Thursday, October 2, 2008


When I was a little kid, I was very protective of my stuff. I was meticulous about taking care of my room, and I used to worry about what would happen to my stuff after I died. I remember lying in bed one night wondering what would happen to my stuffed animals.

Later, when I was in college, I used to go to flea markets with friends, buying up all kinds of fun stuff from the 1950s and ‘60s (which in the late ‘80s could still be found in abundance). I’d take it home and clean it up, and then be left with the dilemma of storage and, ultimately, disposal. How could I ever locate a worthy recipient for my stuff -- someone who would appreciate it, know how old it was, who made it, how carefully I had restored it?

In the 1990s, I had a series of two-bedroom apartments, largely so I could have enough space for my stuff.

And yet, paradoxically, all this stuff used to nag at me. I had a constant urge to thin it out, to give things away or sell them. I felt trapped by it all. I used to think about moving or traveling for an extended period, and then I’d think, “But I can’t, because what would I do with all my stuff?”

As I’ve written before, the turning point was when I came back from Morocco, in 1994, and began unpacking boxes and boxes of stuff that I’d stored -- and wondered, “What IS all this?”

That’s when I finally began a decade-long purge of my mid-century flea market finds, selling them through local consignment shops or on eBay. I also eventually sold most of the stuff I brought back from Africa -- and I didn’t bring back much. When I moved to New York, I whittled things down to an extreme level, since I now live in one room.

So you see, I have a strangely fraught relationship with stuff. I think I feel an unusually heavy burden of responsibility about possessions -- an unhealthy burden, even. I have found that the best way for me to deal with stuff is just to not own it. Then I don’t have to think about it at all.

The downside, of course, is that I also don’t get to enjoy it. I still have that Urge to Purge, and I own very little. Where does it end? Is this a kind of anorexia of possessions? Isn’t a constant desire to purge just as problematic as a constant desire to purchase? Aren’t they just different forms of attachment?

(Photo: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Sept. 2008)


  1. I do totally understand. I walk that line between wanting to own next to nothing, to loving "stuff" - and I think I strike a balance (probably leaning towards having some stuff - maybe a bit more than I would ultimately like) between the two.

  2. You know, I'm one of those people with a lot of stuff ... but I don't collect random things. Except for my books and my music, nearly everything I have connects me to a person or to a memory, and I think those are usually very good associations to retain.

  3. I understand completely. I have lost sleep over a missing doll shoe, which years later turned up trapped behind a drawer. I was crazy about keeping all the pieces to my children's toys, forever ordering a replacement block or whatever if something was lost.

    I need to be placed in a situation with much less storage space that would force me to jettison all the stuff I have accrued over a lifetime. Mentally I can say I agree with your philosophy of purging the unnecessary "stuff", but I'm still very attached to each and every piece of it. It does sound a little bit sick, yes?

  4. I think they are two sides of the same coin. With too much stuff, there's no way to enjoy it all, too little stuff means you don't have the right-sized pot in which to make soup or the right shoes for whatever you're up to.

    Humans have always struggled with stuff. It's part of who we are. What's the answer? Don't ask me!

    You know I want to write a book about how everything you ever needed to know can be learned through airplane jargon? Have I told you?

    In this case, that thing they say when you're waiting at the gate, about controlling your luggage? It's germaine to your thoughts today.

    Control your luggage, Steve! Or not!

    I love the way you think.

  5. "anorexia of possession" - That's an interesting thought.

    Applies to money too, doesn't it?overspending till the credit cards max out, or suffering separation anxiety at every penny removed from the wallet - same phenomenon in reverse, sort of thing.

    balance is really hard, isn't it? it's just a tiny space between two states of disequilibrium come to think of it.

    ok. 'nuff. just musing away on your blog. sorry about that :-)

  6. I find that I finally understand my mother's need to purge and give away things. I'm awash in books, especially collections that my parents started and I felt compelled to continue adding to. But how to get rid of it all without feeling guilty??

  7. Oh, we could start an entire 12-step program on this one. I am far from the anorexia stage on this but do various levels of purging. When I was in New York, I was thrilled that most of the gifts given to me were hand-me-downs and not "stuff" people pushed on me. There are some things from my family that I'll never part with, but I love the idea of books, music, odd items passing on to me to someone I know who will cherish it for a while and pass it on to someone else. If it has great value, it should be shared not hoarded in my opinion.

  8. I so agree with R L --she's very smart!

    balance is really hard! A tiny space between two states of disequilibrium ! so true.

    I have trouble with much older cousins giving me paintings of my ancestors, quilts and odd things they made, I feel terrible for accepting these items in the first place but if I didn't there would be hurt feelings and possibly a lost "artifact". I do contact other young relatives asking if they want this stuff, but until the genealogy bug bites them, it's with me. I am also storing a huge amount of "stuff" for two children. sigh.

    If I bring in a piece of furniture, I discard a piece, --that's my rule for all stuff I buy new or used.A nearby charity thrift shop accepts all my stuff.

  9. The lovely Mrs. Sneed and I struggle with stuff. She hoards and I purge.

  10. This is a posting I can relate to. Having always lived in small spaces, I do not have the option to collect and must purge regularly. I usually donate books or give the choice ones to friends who promise to donate them to the public library when finished. Household things go to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Any extra towels go to my cats vet clinic and other things to charities. Having a system for when and where to donate helps me remember to do so regularly. When and if I buy anything new, something else goes bye-bye.

    If I had the room, I'd have more pets and a garden!

  11. I think that the issue of attachment has more to do with the importance one places on the stuff than the quantity of stuff one has at any particular moment.

  12. I think that things own us as much we own them. We are in the midst of packing our possessions in order to move and I have come to realize just how much "stuff" we have. It's my goal to get rid of 2/3rds... yikes, it's harder than I thought!

  13. oh steve! what a picture of (poor?) little you, lying in bed worrying about your stuff!

    i love your apartment - it feels balanced. interesting and special stuff which seems carefully chosen but also space - even in so small a space.

  14. There was a time i considered the family Archivist as I had everything ever owned by my family...or so it seemed.
    But there came a time when it truly bogged me down, and then a time when my problems were bigger than my stuff`.
    I don't miss my stuff.
    I miss my stuff.
    But i like what Stephen king says in one of his books

    'What you buy is what you own, and what you own is what you pay for."

  15. have you ever seen annie leonard's story of stuff? maybe you are the one who turned me on to it months ago....but if you weren't you must check it out...

    purging stuff is good....though f and I are pretty lousy at it.... doesn't help with the fact that people seem to always be dumping their old stuff on us ....

  16. what a funny child you would have been. i'm sure i would have (lovingly) taunted you a little if we were little together