I was on the phone commiserating with my baby sister, whose garage was newly filled with stuff brought back from a summer place in New Hampshire that she and her husband had just sold. As it happened, my dining room was piled up with storage boxes my wife had brought back from her father’s house in New Jersey, which she and her siblings have been clearing out following his death some months earlier. Normally this was the kind of stuff you would store in the basement, except that ours was already filled with accumulations from more than 40 years of married life, plus oddments our grown sons have stored temporarily with the parents and then abandoned. I also had items salvaged from my mother’s apartment after she went into a nursing home -- stuff still moldering away in the cellar years after her death.
Last year I sold a farm property that had been in the family for more than a century. My aunt had been living in the house, so my cousins had to deal with the contents; however, the barns were my responsibility. As it turned out, my cousins had more luck disposing of their mother’s old furniture, which could be sold as antiques, than I had with some of my grandfather’s old farm equipment, which hadn’t been used since the 1940s. I discovered there isn’t much of a market for a rusty steam-powered ensilage cutter, circa 1910, even among farm museums.
For those struggling against a rising tide of clutter, I recommend George Carlin’s stand-up comedy routine entitled “A Place for My Stuff.” Carlin won’t solve your clutter problem, but he will at least help you see the humor in it. “A house,” he says, “is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” So true. And what do you do when you run out of space to put your stuff? Why, you have to buy a bigger house, of course. Or, in my sister’s case, you buy two houses, each fairly roomy. But that only encourages the accumulation of more stuff at each location. After all, as Carlin observed, a house is just “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!”
What happens if you can’t afford another house, or you have reached the stage in life when you need to start downsizing? Where do you put all your stuff then? I’ve noticed that many of my neighbors have adopted my sister’s solution and have turned their garages into de facto storage sheds. Or at least I assume as much because I see their cars parked year-round in the driveway rather than in the garage. However, this has obvious disadvantages for those of us living in New England. It means you have to dig your vehicle out of snowdrifts to go anywhere in the wintertime. Alternately, you can rent a storage locker, which quickly becomes just another place to keep your stuff so you can go out and get...more stuff. My wife and I have resisted this expedient so far, although we may have to reconsider if we can no longer sit down for a meal in our dining room.
If you are truly desperate, you can always throw things out. However, this is something my wife is notably reluctant to do, based on the fact that we still have all the maps, brochures and souvenir postcards from every vacation we ever took together going back to 1971. Hoarding may be an inherited trait, judging from the artwork and report cards her mother saved from my wife’s years in elementary school more than half a century ago. These turned up in her Dad’s house after he died and were found among the keepsakes in storage boxes in our dining room. As for me, I have no trouble throwing things out; I just never get around to it.
There must be some evolutionary advantage in accumulating lots of stuff, since it has worked so well for the human race. However, I note that no other species leaves possessions behind when they die – at least none that aren’t biodegradable. By contrast, human remains dating back 130,000 years have been found buried with various personal artifacts, including stone tools, pottery and animal offerings. The tombs of Egyptian pharaohs provided rich pickings for grave robbers and archeologists. Nowadays, of course, we generally don’t believe you can take your stuff with you, so we tend to bury our dead with little more than a suit of clothes and perhaps a token or two with some sentimental value.
Sentimental value may be the best explanation for much of the stuff we accumulate in life, since its appeal otherwise seems limited to those same folks who cannot bear to part with it in the first place. Speculating on why we can never truly feel at home in somebody else’s house, George Carlin put it a bit more bluntly: “Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?” Once you are gone, of course, your heirs are apt to take a less sentimental view of your precious possessions. This is probably all to the good on the whole, although not in every case. One shudders to think what might have happened if Van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime, had died and left his work to anyone other than his brother Theo, who happened to be an art dealer.
While George Carlin found humor in our penchant for accumulating more and more stuff, the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes saw nothing but futility in it. Tradition attributes authorship of Ecclesiastes to King Solomon, who was the richest man in the Old Testament and also the wisest. Presumably Solomon knew a thing or two about accumulating lots of stuff, and he warned over and over again that you can’t take it with you. He wrote, “As [a rich man] came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil, which he may carry away in his hand.” Our stuff provides no real satisfaction, only headaches, Solomon cautioned. And in the end all our stuff winds up in the hands of heirs who did nothing to earn it. His constant refrain was, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”
So here’s a modest proposal for all those who can’t bear to part with their stuff, even when they die. Instead of buying a burial plot, much less a mausoleum, why not just rent a storage unit in perpetuity – one big enough to hold your mortal remains, plus all your stuff? Granted, you can’t take it with you. But at least you will die in peace, secure in the knowledge that there will always be a place for your stuff.
Ecclesiastes 5:15; 1:14