Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Right Stuff

I think a lot about stuff.
No really -- Stuff. Like how free I feel when I travel with very little Stuff. How good I feel when I donate Stuff. How I seem to collect certain kinds of Stuff, like tools and art supplies and camping gear...stuff that helps me travel lighter emotionally and literally. And how it starts to pile up and suffocate me unless I get rid of some of that stuff occasionally too.
With less excess stuff, it's like suddenly there is room to think, readiness to explore.

I think about simplifying my life and how necessary and how helpful and green this could be and it feels good.
I think about making sure Lyra doesn't have overwhelming amounts of Stuff and I feel good.
I think about how many seconds it took my mom to leave the earth and how many months it took to empty her house of Stuff.
I think about how everything in our culture is oriented to having the right stuff.

However, what is the Right Stuff? My husband needs stuff in an entirely different way. He likes to line walls with stuff that represents pieces of his past, emotions he might want to relive, all in special cases, special editions, special shelves, special organization. He is a collector. I am a creator. I want to make a sculpture in the backyard of his CD cases while the music of all of them plays digitally from the windows and he wants to archive my unstarted projects and create a searchable database with a keyword for "unfinished."

But while he collects things I appreciate, music and books and movies, these are things that I've chosen to unclutter in my world. I have library or electronic access to these things and I make good use of this access. Our stuff is very different. Mine is always in transition -- on it's way to becoming something or going somewhere, and his is much more static with hidden depth. Mine is always left in the hallway or waiting on the counter and his is always reliably taking up all the available wall space. "Maybe we should get a bigger house," he'll say. "Maybe we should get rid of some Stuff," I'll say. We stare at each other.

I have spent years trying to understand that there is no "right" Stuff, but I've always wanted there to be rules for Amounts. And now one is clear: less is always better when baby proofing. And since we have a third person with an entirely other realm of Stuff who has entered the picture, this issues comes up again. Pick your Stuff, and then get rid of half (or hide it temporarily in your art studio or parents attic).

We have now made a little space and people want to fill it in with their baby stuff, and mostly this is useful, and really cool -- we won't have to pay to clothe Lyra until she's three, I think. But sometimes the toys never end and we fear the holidays and the place crowding us with Stuff. And suddenly here we are plainly on the same team: Just Say No to Too Much Extra Stuff. And again I feel vindicated in thinking that when you don't have too much extra stuff you start to appreciate your world, go outside, be more resourceful with what's around. You get creative. You talk more. You consider the other human beings you encounter. And all these anti-American culture things I wish for Lyra.

I was reading an article in Metalsmith recently about collecting. I was thinking about the different ways we have Stuff, and how someone meaningful to you can give you a rock from their yard and it's there on your shelf worth as much to you as your friend's sparkly rock on her finger is to her. How glenn's Stuff means something to him in this realm that he can't articulate -- they aren't books and CDs on our shelves entirely, they have some specific values instilled in them. They are fetishes.

The Metalsmith article quoted from Das Kapital, mentioning how Marx wrote about the alienation of labor and the substitution of material objects for social exchange between people, and how he pointed out the mystical and enigmatic character of what he called "commodity fetishism." Marx likened this to developments in "Mist-enveloped regions of the religious world," where products of the human brain, ideas, took on a life of their own.

I live in a force-fed consumer christianity kind of culture. I wasn't brought up with tons of Stuff. I was taught to be thrifty, resourceful, creative, and kind. I did not ever live in a religion. And while I love the idea of magical connections to Stuff, they seem like special unique portals we should possess or make or be given or tell stories about. They do not seem like large collections or community accepted symbols to me. I don't see the magic there.

I don't tend toward mass producing certain jewelry. I tend to want to make special unique pieces that will resonate with someone. But Is my jewelry making just adding Stuff to the world? Am I just the same as someone who feels like their butt will be magically transformed by more expensive jeans or that they will become outdoorsy if their car looks like it might pull a mountain down the highway?

And every time I start thinking about Stuff, I start thinking about factories pumping out crap and destroying ecosystems and uselessly giant cars and planes carrying people on pointless trips to meetings to talk about Stuff other people should need so that they'll buy it and make us money to buy more stuff and I think about our climate crisis and feel defeated, and like there is no way that this planet can survie a CONSUME IT ALL culture. And that's such a different and longer thought, and well...at least we can all burn our Stuff to keep warm in the waning days of our planet...

I think I hear glenn hiding the matches downstairs, so I'll quit this meandering thought and go back to collecting up stuff to donate.


At 6:09 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Hallelujah! You have hit the Stuff nail on the head. Thank you, because I'm always trying to spit out my thoughts on Stuff and how there is too much of it everywhere, but in our consumer culture it's not easy to find a sympathetic ear. I'm not even super-responsibly green, and still the proliferation of stuff -- and the everywhere-you-turn advertising of it -- gnaws at me.

...And, oy! Here comes Christmas; I am so conflicted every year. I love piles of wrapped presents under the tree; it warms me just like the smell of turkey roasting, ages old and ritualistic and cozy. I love the unwrapping (we've worked hard to have it be un-frenzied) and the excitement when the kids get something that delights them. But then two days later I hate all the Stuff, so every year I try to be mindful and buy less, and especially to not buy JUNK that will be broken and/or forgotten within weeks. (Honestly, most kids' toys fall into that category -- at least in our house.) I fantasize about have a smaller and smaller Christmas each year, but meanwhile I'm a tradition junkie. Baby steps, then, as we transform the tradition little by little...

Fair disclosure: I love owning books. I love floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books. I rarely go to the library, because I want to keep all the books I read (unless I can't stand them). I love having shelves and shelves of children's books, too, and reading and re-reading them until the binding falls apart. They are my right stuff.

With you but conflicted,
west coast bethany


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