Just Stuff

Somewhere in the middle of your midlife you will come to the same inescapable conclusion I did: that most of the stuff you’ve acquired along the way is vastly overrated.

This revelation might hit you any number of different ways. For me I first realized it while cleaning out the kitchen cabinets one day. I pulled all the cups and glasses out of the cupboards and chanced upon several Power Ranger sippy cups. The thing is, both our boys were out of the house and away at college. Why did we still have them?

Earlier that day I was feeling the tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes with having just removed all the carpeting in the house and replacing it with hardwood floors. I was on a roll cleaning the house, reclaiming space previously occupied first by the great plastic empire– the Flintstone tiny tike cars and buses, which then gave way to Brio trains, then in later years a vast complex of Legoland, and then most recently a technology outpost that had taken over the living room with game boys, iTunes, DVDs, MySpace and possessed more storage space than the computers that NASA used to put the first man on the moon.

When the floor guys arrived on the scene I thought for a minute they were going to need to remove the carpeting with hazmat gear since it had absorbed and sustained the abuse of two growing boys for the better part of 15 years.

But soon enough it was gone, replaced by spare shiny new wood floors. The best thing is actually what happened next.

Once the house started looking more spare we found we enjoyed it more. We were less stressed, we weren’t tripping over stuff. So for the six weeks that followed I put a sign in the driveway that said simply “Help Yourself.” And then Kay and I went through the house, room by room, and piled up stuff, pitching anything broken, or with missing parts. The useful but no-longer-useful-to-Kay-or-me things went on a separate pile and were placed in the driveway.

Each week a steady stream of passersby stopped. Some looked casually and then kept going. But the vast majority lingered, then gingerly approached the hoarde of items. A few folks looked around as if they were expecting someone to approach them as they were loading things into their car only to be told it was all a big practical joke and they had been punked for our amusement. No such trap. In the weeks that followed it seemed we had attracted a loyal and returning following. And what neighbors and passersby left each week was sent off to Goodwill Industries. In the process I learned a lot about Goodwill. It’s fascinating how they take things that are discarded and turn them into useful assets that can help others. Anyway, before long the house was empty of much of our accumulated stuff.

It seemed we were far from done, maybe just beginning. Kay and I had spent a long frustrating winter in self-examination, me while traveling for work and her while telecommuting 3 hours away to a condo we had leased for her when her job moved to Columbus, Ohio. Sitting around one weekend getting ready to write a check for a new roof, we started re-evaluating the decision. Why were we replacing the roof? Yes, the house needed a new one. The water dripping into our bed during a rainstorm the previous weekend made the requirement abundantly clear. But why did WE actually need a new roof? To protect all our possessions and stuff inside? Possessions that we were now slowly concluding we didn’t really need anymore, if at all. Maybe if we jettisoned the house itself instead we wouldn’t need to worry about all that was involved in a new roof along with a dozen different things.

Over a dinner and drinks later that week we started daydreaming together. What if we gave away most of our stuff, and sold the house and ditched the condo, and moved into a loft somewhere together. What did we really want? What did we really need?

First, the obvious need. We needed to be together. And we needed to spend more time together. After almost thirty years together we were both blessed with this same realization. After raising our two sons and seeing them successfully launch their adult lives, we actually wanted to go back to doing what we did before kids. (No, keep your head out of the gutter!) we wanted the pleasure of each other’s company. We were increasingly frustrated “commuting to our marriage.” Long distance is tough under any circumstances, and it can cause you to forget what’s most important in the long run. Being together. Doing things together. Hanging out and doing nothing together. We also wanted to exploit the fun that comes with the freedom of not taking kids to soccer practices and music lessons and scouting activities. We wanted to be spontaneous again. To look on Flixster for a new movie and head to the theatre at the last minute. To grab coffee after a show, freed of the need to get home and relieve babysitters of their duties. To connect with friends and to travel.

No, we didn’t regret one day of doing all those things we did raising a family, it was glorious packing all those activities into the days with our beloved boys. We wouldn’t have missed a second of any of it for the world. But all these things prepared both our sons for life on their own, free and independent of our daily parental oversight. We needed to re-introduce ourselves to each other, to expand beyond being just parents. They were taking their next steps toward discovery and growth. We needed to do the same thing.

We also had the good fortune of flexibility. We had a number of places we could live and work.

How we ultimately decided to move to the city of Detroit is another story in itself. But as we put our house of 25 years on the market, something else was actually nagging at me.

It was all that stuff we had cast away.

We had a lot less to move to our next stop. But what about all those things we gave away? Lawn mowers and snow blowers, rakes and shovels, shelves of endless items, toys and clothes and games and gadgets that seemed for so long to be worth having and saving and keeping. But for what? Had they actually been the source of some of our stress?

Because here’s the thing. When you acquire stuff, you also acquire the obligation and burden to house and maintain it. And when it breaks or bleeds oil on the driveway, you take on a new role as keeper. Keeper of stuff and endless things. And it becomes very hard over time to rationalize that you actually need much of it.

I can only hope this stuff doesn’t prove to be a curse for the folks that heeded my invitation and hauled it away.

To all those benevolent strangers, maybe they were able to put those things to good use. On the other hand, maybe I’ve simply vexed them with a terrible curse. Maybe much of that stuff carries a heady price for them instead.

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Weirdly, true confession, one of the things to which I falsely assigned considerable value was an adult “toy,” a 1939 Buick Special, which took up a huge footprint in the garage, notwithstanding all the additional tools and parts it required. Why did I need this is a question to be left for therapists to resolve. In the end it had stopped working and had become a burden and an effort to maintain. In other words, just like so much stuff ultimately does.

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