David Bouchier: Stuff

Apr 24, 2017

The desire to make things clean and tidy in the springtime seems to be an almost biological urge. Like most biological urges, it should be resisted. Spring may be the season of renewal and new beginnings, but there’s no point in going mad about it. The energy and optimism we feel at this time of year shouldn’t be wasted on dull domestic tasks.

Cleaning is relatively easy if you can get somebody else to do it, but making a house tidy comes up against a fundamental problem of human nature, or perhaps culture. We simply have too much stuff. Tidiness requires the kind of minimalism that you see in illustrations of Japanese décor: empty rooms furnished with almost nothing. It should be easy to achieve this: just throw stuff out. But it doesn’t work that way for me.

The room I call my study, where I pretend to work, is a fine example of what can happen when serious spring cleaning has been postponed for ten or fifteen years. Books, papers, CDs, files and bits of electrical equipment cover every surface, including the floor. None of these things can be moved for fear of disturbing the dust, which would activate my allergies, and ruin my one hundred percent intuitive filing system.

“Stuff Happens” says the bumper sticker, and how true it is. Three garbage collections a week don’t seem to reduce it, nor do charity contributions. We try to palm some useless items off on friends and relatives as holiday gifts. But it’s no use, they do the same to us. Yard sales never work, because you always end up with more stuff than you started with, because neighbors sneak around the back and dump their own stuff in the driveway. Like losing weight, losing stuff is a lost cause. Everybody has more than enough, and nobody wants any more, we are slaves to our stuff.

Of course the real problem is that we are willing slaves. We adore our stuff and cling to it. That’s why we need larger and larger houses, and commercial storage units lined up along every highway. A million years ago our ancestors moved out of caves because they had run out of closet space for their old animal bones and pieces of flint, and the process of accumulation has never stopped.

Some things are worth keeping for sentimental reasons. I still have my first teddy bear, called Rabbit (I was a short-sighted child), and he’s not stuff. Nor are the books that have followed me most of my life, nor the boxes of fading color slides, or the various anachronistic odd and ends in my bedside table like cuff links and collar studs. These things are valuable personal history.

In fact, when I look around, everything I see is valuable personal history – ancient cooking utensils, floppy disks, non-functioning cassette players – they’re all fragments of my past life like Rabbit, and they might all come in useful someday. They are secure presences in a changing world. Even the human body renews itself constantly, and apparently we replace our physical selves about every seven years. So nothing is permanent except our stuff, and nothing will remain of us except our stuff. We should treat it with proper respect.

Copyright: David Bouchier