The Unimportance of Stuff

When I was a baby I didn’t have new stuff and most of the stuff I had was shared with other kids in a hippie commune.

When I was a kid with my own room my stuff became sacrosanct and those who entered my space were all potential pilferers and destroyers of my stuff.

When I was a teen I kept all stuff made of paper.  I had file folders filled with scrap paper and piles of very important notebooks full of scribblings and I had clothes piling out of my closet and books and unused roller skates.  I was a magpie.  I became a pack-rat.

When I had my first room mate I actually yelled at her for touching my stuff.

When I got married I discovered my husband had more stuff than me and I began to let go of all the paper scraps and extraneous things of mine to make room for his stuff.

Soon I had him editing his own stuff because his parents are hoarders and seeing what stuff out of control can do to a house gave me night terrors.

Then we got our own house and I selected stuff much more carefully and started getting nicer stuff and getting rid of crappy stuff and taking  better care of what I had in general (there are those that will disagree with that last statement – you must evaluate relative to before).

Then we had a baby and babies are extra people that come with extra stuff.  Their stuff is cluttery and multiplies under the influence of saliva.

One day our attic caught on fire and a bunch of stuff I considered precious was broken, melted, burnt, and scorched.  I had two choices.  I could be devastated and mourn the loss of my things, or I could let go of those things I lost and enjoy the extra air they left behind them.  I chose not to mourn stuff and save all my sorrow for people.  We were fortunate not to have lost each other.

I was profoundly released from the spell of stuff after that fire.  I like my things.  I enjoy my heirlooms that are left (even the scorched family china I saved from the fire) and I’m glad I have it.  But when things break, I don’t spend more than a moment in distress and regret over them.  I’m much more upset when I cut my thumb nearly in half or when my child sprains his ankle.

There is always more stuff and no one needs most of the stuff they have, myself included.  Stuff can enrich your enjoyment of life but it can also choke you to death with dust and stagnation, paralyzing your ability to create and think and evolve.

The last few months I have begun the most earnest spring cleaning of my life.  I’ve been enjoying setting tons of crap free.  Crap that is cool and interesting and useful to other people but which has ceased to be these things to me.

Then last week my laptop died.  All my files corrupted.  I had no back up and for 24 hours we didn’t know if the tech guys could retrieve my photo and writing files.  Files which constituted years of work and care and time.  I cried for one hour.  I mourned lost pictures and all that writing.  I railed against my own stupidity for not backing up my files.  And then I let them all go.

It was like going through the fire all over again.  As though I needed reminding that stuff is just stuff.

Even the stuff we create.  When things we make are destroyed or lost we have the capacity to make new and better and cooler things.  They won’t be exactly like the old things, but every day  our potential to make better things grows more spectacular.

My files were saved.  I bought a mobile hard drive and backed them up immediately.

Now I’m thinking about the next layer of stuff I can peel from my life.  I won’t become spartan.  I still like having pretty things in my life and I love and depend on all my tools like my sewing machine and my canning equipment and my books.  But I see how I want my life to function going forward, I see what kind of mental space I need to achieve my goals and dreams and I know that it lies still under the weight of a few more layers of stuff.

New thoughts, new narratives, new creative projects and new images will replace the space my unimportant stuff took up.

26 comments

  1. Grace says:

    I wish more people would write about their relationship to their stuff. I am fascinated by the way we think and talk about it. I’m very, very attached to my stuff, in general, and to collecting stuff, but am generally unattached to specific items, which is, I think, unusual.

  2. angelina says:

    I’d like to hear more about how that works – being attached to stuff in general but unattached to specific items. That sounds really interesting to me. I also find it interesting how our relationship to our stuff changes either through events or through the natural evolution of self. My relationship with stuff as drastically changed, as you can see.

  3. The stuff, it can become maddening! I’m getting ready for a remodel which will affect the master bedroom/bathroom, a hall closet and our living room – there is a lot of ‘stuff’ in them thar rooms (my house isn’t very big)! The purging has begun and the scramble to figure out where to put dislocated stuff until the remodel is over is challenging. It will be nice to be free and clear of so much of it, huge block sale coming up in a month…yay! 🙂 Great post, thanks! (oh, linked to you through BlogHer).

    • angelina says:

      Figuring out where to put stuff while remodeling or while doing major work on a room is always a problem for me. While I’m not remodeling or anything like that – but with the spring cleaning I’ve got all these boxes full of stuff that used to be in drawers and on bookshelves – suddenly it’s in the middle of the room. It took a while to get all the boxes to the people they were destined for and we went a little nuts.

      Thank you so much for reading my post!

  4. PortlyDyke says:

    I’ve been simplifying and letting go of stuff progressively over the past two years. We’re now preparing for a cross-country move and are letting go of even more.

    It feels incredibly liberating, and I’ve truly enjoyed moving along some very precious and interesting things to dear friends (and even some very casual acquaintances) and see them light up the way I did when I first got them.

    Thank you for writing this. It serves as a perfect synchronicity for me today, as I was pondering over some things that I thought I’d never move along. 🙂

    • angelina says:

      That’s my absolute favorite – giving things I’ve treasured but am ready to let go of to friends and seeing them get excited about them. I’m glad this post found you at the right moment. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Anna says:

    Thank you for this great post!

    I, too, am in the beginning stages of a move. Although I’m great about getting rid of stuff regularly, there are always things I seem to get stuck on. I’m realizing that I often keep things because I feel like I haven’t utilized them to their full potential (I didn’t wear that skirt, I never read that book) and they represent failure to me. Instead of letting go of something I thought would serve me and didn’t, I punish myself for not being “enough” for these things!

    No more. Someone else is out there waiting for the very things I have no use for. If only I had been able to get them at Goodwill for $5 instead of paying full price!

    • angelina says:

      Anna – I totally know what you mean about not wanting to let something go that I never made good use of – like I was failing that thing and owe it apologies or, at least, another chance to be useful in my own house. That reminds me of my son who, a few years ago, couldn’t sleep because he was worried about his stuff. When I asked him to tell me what was worrying him so much he told me not to laugh at him. He explained that he didn’t like getting rid of his toys because they have feelings and they know that if he gets rid of them that he rejected them. He was seven at the time. I suggested that maybe the toys he never plays with would really like going to a new home where they will be played with and enjoyed. But he said that the toys would always know that it was HIM who got rid of them and it made him feel bad. But then a year later he gave his entire Thomas the Tank Engine to one of my friend’s much younger son. He suggested doing this all on his own and it made me really proud of him and he felt good when he saw this little kid completely light up at the sight of that big bin full of coveted trains and tracks.

  6. kario says:

    We have been planning a move for a while now and I’ve been purging the house of so much stuff! It is cathartic and wonderful and reminds me that once we move, I want to continue to try to have less stuff. But this post is particularly timely for another reason. My cousin emailed me yesterday to tell me that one of her dear friends who lives near us just lost everything but her cat in a house fire. She knows we were putting together things for a garage sale and wondered if, instead, we might donate household items to her friend so that she can start over.

    I can’t tell you what a wonderful feeling that conjured up for me! My girls and I immediately set about putting together towels and baking sheets and mixing bowls that were destined for Goodwill or a moving sale and my youngest designed the sweetest card to go with it all. It is so great to know that some of our unnecessary stuff is going to help someone else. Thanks for this post!

    • angelina says:

      That’s so fantastic! Giving things to the Good Will or other charities is great but when you can make personal gifts of your extraneous things to people you’re connected to in some way I think it connects joy to your old things in their new life. It means that when you think of the towels and baking sheets you got rid of you’re thinking of a person who is now making use of them who wanted/needed them and so the space those things used to take up is now filled with warmth. I’m so sorry every time I hear that someone lost everything in a fire – we were so lucky in our fire that we didn’t lose everything. I’m so relieved your sister’s friend didn’t lose her cat!!!

    • angelina says:

      Thanks for commenting! Wow, I’ve never lived in a place where an avalanche is even possible. That sounds so terrifying! I’m still attached to some things too which I think is natural. I’m no zen minimalist. I like to collect things. But not letting your things rule your life is a great place to be – I think it frees up room in your spirit. (And also your home.)

  7. Jaimi says:

    I completely agree with you. I love people; I like to be close to people. I don’t ever want to value a thing in place of a person even if the person gave me the thing. Memories last in our minds, stuff clutters and breaks. I hope to teach my children that stuff is not what gives us value and self-esteem. It’s a delicate balance to try to teach value for stuff but not over-emphasis of its value. Ahh, the joys of parenting!

    • angelina says:

      Isn’t it funny how the things in our lives can turn into symbols of the people and places in our lives? You’re so right that we don’t really need things to remind us of people, we keep people in our memories without tying them to objects. But it’s a very human habit.

    • angelina says:

      I just read and commented on your post as well. So many of us have been downsizing by necessity but I’m starting to see it as a happy thing and not a bad thing. I like that you’re looking forward to moving to a smaller space. My house right now is too big for us too so I know what you mean.

  8. I too have been through a fire and (unwillingly) freed of my stuff. It really helped me to realize what stuff was actually meaningful and what stuff was just…stuff. I figure if I didn’t cry about it or search for in the first 7 days, it didn’t really matter. Now, as we are rebuilding our home, I am on stuff patrol. I don’t want more stuff in my new house to clutter it up. Unfortunately, the fire did not have the same effect on the rest of my herd and they are accumulating a lot of stuff!

    • angelina says:

      I’m so sorry you had to go through a fire! It sounds like yours was worse than mine. Maybe your herd will calm down after a while. Maybe it’s a reaction to losing so many things. I don’t force my kid or husband to get rid of stuff they care about and I’m okay if they have more stuff than I think they need but I do encourage them to get rid of things as they acquire things. That’s what’s interesting about stuff is that there are a lot of different relationships people can have with it. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  9. Jan says:

    middle of the night worrying brought me to Internet & blog reads. Thanks for such a great post.
    My adult son lived in a house with things he loved but one day he just walked away – leaving behing everything he owned and loved. Now I walk through his house. looking at his ‘stuff’ and wonder how anyone could do this, but especially my child who I love and prayed for.
    Your words helped me so much.
    “Saving my sorrow for people” as we raise our 3-year-old grandson. we try to bring him joy,love,happiness… but realize,there are no guarantees, are there?

    • angelina says:

      Jan – it sounds like your son walked away from a lot more than just his stuff. I can’t imagine what his story is that he would do that but your grandson is very lucky you’re there to raise him. There definitely aren’t any guarantees but it sounds like you’re doing the very best you can in a tough situation and I hope you get a break from worrying and some sleep!

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