I think it must have been in my twenties that I first became aware of the-problem-of-stuff; probably listening to conversations about “Silent Spring” – Rachel Carson’s consciousness-raising book that sounded the alarm possibly for the first time.
I remember in my late twenties one night after probably too much wine, having a passionate argument with an engineer about how much capacity the earth had, for absorbing pollution and population. To me, at the time, it came down to what I often call “just arithmetic” – i.e. supply and demand: the earth is finite. Since the actual rate of increase was speeding up, it seemed logical that eventually humanity would destroy the earth one way or the other whether quickly or slowly. He argued that the finite capacity was so vast that we’d ‘never use it up’.
That was in the same era that people began to talk about the “Doomsday Clock” – and generally there was an increasingly widespread sense of alarm about the combined potential disaster from population, pollution and nuclear power. In one especially intense period I was living in a women’s residence’. During a very convincing, nationally broadcast, nuclear war warning test (CBC’s “Tocsin B”*) one of the young women had what I now realize was a psychotic breakdown, through sheer terror. Her family had to be sent for.
If that sort of experience wasn’t consciousness-raising enough, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was. I’ve been on the anti-war side at least since then. But grasping the connection between environmental pollution and stuff, or potential war and stuff, or unfair wages and stuff, or my own consumer habits and stuff – this was a slower process. Perhaps I was blocking on the truth, because the truth is not as much fun.
In my thirties and forties, I became increasingly conscious of consumerism as ‘displacement’ or substitution; in other words, looking for fulfillment or satisfaction in things instead of people. This didn’t stop me from shopping – or others from giving me stuff I didn’t need.
As my children grew into adulthood, I often used their ‘future need’ as justification for some of the clutter and acquisitions. Eventually they confessed that they probably would never want most of the stuff I was saving for them. No, not even the wedding dress from my first wedding! And they actually preferred modern, thank you, not antiques.
The final blow may have been when I checked the ‘family silver’ I had stored in the basement for decades, along with my “40 years of paper” – my personal diaries and other writing going back to my teens – and a lifetime of photos. Old silver, pitted and ruined; photos stuck together; handwriting faded to illegible; a moth-infested Cowichan sweater, custom made for me, and never worn. The decades of carting them all, move through move, from home to home, lifestyle to lifestyle, dream to dream, all for nothing.
It was finally obvious that seldom-used stuff was taking too much space, and getting rid of stuff was taking too much time; yet trying to change direction seemed like an overwhelming challenge.
Then I watched an amazing little cartoon called “The Story of Stuff”** – well worth the time if we need help shifting from consumerism to a simpler life. Around the same time, I read a quote from Sarah Susanka’s book, The Not So Big Life: Making Room for what Really Matters.
She said, “I see now that the real lesson of my decluttering task was not that I needed to throw everything out, but that through the process of sorting, reviewing, and culling I was able to render down the important ingredients of my life into its particular and unique flavor, just as one would do in the kitchen with a fine sauce. It’s all there already. We just have to take the time to let it simmer, and then after decades have past, to taste the results.”
She also asked, “If you were able to look back through your life and see your past thoughts, interests, and passions what do you think you would discover about yourself? What’s the flavor of expression running through you? Is there some physical, mental or emotional decluttering that you could do that would help you to discover this flavor?”
It struck me that my own decluttering had indeed shown me the “flavor of expression” running through me, and a lifelong thread of what really matters to me. One is that I love to express my thoughts and feelings about people, events and ideas I care about, and have done since I was 13; the other is that not only do I want to remember people and experiences that were important to me; I also want to be reminded of them sometimes; and reminded of how I’ve grown, thanks to them. My home has many little reminders. Some stuff, for that purpose, is okay.
I do, finally, consume much less. I no longer need to own an object simply because I like it. Living this life is a beautiful thing – and stuff is just stuff.