I used to love my stuff. Collecting my stuff. Talking about the deals I got on my stuff. Displaying my stuff. Photographing my stuff. My stuff was me. That’s the pathetic part. But here’s the really unattractive part: too often I couldn’t wait to get away from people so I could get back to the business of collecting more stuff.
That’s the thing when your life is just about stuff. It’s never enough. You have to get more and more stuff to fill the giant landfill in your heart. More toys. More souvenirs. More costumes. More stuff to prove that you are a fascinating person. More things to pad yourself and anesthetize the way-down-deep fear that you without your
stuff are nothing.
Ironically, attached to my stuff obsession was a golden-hued fantasy of people enjoying my stuff with me. A collection of Fiestaware tied to the conceit of an actual fiesta in my kitchen. A fascination with chairs tied to a mental snapshot of someone sitting on them. I envisioned tableaus of people and furniture “arranged” in a room. I was very good at arranging.
I didn’t know how to create and nurture relationships, so I did the next best thing: build a setting. I didn’t have the insight to recognize that stuff was actually creating a vast no-man’s land of clutter that just pushed people farther and farther away. A barricade of lovely, but meaningless crap to block me from genuine human connection.
I came by my delusion honestly. My mother loved her stuff, too. She hoarded clothes, antiques, costume jewelry, fabric scraps, magazines, awards, family mementos and furniture, which she jig-sawed into her small house with byzantine precision, all the way to the ceilings, leaving no surface uncovered or unlabeled, with only narrow rabbit trails for guests to squeeze through on their way to a cleared spot on the couch. Once I offered to move back home if Mom would make a little space for me and my stuff, but she declined.
Mom instilled in me early on that stuff = love. I grew up conditioned to believe that the best thing you could do for someone you love is to leave them some thing. And when she gave me Aunt Mae’s china cabinet, Granny’s silverware and the Fostoria crystal, they came with a veiled caveat: if you love me, you won’t sell it, trade it or give it away. If you accept it, it’s yours to haul around forever, whether it goes with your décor and lifestyle or not. Thou shalt not dispose of Family Stuff.
My sisters and cousins are mostly married with families and established lives. I am not. Except for a brief, unhappy marriage in my late 40’s, I am a lifelong, childless single. I’ve changed careers, moved from the Midwest to the Southwest to Florida and back again. With each move, I filled a large U-Haul truck floor-to-ceiling with my beloved stuff and drove it hundreds of miles to the next destination. But after my divorce in 2008, something shifted inside me. I began looking at my stuff differently.
In 2009, I decided to exchange my stuff-oriented American Dream for the intangible riches of an experience, trading my cache of stuff for the adventure of traveling and living in Mexico. After three mammoth yard sales, I pared down to what could be crammed into a 5’x10’ storage unit. There was a moment when I surveyed my leftover stuff crammed into that small space and a question burbled into consciousness: If all this stuff burned up in a fire, would I still exist? Then with my dog Bo perched in the front seat of a 1983 Toyota 4-Runner, we took off for the border.
For the next two years, I lived like a gypsy…a few months or weeks at a time staked out in rented casitas and rooms. I created jewelry. I wrote. I explored a new culture and made new friends. I discovered how little I needed to be happy. Didn’t have a TV, a washing machine—or even hot water. My liberation from stuff, however temporary, freed me to truly LIVE. My time in Mexico was, and continues to be, the most fulfilling and revelatory chapter of my life.
My best friend and companion in Mexico was a man named Israel. Israel was determinedly non-materialistic. He carried all his worldly possessions with him in a giant, over-stuffed duffel bag. I envied a level of faith that allowed Israel to live so unencumbered. I wonder how many Norte Americanos would be able to catapult their cars, wardrobes and flat-screen TV’s in their confidence that God/the Universe would somehow provide.
Admittedly, I haven’t evolved quite as far as Israel in my relationship with stuff. I peel off the layers incrementally with my growing awareness of stuff’s limited capacity to fill the deepest longings of my heart.
But at least I finally know what I know: that stuff is just stuff. It can’t make you happy. Sure, it’s a big cliché—but why is it such a stubborn lesson to learn? If I could encourage anyone to do one thing to experience freedom on the inside, it would be this: eliminate stuff, love people, and dare to do something you’re afraid to do. Okay, that’s three things. But do it. Then get back to me. I know it will change your life.