A funny thing happens when you find yourself in a relationship with a man whose entire life’s accumulated possessions can be contained, literally, in two canvas gym bags. You wake up one morning and feel self-consciously, conspicuously consumeristic (yes, I know that's not a real word, but as the reigning Queen of Scrabble, I take liberties now and then.)
You open up your closet door as you prepare to get dressed. Inside are rows and rows of clothes, most of which you rarely wear. There at the end, in about eight square inches of space, is his complete wardrobe on half a dozen hangers.
You open the linen closet for a towel as you go to shower. You are met with the sight of no less than twenty towels in varying sizes and colors, not to mention washcloths, sheets, pillowcases, shams, bed skirts, and even one forgotten mosquito net, a purely romantic, impulsive and aesthetic purchase. Quickly you close the door.
In the office you gaze lovingly at your bookshelves, where not only your old favorites await, those which have accompanied you from house to house and town to town like aging relatives, but those you’ve heard good things about and have yet to crack open. You remember the two old leather-bound volumes he keeps on the little table you put by his side of the bed. You even had an extra table to spare.
And so it goes as you wander from room to room. Everywhere you turn you see STUFF. Too much stuff. You begin to wonder when it happened that you acquired so much. It wasn’t that long ago, you remind yourself, that you put everything you owned into your little 1985 Nissan Sentra and left L.A. at two in the morning one night because you were overwhelmed with a different kind of excess. You seem to recall that what took up the most space in your car that night were shoes.
As you drive around town you are more aware than you used to be of the homeless people standing near the highway or on the edges of the parking lots. You notice how much, or conversely, how little, they are wearing. You pay attention to whether or not they carry any sort of luggage with them. You particularly notice the ones who have children, or even dogs.
When exactly did your life become so cluttered? You think back to major events since you became an adult and little by little you account for the mass collection of material goods: you had a baby; you bought a house; your mother died. Bit by bit you acquired things that served a purpose, that filled up the space, that had sentimental value. Next thing you know, Bam! You have a house full of stuff.
Does your stuff make you happy? Not hardly. There is a certain comfort, perhaps, in familiar sights each morning, in running a hand over a particular piece of furniture that evokes a warm memory, or laying eyes upon that exquisitely delicate cashmere cardigan you just had to have no matter what, the one you wear so infrequently for fear of spoiling it with use. It is nice to be able to find all the supplies you need when you have a task to accomplish, whether it be polishing the silver, vacuuming the carpet or detailing the car. Until you realize that if you had no silver, no carpet, or no car, not only would your amount of stuff be reduced, but so too would the number of tasks you have to perform on a regular basis.
You study his two small bags of life sitting unobtrusively in a corner, and you think about the difference between need and want. You think about how free you used to feel when you could just pick up and take off when the spirit moved you. You know it’s not that easy anymore, with a child and a dog and silly little commitments like school and work; but you reminisce fondly nonetheless. You’ve never been the kind of person who seeks to have all the latest gadgets or buys into the theory that the American dream is about having things rather than experiences. Yet somehow you have become a person with enough things that, if an alien doing research on the plight of over-consumption by human beings residing within the continental United States were to land in your living room, he might very well include you in his statistics. What you feel, overwhelming, when you look around and take in the vast array of objects that surround you, is weight. Burdening, heavy weight.
The logical place to start seems to be with clothes. So for two days you go through each and every item of clothing you own with a discriminating eye. If it doesn’t either look really good on you, or if it isn’t so comfortable you don’t care what it looks like because you’ll wear it anyway, fashion be damned, it goes. You wind up with dozens of brown paper bags full of clothes, some of which, it’s embarrassing to admit, still have the tags on them. You feel better as you load them up in your car and drive to the Goodwill. You go inside and drop them off and then, since you’re there and you can’t help but notice, on your way back to your car, the crowded “As-is yard,” you meander over that way. And that’s when you see it: the most adorable little cane chair with green velvet upholstery and an oblong custom cushion sewed into the back.
“How much is it?” you ask, just for fun. “Fifteen dollars,” the woman says. You smile and start to walk away. You are getting rid of stuff, you remind yourself. Not collecting more. But it’s so cute. So original. And it might be an antique to boot. Which would mean it’s a good investment. Clearly you have to buy that chair. After all, you’ve just eliminated the equivalent of six chairs in the form of clothing from your house. Surely you are still ahead of the game even if you bring home this one small, barely noticeable item of furniture. For God’s sake, you could buy five more and break even!
You are determined not to undo the good thing you have initiated by purging your closets. Besides which, there are not five more adorable chairs to be found at the Goodwill today. So you stick to the one chair, and when you get it home, sneak it quietly into the house without anyone seeing. No one, especially him, needs to know that you managed to accumulate in the process of eliminating.
When he comes home from work and you tell him about your sudden desire to be rid of a lot of your stuff, he smiles. “What brought that on?” he asks.
You avert your eyes and blush, then stammer, suddenly both shy and afflicted with a speech impediment. “You inspire me,” you whisper. He puts his arms around you and kisses you, and whispers something back. Deep down inside somewhere between your navel and your spine, you are inspired with something else. As you take his hand and lead him into the bedroom, you understand why his happiness is so far removed from a collection of possessions. Why, at almost fifty years of age, he needs little, and wants even less. Why you so admire him, and marvel at him, and even envy him.
Tomorrow, you vow, you tackle the shoes…