WE GET TO vote just once every few years, but every single day we consume, we buy, we acquire. Stuff. And more stuff. Each item had to be made or manufactured and transported to us, all at vast cumulative cost to the world’s resources. Most of us accumulate far more than we can use, and regularly yearn for a home devoid of clutter.
It starts early. Watch pre-verbal toddlers at play and I can guarantee you at least half their conflicts will be over who’s got possession of some object. This is me is followed very swiftly by this is mine, and as we grow the two concepts become ever more closely intertwined. Remember those first independent forays into acquisition? On a quest to figure out who we are by what we want. What clothes do I want to buy, when no parent is choosing? What do I like to have on the walls of my own room? It feels so crucial. What movies do I want to go to? What books do I want to read? What do I want to own? The delight in finding something just right, that makes you feel most like yourself. These shoes, that jewellery, this car. Then comes the apartment or the house – and in it the furniture, the kitchenware, the towels and tiles, the photos in frames and flowers in vases and so on and on and on.
In a culture that reveres individuality (which has come to seem more natural to us than the collectivism that until just a few generations ago was the human norm) and a society deeply co-dependent on advanced consumerism, we’ve created the perfect conditions for a storm of stuff to both define and, eventually, envelop our lives.
Let’s be clear: I love stuff. Looking at beautiful, interesting and quirky things, touching them, and, yes, owning them, has always been very satisfying to me. Fabric and textiles are a lifelong weakness, which means I have not only an overabundance of clothes but also piles of batik and hand-woven silk stacked in cupboards – since I’ve run out of surfaces over which they can reasonably be draped. I’m also partial to a carved wooden animal, especially if it’s a dog. As I look around the room I’m writing in, I see there are fifteen objets de dog, plus two paintings and one large photograph, which features a bunch of shifty looking mutts loitering on a Lisbon street. Oh look: there’s another six dog photos, blu-tacked to the drawers of my filing cabinet. Also present are five bunnies, two cats, a mouse and a monkey. And let’s not forget the large knitted koala from the local CWA.
Textiles are tasteful, animals adorable. But in the interests of full disclosure, I should also confess to a carefully curated collection of plastic bags. Most are from bookshops in various countries, but other sources are represented. Melbournites may remember gorgeous Georges, the posh department store at the Paris end of Collins Street. Yes, it closed down in 1995 – but I still have one of their bags. In my most recent cull of stuff I dispatched, after much deliberation, all the bags made out of that stiff plastic that makes an unpleasant crackly sound. All the soft ones stayed.
In the midst of that cull, when I could be found most days kneeling on the floor whimpering with indecision as I shifted things from one pile to another, a letter arrived from a good friend in which she complimented me on my ability to shed excess stuff without fuss or bother. I laughed, as you can imagine, like a drain. Where on earth had she got such a notion? My friend berated herself for ‘hanging on to things for their sentimental value and innate beauty’. Well, of course, I thought. We all do. (Some of us even find sentimental value in plastic bags.) Therein lies our pleasure in them – and the pain when we try to part.
They’re hard workers, our possessions, with roles to fill beyond sentiment and beauty. My mother’s twin sofas upholstered in floral linen, the Monet prints on her walls: their job, I think, was to demonstrate her good taste, that essential attribute of her class and era. For my father, the first man in his family to have a white-collar job, his snazzy cars and eager purchase of every new gadget as it came on the market were a celebration of the fact that he’d made it. I remember him calling me once, thrilled as a kid at Christmas, sending one orange after another through his new electric juicer just so I could hear it whir.
Those two imperatives, known these days as style and status, form the pincers by which many of us are gripped. And how could we not be? Every time we watch the TV, see a tram go by, open a newspaper or magazine, while away half an hour on Facebook, we’re exposed to adverts, programs, articles and updates relentlessly spruiking the latest, coolest, hippest, funnest stuff. Our appetites are constantly being stoked, our psyches groomed for dissatisfaction with what we already have.
It doesn’t hit all of us in the same spot. My attitude toward small-screen technology, for instance, is stubbornly retarded. What looks of amazement, scorn and pity my ancient little dumbphone evokes! ‘You really need a smart-phone,’ I’m constantly told, in the same grave tones a doctor might tell a patient in denial that they really need an operation. My son has friends who could not face the world without the latest iPhone; he only upgrades every second year, and insisted that I take his most recent cast-off, which after all was in perfect working order. (I accepted, only to slide it, after an unused month, to my partner.) However…when I moved into our current home there was a kitchen that, though ugly and outdated, was perfectly functional. Yet I didn’t consider even for a second the possibility of keeping it. The renovation took a while, and cost a motzah, but it was, in the world according to me, an absolute necessity.
I know I don’t need the smartphone, and – though it galls me to admit it – I guess I didn’t really truly need my glamorous new kitchen either. But our economy does. It needs me to want both, and more besides. It needs me to want the latest clothes and furnishings, to eat in the latest cafés, travel to the latest destinations. Splurge on business class, go on – you’ve seen those sybaritic ads. Without our willingness to spend our money churning through stuff in this way, our economic systems – and I mean all of them, China’s too – would be in peril. If we don’t buy new stuff all the time, then what will happen to people’s jobs? To all the businesses that employ them, from mines to factories to stores? What would happen to the profits their owners and shareholders make, the influence their industry lobbyists wield?
Remember what George W Bush told Americans after 9/11? ‘I encourage you to go shopping.’ Those evil terrorists who hate us for our freedoms – we’ll stand up to ’em. ‘Get down to Disney World in Florida,’ he urged. ‘Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.’
LIFE, LIBERTY AND the pursuit of happiness. I have a friend who lives in a nice, unremarkable town a few hours drive from San Francisco. He’s a real estate agent. After 2008, when the banks all but failed and across the nation tens of thousands of people with low-doc or no-doc mortgages had to walk away from houses they could never really afford, he went through some lean years. Plenty of properties for sale, but no buyers. Home after deserted home he appraised, and in many he found one room after another jam-packed with stuff. Closets so full of clothes the doors couldn’t close, sporting goods and kitchenware, massive plasma-screen TVs, video game consoles, uncountable numbers of children’s toys. A lot of it, he told me, his voice soft with a kind of awe, was still in its packaging.
These people had bought and bought and kept on buying; they didn’t know what else to do. This is what their American Dream had come down to: an enormous pit dug with credit cards, and the ceaseless attempt to fill it with stuff. I try to imagine how they felt when the day came for it to end, but all that comes to mind is emptiness.
Given that the US is the land not only of super-sized plenty but also of contrasts, it stands to reason that a movement toward conscious minimalism should arise there. Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn met climbing the corporate ladder together, both on six-figure incomes at thirty but overstressed, overweight and up to their armpits in debt. They decided to jettison almost everything they owned, climb out of the debt pit and do things very differently. Now, just a few years later, they write about ‘living a meaningful life with less stuff’ for four million readers at theminimalists.com. Still canny marketers, they smartly position their brand as delivering more, not less: ‘more time, more money and more freedom’, and ensure there’s no challenge to the essential worth of individualism (‘a twenty-year-old single guy’s minimalist lifestyle looks different from a forty-five-year-old mother’s minimalist lifestyle’). But you’ve got to start somewhere, and minimalism, they suggest, starts with ‘something as simple as asking yourself one question: How might your life be better if you owned fewer material possessions?’
It’s a question challenging enough for many of us who are mere clutter dilettantes, but for the true hoarder it would be so deeply threatening as to be unbearable. I know, because Amy, a woman I’d been sister-like close to since childhood, became a hoarder. She’d moved in her twenties to Oregon, so I only got to visit every few years, but each time another section of the driveway had been roofed over to provide more storage space, another shipping container installed at her weekender on the coast. Amy bought not a single thing new. Her outdoor job came with a truck, enabling her to visit every thrift store (op shop, we’d call them) in the county, and she’d become a proud ‘dumpster-diver’, rescuing venerable building materials, discarded furniture, or the residue of some old person’s estate, always full of righteous indignation that anyone could throw this great stuff out to be trashed as landfill. On my last visit (I remember while brushing my teeth in the guest bathroom counting twenty-three small ornaments, from miniature vase to Smurf doll, on just one narrow shelf) she forbade me to go down to the basement. One afternoon someone came to the door asking for her and, like Bluebeard’s wife, I disobeyed. I went downstairs to get her and found Amy crouched atop a thigh-deep room-wide hillock of clothing and shoes. The Lord of the Rings movies were current then and it struck me that she looked eerily like Gollum gloating over his Precious. Startled, her head swung toward me; the look she threw me was so furious, so full of shame and outrage, that I stumbled backward, mumbling apologies. Too late; she’d already seen the look on my face. After that visit she cut the rope on more than forty years of friendship.
The Baby Boom generation is the first in history for whom excessive accumulation by ordinary people is even a possibility. Before the Second World War and the massive expansion in manufacturing capacity it created, only the very wealthy were able to acquire more stuff than they could use.
The middle class, till then, was small and frugal; the poor were many and simply did without.
The writer Ruth Park, born in New Zealand in 1917, came of age in the Depression, and A Fence Around the Cuckoo (Penguin, 1992), the first volume of her autobiography, is in part a beautiful and merciless lament for those terrible years. ‘That Depression is rightly called the Great,’ she writes. ‘It was more like war. New Zealand was occupied by a mindless enemy, poverty.’ On the cusp of adolescence, Ruth was sent by her destitute parents to live for a time with her aunt and uncle, employed on a great sheep station on the Hauraki Gulf owned by an aristocratic English couple. The wife of ‘the Brigadier’ required all the staff to call her Madame, and for a while she entertained herself with Ruth as with a kind of pet, showing off to her the trappings of wealth, especially the wardrobes crammed with couture clothes, shoes and evening bags. For Ruth, whose mother was an accomplished dressmaker, this was like gazing on treasure divine.
Every two years the Brigadier and Madame ‘sailed for Home, where they spent six months re-absorbing civilisation’, and before their departure ‘the vast wardrobes were cleared, their contents thrown into large weighted boxes. Uncle Hugo was then required to take out the launch into the Channel, the deepest part of the Gulf, and dump the boxes overboard.’
For the twenty years since I read Fence Around the Cuckoo, Madame’s cruel profligacy has stayed with me. Re-reading it now, I discover a forgotten coda: before the boxes of discarded clothing were dumped in the Gulf, Madame’s maid Hattie ‘extracted a dark blue linen Patou dress and a Schiaparelli jacket. She whisked them out of the Big House and into my suitcase to be taken back to Auckland when I returned home.’ There follows a lovely description of Ruth’s mother examining the garments ‘with reverence’, prior to expertly altering them to fit the young girl. ‘Together we admired the Patou’s only ornament, six ravishing little buttons of handpainted china. For many years they reappeared on family clothing, and,’ she adds tellingly, ‘I still have four of them.’
Ruth Park was an old lady when she wrote that. For sixty years, those little buttons had conjured up for her those people, all long gone, along with that complicated world. Such riches of memory, in less than a handful.
And there at last, I see it: the largest part of why I, at least – and maybe you, too – own so many things. More than style, more than status, more than wordless demonstrations of our good taste or prosperity, more even than their beauty, the things we hold on to are treasured for the memories they evoke. The stories of our lives are in them: just to look at them, to pick them up and hold them, we are close again to the people we loved, the adventures we had, the experiences that made us who we are.
My plastic bag collection, for instance. That bag from Georges: it transports me faster than a tardis to my mid-teens, working in a Melbourne bookshop. Each payday ($32 a week as I recall, which sounds ridiculous now, but the rent on my room in Carlton was only $8) I’d walk the single city block to Georges, temple of luxury, and mooch around their fabrics department surreptitiously stroking those sublime textiles. Once I bought a remnant of fine black cotton with scarlet embroidery deep along one side; just enough to make into a long skirt that I wore on a summer drive to Sydney with the man I’d fallen in love with. I can still see my toes peeking from under its hem as I lounged in the passenger seat, feet propped on the dashboard. (We live together now, that yearned-for man and I; it only took a few decades.) After the fabric department at Georges, I’d go to their chocolate counter, at that time the only place outside Adelaide where you could buy the Haigh’s chocolates my grandmother had favoured. Four dark creams each week: I can taste them still.
All this, from a plastic bag.
IN ISTANBUL A couple of months ago, I visited the Musuem of Innocence. Created by the writer Orhan Pamuk, it occupies a small building – an ordinary house, to all appearances, tucked among other houses on a typically steep and narrow street – which is ‘at once a fictional museum, and a museum of Istanbul life in the second half of the twentieth century’, as their little booklet explains. Pamuk conceived of the novel called The Museum of Innocence (published in 2008 and now translated into forty languages) and the museum itself simultaneously. Inside are four small floors filled with ‘carefully assembled installations’ (massive understatement) ‘which describe the memories and meanings associated with the objects from daily life described in the novel’. I cannot think when I have seen such care, such craftsmanship, such attention to detail, lavished on evoking a fictional literary world, via what could in less artful hands have looked like a cross-section of the local rubbish dump. It is unique, exquisite and entrancing – and it makes you feel as if you could never have too much stuff.
But back home I realise my place doesn’t look like the Museum of Innocence, so elegant and cultured. It doesn’t feel like that either. Unexpectedly, I find I no longer want to be the owner of a plastic bag collection. Nor of so many animal objects that my home resembles a kind of demented zoo. But throwing them away is out of the question – and who else, realistically, would want them?
I consult, as we do these days, my online community. How do they feel about the amount of stuff they own? Too much, too little, just right? Chloe, the first person to respond, says simply ‘omg I have so much stuff it burdens my soul’.
This word burden is heard again and again. Also, ‘suffocating and hard to manage’. ‘It makes me edgy.’ ‘Prevents clarity.’ We Baby Boomers have wanted so much and now, it seems, what we want most is – less. Yet, as James ends his response, ‘whenever we consider culling, the pain of separating myself from this or that beautiful object is unbearable, so we stay enveloped in it all.’
The people who express most satisfaction with the amount they own are those who have shed and culled plenty, and keep on doing so. One respondent began the process after helping to clear the possessions of two friends who had died leaving ‘piles and piles of stuff. I wanted my stuff to be more organised, and I like the Indigenous saying “the more you know the less you need”.’
I am touched by the great care people take not to let their things go to waste, now that the mountainous leaching garbage dumps of the world have taught us there’s really no ‘away’ to throw things to. Martha speaks for many when she says, ‘I do hate throwing out things that are still good. I recycle, give away, donate.’ Julie mentions with glee the Facebook page Give Away Free Stuff in Melbourne, which found eager new owners for her hulking old telly and other superfluous items ‘in minutes!’
Books, for many of my friends, are the hardest things to let go of. ‘They’re more like friends and companions than possessions!’ Michelle fears her children will curse her one day for leaving them four to five thousand books to deal with, all upstairs in her attic study. I think of the whole rooms full of books I have shed over time, and realise that my son, although a huge reader, has no books at all – though he has, admittedly, gone through four Kindles so far. Nor does he or his generation have boxes of photographs, or letters and postcards, to lug around. Few documents in paper form. All contained in a hard drive half the size of a paperback, or in that teeming invisibility, ‘the cloud’. But opinions vary, among my friends more than his, as to whether virtual clutter is clutter nonetheless.
So many people mention ageing as a prompt that I begin to see it’s probably not just coincidence my latest, biggest cull took place just after I turned sixty. Cynthia, till recently a demon for a quirky bargain, says that now, in her late sixties, she’s buying very little, not only because she doesn’t need things but because she finds herself ‘caring less and less about stuff ’. But why? another respondent asks. Cynthia: ‘Hmm…I suspect it’s because as I’m starting to lose peers to Things That Kill Old People, my head/brain/heart is more focused on the people I love than the things I own. Stuff is replaceable. Friends aren’t.’
I think of my dad, that clever kid from a dirt-poor family who made good. By the time he was seventy, when my mother suddenly died, their possessions filled a large suburban home. Over the next ten years, as he slid inexorably into dementia, I watched my father’s world and the stuff that had defined it shrink. First it was reduced to fit into a two-bedroom unit in a retirement village; then a single room in an aged-care facility. By the time he died, he shared a ward with three other fading old chaps, and what he owned barely filled a small wardrobe and three drawers. The beautiful suits he’d worn with pride and looked so handsome in, replaced by polyester windcheaters and elastic-waisted trackie daks. And the photo-montage I’d so carefully put together and mounted on the wall by his bed? Irrelevant: he could no longer recognise any of those people. But here’s the thing: Dad didn’t care. He didn’t even care whether the clothes in his drawers had his name tags sewn into them or someone else’s. But oh, it grieved me.
And then one day it shifted. I stopped seeing this reduction of my father’s material world as tragic: instead, it seemed a kind of freedom, coming exactly as and when it should. The old saw, ‘we come into this world with nothing and we go out with nothing’, which I’d previously thought obvious and banal, now revealed itself as an elegantly simple and oddly comforting truth. Remember this, I told myself. Remember this, next time you think you simply must have some jacket or bowl or pretty gewgaw. Guess what, Kate? You really can’t take it with you. And what’s more, you don’t even need it now. And yet, and yet…that carved statue of a whippet in the flea market in Sicily…surely I could have fitted it in my luggage. Wouldn’t that look perfect, sitting just over there?
Listen to Kate Veitch discuss why we own so much 'stuff' with Cassie McCullagh on ABC RN Life Matters.