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What if you piled up all the stuff you’ve ever owned and consumed in your lifetime? Would it make a tall tower reaching into the sky like a high-rise building, or is it more of a discreet mound?
It’s helpful to visualise our collective stuff in this way because we are forced to see it before us and ‘own’ it. When it conveniently disappears into a dark hole in the ground, or up in smoke in an incinerator, it’s too easy to dismiss.
It does make me uneasy to think about things I’ve loved so much rotting in a landfill. It’s comforting to think they ended up with another family or in an op shop so they at least had the chance of a second life of love.
We’re all born naked but by the end of our first day we’re decked out in booties, beanie, nappy and wrapped in a blanket, and so our journey with stuff begins. As we grow up we’re encouraged to acquire more and more stuff, a house, car and furnishings. At the other end of life, we’re compelled to get our things in order so those left behind won’t have to deal with it.
An elderly lady recently died nearby. I didn’t know her, but I was confronted to see all her belongings piled out on the pavement for people to plunder. It made sense to recycle it, but I found some old photographs and birthday cards from grandkids. It made me think about how we’re defined by our stuff when we’re alive, and when we’re gone it can be comforting or cumbersome for others. It’s a cliché, but you can’t take it with you when you die, which begs the question – what’s meaningful about it while you’re alive?
Despite the comings and goings of things in our lives, it’s curious how some objects continue to resonate. Unexpectedly I’ll catch a glimpse of a certain colour, or a smell wafts past, and memories of objects I once knew pop up and I mourn the loss of them. Perhaps these are our ‘Rosebud’ possessions, the emotionally-charged ones that punctuate our consumptive lives.
My tower of stuff spans from the mid-1960s plastozoic era right through to the present day electrozoic era, taking in the rapid rise in consumerism that’s occurred over that period.
For me, there are layers of toys, clothes, shoes, bicycles, skateboards, mouldy futons, furniture, old fridges, backpacks, cassette tapes, textbooks, takeaway containers, empty bottles, pots and pans, broken plate ornaments, walkmen, old computers, headphones, vinyl records, CDs, sheets, doonas, cushions, matchstick blinds, hats, filing cabinets, posters, paintings and lamps.
Mine was not a sentimental family. There’s no garage or attic somewhere filled with the stuff from my childhood. We were lean and fitted neatly into a two-bedroom unit. But oh how I longed for a family home where the stuff of life piled up in corners and cupboards and giant pool toys lay strewn across the lawn.
An early introduction to the zen-life does have its benefits. You quickly learn what you really love and need, and what you can live without. You learn that the precious things in life – photos, letters, diaries and Gran’s jewellery – fit neatly into a small box under your bed.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the material sparseness of my childhood imprinted a sense of open space, it encouraged inventiveness and living in the moment. I was outside a lot of the time, riding a bike, up a mulberry tree and poking around in the environment.
With little, you learn to make-do while you wait for something to be paid off or to arrive on a birthday or Christmas. Like boredom, waiting and anticipation are special childhood experiences that have transmutative qualities that stand you in good stead later in life.
It wasn’t about ‘quantity’ my Mum impressed, but ‘quality’. The few things we had we took care of and we expected them to last. You rode it until you were way too big for it and you wore it until it was far too small for you. If it broke, it was repaired. Mum drove an old Mini Minor and all my bikes were pre-loved.
Then came an inkling of a different life. Its messages beamed from the magic box in the corner of the lounge room. We tuned in.
The present suddenly seemed inadequate. I wanted colourful fruit loops for breakfast, not rolled oats; I wanted soft drinks in cans, not milk in returnable glass bottles. There were things I really, really wanted and I wanted them now. No, not next summer, this summer while it’s fashionable! ‘Put it on the bankcard’, I’d beg.
Grandparents and parents with their stories of ‘going without’ during the War and the Depression, were eye-rollingly out of kilter with where my generation was headed. We weren’t to know corporations were grooming us for a life of mindless consumption.
In a relatively short period of time the wheels of consumption have really developed momentum. Some say they’re spinning out of control. Is all this stuff making us happy? Apparently not. As a society, we’ve never been more depressed, anxious, obese, sick, time-poor and in debt.
But as we pick over the mountain of debris this frenzy of consumption has left in its wake, there are stirrings of something revolutionary afoot. A growing band of people are tying up what’s precious in a handkerchief on the end of a stick and stepping out to create a different culture.
A culture where the people understand we are but one of the millions of species on this blue planet; where people like to shop locally, re-use and up-cycle; where we make community gardens and cherish the hand-made, bespoke and unique. One where we once again embrace a life entwined with nature. A life with less stuff.