“It’s amazing how our lives are ruled by our stuff“… This comment from Butch, as we stood by the dock in South Caicos; we’d been discussing the recent loss of my own boat, along with everything aboard, being everything I owned. Looking back on it, I think a large part of how I was able to deal so well with the loss was that it was accompanied by a great deal of freedom. Indeed, the course of my life had been almost completely dominated by my stuff, at least over the past couple of years. I really had no idea how complete this domination was until after I’d lost everything.
Today, I find myself to be too-easily disturbed by stuff. Yes, I have a few nice things in my life, which I feel I’ve earned, and yes, I like to surround myself in as much comfort as I can reasonably afford. Living simply and sparsely in the boat and the bus taught me just how little I really needed, but only a profound and complete loss of stuff taught me just how much I was being weighed-down by my belongings.
I’ve recently moved out of my apartment. It was my first conventional living arrangement in several years, which afforded me both the advantages and burdens of accumulation. I was very surprised at how much crap I’d picked up in just over a year. It actually took me more than one trip in my little van to empty out my tiny bachelor apartment!
Now this isn’t meant to be a harsh criticism, but by way of comparison, let’s look at my ladyfriend. The one I’ve just moved in with. The one whose seemingly-endless piles of crap stuff are now surrounding me, covering almost the entirety of our new huge 1400-square-foot apartment. Don’t get me wrong; she isn’t a hoarder, some unreasonable collector, or a a sentimental nutjob. She’s not even particularly materialistic in character. It’s just that she’s lived in the same space for 13 years, a space with massive walk-in closets and copious area with which to fill with any and all sorts of memorabilia, art, and furniture.
In the time we’ve been together, I suppose I’ve just always assumed that some large part of that old apartment’s collection belonged to her two room-mates (one of whom most certainly is one of those sorts of inveterate “collectors”). Only when I saw the whole mass of it bagged, boxed, and so thoroughly covering the entirety of our new place did I start to get properly emotional about it all. I’m starting to realize that, as far as the “burden of stuff” goes, the only thing harsher than your own burden is that feeling of having been mantled with someone else’s stuff.
I look around me, and my soul is stunned to think that any one person can actually have so much. Whether fair and reasonable or not, my gut reaction is not to see it as “a person who has stuff”, but as “stuff that owns a human”; it as if the human has become this de-personified accessory to the collection.
Why is it that I react this way? I certainly don’t want to feel so disturbed by it, but neither do I wish to have such strong gut reactions flippantly dismissed. I take another look around, and decide to examine my own little corner of the apartment, and the few things I have here. How do I relate to them? What do my possessions really mean to me? What benefit do they confer that counters their burden?
I start and end with a set of simple questions: which of my belongings have I possessed for the longest time, and how has my relationship with that item changed over that period of time? How has that relationship changed me? How do I react to the notion of discarding that item?
The item in question is a threadbare black nylon daypack. It’s bleached a little purplish from use and exposure. The elasit closures are stretched and dangling. The waist-strap has been raggedly cut off. This is my “haul-bag”; the cheap surplus-store bag I used to haul my groceries home, on foot, when i had the bus parked some ways out of town. I guess I’ve possessed it for 8 years. It replaced a green cotton canvas bag that I’d picked up in Guadalajara 8 years before that. That green bag was discarded in the wastebasket at a local coffeeshop (The Beanstalk, to be precise) after I’d dropped it and broken the small bottle of olive oil it contained; bare and worn, and now soaked in oil, it was an appropriate disposal.
This black bag was one of the very few things I took with me when I stepped up off the boat mid-Atlantic. I’m fairly certain it’s the only object continuously in my possession for longer than 2 years. It’s been on all sorts of cross-country (and cross-ocean!) trips with me. It was the only bag I took with me on my last trip back to BC, my last trip to Mexico, and my only trip to NYC. It’s a lousy bag, and I can’t admit to particularly loving it, but I feel like it has earned the right to burden me.
I look back at all the other piles and piles around me, and can’t begin to fathom how so many items can have ever earned their right to burden anyone else in such a similar fashion. Of course, I shouldn’t extend my values to other people this way, right? Or does sharing a home with someone give me a little leave to indulge in these reactions? It’s hard to say, especially since all this shit stuff has yet to be properly sorted and stowed.
Already, I can tell that my ladyfriend is feeling more burdened than she has in years; she’s being confronted by her stuff in a more full and complete fashion than she can recall. I want to be more supportive through this process… but I can’t shake the feeling that the real solution is to simply step away from it, let it all go, take her hand, and lead her away from it.