I’ve had fair enough reason to think of stuff lately. In the last few weeks, I’ve been helping my 76 year-old father — ensconced for 27 years in one office — move to a smaller office. I’ve spent time at a farm, with little concern for my clothes and possessions other that I be appropriately attired for the weather and task at hand. I helped my best friend as she downsized from a full-on, beautifully decorated home in the ‘burbs to a fully furnished (little stuff required) loft apartment in SF. And, as I seem to have incessantly nipping at my heels, my own stuff. My office and paper and projects stuff. My winter/spring/summer/fall clothes stuff. And accessories. And more accessories. My stuff of living. My stuff for cooking. My transportation and travel stuff. My stuff because I keep it stuff. My stuff because I don’t know what to do with it stuff. Lots of stuff.
I go through periods where my stuff seems right and ordered and balanced and good. In these times I tend to feel rich and full and content. And I go through periods where my stuff seems everywhere, and spread out and disorganized. In these times I manage to — equally and concurrently — to feel I have both too much and not enough.
Today, as I faced my closet on the edge of moving out of winter/early spring and into mid-spring and early summer, I felt a bit overwhelmed by my stuff. Then I looked at my desk and, again, felt overwhelmed by my stuff. But I also got a sense of this thing called Stuff, and this is what I saw. There is no right or wrong definition of what Stuff one should have, what quantity, what condition. How can I decide for another what is right. I know a particular someone who has over 35 rulers. One person. And that doesn’t even count the protractors. Is 35 rulers the right amount of stuff? Maybe. Maybe not.
For me, my possessions become stuff when I lose my relationship to them. When my closet is filled with clothes I love and wear, then the items are my clothes and they make my wardrobe which allows me to select and express myself at will by my choices and options. The clothes and me — and my place and space in time — are aligned. The items are not “stuff,” but my clothes. To someone else’s eyes, perhaps I have too many shoes (though I don’t know if it’s possible — save one Imelda Marcos — to have too many shoes). Perhaps to someone else, I have a silly number of full-circle skirts, or purses. The status of stuff is not for another. Perhaps someone who has 35 rulers hosts a weekly arts and crafts session and the rulers are just the right amount.
But if someone has 35 rulers and doesn’t even know they have 35 rulers; doesn’t even know they have a dozen rulers, then the rulers become Stuff. Just as when my clothes or other items in my life are no longer representative of me, or the projects and paperwork I keep around I’m no longer connected with. Then items transform from being meaningful and purposeful to being stuff. I think in this regard, it’s OK to keep some archival items (though I’m one of the worst for this) as long as — again — the relationship to the item still has meaning. But keeping things to keep things. Or having things to have things, that’s the dangerous, slippery slope for me.
I find that a stasis of sort is necessary for me. Often time, if I come back from shopping, in short order, something needs to go. If I bought, for example, a few shirts, I’ll find a few items in my wardrobe to move on and into the thrift store stream. It may not be a few shirts that go, but something from my life needs to move out. I’ve noticed this about myself for quite a few years.
Still and yet, the stuff accumulates. The little extra scarf kept and stuffed into a drawer. The jewelry that was from a relative that I neither wear nor like but don’t know what to do about it. The how-in-the-world-did-I-ever-end-up-owning-so-many-pens pile that still seems to grow. The bigger items. The pile in the basement. The put-to-pasteur electronics still around the house. It accumulates.
I’m not claiming or pretending that I’ll resolve this for myself overnight. But I think I understand it for myself a little better: right relationship and connection, alignment and expression, meaning and purpose, these are the things that keep items in and near me because I choose them. While the opposite — no alignment or connection to the items — quickly makes them stuff. And stuff has a way of piling up, getting messy and making me feel queerly as though I have both too much and not enough.
Well, enough on stuff for one night.