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[Chalice] Stuff: What's in Your Attic? [Chalice]
(or, Spring Cleaning)

Presented May 6, 2012, by Susan Morrison Hebble

Listen to a recording of "Stuff: What's in Your Attic?"
28:43 minutes - 11.5 MB - Stuff: What's in Your Attic? .mp3 file.

Opening Words:

From "The World is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-- Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Meditation Words:

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

Reading For Talk:

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify!"


Aside from the obvious special days of the year--birthdays, various holidays, anniversaries--there are a few other days that I happily anticipate. They tend to be seasonal, like that first, crisp day in autumn, when the air has a bite to it and the sky seems a color of blue particularly rich and clear; and I've come to celebrate December 21st, the winter solstice, the day when we turn away from long dark nights toward sunshinier days; and then there's that day in the Spring when our tulips begin to emerge. One of my other favorite days was yesterday, and not just because it was Dogwood Day in Quincy.

Always the first Saturday in May in Western Springs, where I live, residents participate in the annual Household Spring Clean Up. For this event, residents can put pretty much anything out on the curb for garbage pick up. I start preparing for this day about a month ahead of time, when I'll dedicate several hours to going through stuff that has accumulated in a spare room in our basement. This is where we stash stuff that is broken, outdated, outworn, or has otherwise outlived its use or appeal. This year, the pile includes, among other things, a large, broken snowman that lit up our outdoor Christmas display for many years, a shoebox of floppy disks for a computer from the 1990s, a juicer, missing both its lid and a toggle switch, and, I can't explain this, a left shoe. So finally, these, and a number of other odds and ends, are gone from our house. And I feel, briefly, a sense of accomplishment.

Part of the fun, part of the beauty, of our Household Spring Clean Up day presents itself the night before the garbage trucks rumble down our streets. Starting late on Friday afternoon, as people are dragging their unused treadmills or oatmeal stained baby toys from their basements, a fleet of junk dealers begins to prowl the neighborhood. I'm always reminded of the Joad family truck--remember The Grapes of Wrath? The book, or the movie starring Henry Fonda, features the Joad family escaping the Dust Bowl during the Depression with every possession somehow packed into or tied onto their rickety old truck. Up and down our streets you see a similar scene: only these trucks are filled with scavengers, who look for the most promising piles of junk, taking what they can resurrect, re-purpose, or sell. The old adage is true: one person's junk is another person's treasure. It's the ultimate in recycling! I even try to stage our curb a bit like a storeowner sets up her windows--I carefully display the stuff, as if to say "shop here!" By 7 a.m., the official start time of Spring Clean Up day, pretty much all that's left is, really, garbage.

This annual event coincides, of course, with the unofficial rite that most households practice--that of spring-cleaning. And clearly spring-cleaning is not just about washing the windows and airing out our rugs. In our culture dominated as it is now by material things, spring-cleaning for many people involves sorting through and discarding stuff that is no longer meaningful or useful And the process is not always as simple as it might seem. For instance, as I go through the stuff that has accumulated in that spare room in my basement, I end up, usually, with three piles: one to go on the curb for the big pick up, one to go to charity, and then there's 3rd pile, stuff that I think maybe we'll use again, maybe one of the girls might want at some point in the future, or maybe that I'm just not ready to give up. So some of the stuff stays, after all!

If you'd have told me 30 years ago that so much of my time as an adult would involve dealing with stuff, I'd have thought you were nuts. But, alas, my life, I suspect like the lives of most American adults, has become inundated with stuff, with the shopping for stuff, with the purchase of stuff, with the management of stuff, with the organization of stuff, with the giving and receiving of, well, stuff. I think we can all agree that our consumer culture seems, at times, to be consuming our space, our bank accounts, our time, and, perhaps, consuming us.

We're not imagining this: Psychologist Randy O. Frost, an expert on hoarding, argues that everyone must come to terms with their relationship with their things, lest they overtake our lives. "Objects," he writes in a 2010 book on the subject of hoarding, "carry the burden of responsibilities that include acquisition, use, care, storage, and disposal" (262). And the more objects we have, the bigger the burden, right? The problem of hoarding is neither exclusively American nor Modern--written reference to hoarding can be traced to the 14th Century ("From Dante to DSM-V"), and in the mid-1800s, doctors acknowledged hoarding with a diagnosis of what was called "collectors' mania" (Schorow). In the mid-twentieth century, German psychologist Erich Fromm identified "hoarding orientation" as "one of four types of dysfunctional character" ("From Dante to DSM-V"). Around the same time, the infamous Collyer brothers died in New York City, literally buried in the tons of stuff that they had acquired over decades: most of it garbage, like old newspapers or emptied food tins, but some of it once of value, like wool tapestries, a doll carriage, and 14 pianos.

Ever eager to peek into the windows of someone else's drama, contemporary America has developed a fascination with hoarding--at least three reality TV shows focus on the mental disorder; several books and mainstream news articles have been published in recent years on it, and at least twice in the past year, my local evening news has covered cases of hoarding-related fire and death. Still, while as much as 4 or 5% of the population may be hoarders ("From Dante to DSM-V"), hoarding is the extreme response to the acquisition of things.

What about the other 95% of us? We all have stuff, and we all have to deal with this stuff, don't we?

Simply put, a typical person's relationship with things has three phases: the acquisition of stuff, the keeping of stuff, and the discarding of stuff.

In the 1980s, a popular bumper sticker read "He who dies with the most toys wins." Tongue in check or not, that sentiment underscores the idea that acquiring stuff has become, sadly, one of the prominent markers of success in America. Some might argue that it is the physical manifestation of the American Dream: the more stuff we have, and the fancier it is, the more we prove to the world that we've made it! Never mind the credit card bill, as long as we're keeping up with the Jones', or, in 2012, keeping up with the Kardashians!

With twice as many shopping malls as high schools in America, it's no wonder that much effort and money is devoted to creating desire for objects, to marketing and selling things (Frost 263). The result is that not just having things but shopping for them has become an essential activity embedded in our collective psyche.

Over the last 25 years, shopping has become something that we are encouraged to practice with dedication and enthusiasm. What is one of the favorite phrases of recent decades? "Shop 'til you drop!" And now, teens and 'tweens are more than ever eager to pick up their debit cards and head for the malls for a little bonding and, in some cases, retail therapy. Yes, "Retail Therapy": it's a term first coined, with a smile, in the 1980s (no surprise there!) to reflect the promise that shopping, that acquiring things will make us feel better.

And what is one of the most anticipated days of the year (notice this one was not on my opening list!)--Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when eager shoppers rush through the doors of the local Best Buy to grab the 79$ TV come Hell or high water.

I love how the media offers up a play-by-play of the events of Black Friday, as if it's a competitive sport--you've got the pre-game report, in front of the Best Buy where people have camped out for the 4 a.m. opening; then, as the doors are unlocked, the running of the shoppers, not unlike Pamplona's running of the bulls. Next we'll be treated to interviews with exhausted but triumphant shoppers with overflowing carts waiting to checkout. And the post-game analysis gives us the breakdown of what product was most in demand, what magic numbers each store posted, and how many injuries were sustained during the fray.

And as our economic crisis hit, shopping became not just competitive but patriotic. "What can I do in response to these plummeting Dow Jones numbers? How can I help the country recover?" we wondered. "Shop!" was the answer!

Our practice of acquiring things has taken even more notable turns of the screw with recent trends: 1) statistically, the average house today is 60% larger than in 1970 (Frost 264). And what is our impulse when we have space? Most of us feel an urge to fill it up! 2) In spite of having larger homes, a growing market is for the rental storage unit. Just a generation ago, the idea of renting space to store excess stuff would have seemed ridiculous. But in 2010, "nearly two billion square feet of space [could] be rented for storage in more than forty-five thousand facilities" (Frost 263). And 3) gaining momentum along with our love affair with technology is the need--we convince ourselves that that's the right word--to have the newest, the hippest, the most cutting edge of whatever was new, hip, and cutting edge a year ago.

This idea, "artificial obsolescence," is not new; it's a marketing strategy used since the early 20th Century to convince us not to look at a thing's usefulness but at the aura of the thing--its status, its aesthetic, its ubiquity. This is why people who bought an iPad when it came out just two years ago lined up outside the Apple store to buy the iPad 2 less than a year later. Ecopsychologists Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes argue that purchasing new products provides the shopper with a rush of "pleasure and achievement", along with a boost in "status and recognition." "Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase" (qtd in Suzuki).

But many of us are not so intently focused; rather artificial obsolescence sort of tricks us into purchasing stuff we don't really need or even want. I am reminded of my friend, Nora. She was frustrated trying to work with her new phone, which she got not because her old phone didn't serve her purposes, but because her husband's new calling plan came with a second phone. So they felt compelled to get it.

But acquiring stuff isn't just about giving in to the urge to buy another pair of shoes or the perfect new kitchen gadget. I went to a birthday party recently for which the invitation stipulated "no gifts." Being a rule follower, I arrived with only good wishes and a healthy appetite. Alas, a pile of gifts was teetering next to the appetizer table. Yes, a lot of what we have is given to us, sometimes as gifts sometimes through an inheritance. Now don't get me wrong: gifts are wonderful, and inherited items can be quite special. But they still arrive with those responsibilities Dr. Frost listed: we have to deal with them.

And this takes me to the 2nd phase of our relationship with things: keeping them. The assumption is that taking care of our stuff is a daunting task: next time you're in the grocery store checkout line, look at all the magazines devoted to managing your home, your stuff! The Learning Channel and HGTV--Home and Garden Television--are also well populated with shows about organizing, storing, displaying, repurposing, and cleaning our stuff. The cottage industry of professional organizing has flourished in recent years, as has the do-it-yourself initiative, fueled by stores like Home Depot, Ikea, and even The Container Store, whose sole purpose is to help you "contain" your stuff, and make a little profit along the way. So there's no excuse not to keep things and to keep them well!

But still, sometimes we're so busy dealing with our stuff (or avoiding dealing with it), we don't get around to figuring out why we have it or what it means to us in the first place. Professional organizer and designer Peter Walsh is a regular on "Clean Sweep," a reality show in which a team of experts "sweeps" into a family's home to help them figure out why they have all this stuff and what they should keep and discard. The crew then cheerfully and efficiently re-organizes their home and, implicitly, their lives. Walsh explains that over-stuffed homes are not unusual, and that many people have problems figuring out what to do with all their possessions. The result is disorder and clutter that can leave a homeowner filled with anxiety and dismay. The practical issue of dealing with stuff can become a paralyzing emotional issue as well. Walsh admits he's part professional organizer, part therapist. He says,

[G]enerally people accumulate clutter of two types . . . . The first is what I call 'memory clutter' -- this is the stuff that reminds you of an important person, or event, or achievement in the past. . . . . The other kind of clutter is 'I might need it one day clutter' -- this is the stuff you hold onto in preparation for all those possible futures that could eventuate. Neither remembering the past nor preparing for the future is a bad thing in itself. The problem only arises when the stuff you own begins to take over and interferes with the life you could be living. ("Dealing")

What Walsh says here gets to the heart of why I decided to speak on this subject: why do we develop an emotional attachment to things?

Sam Gosling, the author of a book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, argues that our things are what he calls "identity markers." Our stuff, he insists, can affirm who we are and what we value and can tell the world about us. As much as I'd like to insist that we are not the sum of the things we own, Gosling begs to differ. And this may be one of the reasons we not only acquire things, but fuss over what we do with those things. In our living room, you'll find many references to the four years we lived in Malaysia. We have shadow puppets from Bali on one wall, an antique Chinese chest near the sofa, and an embroidered Buddhist altar cloth hanging above our piano. According to Gosling, these things serve two functions: they remind us of a special time and place in our family's life, but they also show visitors something of who we are, what we value.

Think for a minute about what is in your living room--what does that stuff say about you to you and to your visitors. The answer is neither simple nor reductive, but the question is fascinating. And Gosling is quick to point out that these identity markers change as we change. Full disclosure: When I was 14, hanging in my room was a poster of Bobby Sherman; I'm glad to say that that "identity marker" is long gone!

A psychologist who pioneered the study of ownership and possessions, Lita Furby determined that our relationships to our things can be quite complicated, but essentially, they reflect any combination of three themes: they may give us a sense of power, so that we might accomplish something; they may provide us a sense of both emotional and physical security in a chaotic world, and most importantly, Furby claims (and researchers like Frost and Gosling echo this claim), we own things because they become inextricably tied to our sense of self (Frost 50-51).

We acquire and collect things, essentially, to define not just who we are, but who we might be and who we were. This definition may allude to our potential--if I have a guitar, I may learn to play the guitar, and add to my spectrum of personal traits that of guitarist. But our stuff is quite often about our memory, the preservation of personal history. As Dr. Frost explains, "mementos become repositories for the sensations, the thoughts, and emotions present during earlier experiences. . ." (50-51).

So many things, and it's hard to predict which ones, become more than just the thing itself: they become souvenirs, in the most literal rendering of the word, which is rooted in the French verb for the act of remembering. Photographs and photo albums are the most obvious examples of souvenirs, but our homes are filled with many other souvenirs--maybe stuff packed away, maybe stuff on display, serving both as adornment and memory keeper, like our mementos from Southeast Asia.

And lots of souvenirs reflect not just personal legacy, but a deeper ancestral connection. I love the cookie jar from my Grandmother Gladys's kitchen. When she was alive, it was always filled with pecan cookies or iced molasses cookies, fresh from her oven. And from my other grandmother's home I have a desk. She lived just down the street from here, and when I'd stop by her house on the way to or from junior high, she might be sitting at that desk writing letters or paying bills. It has wonderful little cubbies and drawers, and a delicious old timey smell that I always associated with her and her house. These things are wonderful to me, but I don't know that they have any special meaning for the rest of my family. I don't even know if Ben or the other grandkids have the strong associations with these things as I do. So possessions, while often on public display and aesthetically interesting to visitors, may often harbor very personal, often emotional meaning.

But sometimes possessions become clutter, and often without our even knowing it.

In an essay published just two weeks ago, author Anna Quindlen reflects on her own personal arc of ownership, an arc that I see in my own life and that many of you probably see in yours. In her youth she had few things; in young adulthood and marriage, she writes, "It starts innocently enough. A chafing dish here; a set of coffee mugs there." And the accumulation of things began in earnest. But then, somewhere in middle age with her children grown, she says she "began to understand the truth about possessions, that they mean or prove or solve nothing. Stuff is not salvation." She concedes that she enjoys her things, and she would be sad if she lost them in, say, a fire. But she wouldn't mourn them. Like Antoine de Saint Exupery's Little Prince, she recognizes that it's not the stuff that matters, for "what is essential is invisible to the eye."

So we're at phase three of our relationship with things: we're back at the curb, discarding them. Thoreau may have emphatically instructed us to "simplify, simplify!" But for most of us, that's much easier said than done, isn't it? If some unexpected life event--like a move, a fire, a divorce--doesn't jumpstart a Big Purge, then we keep the directive to "simplify" on the "to do" list, never quite getting around to actually doing it. That's why I love our Spring Clean-Up Day--it forces me to reckon with the stuff that's accumulated in our house. I'll struggle with some of it: do I finally discard a favorite sweatshirt from college? (Hey, each of my kids has worn it as a part of a costume honoring 1980s Flashdance fashion!) And what about the tennis ball I caught at the first professional tennis tournament I attended? It's autographed by a player whose name I can't remember and can't read. Then there's the Obama '08 yard sign, now gathering dust in the garage--it is a piece of history, isn't it?

Humanist psychologist Erich Fromm distinguished between two basic human orientations that inform how a person functions and what s/he values: "having" and "being." "A person with a 'having' orientation seeks to acquire and possess property and even people. Ownership is the key to the person's sense of self and meaning in the world. . . . In contrast, a person with a 'being' orientation is focused on experience rather than possession, and he or she derives meaning from sharing and engaging with other people" (Frost 264). Well, never one to be fond of tidy definitions, I'm pretty sure that I'm a "being" person who has a bunch of stuff. The things that I value--the cookie jar, that desk, those things from Southeast Asia--are tangible connections to people, places, and experiences that I remember with fondness and affection. And sure, on some level, I probably like the idea of future generations digging through my stuff and discovering me through these artifacts. We are our own archeology after all!

And the things that I have the hardest time discarding--things that are probably officially "junk," like the sweatshirt, the tennis ball, and the Obama sign--are the symbols of experiences that I treasure. What I must come to terms with, what anyone must come to terms with, is the recognition that when all is said and done, these are still just things. And the experience that we treasured--or the dreams that we harbor for the future--won't dissipate just because the Obama sign goes onto the curb or the tennis ball is gifted to the Labrador down the street. I'm keeping the sweatshirt because, after all, you never know when someone might need to dress up like it's 1982.

Closing Words:

"One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few."

--Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Works Cited

©2012 Susan Morrison Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison 2012. Stuff: What's in Your Attic?, /talks/20120506.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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