus; there was a chest we were sitting on while cleaning up in one room. When we looked inside we found it was full of plastic bags, so we emptied it out, thinking someone could use the chest once it was clean. When we sat on it again, it collapsed. The bags were the only thing giving it structural support. The whole house seems kind of like that, as though it's lost its identity without its densely packed innards.

What this has me thinking about is the way the stuff in our lives defines, confines and enshrines us (yeah, I worked for that phrase).

My friend's mom defined herself by her stuff, by all of the potential value and use she saw in what I saw as trash and clutter. We all do this. I'm sure you've met someone whose sense of self and value is wrapped up in their possessions. Their car. Their computer. Their clothing. Their stereo. Something. I know I love my books, seeing them line the walls of our library room makes me smile.  Never mind that I haven't read most of them in years and, if I have to admit it, there are some I've not gotten around to yet. The stuff in my home is certainly a reflection of how I want to present myself to the world and of what I find comforting, but I don't think I define myself as a library (though that could be an interesting topic for another post).

My friend's mom certainly has been confined by her stuff. She could barely move around her home and no one else could move with any ease. She was also tethered to it all; moving away was incredibly painful and even now, years later, she asks how how the house is, how her stuff is, have we thrown away everything she loved. By placing so much value on the stuff that defines us, it limits us metaphorically as well as physically. We become our car, our computer, our clothing, our stereo, our books. It becomes hard to see beyond the limits of that self-definition. But the stuff can't appreciate a friend's kind gesture, a sunset, a concert. We can.

And in the midst of my friend's mom's stuff we keep finding sacred corners, the clearly honored items or those items that honored her. Old letters. Photos of people and especially things she loved. This whole house became a shrine to a life and to a way of living based on the phrase, "Don't throw that out, that's still good!" The stuff helped build a barrier between the family and the neighborhood, the rest of the world. The stuff kept her safe. Frankly, there were times when I worried that the sheer weight of the stuff in her home would literally enshrine her, as it did the Collyer brothers, but fortunately that never happened, they were an extreme case. We all hoard the relics of our pasts, whether in our memory or in our stuff. In my own home I have photographs and carefully sequestered piles of old diaries. The shrines to my past.

Sometimes I play the "what if there was a fire?" game. You know the one - what is the one thing you would grab before you saved yourself from your burning home. The answer has changed over the years. When I was little it was my teddy bear, then my journals, now it's my computer (which seems awfully antiseptic, but years of writing and photos live in there). This tells me a lot about how I define myself and what of my stuff really matters.

I know a woman who lost everything in a fire and she told me once that, while it was the worst thing that ever happened to her it was also the best. She cares less about stuff now. They no longer define her. She feels free.

When I get home from this trip I will, as I always do, look at my accumulated stuff through clearer eyes. I will sort and discard until I again forget that this stuff isn't just a way of declaring my identity, it's a chain. I'm left with the ongoing question of how to find the balance.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. We talked about this a few years ago, but apparently the work is ongoing. This is one more opportunity for gratitude. Your treasures fit on a lap top, much better than having to get a U-Haul or rent a dumpster. Good luck with the continued work.

  2. Lovely reflection. I like to think of myself as an ascetic but I am not even close. I think Emerson said, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." It's a lot of weight and still...get rid of it all ? So hard to do.


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