The Deep and Occasionally Problematic Significance of Stuff and Things

I’m not a hoarder, but I know why hoarders hoard.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, not so much in the sense that I sit around evenings sipping brown liquor and stroking my beard whilst ruminating on the philosophical implications of human relations with the objects in our lives, but in the back of my head, behind the magic curtain where the mystery machine churns away and occasionally pops out with a thought or an idea for a story or some other artifact of inspiration.  And now that I’m moving again, and, more importantly, trying to empty out the storage space I’ve been renting since the last time I really felt like I had a home, the subject has come, once again, if not to then at least near the forefront of my consciousness.

The problem I’ve discovered in the process of personalizing and occupying my new digs is this:  I have way too much stuff.  I know, I know, first-world problems, etc, just make a couple of Goodwill runs, maybe run some craigslist ads and/or eBay auctions, problem solved.  From a perspective outside my own lived subjectivity, the problem has an easy solution.

The problem with that is that I don’t live outside my own subjectivity.

The difficulty arises because all this stuff has meaning to me.  It has associations.  Significance.  It not only represents but actually embodies attachments, attachments I have to deal with psychologically before I can undertake the comparatively simple act of just getting rid of all this extra weight.  Added to the existing stress and difficulty of essentially rebooting my life after my travels this summer, it is, at times, almost overwhelming.

Some of the stuff is relatively easy.  For instance, there’s the leftover stuff from the catering company my ex and I started a few years ago, some of which I’ve just kept out of inertia, some of which I’ve kept on purpose, with the notion that I would make some money running bars at other peoples’ events every now and again, or throw my own events, and class them up by using my nice stuff instead of renting less nice stuff from other people.  It’s a neat idea, one I’ve been enchanted with off and on for a couple of years now, though I’ve done very little with it.  Looking into the immediate future, it seems unlikely I will pursue that, being that I’m trying to put together a life where I bartend a few nights a week to pay the bills and pour most of the rest of my energy into my writing practice.  So, craigslist here I come, and fare thee well, nice glassware and table service.

Some of the stuff is useful household things that I’ve had for a while that I like, but that don’t go with the aesthetic I’m in the process of formulating for my new life and my new place.  That’s cool.  I’ll use it for now, while things are still in process, and be rid of it when I’ve got enough new stuff to fill in the gaps.

Some of it I’ve convinced myself is worth a bit of money, and I just need to devote the time and bandwidth to actually selling it.

But most of it is stuff I’ve kept for sentimental reasons, mostly things I took from my mother’s place after she passed away that I just wasn’t ready to be rid of quite yet.  And that’s where things start getting sticky, because not only does it remind me of my dead mother, much of it also reminds me of my own childhood.  It’s a little crazy to me that Mom held on to it, to be honest (Mom was much more of a hoarder than I am, as I learned when I cleaned out her condo; it’s amazing how much stuff you can pack away into the nooks and crannies when you’ve a mind to).  Most of it is just the chintzy plastic crap that was so ubiquitous in the ’70s and ’80s, or at very least has been worn to just shy of the point of uselessness.  But some of it is clothing that I remember her wearing or things I remember her having during very specific times in my childhood, and as such it provides a concrete link between me-here-and-now and me-then-and-there.  If I had an attic, I would put it there and be content to have it, though I would never use or even look at it (I know this because I have been opening boxes of stuff from my mother’s place that haven’t been opened since I packed them three years ago).  While I was still willing to rent a storage space, that’s basically where things stood, and I was okay with that, because I didn’t have to deal with it other than to pay a bill I was already paying anyway.  But now I have this new place that I’m settling into for at least a while, and it’s expensive enough that I don’t want to pay for the storage space anymore, and given the relative dearth of storage in my styley new pad, the time has come for a cull.

It hasn’t been easy.

I think the term ‘inanimate objects’ is kind of misleading, not because I believe objects have a life of their own (well, actually, I (and everyone else who has ever, say, tried to repair a motor vehicle) kind of do, but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole at the moment), but because I believe that we as subjective beings tend to animate the objects around us.  It’s something akin to Walter Benjamin’s notion of an object’s aura, that is, a particularity and authenticity unique to its presence and history in space and time, only in this sense it is the active investment of aura into objects by the people who experience them.

These largely useless objects serve to connect me in very real (to me) ways to my own past, and not only that, but to a past that is passed, gone, and can only be touched through the medium of memory.  They are cues to those subjective historical states of my own persistence through time, and the release of them back into the world, where their subjective significance will essentially reset to zero (in the eyes of the people who will use and perceive them), requires not only a severing of my attachment to the object itself, but, in a very real, if subjective, sense, to those times and states of being in my own history of which they are both symbols and talismans.  Yes, they will still exist in memories in my head, but without the objects to cue those memories, the memories will fade as my subjective existence continues on into the future.

For what it’s worth, I think that’s a good thing.  But I am a forward-thinking sort of person, and to be mired in the past, rather than grounded in it, is not something I aspire to.  But some people can’t let go of the past, or don’t want to, and sometimes that deep-seated psychological need manifests in ways that don’t make sense to those who don’t share it.  I suppose I’m not really telling you, dear reader, anything you don’t already know, but I think it’s important to understand the impetus behind it, and I also think that the mechanism and indeed the phenomenon of how we infuse the things around us with meaning is both important and interesting.  After all, without a web of meaning and significance to be enmeshed in, we can’t really function as human beings.  The real trick is understanding when to let go.

I guess if there’s a point to this, it’s that.  That I’m learning to let things go so I can move forward, and trying to hold on to only the things that matter.  It seems like a thing worth doing, even if it’s hard.

3 thoughts on “The Deep and Occasionally Problematic Significance of Stuff and Things

  1. I always find it difficult to go through and cull my own belongings, but I have little difficulty, for example, going through my live-in’s belongings and organizing them. Likewise, I find I can let go of a lot more if I have someone there who is impartial to the artifacts of my life saying, “Do you need this? When was the last time you used it? Does it fit anymore?”
    I lost my aunt in high school, and even though it is nothing like losing a mother, she still visits in my dreams and I’m always happy to see her. You will never forget your mother, even if you didn’t have a single object of hers. It seems entirely reasonable to keep a handful of objects that were special or important to your mother so you have that physical connection to her spirit, without being bogged down by everything you cleared out of her home. Let me know if you could use a helping hand and an impartial brain!

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