Kathryn Eastburn’s The Middle Distance, 8.13.10: “The Things We Carry”

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photo by Sean Cayton

As the Great Recession deepens and rolls on, domestic downsizing has hit the news. Last Sunday’s New York Times featured families who’ve cut back on home size, have shed their possessions, paid off debt, and moved into smaller, less cluttered spaces. These post-consumer pioneers are happy, they say, and the Times cited studies showing that while having enough money improves our happiness quotient, spending it on new things does not.

Meanwhile, on television, the reality show Hoarders features people so fiercely attached to their stuff, new and old, that they live amid piles of it like rats in a crowded dumpster.

Clearly we are a nation ambivalent, even pathological, about our relationship to what we consume.

I have downsized my household three times in the last ten years, partly due to economic necessity — I could no longer afford the cost of a big house and its endless upkeep — and partly because the sudden, tragic, human loss my family experienced a few years back cast the whole world of objects and creature comforts in a different light.

Just after my son died in 2007, as I was preparing to move to a much smaller living space than the one I was selling, I had a blow-out yard sale, a bargain bonanza aimed at getting rid of the bulk of my possessions. I thought I could make a few bucks, and I did, but more importantly I wanted to be free of all those things, the accumulation of half a lifetime that seemed to do little more than take up precious air space. I felt no attachment to any of it. My sons lined up a thousand books along the sidewalk and around the corner. We dragged out perfectly good furniture, mountains of clothes, used and never used kitchen utensils, pots and pans, sports equipment, toys, tools, electrical appliances. As the day grew longer, prices dropped precipitously until, finally, we just started giving things away.

I was giddy by the end of that hot Saturday, handing over to strangers things that had been part of my household for decades. Here, take this lamp. This basket. It’s yours. I waved goodbye to my things and wished them well, a happy life with a new family. Evening approached and we called 1-800-GOT-JUNK to come and haul away the last remaining piles of our former lives.

What I’ve come to learn in the years since — a period of continual purging and downsizing, and wonder at how our lives change and diminish and grow — is that far more interesting than what we shed, what we give away, is what we choose to keep. I have gone, over a decade, from 4,000 square feet to 600; twelve rooms to four. And at this moment, as the morning sun warms the front porch of my sweet little rented cottage, I am as happy at home as I have ever been. I’m comforted by the beauty and utility, the history and durability of the relatively few objects I have deliberately kept in my life.

Here are the sturdy rattan chairs I bought at a Honolulu Salvation Army 30 years ago, their thick cushions newly reupholstered in rich red and gold. Here are the paintings and photographs and objects of art I’ve collected from local artists wherever I’ve lived. Here is the bleached white deer skull, antlers intact, that my dearest friend in Memphis found while riding her horse through a dark forest. She tossed it into the back of her pickup truck and I reclaimed it, wrapped it in a scarf, and drove it across America to my new home.

Here is the speckled blue and white ceramic pot from my mother’s 1960s kitchen, standing next to my stove now, a sturdy and functional receptacle for spoons and spatulas. And here, propped in the living room corner is my grandfather’s cane, left behind when he died in our Nashville house 20 years ago, a reminder of the inevitability of old age, a simple monument to his long and generous life.

Our objects don’t define us. We define them by living with them, seeing them, using them, caring for them, and measuring their worth over time. We create a still life with them, a carefully conceived tableau of the present, knowing that, in the dazzle of a singular moment, everything can change.

As the Great Recession deepens and rolls on, domestic downsizing has hit the news. Last Sunday’s New York Times featured families who’ve cut back on home size, have shed their possessions, paid off debt, and moved into smaller, less cluttered spaces. These post-consumer pioneers are happy, they say, and the Times cited studies showing that while having enough money improves our happiness quotient, spending it on new things does not.

Meanwhile, on television, the reality show Hoarders features people so fiercely attached to their stuff, new and old, that they live amid piles of it like rats in a crowded dumpster.

Clearly we are a nation ambivalent, even pathological, about our relationship to what we consume.

I have downsized my household three times in the last ten years, partly due to economic necessity — I could no longer afford the cost of a big house and its endless upkeep — and partly because the sudden, tragic, human loss my family experienced a few years back cast the whole world of objects and creature comforts in a different light.

Just after my son died in 2007, as I was preparing to move to a much smaller living space than the one I was selling, I had a blow-out yard sale, a bargain bonanza aimed at getting rid of the bulk of my possessions. I thought I could make a few bucks, and I did, but more importantly I wanted to be free of all those things, the accumulation of half a lifetime that seemed to do little more than take up precious air space. I felt no attachment to any of it. My sons lined up a thousand books along the sidewalk and around the corner. We dragged out perfectly good furniture, mountains of clothes, used and never used kitchen utensils, pots and pans, sports equipment, toys, tools, electrical appliances. As the day grew longer, prices dropped precipitously until, finally, we just started giving things away.

I was giddy by the end of that hot Saturday, handing over to strangers things that had been part of my household for decades. Here, take this lamp. This basket. It’s yours. I waved goodbye to my things and wished them well, a happy life with a new family. Evening approached and we called 1-800-GOT-JUNK to come and haul away the last remaining piles of our former lives.

What I’ve come to learn in the years since — a period of continual purging and downsizing, and wonder at how our lives change and diminish and grow — is that far more interesting than what we shed, what we give away, is what we choose to keep. I have gone, over a decade, from 4,000 square feet to 600; twelve rooms to four. And at this moment, as the morning sun warms the front porch of my sweet little rented cottage, I am as happy at home as I have ever been. I’m comforted by the beauty and utility, the history and durability of the relatively few objects I have deliberately kept in my life.

Here are the sturdy rattan chairs I bought at a Honolulu Salvation Army 30 years ago, their thick cushions newly reupholstered in rich red and gold. Here are the paintings and photographs and objects of art I’ve collected from local artists wherever I’ve lived. Here is the bleached white deer skull, antlers intact, that my dearest friend in Memphis found while riding her horse through a dark forest. She tossed it into the back of her pickup truck and I reclaimed it, wrapped it in a scarf, and drove it across America to my new home.

Here is the speckled blue and white ceramic pot from my mother’s 1960s kitchen, standing next to my stove now, a sturdy and functional receptacle for spoons and spatulas. And here, propped in the living room corner is my grandfather’s cane, left behind when he died in our Nashville house 20 years ago, a reminder of the inevitability of old age, a simple monument to his long and generous life.

Our objects don’t define us. We define them by living with them, seeing them, using them, caring for them, and measuring their worth over time. We create a still life with them, a carefully conceived tableau of the present, knowing that, in the dazzle of a singular moment, everything can change.

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10 Responses to The Middle Distance, 8/13/10: "The Things We Carry"

  1. Denise Sanders says:

    I loved this! Thank you Kathryn for enlightening me about how I feel about my cluttered life. I need a purging too, and your commentary gave me confidence. Thank you!!

  2. Tim Boddington says:

    I envy the energy you have to remove stuff from a cluttered life. Your voice now is so serene.

  3. Bettina Swigger says:

    Lovely. Simply lovely.

  4. kathleen fox collins says:

    You and your writings inspire,Teach,Question,Answer,Delight…..and above all….give me/us Great Hope… with hearfelt appreciation,always…

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brenda Speer, KRCC. KRCC said: The Middle Distance, 8/13/10: “The Things We Carry”: In this week's essay, Kathryn Eastburn considers the econom… http://bit.ly/9o4Xfu [...]

  6. Mary H says:

    I have been dumping extras this year too, anticipating a move.

    I have been thrilled to learn that I don’t have to sit at a boring garage sale. I can donate all that stuff to ARC, DAV, Healing Minds, and others. I get to write it off my taxes this year, and help someone who needs it. They come and get it, so I don’t even have to haul it anywhere. I had great joy giving all the extra furniture to a church’s new young peoples’ house. They came and hauled it down the stairs. I would have had to pay a lot for that alone. They wrote me a letter, and I can deduct it all. Win-Win. My neice heading off to college is taking a trailer load of furniture too. Can’t deduct that, but I think maybe I’ll win in the long run as she uses my things and thinks of me. And perhaps some day she’ll pass her things along too.

    I find that I’m not yet ready to give up all my books. But I was able to part with a few boxes – D49 schools are horribly underfunded, with sad little libraries, and are glad to accept books. They will pass along what they don’t need. Friends of the Library at the Pikes Peak libraries do a nice business selling used books. They use the proceeds to help fund our local library system.

    I intend to keep going, handing over all the decorations and things that I no longer care about, that have become a burden. I can stop worrying that I’m becoming a hoarder. I can stop thinking arsonist thoughts as I move boxes of junk out of my way. I can learn what really matters and ditch the rest.

    As an exercise in winning back my freedom, I highly recommend it.

  7. Diann Webb says:

    Lovely and just a perfect reflection for all of us. As one who is also, working to downsize, you have given me inspiration to continue! Thank you.

  8. Mary H says:

    To Tim & others of you daunted by the thought of all that work, know that I was overwhelmed and in complete panic at the very thought. I would run away, and never start. Break it down into manageable mini-goals. Don’t think “I have to fix this whole house”. Think “I’m going to empty this closet”.

    Just do one room at a time. One closet or cabinet at a time. Spend a couple hours, then let it be. Reward yourself for small advances – “If I get the hall closet done, I can order chinese take-out”. Make little appointments with yourself – “2:00-4:00 Saturday afternoon, I’m going to find all the mail and sort it”. You’ll find that it grows on you.

    I made a spot in my garage where I deposit the give-away boxes. When I’ve got a stack, I set up a charity pickup.

    “touch it once” Someone famous made this rule. Don’t shuffle it to another spot. Decide now. Either give it a special place in your house or give it away immediately. This will save you tons of effort.

    I have been astonished at the friends and relatives who have been willing to help me as well. They have spent hours here & there helping me sort. So, maybe don’t be afraid to ask. Say “I’m shoveling out my guest room closet today. Wanna keep me company?”

  9. Lenore Fleck says:

    Aren’t we a very very fortunate people to live surrounded by a surfeit of stuff? The conundrum of the present day — to consume less to conserve our planet, or to consume more to keep the economy humming?

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