By Susan Caba
Readers, I backslid.
While I was busy living with less, a bunch of stuff sneaked up and mugged me. I never saw it coming.
Oh, there were clues. The mattress pad and down comforter, purchased early on and cut down to fit my bed in Chapel Hill. The little microwave I bought when I realized I needed one to reheat my coffee. The two small paintings by intellectually disabled artists that charmed me in Asheville.
Art—that was the first telling sign I was slipping. The microwave and mattress pad, the $1 coffee cups and wine glasses from the PTA Thrift store—those I could rationalize as “needs.” There were no easy rationalizations for the paintings. I liked them, they were reasonably priced and I felt good spending the $25 for a worthy cause.
I didn’t realize how far I’d fallen until it was time to pack up and leave the Kellers’ house. Stuff had accumulated. African masks, for example. A bigger and better coffee maker. Six cans of tennis balls and a hopper to carry them. A small oriental rug. Not to mention the mahogany dressing table which I bought because I wasn’t sitting on my bidding hand at an auction. Besides, it’s for my son’s girlfriend—not that either one of them asked for it.
You’ll recall that, despite rigorously culling over a two-year period, I have a 10-by-15 storage unit in St. Louis that is loaded front-to-back, side-to-side and floor-to-ceiling with my belongings. I arrived in Chapel Hill with a moderate amount of stuff in the back of the Subaru. I’m leaving with suitcases bungie-corded to the roof.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Stuff, Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. It’s a well-written, research-grounded book about the motivations and emotions of hoarders. Whew! Glad I escaped that affliction!
I gotta tell you, though, some of the characteristics weren’t entirely unfamiliar.
We are attached to our things because of what they represent—opportunities, memories, and connections to significant people, places and events. Why else would I keep the musical mobile with panda bears that hung over my son’s crib, or the miniature buildings of a Greek fishing village my father brought back from a trip? Why would one friend treasure a tattered book of essays about our national parks she received as a child, or my former mother-in-law use her son’s baby bib—sixty years later—as a potholder every morning in her tea-making ritual?
“It wasn’t the objects themselves that she valued, but the connections they symbolized,” the authors wrote about one woman in Stuff. “And it’s the same whether we collect celebrities’ clothing, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a deck chair off the Titanic or five tons of old newspapers.”
Uh-oh. I have a piece of the Berlin Wall. My mother and youngest brother were there as it was being chipped into oblivion.
Jean-Paul Sartre said we learn who we are by observing what we own. Sartre wrote that “to have” is one of three basic forms of human experience, the others being “to do” and “to be.” William James said acquisitiveness is a human instinct, which contributes to our sense of self. “What is ‘me’ fuses with what is ‘mine’ and our ‘self’ consists, in part, of what we possess.”
Our stuff also represents our image of ourselves. Like the time I bought a cunning set of dishes thinking, “these will be just great for a luncheon.” Only after I paid for them did I remember I hadn’t ever had a luncheon. I don’t even like the word.
One woman described in Stuff had more than 300 cookbooks, kitchen counters hidden under cookware and gadgets, and a stove no longer visible under layers of kitchen accoutrements. “Much of her hoard allowed her to imagine various identities,” the authors said. “A great cook, a well-read and informed person, a responsible citizen. Her things represented dreams, not realities. Getting rid of the things meant losing the dreams.”
The anecdote reminded me of clearing the house of a woman who obviously intended to be a great cook—she had an unbelievable stash of baking equipment, mixing bowls, state-of-the-art equipment and serving paraphernalia. All of it was stored in the basement, unopened and unused.
Hoarders or not, it’s because we imbue objects with these layers of meaning that it’s so easy to acquire things and so difficult to get rid of them. Which brings me back to my 8-month house-sitting assignment in Chapel Hill.
It turns out that, lovely as my hosts’ home is, I needed my stuff around me. I brought a few photos of my son with me, but that was about it for personal mementos. My house in St. Louis—if I do say so myself—was an artful, art-filled environment. (Yes, maybe too art-filled!)
And so, reader, that’s how it happened—the African masks, the little Waterford pitcher I bought at Goodwill for $8 (and never used—it was one of those “irresistible bargains”), the bird feeder, the framed picture of bathing beauties under a beach umbrella, the block-printed greeting cards, the bedskirts from the thrift shop (which I left behind), the frames for unframed children’s art and, oh yes, the DVDs for learning how to salsa dance (which I had to watch in slow motion and, even then, could barely see how the woman was moving her hips).
So, the Subaru is loaded again to the gills. But at least I gave away the lawnmower.
The ResaleEvangelista has culled her belongings, in order to create a simplified, more artful life.
If you’re new to the site, you might want to check out these earlier posts of mine about the joys and perils of house-sitting.