Nearly 25 years ago, I declared a war on stuff. I was helping to clean out the house of a favourite relative who had died and there were moments when the sheer volume of stuff threatened to overwhelm us. Everything had to go, right down to the last nail in the shed. It was then that I vowed not to accumulate too much stuff.
It was easy enough deciding what should happen with the best stuff; it went to family members. It was also fairly easy to get rid of stuff that was in good, useable condition; it went to charities. Other stuff was destined for the dumpster. Items in the personal archive category – greeting cards, photographs, report cards, and academic certificates – were more problematic, but eventually we shredded the majority of it. The last good-bye to the stuff of a lifetime took place when we sold the house.
For me, this was a sobering experience. And while I had the best intentions of honouring my vow, I immediately began accumulating more stuff when I inherited a breakfront full of beautiful hand-painted china. Nevertheless, in an effort to keep my vow, I declared an annual war on my stuff.
The first skirmish in the war begins in the closet cluttered with seldom-worn clothes. This year, the first causalities were a couple of pair of jeans and some sweaters. From there, the battle moved on to the hall closet where I took captive an unsuspecting winter jacket and passed it on to the Sally Ann, and mercilessly discharged a comfy but worn-out pair of slippers to the trash.
I am now psyching myself up for the next offensive, which will be messier and more drawn out than the skirmish in the closet. This battle will be against our personal archives. It will consume hours, ranging over one room to another, take me down the path of nostalgia and potential causalities will cry out for mercy.
This is the kind of stuff that George Carlin, in his hilarious monologue on stuff, was referring to when he said that when someone steals your stuff “they don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.”
I have done combat with those metaphorical fourth grade arithmetic papers more than once. I can more easily part with a piece of antique furniture than a scrap of paper on which one of my children printed, “I love you mom”. Over the years I have whittled the stuff of our family archives down to something manageable and, I hope, meaningful to my kids.
But the toughest offensive of all has nothing to do with getting rid of the stuff that we can see and touch. It is the endless battle against the clutter in our heads, the letting go of the opinions, judgments, prejudices and resentments. This is an area where I am discovering the benefits of mindfulness practices typically associated with Buddhism.
Meister Eckhart, a 14th century Christian mystic, had some things to say about the benefits of letting go of stuff both material and from your head. He advised “depart from things” and strip “yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you will find true peace and nowhere else.”
I have no illusions about my war on stuff. I expect it to take a lifetime and, when the time comes for my kids to sort through my stuff, they will probably wonder why I kept some of it. There will be stuff that I collected that no one wants, and there will be stuff that I should have tossed onto the rubbish heap long ago. In terms of the head stuff, while I have no illusions about attaining perfection or becoming perfectly peaceful, I look forward to the possibility.
The experience of sorting through the stuff of someone’s life over two decades ago made a deep impression on me. It drove home the truth that “you can’t take it with you”, or, to put it another way, “there’s no U-Haul behind the hearse”. At the end of the day, every last nail has to go.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.