A STUFFLESS YEAR
Last year, I moved…again, and theoretically leaving a tiny one-bedroom apartment for a three-bedroom house should be liberating. And it was. Until the familiar panic of what I didn’t have and what I needed spread like wild fire. My enthusiasm was torched. Doused with the realization, I had minimal…stuff that is. Not only did I lack little knickknacks that nuzzle in nooks and crannies giving personality to bookshelves and dresser tops, but also I suddenly realized I had only enough furniture to fill a bathroom. And a small bathroom at that. In the tiny apartment I could delude myself with candles, fresh flowers, posters, and piles of books stacked neatly in unusual places. The additional space snapped my delusion similar to discovering Santa Claus was a mere myth. With the increased square footage, barren rooms loomed before and behind me screaming, “Loser!” But for a brief interlude, the dead-space was liberating. I could do yoga and handstands where ere I pleased. I phoned musician friends tograb their guitars and bongos for jam sessions--bragging about the acoustics. I notified fellow thespians about my, stuff-less new space. Told them we could produce theatrical sensations, poetry slams, storytelling, and live stand up comedy. I conjured up readings and slams of every sort. I temporarily believed in my new stuff-less space embraced it as a hub for wayward artists.
But soon, the novelty of tumbling and performances gave way to a learned disappointment and I found myself, sorry for the cliché, on the pitty-pot. America’s obsession with stuff crept into my psychic. Could I truly survive without stuff? I mulled over my finances at the time and decided—I had no choice. So, something had to be done and I tentatively pledged not to weigh my self-worth on a stuff scale. “I’ll cultivate detachment—celebrate life with more yoga less new furniture” I toasted to myself. Skeptics chuckled at this choice, whispering behind my back that it was merely a quaint way to deal with being broke. And perhaps was. I did struggle with the idea if I had excess cash--would I turn into a stuffy person and run to the nearest Macy’s? But I stopped the wondering, since I was indeed short on cash, financially challenged, practically penniless. So--why not take the opportunity to practice what I preach.
This proved to be a smidge more challenging than I realized, although certain personal traits were beneficial. For one, I am a minimalist at heart. Clutter gives me claustrophobia. Secondly, surrounded by too much stuff, I become easily distracted and discombobulated, can’t write, can’t create can’t think clearly. Thirdly, stuff can be overwhelming to me (I have had stuff in the past). It takes dedication and overtime to get stuff and then hours of inner patrolling to not to become a horder of stuff. Then--once stuff is in your possession-- it has to be dusted, cleaned, rearranged, pampered, protected, even insured. Not having stuff, I improvised more and obsessed less…thus this refusal or rather-- choice of mine was not purely due to finances. Without stuff my life would be filled with more biking (although a bike I suppose is considered stuff by some—for me it’s a necessity for sanity), hiking, writing, reading, and yoga.
I reckon I should clarify that my new abode did not remain utterly void of any material possessions. My partner, he prefers to remain anonymous, is a stuff person and has no qualms about admitting it. He wants no part of this article and recently purchased a Craigslist (a brilliant place to buy other people‘s stuff) couch and an over sized Macy’s chair. Since they looked a little lonely in the living room he also bought an armoire, at Wal-Mart, which became an excellent shelf for my old candles and fresh flowers. The posters got ousted to the garage where I think my partner dismembered them. He then proceeded to make a gorgeous frame for the king sized mattress we had had on the floor in the apartment. He is a fabulous artist and carpenter. I got a whiff of his fervor and bought a new throw rug for my yoga room and cleverly lined the baseboards with books--shelves were in the process of being made…yes-you guessed by the partner. A hip old surfboard painted by, my partner, leaned in a corner of the yoga/writing room and added a groovy vibe along with the strung up sarongs and African wraps. The little room now roused my creative juices.
There is stuff I believe we need and there is stuff we want to excess; differentiating the two is the tricky part. Although I am not of a particular religion, I have often thought that when Jesus warned folks, not to load down their mules in order to fit through the narrow passage known as, “the eye of the needle”, he was giving great philosophical, as well as practical advice. Too much stuff weighs you down, holds you back, anchors you. A lighter load is easier to carry; you can travel with fluidity, stuff makes you clunky. The Buddha also encourages disengaging from the desire for material riches. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Monks, Sages, and Saints throughout history have renounced stuff and taken vows of poverty Personally, I am not ready for any permanent vows, I do think Americans are too consumed with consuming After visiting other countries, it was refreshing to not see, super sized department stores filled with gadgets and goodies that wind up on garage floors or shoved into a menagerie draw. My friend Patricia is from Kenya—she tells me stuff in her country doesn’t exist. She laughs easily and smiles often at how stressed Americans get over “stuff.”
There the philosophical questions to answer as well such as; what if a person has tons of stuff but they are mean spirited? Or they barricaded their stuff behind mansions or forts? What becomes of them, when they’re separated from their stuff? I wonder how these folks stack up against those without stuff and are pissed about it. On the flip side if a person has loads of stuff and willingly shares it with others, is that different than those who are stuffers but don’t share? For this type of pondering, my mother is a prime subject. She absolutely adores stuff. She lives and works to buy “quality things.” Mom had no-thing as a child; maybe this influenced her relationship with stuff. It does seem that for some who grew up deprived of stuff, they crave it as an adult. Although in my case, I didn’t have tons growing up and still can do without. But my mother is a giver—she readily shares and perpetually worries about me not having enough stuff.
These types of questions about stuff have been around the block millions of time I’m sure. I try to have a sense of who I am without stuff. Kids are great about this at least until they are influenced by society’s stuffism. Kids will spend hours creating cardboard palaces or tree forts from old wood, or tents out of holey sheets. It is amazing what the mind will believe when allowed to play. Kids will decorate walls with colored leaves or masterpieces painted with crayons. They will collect cool rocks that are not to be touched. Have you noticed when you give a one year old a new toy, they are more interested in the box or the paper it was wrapped in then the toy gift itself? Maybe what we need is more imagination and less make over shows. However design on a dime does provide great ways to be creative with cheap stuff. And perhaps I sound self-righteous; that is not my intention. I just want others who do not have or want houses full of stuff to feel less alone, less self-conscious, less like their missing something in life.
During particular holidays, stuff is in the limelight. Here in America, we are inundated with advertising that wants us to believe we “must have” their stuff. The other day, a bank teller and I were chatting about my over drafts and lingered into a conversation about Christmas traditions in Mexico. She expressed her concerns about her children forgetting the essence of Christmas. Another customer spoke about her similar fear over her traditions. I reflected on my own memories around stuff and the holidays. Truthfully, I do not recall the stuff that Santa tossed under the tree but I do remember the joy of gathering with friends and family to enjoy holiday feasts filled with laughter. And I remember the songs, the carols, the smell of pine and making green and red paper chains.
Since my finances have not perked up quite yet (perhaps graduate school has something to do with that), and the harvest season up coming, and the ensuing winter swift on its heels--I have re-upped to partake in more tradition. I will wait to glimpse an October moon—looming large like a gigantic white circle in the darken sky. When the frost comes, I’ll simmer up some hearty soup and take my daughters on a nighttime walkabout in the snow. For there is music to make and tales to share, stories to write, and love (of all kinds) to savor, so for now I will try to continue to settle for less…stuff that is.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.