Are We Known by What We Own?


Spring cleaning came to mind this week, and that was surprising. I am not a deeply committed cleaner–I find something more interesting to do 8 out of 10 times. But the rooms are opened up to breezes that sweeten the place one end to the other. Sunshine illuminates winter grime on every window, and I have a hankering for all my sandals. They are in a box on  the closet shelf, but first I must move out the cold and rainy weather shoes and boots. I have half-winter and half-summer clothing smashed together, too.

An hour is the most I can manage and that takes dedication with good music turned up. It means I start a list of what needs attacking, easiest first. Then I carry out a legitimate dusting (not just a swipe where dust mites are clearly colonizing) and vacuuming, even in tough corners. Windows come next. I even cleaned my washer tub–I didn’t even know there were products for this. But in the process of starting, it dawned on me I have a lot more to do than the usual tasks. It unnerved me.

If you asked me, I would say I am not and never will be a collector. I know people who collect. Their lives can become run by their unique passions; they are drawn like a magnet to things. My spouse collects ink pens, flashlights and knives, jade items, river rocks and agates, sacred texts (older is better). And other things I just do not understand. My sister, Allanya, drags me to estate sales. I go because I enjoy her company and like to see interesting houses. And I find it curious what people stockpile in a lifetime–it tells me such stories. Allanya is interested in investing, in part. She purchases fine turquoise jewelry and old totems, but also instruments and primitive paintings. We might end up with a piece of furniture or two she will shine up and sell.

I am not shopping-averse. (I can see my family smirking at that.) But what I need is far less than what I appreciate so I try to temper my hunger for books, music, visual art and handmade jewelry, with varying results. I am not moved to stop at flea markets and antique stores even though they do hold an allure every couple years. I have never once shopped on Ebay.

All that occupies my small curios wall cabinet came from my mother. I confess I don’t look often at the few Lladro and Goebel figurines, a row of silver and crystal bells, things she enjoyed in her attractive home. But wait. Bells, are something I do like and, well, sort of gather. I inherited some, was gifted several, bought a couple more over the years. They tend to like dust. That’s the problem with things–upkeep.

Perhaps because I’m not working outside the home now, I pay closer attention to my surroundings. Besides ubiquitous reading materials that occupy multiple places, there is more tucked away. I decided to take an honest inventory of some things I have but do not need. These are small but they sure are adding up. And at the end of the list–I worry it will get longer–I have to ask my self: Why do I keep these things? Perhaps by the end of this essay I’ll have performed a bit of useful self-analysis.

Here are small, seemingly unneccessary things I hang onto:

1. sample perfumes
2. all extra buttons
3. old reading and sunglasses
4. any-sized rubber bands
5. old maps
6. half-used candles
7. scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon
8. paper bags from stores–not just to use for my recycling stuff but from all stores
9. cards–both old and new
10. skin/make up products, for too long
11. report cards, letters, drawings from my children and grandchildren
12. single socks and old bras

It’s a bit embarrassing to see such a list on this lovely clean page. My habits likely have sprung from being the child of Depression-era parents. My parents did not toss things unless absolutely useless, and neither did they waste money on needless possessions. My father, though a musician and educator, had a knack for fixing things, from stringed instruments to large appliances, stereo equipment to cars. My mother repaired kitchen tools, clothing and snafus that are part of property ownership. I didn’t inherit their talent. But I got the message: do not treat possessions poorly. Make them last.


My childhood home had a good-sized basement and an attic. The attic alone was a strange and intruiguing place. There were myriad objetcts within cramped recesses for a child to root out, try on, wonder over, play with, mess around with for a good hour or more. A favorite was old cigar boxes. (They got those from the drugstore when emptied, thus they got free storage). My mother stored extra buttons there or bias tape of many colors, and spools of thread. The colorful, often embellished buttons supplied me with hours of sorting (hues, style, size), using for doll quarters’ decorations and art works, some sewn. Unless she needed them; I had to ask first. And then there were my older sisters’ fancy concert and prom dresses. Gift wrapping supplies. Fabrics. Extra or old games of all sorts. Some of my mother’s high heels. Things for winter, like woolens and my white fur muff and matching hat. But the point is, it was a place for storage and everything that wasn’t in the main house was in there. And the basement, where there was a fruit cellar stocked with homemade jams and canned peaches and applesauce. That basement deserves a story of its own.

So you get the idea. My parents saved and preserved. The junk drawer in their kitchen, just like mine, held sometimes useful things–toothpicks galore, string of all sorts, bags of rubber bands (sorted), eyeware repair kits, tape of different types, half-full Elmer’s glue bottles. Gum, mints, chipped marbles, old birthday candles, keys and so on. Oh, I fogot to add old keys to my list…

Maybe there’s a part of me that’s cheap. Collecting perfume samples? If good ones, I have to hang on until they’re completely empty and even then, I still like them in a little ceramic bowl on my dresser. If I don’t enjoy one, a daughter or grandaughter might. Sometime. Make up and skin supplies? I can’t throw them out until deemed well past expiration date or a very bad choice. The reading and sunglasses are another story. They are given up if broken. I buy cheap glasses. I have stepped on or lost some; it’s good to have a few back-ups, right? A daughter noted there is at least one pair from a couple decades ago in my desk drawer.

Maps. I really like maps and could probably get hooked by very old ones–such skill and imagination they required!– as well as those from around the world. But I don’t want to get started on that. I do throw out ones I’ve actually used on trips when they disintegrate at the folds.

The spare buttons that come with new clothing are kept (in their little plastic bags) for no good reason (I have so far not had to use more than one extra button) except I loved them as a kid and you know, just in case. And my five children have had a lot of paper items to share, many of which I let go long ago. But colorful, odd-sized paper bags from stores? They would be handy in a pinch–I do reuse them. Single socks? Well, I am an optimist. The other ones do turn up occasionally. Those old bras….have to say I just gave away some decent ones since I lost weight the past couple year. But part of me wanted to take them back. Another few pounds…

I see how it happens: I want to keep extra things to save money. Or because they signify a fond memory. Or maybe I just like something enough to “wait and see”. I am, it seems, as possessive as anyone else of a vast trove of stuff I would like to take out and just burn some days.

I think it is time to stop waiting and free up more rooom in my living space and life. I think of those estate sales, how much one can accumulate. Find even necessary. It seems an embarrassment and wasteful when I see what was left behind by others. So what matters most in my life? What do I want to leave to others when I vacate my time and place on earth? I think of the files of poetry and stories. My CDs. My bookshelves groaning under the heft of great authors’ words and a few anthologies with my own writing. Sketchbooks I have half-filled. Maybe my family will trash them once I’m gone; it won’t matter. But I see–no surprise to me–that creative activities and passion for nature and people have defined my living.

Bottom  line, the immaterial world matters most. Those who have shared their time with me, taught me about important matters. Those I have cared about and who have cared for me in return, despite the work and courage it requires. And God’s presence first and last, as the Creator’s inimitable love is the only certainty to me. We all know stuff is made to be shared and discarded. I do have some good sense. But there is a way to go before I am smart enough to always do what is truly wise. It will likely take more sorting out.



4 thoughts on “Are We Known by What We Own?

  1. Great post, Cynthia, and very engaging! Like Gina, I live with the basics and love the freedom of space and the feeling that what I wasn’t using is now being put to good use by others! It is odd why we hold on to things which we know deep down don’t really matter, because only the immaterial has real meaning. So it’s a good question to ponder: why DO we do it??

    1. Love your thoughts on this topic, Sheila–I know you have written of it, as well. Perhaps humans are just acquisitive, too…territorial as we are, wanting to make our mark and claim what’s ours. Yes, I am with you: God first, possessions way at the bottom, but I am still letting go as I age. Good to hear from you!.

  2. I live with less and I like having that freedom of not holding onto material things. I have the basics to provide me my needs and nothing more. Anything that doesn’t get used because of practicality goes to charity.

    It’s always interesting to see how others live and what they hold onto.

    1. Yes, we all havbe our quirks 🙂 And good for you, Gina, for simplifying so much! We actually have many repurposed items and things such as second-hand furniture; the cost of stuff is exhorbitant, almost immoral to me. I will continue to streamline. Always kind of you to take time to comment; I enjoy your thoughts.

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