Monday, October 13, 2014


Thilafushi: garbage island

Like everyone here in the pre-apocalypse, I have a fraught relationship with stuff. It's not that I have too much stuff. On the contrary. I live in a small one-bedroom condo and if you walked in you'd probably start rolling your eyes and muttering that I seem like one of those annoying people who keeps their stuff under control, doesn't abide clutter, and alphabetizes their books (after sorting them into appropriate categories, natch). And yes -- I am that person.

One reason I don't have too much stuff is that I have issues with stuff. This weekend I was cleaning out a few things, and at first I found some things I hadn't used and wanted to get rid of. Wordpress for Dummies. A skirt that I hadn't worn since Bush administration. A jacket that is now older than my students. Unwanted gifts that had passed their statue of limitations for how long I felt obligated to keep them around. It felt good. Constructive. Sensible.

But things quickly began to get a little out of control. I started to wonder why I wasn't getting rid of more stuff. I started to freak out about all the stuff I do have and why it's here haunting me. Why won't it leave me alone and free? What if I had to go somewhere in a hurry? What do you think, stuff, you can just anchor me here just by existing? I'll show you.

As I pondered throwing a way a perfectly good pack of envelopes and some printer paper, I suddenly remembered my father, a man whose issues with stuff were legendary and whose manic purges of stuff surely played a role in my current relations with stuff. My father hated stuff so much that back in the day, when I was a kid, he would throw away the pages of the TV Guide that were no longer relevant: since the midpoint staples came on the schedule for Monday, every night after that my father would remove the pages for that day, 'til come Friday, there were just a few pieces of paper flittering around.

Caught up in his anti-stuff mania, my father would throw away half-used pads of paper, as he vocalized his mantra over and over -- "If in doubt, throw it out!" -- and silenced his critics by pointing out that "we can always buy another one." As a kid I was half scandalized and half-thrilled at this craziness. I understood that throwing away useful things was in some sense wrong. But I loved the feeling of it -- the freedom, the independence from the weight of the stuff, the sense that life could be lived on a whim: if you need paper at 4:00, you can get some at the store at 3:00!

As an adult I've experienced this drive to get rid of the stuff again and again. I've thrown away all  the paper notes from every phase of my academic life. I've thrown away all the diplomas I've ever earned. I've thrown away all my old letters -- letters on paper! written by a friend! to me!

As I was talking myself down this weekend and forcing myself not to throw away things I knew I'd want and need later, I reflected on why ordinary stuff feels to me like the end of the world.

One: stuff is about the inherent neediness and limitations of the human condition. You need bedding, and clothes, and pots and pans, and dishes, because you need to dress yourself and cook food to stay alive, and in the modern world you need stuff to do those things. If I threw away all my tights today, I'd have to go buy more tights tomorrow. Stuff is a reminder that if you want to wear crazy pink boots on Thursday, you have to procure and save those boots. They're not just conjurable out of thin air. In a very real sense, you are dependent on your stuff. That may not depress you, but it depresses me.

Two: stuff reminds us of the modern disappointingness of things. As consumers in a market society, it's our destiny to be disappointed, because it's the drive of the whole enterprise to make us want things we don't have. Mostly, stuff sucks. And in our particular consumer society, you can either be a normal person whose sucky stuff will last a few years at best, or you can be the kind of rich asshole who buys things intending that his great-grandchildren will use them. Either way, it's no good.

Three: stuff is death. I don't know what this means, exactly, but I think it's true. I don't know if you've read that book White Noise, by Don Delillo, but it's a book about death, and it takes place in a house full of stuff. After the Hitler scholar Jack Gladney has a conversation with his doctor about his impending death, he comes home and starts throwing things away:

"I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, highchairs and cribs, collapsible TV trays, beanbag chairs, broken turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationary, manuscripts of articles I'd written, galley proofs of the same articles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-out toasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took me well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn't want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me."

Why Star Trek needlepoints, old shelf paper, and umbrella stands say "death" to Jack Gladney I'm not really sure. But I'm with him 100 percent.

1 comment:

Monique Deveaux said...

Maybe there's also a connection between our thinking/writing process and the need for order and spareness in our living space? Clutter or even just stuff of questionable value can feel cumbersome to me when I am trying to think. There's a reason that writers and artists get more done (usually) on retreats. .....and I think it's not only because they are relieved of domestic chores. They are freed of their STUFF. My most productive scholar's retreats were ones in which I packed sparingly. Worst one was where I FedExed a big box of books that I didn't read.