Stuff, lots and lots of stuff

Peggy and I got rid of some stuff this week. I parted with the last two boxes of my rock collection, and we both got rid of some dishes and cassette tapes. Maybe we’ll find more to get rid of when we clean house today. I like getting rid of stuff. I like it a lot. Sometimes, I wish that I could get something back, but all of life is a risk and to some extent a burden, and owning stuff is one of its biggest burdens.

I don’t mean to say that I’m anti-stuff because I think of my stuff as my friends, and I feel like a traitor when I let any of it go. But at the same time, it tortures me to keep it. For example, I would be lying in bed at night thinking about my rock collection, and it would feel like a heavy weight on my stomach. Still, like I said, it also hurts to let stuff go. In the case of the rocks, I had built my collection over years of exploration. This is why it works better for me to never own a lot of stuff to begin with.

My father couldn’t get enough stuff. He erected large buildings just to keep his stuff in. It was mostly junk—literally, as in broken toys from dumpsters. After mother died, he got really serious about his stuff collection, and it grew so much that he could only move through his house by way of passageways between piles of mildewed rags, magazines, and forty-year old electric bills.

I figured his stuff must have made him feel secure, as in, “the cold cruel world is howling out there, and me and my stuff are nestled snugly in here.” I’m the opposite. If there was a flood, I would want less stuff to sort through as I prepared to move to high ground. Or if there was an earthquake, I figure I would have less of a mess to clean up if I didn’t own so much. Such thoughts also dictate the kinds of stuff I want. Food, water, guns: good. Knick-knacks, furniture, rock collections: bad. Then too, just as I can’t love a lot of friends well, I can’t love a lot of stuff well. It’s the difference between the six trees in my yard and the thousands of trees in the forest; or the difference between the kid who gets five presents for Christmas and the kid who gets fifty presents for Christmas.

I observed the latter kind of kid opening presents. She could only enthuse so much, and she could only love so much, and she passed her limit with half her presents still unopened, and collapsed in tears. I wondered how this would affect her attitude toward stuff as she grew up. Would she buy more and more of it without ever feeling that she had enough; or would she turn away from stuff and toward drugs, overwork, or religion?

Peggy does stuff well. She owns a lot of it by my standards, but not so much that she can’t dust it all within an hour or two. When I complain about how much we own, she says that her friends comment on how empty our house seems (“Hey, Peggy, when are you going to start decorating, ha, ha, ha”). But if you took all the households in America and determined their average stuff content, this would not prove that the average household had chosen well. The common way is not necessarily the best way, and, even when it is the best way for most, it isn’t the best way for all.

Then there is the environment to consider. All our stuff was a part of nature until we reshaped it. Few people seem to have an ethical problem with the amount of stuff that gets reshaped, or to wonder if our desire for the created doesn’t imply a rejection of the natural—as if we live against the earth rather than with it. We even take the earth’s bounty and remake it into Disney-like copies of nature—things like cuddly grizzly bears and fluffy cobras.

I think about how the U.S. population has doubled in just 38 years, and how our stuff has probably quadrupled in that amount of time, and I think to myself: “My god, how much is enough? Will we keep going until there is nothing left that we can remake into something that, in most cases, we don’t actually need?” I have known couples who bought new houses because they needed more room for their furniture. Such houses are farther out of town and require a longer commute and a later retirement. I detect both superficiality and immorality in this, but if I said as much, they might reasonably retort, “Who are you to tell us how to live?” Well, who is anyone to tell anyone how to live (or any number of people to tell any one person how to live)? The absence of an acceptable answer causes many problems.

Peggy and I can’t even settle the issue in our two-person household. I feel lost in our 1,451 square foot house with its two baths, three bedrooms, and double garage, while Peggy considers it smallish. I reflect upon how little most of the people in the world own (most of them being in the Third World and lacking the means to own much), and I am embarrassed by how lavishly we live. Peggy regrets their poverty but doesn’t consider it related to us.

For me, it’s not just the size of our house, but the amount of energy it takes to sustain our lifestyle. My countrymen wouldn’t be dying in the Middle East right now if not for our overuse of energy, and this makes every ounce of petroleum burned into an ethical decision. For example, food that is flown-in requires more petroleum than food that is trucked-in, and therefore increases the number of people who must die. I think it would be possible to come up with a life-to-gallon ratio, something like 1/60th of a life for every 500,000 barrels of oil.

I am reading a book by a man who became obsessed with reducing the number of his belongings and the size of his dwellings.

“I started hanging out with rock climbers, dirt bags, and train hopping hobos of all kinds who dwelt in ragged tents for most of the year. Then for a short, albeit uncomfortable time, I went so far as to have only a bivy bag for shelter, which consists of nothing but more than a tough nylon sack that protects your sleeping bag from the elements.

“Then one humid night as I lay sweating under the stars on Catalina Island off the coast of southern California, I asked myself, ‘When will this all stop? When I’m wandering completely naked and alone with absolutely nothing to call my own?’” from Radical Simplicity by Dan Price

Dan’s wife left him when he moved into a teepee, but Peggy and I have stuck it out by agreeing thatneither of us can have what we want. This has also prevented us from exploring enough options to know what we want. I can but wonder where I would be if left to my own devices. Am I more like a flower that was prevented from opening, or more like an animal that was saved from falling into a hole and starving to death? Thoreau said this about the matter:

“No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles.”

But then Thoreau had neither wife, dogs, nor even a parlor fern, although he did have a rock collection.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

He didn’t say whether the window was open.

I’ve never had such clarity. Whether for good or evil, I have never even approached it. My every bite, my every thought, and my every step are weighed down with ambivalence. If I were of a superstitious bent, I might speculate that this is why Thoreau completed his life’s journey at age forty-four while I burden onward upon failing knees at fifty-seven. I would not be the first to suggest that they are best who die soonest.