The stories of our stuff.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
By Sarah Artz

The smaller my house gets, the more intimate I get with all my things. That’s natural of course – there’s only so much space to move around and by way of design I come in contact with the things I own on a regular basis. This small space also forces me to only have so much stuff. Editing happens daily and decision making on what we bring into our home is often based on necessity and function over novelty.

It all seems rational and common sense, right? You have less space and obviously you can only have so much stuff. But it wasn’t that way for me.

What was natural for me was to go to Target and drop a couple hundred bucks on this or that, cart it home and add to the collection of stuff I needed on a whim, whether I had space for it or not. If it was on sale? Even better. Then I’d tell all my friends so they could get the best deal too. Sometime later after too much stuff accumulated, I’d go around and separate the piles – donation, garbage, give to a friend – and go through the motions of getting rid of it because I never had the space and none of it Ever Mattered in the first place.

It was a transaction of moving meaningless stuff. A habitual pattern. A type of novelty and a way of fighting boredom. A way of staying in a trance of grief, confusion and burden ie a temporary fix.

I thought that type of consumption was simple and meaningless but every time I came home with new bags, a pit in my stomach grew deeper. It felt terrible. Icky. Sometimes I’d feel shame. More often after the high of spending the money, I’d feel deep sadness and grief – feelings of fraud and loneliness.

Even though I kept buying, I always had this feeling
that I could never really find the stuff that
represented who I truly was. I felt unseen and alone.

When my mom died, I was 21 and a college student. My relationship with stuff at that time was rather shallow. I had my small collection of poem books, old artwork I created and cases of the my most favorite CDs of all time, but that time of my life was mainly apartment changing and cheap furnishings to get by until I graduated and got a Real Job. The majority of my stuff was a tool and by necessity it all needed to function well, be mobile and be cheap.

At the same time, what I didn’t know is my mom was carefully and methodically preparing and storing a secret stash of All the Important Things she wanted me to have.

Boxes of dishes she had when she married my dad (divorced when I was three and she still had those?). Bins of old barbies. Dance trophies and costumes. Collections of her Beanie Babies, old magazines when the Packers won the Super Bowl, newspaper clippings of when the Iraqi war started, Precious Moments figurines, ie all the stuff that “would be worth money someday.”

And then the personal things – a braid of her hair she had to cut off during chemo. Ashes and a collar from our first dog we had to put down, a pocket knife that was her Dad’s and my baby quilt handmade by Great Grandma Bertha.

It was a carful and a trailer worth of stuff
she carefully gathered and packed for my SomeDay.

This collection became a stash I stored at the homes of people I knew with real houses. A few boxes of it did travel with me and I’d move the boxes back and forth, unopened and waiting. 

When I bought my own home, all the stuff came back to be with me and the unpacking began. The towels and silverware she had set aside became my wedding present. The candle holders and table cloths became my housewarming. And the rest went right back into boxes.

It took awhile for me to come to terms with what place stuff held in my life. I wanted things in our house that reminded me of her but all the things she packed for me were things picked in her taste, with her memories and her palette. Nothing felt like it represented me. But it was all I had left of her. 

My relationship with Stuff was emotional and complicated. Mindlessly consuming to avoid figuring my own self out and carrying the burden of her stuff was paralyzing. Slowly over time as I worked through my own feelings of grief and identity, I began to let it all go.

First was the decor I never used (kinda easy). Then the yellowed newspapers and magazines (super easy). The barbies and most stuffed animals were next (sorry Mom). Then finally the Big Things like the pillow of hers I had carefully sealed in a plastic bag so I could unzip it and smell her smell every so often (very hard).

With this loss, new space opened. Space to learn who I was, what I wanted and what I’d someday leave someone. I gained a deeper desire to find things that reminded me of her even if they weren’t hers.

I started to connect with my longing of being surrounded by
stuff that felt like family. Stuff with stories.

Maybe the story came with the person that made it. Or where I found it. Or who was with me – what we were doing – how it made me feel experiencing it for the first time. I longed to have our small home feel nourishing, alive with lives lived, intentional and carefully filled with things that would stand the test of time.

This way of creating your home takes time. Takes a lifetime really. You can’t just go to a big store and fill your cart with all the stuff to furnish your home. You have to seek out the long way. Find people making interesting things and get to know them and their work. Take trips and travel to places with things you’ve never seen. Save up and commission something made just for you. Learn skills to make some things on your own.

For me this approach carries meaning, intention and love for life. It honors time past and creates heritage. It makes me feel connected, rooted and in many ways, free.

Every day I open my inbox and see promo emails stacked up with sales on sales on sales, or I go online and get targeted ad after ad after ad, I’m tempted. And they aren’t bad – I may need a frame to hold that new gouche painting I got of Frida Kahlo that reminds me to do what makes me feel empowered and strong. Or there may be things I just need to get like cozy towels that aren’t worn and ripped. There is a place for those things.

But for everything else that’s meant to be a part of my every day for awhile, those are worth waiting for Just the Right Pieces.