Sunday, August 31, 2014

Redefining My Life- Material Objects Edition

Thirteen years ago, all my possessions were contained in this miniature version of a Brooklyn apartment.
 My clothes fit in a single, small closet. I had little furniture- in fact all the furniture seen here, except for the futon and the bookcase on the left, was purchased within months of moving into this apartment.

Jack Reacher famously travels with only the clothes on his back and a folding travel toothbrush. When he needs new/different clothes, he simply buys them. At one point, as he considers settling down and getting a house he considers all the things you need to settle down- first there's the house, then you need stuff for the yard, and that leads to more stuff. It never seems to end, the need for things generates more need for things. While Reacher at first seems to live a simple life, he is also the epitome of consumerism and capitalism.

Perhaps Fight Club had it right- the things you own end up owning you.
My friends Tammy and Chip chronicled their move from house to sailboat to Napa in Tammy's blog. One of the big focuses other than the sailing specific stuff is the idea of downsizing as they moved from their house to their sailboat. Recently, they've come onto land, settling near Napa, and once again are living in a house. I'm not sure if it's reading Tammy's blog, or something else, but I've been on a bit of a purge myself these days.

I was sitting looking at my shelves the other day and realized that as much as I LOVE my books, there were quite a few on my shelves that I'd read once and never feel the need to read again. Some I was given as free copies that I know I'll never read. So I started going through them- if I didn't think I'd ever reread it again it went on the stack. I'm aiming to be an English professor, so I'm never going to NOT have books, but it's certainly possible to wean down. I ended up with six boxes- all donated to the UNM Medieval Society for their book sale, so good all the way around.

This summer I also weeded out my closet- a truck load went to Goodwill. And yet that purge continues. I was looking at my sweaters, most of which I don't wear, and wondered why I have all these clothes I don't wear. Some are due to now living in the desert, and I don't have a problem with keeping some clothes in storage in case I move to more Northern climes after graduation. But that's not the majority of my clothes occupying TWO closets in my bedroom. Instead there are dresses, tops, shirts, that I bought at some point and never wear.

It's hard throwing things out, sorting to give away to Goodwill. I think in a large part because by giving items away we're giving up on a future self we at one point envisioned- I will never be the jewel toned silk shirt girl. I will never be the 1940s type skirt girl. So in a lot of ways, purging is about knowing who you are, and letting go of everything that is not that.
It also means letting go of the belief that recycling the clothes, giving them away, is somehow a waste of money. As though it's not wasted money gathering dust in your closet. Or that the greater issue isn't that we should think a little more WHEN we spend money, and perhaps spend a little more wisely.

And this leads me to the larger issue. I think in large part we end up defining ourselves by our possessions- our clothes, our jewelry, our furniture. We're this type of person, or that type of person. We can be sorted according to likes, and styles we own.

For the last ten years, I'm not sure who I've been. I was defined by my roles, what I did, not necessarily who I was. I was the daughter who moved home to help with Mom. I was the one who bought a house for her family. Who helped support them.  And then all that was done, and I moved to New Mexico, and I spent the last year trying to remember how to live on my own again. But I was still defined by being the person who put family first. But some of that changed this summer- I lost a job, which meant losing $20,000 a year in income. Which meant I was no longer in a position to help support my family without emptying my savings. But me saying that, telling people that, hasn't changed anything. Except perhaps me. The fact that no one seems to care about helping me out, pulling their own weight, or even acknowledging that I said anything, has changed my feelings. In many ways it has tilted my entire perspective. Which is not always a good thing- but ever since I was little organizing things, establishing order over chaos, has always been my way of dealing.

At Christmas, Dad announced he didn't want any of Mom's stuff, and we needed to clear it out or he was going to get rid of it. So I came home with a truck full of knick knacks and photo albums and a vague sense of unease. Here I was clinging desperately to family, and history- trying to remember, worried about losing parts of Mom. But the last few months I've come to wonder why I'm holding on so tight. No one else is. And it's exhausting.

So maybe that's a big part of the reasoning behind the purge- if we're defined by the the things we surround ourselves with, and if we can refocus that frame at any moment, then maybe that's it.

I am a woman who wears ties. And jeans. And slacks. I have little fashion sense- my clothes are organized by color, I store my ties on the shirts they go with, and I tend to buy three things in the same style but different colors so I can avoid anything resembling shopping. This wardrobe suits my job as a TA, and should suit the job of English professor. I dislike clutter, and am not much for knick knacks. I have some of Mom's, but am thinking I'll get a case to display them all so I keep them, but they're sorted.


And I have to admit, that with this tilted perspective, this idea that perhaps I really am on my own, part of the thinking behind the purge is rather morbid.
I'm single. I'm not married. I have no legacy. I have no children. I thought of this at Christmas as I packed up so much of Mom's stuff- so much of this was meant to be passed down to children, to family. I held decades of family memories in my hands, stories of holidays and family. And yet, when I die, no one will care. The stories will be lost. The items discarded.
So when you're single, and you die, what happens to your stuff? Who comes to take care of your stuff? Does the entire house just go to Goodwill? My will covers what to do with my body, and the money to cover it. I left my money to Dad, despite the huge cracks and fissures that have developed there- what do I care, I can't use it.
So if I don't have anyone to leave anything to what do I do with what I have?
Take pictures of memories.
Write about my experiences.
Send it all out into the world.
Because once I'm gone, no one's going to care about the crap in my apartment.

I guess a lot of this comes down to a material focus on the greater things going on in my life. Who I want to be. What I want my life to be. Maybe if I can sort through the material goods, deciding what is and is not essential to my life, I can by default determine what type of life I have, and want.

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