The Cycle of "Stuff"

“The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”

I feel strongly that the more you pay for a possession, the more it owns you. That’s why I’m a thrift store junkie.

When I buy something at a thrift store, I pay so little that I consider the cost to be merely “rent.” When it’s time to part with the item, I can give it away freely, or sell it for about what I paid.

Ten years ago, Barry and I were in acquisitive mode. We spent our time at thrift stores and yard sales, picking up dishes to fill our cupboards and clothing to fill our closets. We bought furniture, books, CDs, tools. We had rented a 3-bedroom house in suburban West Seattle, and to live the American dream, we needed to fill it.

One afternoon, we stopped at a garage sale in the neighborhood. I don’t recall if I bought anything. But the memory of that sale has stayed with me ever since.

It was not your average clean-out-the-garage to get rid of 1970’s shoes, souvenir ashtrays, and stained placemats. This house sported a “sold” sign in the front yard, and the volume of stuff spread on tables in the yard looked like it would fill the house to bursting. Good stuff.

As I poked through the garage, looking at rakes and edgers, I overheard the owner say, “We’re moving onto a boat.” For me, it was a watershed moment.

I was filled with envy, wonder, amazement. Imagine living on a boat, being free to sail anywhere in the world. It didn’t occur to me that the process of getting to that freedom would be painful or difficult.

How could I know then what was in store for me?

Within three years of that yard sale, I was eager to sell our house and move aboard, too. We’d graduated from our daysailer up to “big boats,” and now counted liveaboards among our sailing friends.

But Barry is powerfully stubborn. And he wanted to enjoy the house we’d bought, with its landscaped yard and view of Mount Baker. As a result of the acquisitive phase, all 2400 square feet were furnished with chairs, tables, desks, sofas, beds, and artwork. Every closet was full. Barry was proud of his workbench in the garage, with its wall of hand tools, shelves of power tools, and sturdy vise.

There was a basic difference between us: My early childhood experiences were nomadic, pulling up roots and relocating every few years. Barry grew up living in one house and went to school in the same city from kindergarten to college.

It has taken a lot of effort and struggle to get rid of the stuff from our acquisitive phase. We held a yard sale, advertised things on the Internet, gave away or loaned the most precious items to family members and close friends. I made trips the dump, almost in tears over the unnecessary waste. Whenever I struggled with what to keep and what to get rid of, I would take a walk through one of the massive thrift stores. A new trashcan cost 99 cents. An alarm clock for $1.50. That made it easy to part with the old ones.

But still we fought. Blazing rows over what to keep, what to get rid of. Screaming, throwing things, sulking. I was afraid we’d end up with 100 boxes; Barry feared that I’d get rid of everything.

Finally, our possessions were whittled down to 29 boxes, three pieces of furniture, two bikes, and a tiny rowboat. Plus one 2400 square foot house, now the subject of the blazing rows, disagreements, and sulking fits. It owns us, and it’s time to sell it.

We moved into the house, temporarily, with our meager possessions. It’s a strange form of camping. We sit and sleep on the floor, but we can cook gourmet meals in the kitchen. We have hundreds of CDs, but had to borrow a small stereo to hear them. Most of the 11 rooms are empty, echoing. We can’t sell it like this; it needs to be cleaned and furnished, or “staged,” in real estate language.

In 2003, we sold our vacuum for $10 to a couple with a 20-year-old son. “Now he won’t borrow ours, and return it with a broken belt,” they said. Being thrift store junkies, we drove to the Goodwill yesterday and found a vacuum cleaner for $10. It’s the largest physical item we’ve bought since the Squid Wagon.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that owning possessions is cyclical. I came to the world with nothing, and I’ll take nothing with me. In between, I get stuff, get rid of it, get different stuff. Keeping the cycle in mind, I don’t get attached. When I acquire something, I think, “How would I get rid of this?” When I sell or discard something, I think, “How would I replace this?”

I won’t need the vacuum cleaner for long. In a couple of months, it will find a new home, and I’ll soon forget we ever had it. I am not owned by my vacuum cleaner.

2 thoughts on “The Cycle of "Stuff"

  1. Loretta and I go thru the stuff cycle, too. We have been blessed with poverty, though. Neither of us has ever had a big house to fill and empty, and both of us have learned to know the difference between “need” and “want.” All the same, when we moved in together, the minivan made at least 10 trips to the thrift shop, dropping off the un-needed “stuff.” We’re still cutting back in preparation for life on the road, but little eruptons of papers and books keep coming up. This is probably the most fascinating aspect of leaving conventional life behind.

  2. I struggle with this too. Since moving to New Orleans 4.5 years ago, I’ve been in “acquire stuff” mode. Before that I had moved across the Atlantic four times. I had a lot less stuff then. Not having stuff is great. Collecting stuff is great too. Collecting is only good if it’s used and shared though. Collecting stuff and putting it in boxes is dumb. I do it often. Sigh.

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