Stuff: Beware What You Wish for…

Stuff — the subject of desire or disdain, of excess or self-control. Sometimes also referred to as junk.

Except for war, where I understand the wisdom of overwhelming force, when it comes to stuff, I would prefer to have too little than too much. I think that modesty and frugality are qualities, not flaws. Doing more with less is the mark of a diligent mind.

My daughter, who had worked for a few good years as a volunteer at The Action Center, a charity organization on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, organized and promoted a biannual fundraising event called Beautiful Junk. They collected donated books, household goods, toys, clothes, artwork — tchotchkes — and sold them at deeply discounted prices — a sort of ad hoc flee market for noble purposes. She was always excited to find that what was junk to some, proved so desirable to others. Value, she understood, is a reflection of needs and wants. I would say, a reflection of ‘a known need.’ What you don’t know you need, you don’t miss.

Several nights ago, we entertained new friends over wine and cheese. Like so often with new acquaintances, our conversation turned to our experiences from over forty years ago when we came to America from Romania. At the time we lived in Stamford, Connecticut and one day, my wife and I were returning on foot from the supermarket, with a brown bag with a few items in my arms. We were climbing a small hill, near the sports fields of a high school. I don’t remember why we were walking that day and who stayed home with our children — it must have been the weekend — but we decided that we absolutely had to go and get those essential products. We bought a box of cereal, peanut butter, dish washer detergent, and paper towels. As we walked and talked, huffed and puffed, we realized we would have never needed or used those items in Romania.

Mentioning the dishwasher detergent brought back an even older memory. Six weeks after our arrival we had moved into a rented apartment in Riverdale, New York. In the evening we ate our dinner and put the dishes in the dishwasher. We had never used or seen one up close before. Happy and satisfied, we poured some detergent in the little compartment provided for it, pushed a few buttons and went to relax on the sofa in the living room. A few moments later, I heard a faint popping sound, and I discovered that the entire galley kitchen and the narrow hallway leading to it were filled with soap foam. Convinced that that the dishwasher was broken, I put on my shoes, went downstairs and knocked on the door of the super. I was determined to get matters under control in our newly rented place. The super’s wife came with me and when she saw the mess she started laughing. We had used dishwashing soap, which, of course was a no-no. How were we supposed to know?

So, in my experience, the need for stuff is cultural. In Romania we never ate peanut butter, ketchup, or cereal, and we never missed them. People washed their dishes by hand and used washcloths in the kitchen. Today, Romanians use these products in their daily lives, just as Americans do and supermarkets and malls are so similar in both places, that one might forget they were in different countries and on different continents.

There were other things we missed in Romania, like cars, the freedom to travel, books, rock and roll, blue jeans and chewing gum. We missed these because we knew they existed — we saw them in movies, in magazines and on TV. People who had relatives abroad received parcels and read letters from “the other world” behind the Iron Curtain.

As a very young man living with my parents, I would dash out of the house at my friends’ call with nothing on me except the clothes on my back. Now, when I want to leave, I need to make sure that I have the house key, the car key, the office key, my fat wallet with some cash, multiple ID’s and credit cards, my glasses, my cell phone, my medication, and, of late, one or two power bars just in case I develop a sugar low. Often, getting out of the house is more challenging than whatever awaits me at the other end.

I have an agreement with my wife. Every time we buy a new item, we get rid of one we replace. If it’s still usable, we donate it. If it’s not, off it goes to the garbage bin, to recycling, or the landfill. Not matter what, we don’t need the clutter. We mostly keep our home free and clear of stuff. We want to be able to breathe.

I have no doubt we own and use too many things — much more than we really need. This is the price we pay to a consumerist society, and it is difficult to escape. This is stuff. Clearly and unfortunately, I believe I need it. We need it. Happiness still lies within us, and the myriad items that surround us facilitate us maintaining a balance, getting from here to there, aligning ourselves with the others, feeling protected and adapting to our social and cultural environment.

We really should dig ourselves out from under all the stuff and bring our happiness to the surface. In the meantime, I need to make a quick run to the store.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.