Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Suffering of Stuff

The last few days of the year always seem short but tedious. The longest night of the year has passed, but you wouldn’t know it. Plus, I miss my simple life as a tourist and writer in Africa. And the simplicity of my student life in Wales. I like living from a suitcase, with just a few belongings. A houseful of STUFF takes my breath away. The more I own, the less in control of anything I feel. I don’t understand how people can own mansions with rooms and rooms full of stuff. It makes me nervous.
And that’s why it’s probably a good thing that all my stuff is stacked in a garage at the moment. I had quite the review of all my stuff when I packed my life away in boxes just before I embarked on my journey to Wales last year. I reviewed the stuff side of life again after I arrived home recently and had to retrieve a few things and searched through many of the boxes to find them. I missed very, very few of these things during my student tenure in Wales.
My packing spree resulted in culling - you know, giving tons away to charity shops and pitching an unbelievable amount into the trash as well. Even books – oh, those sacred books. No, I’d never trash a book, but I donated a huge pile to my local library used book sale, gave some of my kids’ books to my grandsons (except for the collection of every Dr. Suess book ever published, which I’m very attached to) and even tossed a few old and obscure ones into the charity pile.
What I can’t reconcile is that I tend to review and cull my stuff at least once or twice a year anyway, especially when stuff tends to overflow from closets and cupboards into living space. I didn’t think I’d find much that I wanted to get rid of when I moved last year. But I discovered many, many strange things. Like an empty box neatly stashed in the corner of a closet. It once held a big supply of millet spears for our parakeet. The parakeet died two years before and the remaining shreds of millet were deteriorating. Among many other things, I also found an almost twenty-year-old stash of cancelled checks in a box buried beneath empty boxes in my shed. These are interesting for half a minute for their historical value.You know, seeing what inflation hath wrought and what you used to buy or thought you had to have. The tyranny of stuff.
The more I cull, the more I feel like culling. I’m asking myself now if I indeed need most of the stuff I’ve stored away. Of course, I’m not using it because I’m living in my mother’s home until further notice. Further notice meaning being able to afford a separate roof over my head, meaning employment that will cover all contingencies. My current income covers paying current debts exclusive of living expenses. This is not-so-good, but we’ll leave that jellyfish alone for now. At least my octogenarian mom needs a little help and my kids need access to jobs and big-city schools.
Anyway, I consider all the stuff that many people store and never, ever use. Like people who live in the same house for decades but who have garages full of stuff they’re saving, that they just might use someday. This terrifies me. It feels very heavy to have every nook and cranny of a house crammed with stuff. I think it makes some people feel good, but I’m not sure how that works. I feel like it will all potentially fall into a big pile and smother me. Feng Shui books say that accumulation of things can potentially be harmful to your health and welfare. It’s truly a good thing to keep energy flowing through the house, and those unsightly piles and stacks impede that energy. This is stagnation, another jellyfish word.
I figure that stagnation isn’t good for creative work. Writing requires a certain atmosphere, in my experience, that's dependent upon my environment. So I keep my life and my living space as free of uncorralled stuff as possible. Not that I’m exactly a minimalist. I admire minimalists and I try to think like one, but I also tend to get attached to things with meaning. You know, photos of meaningful people and places, mementos from meaningful trips, bric-a-brac gifted by family and friends, those Mother’s Day kindergarten craft items, and so on. It helps that the world has gone digital and photos can be collected in digital albums. I don’t have as much need to frame and collect in this digital age, especially after I had almost emptied my house for the real estate listing photo and felt how liberating it was to live without dust collectors. It’s harder to dispense with the five-pound globs of clay or unidentifiable collections of construction paper that your offspring deposit with glowing eyes into your tender, loving hands on Mother’s Day.
When I deposited my entire life into a little storage room last summer, I hadn’t seen the top of my piano, refrigerator, or a bare windowsill in years. The space left just before my big move to Wales exhilarated me and gave me the feeling that new energy could enter my life. And it did.
I’ve come to the conclusion that attachment to stuff causes suffering of a particular type. Congestion, both physical and mental. Some say extreme attachment to stuff leads to being overweight, which is certainly a type of congestion. I don’t know about this because I’ve known overweight people who couldn’t give a fluff about stuff, but I have known at least a couple who couldn’t part with anything, to the point that they’d move trash from house to house and storage room to storage room. But I haven't noticed that chucking stuff makes me any skinnier. I think the upside to all this attachment to stuff is a feeling of stability, but stability of a  type that makes me feel challenged. And congested.
I find that in addition to dealing with stuff on the occasions that I’m confronted with moving it, I also tend to cull stuff on or around New Year’s, which is why I’m thinking about it today. I’ve often spent New Year’s Day cleaning out drawers or closets. This is a strange habit, but not much different than taking stock or making resolutions. But in the case of culling stuff, you get to realize the results quickly. Some people would rather nurse hangovers or watch football on New Year’s, but I like to start my new year feeling spacious.

This spaciousness also applies to writing and revision, and why this long, rambling post could do with some editing. But I'm my own worst editor and I'm also playing with spontanaeity on my blog, so I'll let the suffering of too many words be.
Maybe I should take up a side career as a professional organizer. There’s just nothing like the spacious feeling of chucking stuff (or words, when you have to write tight). So while I’m chucking and thinking of chucking, I wish you spaciousness in 2011!

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