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  • Carroll Devine

The Stuff of Our Lives

It’s always refreshing to me to begin a new year. I sense new possibilities, and the urge to clean out clutter from the year before, although it’s usually a bit daunting to see how much I’ve actually collected, and to begin the task once more.

I remember seeing on a friend’s wall an irreverent poster which was completely covered in piles of junk, gadgets, toys, and what-nots. It proclaimed, “He who has the most stuff when he dies, wins, but he is nonetheless dead.”

I took that to heart. Almost all of us have too much stuff. Think about moving from one home to another and what that involves, or imagine in a sudden fire or flood, which belongings you might try to save, and what stuff you would be willing to live without? Sobering, maybe overwhelming, thoughts.

When my home and its contents were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, I was among many who were disconsolate at their losses. When well-meaning friends and acquaintances, who were not in the same boat, attempted consolation by saying, “It’s only ‘stuff,” we were sometimes miffed.

In a sense, it wasn’t “just stuff”. Although most house furnishings and clothing were, some things for me, maybe too many, had sentimental value. I mourned their loss because they had connected me to memories and feelings I might not have re-experienced otherwise.

One of my weaknesses has been that I ascribe to too many material things some of the essence of a loved one or a special time, now gone. I get too attached, as my sister says.

When I was a young child and I shared a twin bed with one sister and the bedroom with still two more, I had a single drawer at the bottom of an old armoire that held all the stuff I owned in the world. Yet, I managed to make it through childhood. Apparently, a lack of stuff is not a fatal condition.

Years later, when I roamed the world in a five-and-a-half-year nomadic odyssey, I lived with only what I could carry in a backpack. I learned Zen detachment, but once I was back in this country, keeping house and raising a family, my space became full again. Sometimes I long for the simpler life.

It’s great though that we can laugh at ourselves and our predicament. George Carlin was a genius in helping us to do that. In one of his classic stand-up routines, he pointed out, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” And he reminded us of something else we do in thinking about stuff. “Have you ever noticed,” he said, “that their stuff is sh** and your sh** is stuff?”

The truth is stuff can drag us down when it owns us instead of us owning it. The more stuff we have, the more we must be responsible for; take care of, haul with us when we evacuate from disaster, and prepare to pass on to someone else. Otherwise, we bear a burden of guilt for allowing it to rust, rot, tear, fade, break, shrink, gather dust, be destroyed, lost, stolen, or forgotten.

Then again, I tell myself, somebody in the family, community, and nation has to maintain antiquities and archives for history sake. Is that us or are we just hoarding stuff?

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