In Defense Of Stuff




I like my stuff. In fact, I’d have to admit I love it. It’s not a wild love, but it’s certainly a fond one. With some wistfulness thrown in for good measure.

Right now there’s a wave of minimalism sweeping the land. As a backlash against the “Buy More, Buy Now, Buy Again” excess of our recent millennium, I approve. The recession has reminded us of important principles. As a backlash against pops of color, and shoes the shapes of aardvarks, and Accessories Are Your Savior, I also approve. Monochrome is a lovely design choice.

But I do not believe there’s inherent virtue in the minimal.

We’re advised to get rid of all the clothes we don’t wear. I need both my hands to count the pieces I have kept over the decades and I still wish I had more. We’re advised to rid ourselves of old photos. I’m only now scanning in my slides from a trip to India, 28 years ago. We’re told, pare down, scale back, find zen in empty.

I prefer not.

I have lived my life both in impulse and on purpose. Patterns developed anyway, despite my wandering. Sometimes I understood their shapes, sometimes I followed what I could not see. Now my stuff, such a silly word, acts like a lens. Magnifying details I might have forgotten, then obscuring the small so that patterns show large.

I’m not advocating that we all become hoarders. Clear surfaces are good. I’m defending intentional stuff, not the kind that lives in drawers and breeds misery.

Several years ago, in the divorce, I cleaned out my entire house. Every drawer. Every cupboard. Every closet. Only a few mysterious tubs in the garage remain unexplored. Who knows what’s in there? Now my stuff is intentional. I kept what I loved. I kept what I needed. I put everything where I meant it to stay.

The cleanup was hard work. My best friend helped with a lot. But some I did alone.

My kids’ craft supplies had always been stored in a cupboard over the washing machine. We had compounds for melting and tools for cutting and construction paper and glue guns and beads. To say nothing of glitter. As a mother of young ones I planned for creativity. We all do our best.

When I finally got around to cleaning out the laundry room, I took the Rubbermaid containers down from the cabinet. They had stiff, annoying, aqua lids. I opened them. I fingered the packs of felt pens. I felt so sad. And then I thought to myself, there is something else mixed up in my sorrow over the end of my marriage. I am sad as much because kids stop using glue guns as for any other reason. And because I had such dreams and intent to be perfect.

My children would have grown up, no matter what I did. I understood my loss more clearly through my stuff. That’s worth a little clutter.

I have more. In the photo above you see a family enamel pocket watch I never carry, an inappropriate Armani tunic I bought in times of distress to wear to my son’s 8th grade graduation, and a postcard from my mother. With her inimitable boarding school handwriting. Oh, and random shells in a random glass piece from beaches somewhere.

Because I am a High WASP, my souvenirs, from the French word for remember, look like antiques and haute couture and distant geographies. They aren’t. They are just stuff.

In defense, then, of stuff.

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44 Comments

  • 09/14/10
    6:35 am

    Reply

    Tabitha said...

    The shells and post card must be so Proustian for you.
    I never keep anything, I have a terrible habit of putting things I don't wear/use into bags and taking them to the charity shop then a few months later I regret it. I have a Spartan streak running through me.

  • 09/14/10
    6:46 am

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    tintarosa said...

    The stuff that evokes a happy memory is the best kind of stuff. Sure, you need to cull through the crap every now and again. There is a huge difference between crap and stuff.

  • 09/14/10
    6:50 am

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    Buckeroomama said...

    I've gone through the impulsive acquisition phase and have now moved on to more purposeful hoarding. :)

  • 09/14/10
    7:05 am

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    JW said...

    While I am not a lover of stuff, and actually prefer a minimal existence, it is not to be "more spiritual." You are right, having less is not somehow "more spiritual"… that's a great lie. We do not have to suffer to be good, spiritually-led people. There's a fine line, I think. Cherish the stuff, enjoy the stuff, but not to let it "define" us. If I lost all my stuff tomorrow would I continue on? Sure, there would be a loss on the surface, but deep down I would feel okay.

  • 09/14/10
    7:36 am

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    Debra said...

    Great post. With all the talk about hoarding and minimalism these days it was very timely. I like to think there is a happy medium for us all between getting a shovel and emptying your home and keeping every single thing you come across. Some days though I consider the shovel..

  • 09/14/10
    7:43 am

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    metscan said...

    During the many years all kinds of stuff has been bought. Looking back at it now, I can only shake my head. Perhaps wanting to get rid of stuff, has to do with major changes in one´s life. Aging too. I surely don´t want to leave a mess after me, when the time comes. Cleaning and clearing gives a good feeling afterwards. What I have been hollering the past weeks, is that I wish my stuff to have a function, even better if the function is simple, minimal. It is interesting, that now everyone is talking about slow food, minimalism, downshifting, you name it.

  • 09/14/10
    7:57 am

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    Marcela said...

    I agree that minimalism is not more spiritual, it's just a choice as many others. Not better or worse, in my opinion. I tend towards minimalism but that comes naturally to me. I wouldn't force myself to live a minimal life – and I would NEVER NEVER NEVER part from my books, my pictures, the little memories like my grandmother's passport of the time she was 7 bearing the stamp of her arrival to Argentina. At least not intentionally. If they were lost, well, I would survive of course, I learnt to survive on little, but I don't think I need to part from things I truly love to live better.
    But-there always seems to be a BUT- I have seen too many people ruin relationships over stuff, part from family over inheritance divisions, etc. That is why I am the first one to let go of things, I refuse to let things possess me. That is my limit.

  • 09/14/10
    7:58 am

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    thelittlefluffycat said...

    After returning from a family funeral, with the accompanying cleaning and confusion, I told a friend "Clean your closets!" She said, "I'll probably DIE in one of my closets."

    She didn't, but she's gone – and I wonder where her stuff is.

    I love this piece, I think it's spot on about the intentionality of our things. :)

  • 09/14/10
    8:09 am

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    Kcecelia said...

    You are such a lovely woman; just so lovely.

    This piece touches me. It is just how I am about my possessions. I do not keep a lot of things—I am the opposite of a pack rat—but the things I do keep are beautiful and have deep significance. The thing I keep the most of? Letters. All my letters since I was a little girl. A friend once warned about the pain inherent in sorting through possessions, saying that it can be like an emotional archeological dig. I agree. Sitting surrounded by possessions that bring up anniversaries, parties, conversations—both happy and sad, successful and less well realized, can be overwhelming.

    Once again, I marvel at how closely my feelings and customs mirror yours, though I am not a WASP, high or low or middle.

  • 09/14/10
    8:30 am

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    Genuine Lustre said...

    Books, pictures, the good wool coats and sweaters, the family furniture — they stay. Though I do sometimes wish for a spartan oriental interior containing only a futon.
    Without getting all religious on you, I think the new minimalism is another misguided attempt of man trying to save himself.

  • 09/14/10
    8:59 am

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    mustangmelatl said...

    beautifully put. We have a small house, which I am reluctant to expand into one of the McMansions that have popped up in our neighborhood. So I get rid of stuff on a regular basis, for lack of storage. But there are some things, even if unused, that I just can't part with. Like the box of craft supplies and old jewelry and "dress-up" in the laundry room. After all, she is only 13, and we still might need some of that "stuff" . . .

  • 09/14/10
    9:14 am

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    jasi said...

    Fantastic post.

    I'm a pretty sincere minimalist. I have much less "stuff" than my peers.

    But I'm completely with you. Love your stuff. Enjoy it.

    I'm against keeping anything that doesn't make your life better or happier. For me that just happens to be less than others.

  • 09/14/10
    9:18 am

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    pve design said...

    A few months ago, I read an interesting article on the French word "bricolage" meaning to tinker and I think the things we use to tinker with such as tools or art supplies can add years to our life, but if there is stuff that becomes just a nuissance, then it can take away the years.
    In order to live a completely minimal life, one needs to address many issues and that can require discipline and a yearning for change.
    pve

  • 09/14/10
    10:11 am

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    Elizabeth said...

    For some things, there's nothing like the object in your hands. As a parent of younger children, I have been advised not to keep their artwork, but scan the best stuff. But I save the "best" stuff.

    I just cannot see how the scanned image of a child's drawing will be the same has holding it, feeling the rough surface of that cheap construction paper in your hands, seeing the texture of the crayon, remembering the small hand drawing it.

  • 09/14/10
    10:21 am

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    Jan said...

    Aside from the bills, the children and all of the responsibility, I got very little after my divorce – my ex took nearly everything that was of any monetary value.

    But, you know, the kids have no relationship with him now, and I realize I got the best part of that deal.

  • 09/14/10
    10:27 am

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    LPC said...

    Tabitha – The Spartans spawned an entire philosophy. Not such a bad crew:0.

    tintarosa – Very well put:).

    Buckeroomama – Ha! Purposeful hoarding.

    JW – I do think that's an important point. Stuff shouldn't be the only thing anchoring us to this world. Not by a long shot.

    Debra – Shovels, yikes, but I do love a Swiffer:).

  • 09/14/10
    10:33 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Mette – Your minimalism, I have no doubt, comes from the heart.

    Marcela – Yes, I agree. Stuff shouldn't damage relationships. That is the limit.

    thelittlefluffycat – Thank you. Your friend has a nice sense of humor:).

    Kcecelia – You are so nice. I never felt like a lovely woman. Only Sturdy. Being a blurter, I think the pause function of writing a blog gives me the time for any lovely self that's there to emerge. And I'm glad it's not all about being a WASP. I might have suspected, I suppose.

    Genuine Lustre – I love the minimalist aesthetic. And feel free to get religious, I'm not, but I've never met a well put together thought process I didn't like.

  • 09/14/10
    10:36 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    mustangmelatl – She may need that dressup stuff for a Hallowe'en costume when she's 16. She may decide she needs her fairy wings, wand, and crown. As did my daughter:).

    jasi – Sincere anything is good. Sincere and her friend authentic are pretty much my favorites.

    pve – I agree. The yearning for change has many outcomes.

    Elizabeth – I found I got rid of the kids' artwork in waves. What I needed to save when they were 5, I could let go when they were 12. But it was too brutal, as you say, to get rid of it all right away. Digital scans or no digital scans.

    Jan – That's for darn sure. The WAY best part.

  • 09/14/10
    10:37 am

    Reply

    Marcela said...

    I just remembered something a couple friend told me once. They are Serbian and lived in Belgrade during the NATO bombings in 1999. At one point they were almost sure that the husband was going to be enlisted into Milosevic's army to go fight in Kosovo and, knowing that they didn't want that, they planed to escape in case that happened. The husband then told his wife to get ready and pack a small suitcase in case that happened. That night, when he came back home,he went to check the bag and could barely lift it. He checked what was inside and saw that she had packed all photo albums. He got angry and asked her how she could possibly think that that was indispensable. She then replied: "because if I have to go through hell, I want to be able to remember that I once had a life that was happy, that was normal" Stuff can do that too, it can keep us strong in difficult times, it can give us hope.

  • 09/14/10
    12:28 pm

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    Blighty said...

    Dear LPC, what a beautifully written post, i found it very moving and it rang a chord with me

  • 09/14/10
    1:49 pm

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    Princess Freckles said...

    I hate clutter, but I so agree with you about keeping intentional stuff. I think some things just have value to us no matter if it's used all the time. I like to rid my closet of items I don't wear (to make room for new things!), but I have a little trunk in my basement where I've stored an old pair of jeans and some high school dance team tees. These things make me happy to look at, and someday if I ever have a daughter, she migh tlike to see them and wear them. I always wished my mom had kept more of her clothing.

  • 09/14/10
    2:34 pm

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    A Farmer's Wife said...

    I love your blog. I find it measured and thoughtful.

    I have a three year old daughter and each time I clean out my wardrobe I save the odd special dress/top etc in a sealed box for her. We have the space and it makes me happy to do this. One day I hope she may get some pleasure out of them, or at least a good laugh.

    I have decided that I just don't have the right personality for minimalism. I find comfort in "my stuff".

    Take good care.

  • 09/14/10
    4:16 pm

    Reply

    RoseAG said...

    I got my lesson in minimal when I started camping with my family.

    You'd think that camping was about nature and minimal. No way. It's about STUFF, do you have it, did you remember to bring it, is your stuff smaller than their stuff.

    One cousin arrived with two coffee pots and dessert plates for 17 — how back to nature is that – this is family car camping mind you. Backpackers aren't immune from this either.

    I view calls for minimal, particularly within the retail press as a veiled sales pitch for the newest minimal.

    If it makes you happy and the fire department isn't condeming your home it's OK with me.

  • 09/14/10
    4:55 pm

    Reply

    the gardeners cottage said...

    hi lpc,

    my guess is that we are all born either collectors or not. and the degree of either may be in the dna also. i've always preferred to have less around me, even as a child. but then marriage and 3 sons later i had a lot of stuff that was necessary. now they are all gone, except the husband, he keeps hanging around with me. why? anyway, i was just sick and tired of all the cleaning that a large house requires and we shucked it all for this tiny place and lo and behold i feel somewhat like a kid again. but i'm with you on sentimental things. don't mess with them. great post and i agree with everything you said.

    ~janet

  • 09/14/10
    5:20 pm

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    Nya's mom said...

    I enjoyed this post and your point of view on the minimalist movement. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that we should hold on to intentional stuff. I think, however, that in my life, I carried around, along with my intentional stuff, a lot of unintentional stuff, stuff that I had forgotten because I kept buying more and more stuff, meaningless stuff that was purchased on a whim, an emotion that I, likely, did not want to acknowledge as such. I am taking part in my own version of the minimalist movement because it is that unintentional stuff in my life that concerns me. I have no plans, however, to get rid of all the intentional stuff. -Jessica

  • 09/14/10
    5:52 pm

    Reply

    Lori said...

    I really enjoyed this post. I find myself some place in between. I find that sometimes I hang on to certain things for no reason whatsoever and I certainly don't love these items or am attached to them, so I try to go through my house now and then and get rid of these things..in an effort to simplify life and lessen the things I need to clean or pick up.

    Then there are the things that I don't really need or use at this moment but I have an attachement and love for…these things I keep…even though it kind of drives my husband crazy.

    Then there are times I get in this mood and just want to get rid of the clutter and things that aren't really serving a purpose.

    When I went through my divorce I lost most everything except for the things that really mattered to me like photo's and books and the things the kids had made over the years…and the rest really didn't matter. As long as I had them and these few things I was happy with starting all over.

    Great post!

  • 09/14/10
    6:38 pm

    Reply

    North of 25A said...

    After a long and complicated relationship with my "stuff" I try to enjoy my things, apprecaite what I have and not be too attached to possessions. Most of all, I have learned that I can enjoy – and yes, even love – my things, but I am not defined by my stuff.
    Very thoughtful post.
    Best,
    Colleen

  • 09/15/10
    8:10 am

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    Susan Tiner said...

    I like this idea of intentional stuff. We are minimalists at heart, but thoroughly enjoy our intentional stuff.

  • 09/15/10
    9:21 am

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    Deja Pseu said...

    "Intentional." I like that. Some of my "stuff" are family heirlooms that have deep meanring for me, even if the stuff only sees the light of day once or twice a year. Other stuff is junk pure and simple, and periodically I purge it. The stuff in between is the hardest. Like Tabitha, I've done some mass clearing out and have later regretted parting with some items.

  • 09/15/10
    10:01 am

    Reply

    Miss Janey said...

    What Miss Pseu said. Miss J fights the urge to be overly-attached to meaningless stuff that just becomes clutter. In fact, she's been having incessant dreams about clearing clutter for a couple weeks. Of course, these are metaphorical for her internal state. Nevertheless, Miss J sees a lot of good in periodically reviewing ones stuff and separating wheat from chafe. That said, she deeply regrets purging her middle school diary at the urging of a college roommate. That's not stuff that can be replaced.

  • 09/15/10
    10:37 am

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    Anonymous said...

    I agree too, the middle stuff is the hardest. Miss Janey^, I am so glad I got rid of my high school diary. I just don't want to visit that girl again. One thing I do have is one of my father's monogram shirts. Just sitting in my sock drawer, reminding me of him…

    StacyfrPgh

  • 09/15/10
    10:40 am

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    Worthington said...

    You know, I have read that activities like crafting and antiquing are GOOD preventatives for Alzheimers, especially people who have ever had to manage mood fluctuations (i.e depression, SAD disorder, post-natal, bipolar, etc.) So who knows. You keeping your children creative growing up may well have been something that benefits them for a very long time!

  • 09/15/10
    12:07 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Marcela – What an astonishing story. Thank you.

    Blighty – Thank you.

    Princess – I am sure your daughter will find meaning in the stuff you have stored.

    A Farmer's Wife – Thank you so much. If you are cleaning out your wardrobe, you're clearly no victim to clutter. I bet your daughter will get a real kick out of your outfits.

    Rose – Ha! I have always thought camping was a euphemism for Put All Your Stuff Into The Car and Take It Somewhere To Get Really Dirty:).

  • 09/15/10
    12:23 pm

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    LPC said...

    Janet – I wouldn't be surprised if it were genetic, so many surprising things are.

    Nya's mom – All kinds of unintentional stuff can be quite dangerous, I agree.

    Lori – Thank you. I think our approach to all of this can ebb and flow.

    North – Appreciate vs. attached is the kind of thing Buddhists have been advocating for years:).

    Susan – Thank you.

  • 09/15/10
    12:29 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Deja – Thanks. That is the thing, when something's gone, it's really gone.

    Miss J – Lesson learned. College roommates are not ordinarily good sources of wisdom. Which is probably also a metaphor for something:).

    Stacy – I love the thought of your dad's shirt in your drawer.

    Worthy – Well who knows, right? We all do our best. Besides, I knew that watching 8 hours of a TV a day couldn't be the right answer…

  • 09/15/10
    1:50 pm

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    materfamilias said...

    This is a wonderful post articulating so much of what I've been recognizing lately as I look around my house while delighting in sumptuous magazine spreads on the new minimalism in fashion. Much as I strive to simplify, to embrace quality above quantity, I cannot deny that I love having "stuff" around me, whether records of my travels, mementoes of my past, artifacts from my family's past, a quick glance into any room quickly dispels any claims of minimalism I might ever attempt to make. I'm not a hoarder but I do love me some stuff. . .

  • 09/16/10
    12:26 am

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    Mary Jo from TrustYourStyle said...

    I love this post. Of course I'm a maximalist.

    xo Mary Jo

  • 09/16/10
    5:27 am

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    Maggie said...

    I think the intention with which you collect and keep your stuff is the key here… so much of current consumption patterns is about unintentional, disposable attitudes toward things. "I need a top to wear out tonight – I'll pick up something cheap at Old Navy." "The vacuum cleaner's not working and I don't know how to fix it – I'll just go buy another one." I've always said "more is more" – I couldn't be a minimalist if I tried – and I don't see as problem with that as long as the things with which I surround myself are intentional, useful, thoughtful things… even if the use for said item is just looking at it and smiling from time to time for what it represents.

  • 09/16/10
    5:46 am

    Reply

    f8hasit said...

    "And because I had such dreams and intent to be perfect."

    This one little sentence almost got lost in the rest of the wonderful post. There IS some stuff that is just too precious to discard.
    :-)

  • 09/16/10
    7:06 am

    Reply

    WendyB said...

    Minimalism is the opposite of romance, history, and even opportunity to me, as I wrote earlier this year! http://wendybrandes.com/blog/2010/02/grow-your-own-vintage-by-breaking-the-rules/

  • 09/16/10
    2:45 pm

    Reply

    Legallyblondemel said...

    I'm filing away the phrase "intentional stuff" in my mental dictionary. That's wonderful stuff, the intentional bit.

    And it's funny – though I wouldn't call you a minimalist based on your blog, there's a very zen sort of quality to your writing. Not synonymous with minimalism, of course, but a close cousin, eh?

  • 09/16/10
    4:46 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Mater – sumptuous spreads on minimalism:).

    Mary Jo – But of course!

    Maggie – Exactly. Just looking at it and smiling from time to time.

    f8hasit – Aw. Thanks.

    WendyB – Great post. Thank you for leaving it here.

    Legallyblonde – Ha! You caught me. I am prone to pruning words right to the edge. I find more meaning there, for whatever reason.

  • 09/18/10
    4:08 pm

    Reply

    The Preppy Princess said...

    You blew me away with this one Miss LPC, especially the part about the aqua-covered craft boxes and what was inside, including the little pieces of your soul.

    We fell into the way-too-much-stuff syndrome, but have managed to find our way back to where we were, and where we are happiest… with not so much stuff. The more there is, the more it seems to own you, instead of the other way around. It seems to go back to that issue you so aptly described, intent.

    Big smiles at you,
    tp

  • 09/19/10
    10:55 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    TPP – Thank you very much. You're a very good friend.

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