Stuff, and how it defines us

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

My mother grew up in Germany during World War II and experienced genuine need. During that time, for example, ration cards limited each citizen to only one egg per month. And if somebody in your family had a birthday that month, your egg was likely to wind up in his or her cake.

Surviving the war caused Mom to hoard Stuff, which insulates her from need.  At 80, she is surrounded by a sea of her own Stuff, as well as all the Stuff that my father left behind when he died.

Dad’s father was a chaplain in the Army, which had him moving hither and yon all of his childhood. Unfortunately, Dad later joined the Air Force and forced the same fate on us. When we were moving every year or two, we didn’t acquire much Stuff. But when Dad retired, Stuff came in waves.

For dad, Stuff was grounding. It was an anchor. It kept him in place. It also raised his self esteem. Being able to say “I’ve got one of those” made him feel important. When he died, he left behind an inordinate amount of Stuff.

My Stuff story didn’t gel until after I’d realized a dream and designed and built a house. Building it was one of the most fun and creative things I’ve ever done. It was self-expression on a grand scale, and the best part was that I got to live in it after it was done. Everywhere I looked, I saw a reflection of who I am.

For me, Stuff became a mirror. Due to a perfect storm of adverse financial circumstances, I have to sell the house that I created, and with it, a business and a farm. This has sent me reeling. I’ve come to realize that, in the absence of my Stuff, I don’t know who I am.

We moved several weeks ago, and I still haven’t found my feet. Most of our remaining belongings are in storage, and only the bare essentials are with us in a cabin that a dear friend invited us to live in for a few months. As lucky as we are to be here, I do not see myself reflected in my surroundings and I’ve been experiencing an identity crisis.

Who am I?

In my attempt to make sense of my losses, I concluded that they must’ve been necessary because I’d come to derive my sense of self from the wrong things. But what were the right things?

Today, with the help of two coach friends, I realized that the right thing is people. People—and the love they hold for me—are the most accurate reflection of who I am.

I cannot describe how much relief that realization has brought.

But enough about me. What’s your Stuff story?

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3 thoughts on “Stuff, and how it defines us

  1. Your comment about Stuff accumulating once a person has settled really hit home. My dad (military) retired when I was 4, and from then on we lived in ginormous homes, packed full of Stuff. A lot of it was passed down from his parents, but they were first-generation immigrants…so not a ton of nostalgia (but still a lot of furniture, etc. from the Depression, which I’m sure factors in to holding on to all that Stuff).

    It wasn’t until going to townships in South Africa that I saw that Stuff doesn’t make one happy…it’s people. From then, I’ve lived a pretty non-materialistic lifestyle, but in this culture…it’s not easy. Feels like I have to continually resist accumulation.

    It’s funny that now I live in something maybe 2x the size of the Writer’s Refuge, and it doesn’t have room for Stuff in a 5×10 storage unit. Nor do I really miss the Stuff that’s in there, save a few scrapbooks.

  2. Petra,

    Your situation is a painful yet (hard to believe) positive life changing experience. Two and a half years we (my husband, 4 year old son and I) lost our small dream home, our business, and a whole lot of “stuff” to the “perfect storm of adverse financial circumstances”. What perfect wording you have created to summarize this economic flood of loss, uncertainty and the looming fear of reinventing life our lives as we have known them.

    I admire your strength. At some level you already know this, but incredible changes will emerge from this experience.

    This is just my experience…. but above all else, I have learned that regardless of my economic circumstances, my amount of stuff (or lack of stuff), where I live, what I do for a living, etc. I will land on my feet. It may take a while to shake myself off and pick up the pieces, but I now understand the importance of healing. Allowing time to process the emotions of gratitude for the incredible support of family and friends, anger and grief at my losses, relief that the fear of the unknown is over (or at least moving toward the known), and misc. fallout. I say misc. fallout because sometimes “debris” from the “perfect storm” comes back to nip you on the back side just when you have started looking ahead and stopped worrying about your derriere 🙂

    When the emotional and physical strength to move forward returns to your body and your family, it is amazing. We have found that although the surroundings and “stuff” have changed, all that is meaningful and important in our lives is still very much there. Our quality of life is better than ever, (on a FRACTION of the income we had just 3 years ago).

    Best wishes on your exciting new journey.

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