Creating a prison out of our possessions

I am not a “stuff” person, by which I mean that I’m not someone who fills her home with art and charming doodads.  Whatever is the opposite of artistic — well, that’s me.

If my Mom, a lavishly artistic person, groups seven glass bottles on a shelf, it’s a charming tableau that pleases the eye.  If I group seven glass bottles on a shelf, it’s obvious that I either forgot to put them away or to throw them away.

To the extent that I have things in my house, they fall into a few categories:  furniture, basic decorative items, way too many books, stuff that belongs to family members other than me, and utilitarian objects. (I love useful gadgets, ranging from iPads to garlic presses.)

Okay.  I have to confess that I lied in the previous paragraph.  I have one more category of things in my house.  Even though I’m not a “stuff” person, somehow I’ve got a lot of stuff.  I don’t collect this stuff voluntarily.  It’s the result of other people’s generosity (how can how I give away a loving gift?), inertia and laziness on my part (sometimes it’s easier to throw things in a closet than to make an affirmative decision to throw things away), and the black hole that is children.  Children seem to be a vast magnetic field collecting stuff.

The key thing is that I’m not invested in most of this stuff.  If something overcomes my inertia (new furniture replacing old, house guests, a burst of energy in the spring), I’ll throw out like a mad thing, with about 2/3 of the stuff heading to charity and 1/3 heading to the trash.  I get positively euphoric once I finally start throwing stuff away, so much so that I sometimes get carried away and throw out things I really ought to keep.  To me, cleaning out the cupboards is a combination of purification ritual and treasure hunt.  I’m always left wondering after the fact why I procrastinated so long.

Whenever I clean out my closets, I’m struck by how much stuff we have.  In the pre-industrial era, all but the richest people had so little.  There were no mass-produced odds and ends, tschokes, toys, doodads, objets, collectibles, etc., coming from India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Japan, etc.  Aside from a few precious treasures, many of them heirlooms, most of what people had was totally utilitarian.  Aesthetics might dictate that these utilitarian objects were made with an eye to beauty, but they were still primarily functional.

The industrial age changed everything.  With mass production, and with cheap labor from Britain’s far-flung empire, homes suddenly became very, very crowded:

A cluttered room is the product of affluence.  “Why do you have so much stuff in your house?” “Because it’s there.”

The problem with all this stuff is that it imprisons us.  I know a lady who, over the years, assembled a magnificent collection of art work from just about every continent but for Antarctica and North America.  She’s quite elderly now and has severe mobility problems.  Ideally, she should be living in a single level residence or a place with an elevator.  Instead, she crawls up and down the stairs in her three-story house, unable to leave because moving means abandoning her stuff, and she cannot make herself do that.  She has become a prisoner, not in her home, but of her home.

I know another couple who classify themselves as “collectors,” although I would call them hoarders.  When hard times came, the logical thing would have been for them to relocate to an area with more jobs on tap.  Moving their things, though, was so overwhelming, that they opted to stay in their house, unemployed.  Again, they are prisoners of their stuff.

I’m never going to complain about affluence.  I love having a spacious home, filled with cool things such as computers, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, televisions, etc.  But I do recognize that the same things I love are shackles, and I work hard to minimize the number of links in the chain of possessions tying me down.