The accumulation of stuff

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 28, 2016 10:33 PM

The average American household has 300,000 items in it. I heard that figure today and my first thought was ‘no way.’ But then I looked around my office and without actually counting, saw that I have a bunch of stuff in here. From paintings to books, to a Build-a-Bear dressed in Harley-Davidson leather; an antique typewriter, three computers, a stereo; a chair, an ottoman. A desk and matching chair. The list goes on. And on. And on. That’s just one room in a house with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a kitchen, breakfast nook, dining room, living/great room. Deck. Don’t get me started on the 3-car garage.

I would venture a guess that our house actually has more than 300,000 items in it and it makes me feel bloated, dirty somehow. As if I’m living a terribly decadent life that I shouldn’t be.

Stuff can make you feel like that, I suppose, which is why there is so much talk about tiny houses and downsizing, about de-cluttering and minimizing. I get it. We all have way too much stuff, more stuff than we need, and much more stuff than we ever actually use.

When we moved in August of 2013, we actually embraced the idea of cleaning out the house. What a tremendous opportunity to finally go through every closet, every drawer, to throw out what we hadn’t used in years; to donate stuff to the Goodwill or Salvation Army; the veteran’s groups. We had a dumpster in front of the house and we filled it easily. And we still required a 26’ moving van and an additional 19’ U-haul to get all of our stuff to Tucson. 

We hang on to things because we convince ourselves that we might actually need them someday. This is a nice juxtaposition against so much that’s completely disposable. We don’t write letters anymore; we write emails that are easily deleted. We text but don’t talk. We have disposable diapers and disposable razors. But we still have an accumulation of things, of stuff, that we can’t let go of. I wonder if sometimes the reason I can’t get rid of more is because my stuff represents accomplishment. I earned all of this; bought it all by myself. All by ourselves. When I was just out of school and starting my life as an adult, I had nothing but a 1979 Toyota Celica. Everything I owned or needed, fit into the back with plenty of room to spare. My mom and I drove that car across the country in 1984 as I moved to California. There was also room for her suitcases.

Then my accumulation of stuff began and continued for about 30 years. We all do it, and we all – or at least most – think often about downsizing, about minimizing. My mother jokes that when she’s gone, my brother and sister and I are going to have quite the mess to clean out. She lives in an 800 square foot house, and she has accumulated a lot of stuff. Furniture, dollhouses, other antiques. Photographs. And an attic filled with boxes of things, boxes that haven’t been opened in years; boxes that probably contain things that belonged to me, to my brother, to my sister, maybe even my dad.

My Aunt Beryl died three years ago. I flew back to Pittsburgh to help my mom clean out the house. It was at least the second if not the third or forth time my mom had been there to start cleaning, including the weekend of the funeral. My brother and brother-in-law met us there with a U-haul truck. We would be getting rid of a lot of my aunt’s stuff but others would be taking some of it. Thus the U-haul. My aunt’s house was 4-stories, including a basement and an attic. She had lived there most of her life and was 93 when she died. She had accumulated much.

We did the same thing when my dad died, cleaning out his condo. He didn’t have as much, mainly clothing, furniture, photographs, and all of the kitchen things.

When we accumulate stuff and things, we can go overboard. But I don’t believe that completely ridding ourselves of material items is actually a good thing either. I think too much and too little are both too extreme. Because when we de-clutter or deconstruct, when we de-stuff, we also deprive ourselves of the small pleasures we can actually get from certain material things. Things can bring back memories, they can bring laughter, joy; sadness. It’s why I still have boxes filled with 4 X 6 photos, taken before we had digital cameras. It’s the reason I still have a pair of high heeled denim boots, things I’ll never wear again, but can’t seem to get rid of. I’ve written before about the joy I get from driving my Porsche, cruising up Catalina Highway with the windows down, the roof out and the music blasting. If a turbo-charged Porsche isn’t a material thing, I don’t know what is. But in those moments when I’m driving and the world is not intruding, I’m free to simply enjoy my wonderful life in this wonderful “thing” on four wheels.

I guess then, when we accumulate and before we minimalize, the questions is simple: does this thing add value to my life? Because if it doesn’t I don’t need it. But if it does, then it’s something to celebrate.

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live out loud

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