Let me be clear about this: moving sucks. It reminds me of a bus-mate acquaintance a long time ago who told me that her children were spaced out chronologically by the time it would take for her to forget just how painful childbirth was. Same with moving. And it doesn’t help that as I get older, material things seem to cling to me, both around my waistline and to my home. When I was in my late twenties, I borrowed a friend’s fish delivery truck to move, and that did the job. Today, I need a fleet of Peterbilts.
As we clean out closets, nooks, the basement, and etc., it becomes clear just how much stuff we really have. In the one sense, this has been a good exercise, giving us an opportunity to evaluate what we own. We decided that if we haven’t used it in a year or so, and if we can’t imagine ourselves immediately using it in the new home, then out it goes. Sell it, chuck it, give it away but get rid of it. I’m surprised to discover that I’m less nostalgic as I grow older. I don’t see the point of holding on to stuff that was important to me 30 years ago. This is odd, because I’m usually a pretty sentimental guy. But I found myself staring into boxes I’d packed decades ago, and wondering “Why?”
Now, before you think I’m ready to dump all my belongings and join a mountain monastery, you should know that among the prized possessions I do intend to drag along to the new home is my Spencer’s plasma ball. Love that thing. Just setting the bar, there.
But as I’m sifting through the material debris of my life (and putting it into boxes), I’ve been forced into a sort of reckoning, an accounting of what I’ve accumulated and amounted to thus far in half a century on this planet. And I’ve come to feel the tug of something I read many decades ago, about materialism, about how some people become obsessed with owning stuff and end up enslaving themselves financially and spiritually to material things. In essence, the material things become the owners, and we shackle ourselves to acquiring and keeping them, and then acquiring more. It’s not even a matter of conspicuous consumption; for some, this becomes a private hell. We work longer hours to afford more, we buy bigger houses to store this stuff, and we create wills to continue shepherding this stuff after we die.
A year or so ago, a neighbor passed away. He was about my age (i.e., middle aged), and his ex-wife had no idea what to do with his stuff. So she opened the doors to several of us, his neighbors, to take what we wanted. It felt a bit ghoulish, but I ended up taking a lot of his CDs, some because I liked the artist but some because I just couldn’t bring myself to throw away perfectly good CDs — even though a younger, twenty-something neighbor remarked, “Nobody listens to CDs anymore.” One thing I discovered in listening to his music was that we had a lot in common, and I wish I’d gotten to know him before he passed. I think of him as I listen to his music occasionally.
We do not have any kids, so someday somebody will have to go through my stuff. (Hopefully that day is long off….) That chore may fall to my nieces. But you know — I’m OK with that. I hope others feel free to take what interests them, something that catches their eye and brings them pleasure, and the rest — well, it can be sold off or dumped. As I shed my mortal coil, so too will I leave behind the artifacts of my physical existence for others to use or dispose as they see fit.
And so I’m OK with having lots of stuff. I have a lot — a lot — of books, and a lot of CDs. In fact, my neck muscles are still sore from lugging boxes of said articles down multiple flights of stairs over the past couple weeks. But I love and use them regularly. They enhance my life almost daily. That’s the key, I think, just being sure that what we own doesn’t own us, that we enjoy it and it adds something to our lives while we’re still here. If it doesn’t add anything, then it needs to go. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman House in northern Manchester, NH was designed specifically to have exactly zero storage. He did not believe in storing anything. If you weren’t using it now, you don’t need it. I’m never going to be that extreme, but I vow to be more ruthless about what we keep.
A century ago, my family were peasants standing on the precipice of the Industrial Revolution. Mine is the first generation in our family to achieve advanced degrees. I live a material life unimaginable to my grandfather’s generation. I intend to use this opportunity to enjoy this life to the fullest, with family and friends.
And that, I think, is how one can make peace with stuff.