Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stuff and Things

Have you ever felt like you were drowning in a sea of your own stuff? I read years ago that an archeologist tried to inventory the average American home, just as archeologists had meticulously inventoried the contents of the Great Pyramids and King Tut’s tomb. The intrepid archeologist of a modern homo sapiens habitation quickly gave up because the average American home has too much stuff.

If our house gets buried in a freak sandstorm and is excavated two thousand years from now by an intrepid archeologist, I hope he or she has lots of enthusiastic graduate students to help catalog all the stuff. It might take a while.

Two things lead me to believe that our house has more stuff than the average American home. First, I’ve always been an overachiever. Second, George has a gene for hoarding that came to him via both his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, both of whom saw collecting stuff as essential to life.

Since George and I married almost 24 years ago, I’ve been an unpaid Inventory Manager, reorganizing an ever-increasing quantity of stuff in a fruitless attempt to fight entropy. Entropy is the force of nature that moves matter from a state of high order and energy to a state of low order and energy. It takes a bunch of energy to fight entropy and restore order.

I’ve been pouring my energy into organizing our inventory for 24 years in a monotonous cycle of chaos-order-chaos that makes me feel like Sisyphus. No matter how much time I spend organizing, the contents of our house always slide back down the hill into the pit of chaos.

For the last six months or so, I’ve neglected to organize very much, and now the house is so chaotic I simply can’t stand it anymore. I am going crazy and cleaning out and organizing and throwing out and making multiple runs to Salvation Army to shed stuff. My muscles are sore, and I am crabby.

Much of my crabbiness comes from the realization that the rest of my life will be more of the same. It will never get any better.

How have I, a woman whose general attitude toward life positively reeks of optimism and sunshine, lost hope? It’s complicated. Last week at Barnes and Noble, as I stood in line for my mocha, I saw this:

It called to me. It said, “Susan, I am yours and you are mine and we should be together for all eternity.” I was helpless under its persuasive call, and given that my sister-in-law gave me a gift card for just such splurges, I don’t even have any guilt about spending money on it.

What makes this coffee cup particularly obnoxious, however, is that I have two shelves of coffee cups in my cupboard. I ask you, how many coffee cups does a family of four need?

Answer: fewer than we have.

Another component of my despair was realizing that the stuff in the following picture is precious to me:

Here are old shaving mugs and a razor used by my grandfather and great-grandfather. At least the coffee cup is useful, but the razor should only be used by someone who is suicidal. That blade is scary-looking, isn’t it? And no one uses shaving mugs anymore. George squirts his shaving foam into his hand like everyone else does these days.

I brought the mugs and razor to live with me after my grandmother’s funeral almost a year ago, along with a bunch of other knick-knacks I did not need such as a kitchen canister set, a green cut-glass candy dish, a Marjolein Bastin jar, and a small bust of my grandmother’s hero, Abraham Lincoln. We have lots of other stuff from my family and George’s family hanging around as well. Plus, George is currently campaigning to make space in our mess for the wall-mounted moose antlers from a moose his grandfather shot, oh, a hundred years ago. They will coordinate with the stuffed duck his grandfather shot, oh, a hundred years ago that currently resides on top of George's bookshelves in our library.

The past keeps jumping into our house, just like coffee mugs. And it’s not just small stuff (although the moose antlers aren’t small). Two weeks ago I retrieved a bedroom set and grandfather clock from the old homesteads in Charlotte. Here’s the clock, which was built by my grandfather.

Isn’t it beautiful? Its colonial styling doesn’t match a single blessed room in my house, but really, that’s perfectly in keeping with any blessed room in my house. Our d├ęcor is best described as Early Modern Attic. The word eclectic is a bit too high-brow for us. What we have is a mismatched jumble of stuff. Big stuff like furniture. Little stuff like memorabilia, statues, a baby gargoyle, photographs, pillows, baskets, toys, and books…lots and lots of books. Everywhere.

Really, no one would notice the moose antlers.

As I despair of ever finishing cleaning and organizing all this stuff, I’m reminded of the quotation I put on the sidebar of this blog: “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” I’m looking for a mess, and by golly, I’m seeing one.

So what sort of logical, optimistic, puppies-farting-rainbows perspective can I pull out of my present situation? If you’ve been reading Questioning for a while, you know I’m all about finding the silver lining. Since this problem isn’t going away, how can I look at it differently so I don’t die of despair and frustration?

First, I must recognize that not all stuff is created equal. Some of the things in our house are just that: things. They don’t have any sentimental value or practical worth to anyone under our roof, and these things need to go away. Salvation Army is a good place for many of them, at least the ones that don’t belong at the dump.

Those things that do have meaning or are at least useful deserve to stay and be loved. Who cares if Nick has a Victorian bed and dresser, Colonial desk, and Mission bookshelf in his room? Each piece is useful and necessary, and three of the four have the weight of family history behind them. Who cares if my fireplace mantle contains a couple of Willow Tree figurines, an Inukshuk from British Columbia, four family portraits, and a piece of North Carolina pottery? Each item means something to us.

Second, instead of seeing all this meaningful and useful stuff as an albatross around my neck, perhaps I should look at it as the treasure it is. I don’t get annoyed when I have to organize my craft supplies (we can analyze the twisted psychology of that another time), so why get annoyed when organizing my kitchen cabinets or the knick-knacks on my bookshelves? Instead of an inventory specialist, I think I’ll call myself a curator of a lived-in museum. That certainly puts a pleasant spin on the situation, don't you think?

Finally, next time a pretty coffee cup calls seductively to me, I probably need to shut my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and sing LA LA LA at the top of my voice. People might stare and move away from me, but if it keeps me from buying more stuff we don’t need, it’ll be worth it.


  1. oh how eloquent you are, susan my friend. i know all too well of what you speak!!
    we moved 5 yrs ago from buffalo, new york to salt lake city. we lived in buffalo for 18 yrs, raised our boys there. tom's job brought us out west. we had numerous garage sales and trips to the goodwill with much, much stuff before we left buffalo. however, when we unpacked here in salt lake, we found that some of what we were unable to part with in buffalo was no longer necessary in our new space. i think the connection with the old home and place, all those years, and the boys growing up influenced how we felt about some of our "stuff." i think as you go through different phases of your life, different things speak to you, and tug at you. keep what is important. what you enjoy. what you feel a connection with. and i love the curator idea. good thinking!!
    as always, thanks for sharing.
    your prose is such fun to read.
    marty ferraro

  2. Welcome to the consumer society. We live in a very small house and it threatens to explode with junk. Here's my tip: Next time a coffee cup calls to you remember that it is OK to buy a new one if you take an old one to the Salvation Army. Applies to clothes and other stuff too. But not stamps, of course.

  3. Your words really speak to the "curator" of my household. Love that title! Sadly, I am also the worst offender. DH's stuff is mostly confined to the basement -- the man has never thrown away a scrap of wood or piece of hardware. Three of our four parents passed away, and my mother moved into assisted living, so we have inherited a lot of stuff that means a lot to one of us. Personally, I could live without the three dachshunds in decreasing sizes, chained together, but that's just me. My mother's wooden doll chest is much more meaningful, as are her child-sized cedar chest, rocking chair and maple table and chairs. Also, the pie safe from my paternal great-grandmother and the buffet (minus hutch) from my maternal great-grandmother. None of which match anything in my house, either. I try to live by the rule that if you don't love it or use it frequently, get rid of it. But there are some murky areas...

  4. Yes, Kay. Murky areas, indeed!

    And thanks for sharing that your stuff doesn't all match...makes me feel so much better.

  5. I know just how you feel!! I've decided enough is enough, and I'm about to start decluttering. In utter desperation, I'm going to hire a professional organiser to help me find a better way of storing stuff, particularly my craft stash. I figure the money will be well spent, and it's unlikely I'll manage by myself. And don't worry, our jumble of stuff doesn't match at all. You're not alone. :D


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!