Thursday, October 31, 2013

Living in the material world

Imagine George Harrison and Madonna singing their different versions on the same stage!

Long ago a good friend of mine, Sandra Dodd, drew my attention to a book with the title “Material World”. It was a select survey, pictorially oriented, of living conditions in about two dozen countries around the world. One notable feature was that each family brought all their property out of the house arranged it neatly, and then sat behind their pile of things to have their picture taken. The poorest country in the survey was Mali, and they had next to nothing except various pottery containers. The Americans had a great deal of stuff. The contrast was shocking, as it was meant to be.

When we moved out of Ravenhill, we became that American family. The stuff! Ye gods, the stuff!

There are a lot of excuses that can be offered. As several people have pointed out, if you live in the same location for 22 years of course you’re going to have a lot of stuff. We have a hobby, the Society for Creative Anachronism, that requires a serious player to have clothing, tents, and other props. For a while we ran a bit of a farm, with horses, sheep and poultry. But still…

Even though we are not big shoppers, not really hoarders either, not particularly rich, our move to smaller quarters, a house already full of its own furniture and appliances, put us in the position of throwing away huge and astonishing array of… Things.

We left most of our furniture and all of our major appliances for the buyers, for whom this is the first house. And still…

We were put in the onerous and to me rather depressing situation of throwing out the evidence of the past half-century or so of our lives. It was that, or apply to the federal government for a huge grant for the Muhlberger National Museum (and be rejected of course).

I have to admit that much of the stuff came down to me. Not even counting stuff in my office at the University, I had tremendous amount of paper associated with academic projects that I have either finished or abandoned. I had an amazing amount of paperwork associated with the SCA in Ontario in the 1970s and 80s (mostly). I had to very determinedly ask myself if I would ever look at this particular pile of paper again. If not, out it went.

It was more difficult in some ways to deal with the books. Again, the question asked was will any of us ever read this book again? The alternatives here were not keep or throw, but keep or find some alternative to throwing. I took boxes and boxes to the University and got rid of a great many serious and frivolous volumes  there. Otherwise, they went to a thrift shop/recycling depot called Rebuilt Resources. How many of them they threw out I don’t want to know. It was hard enough to get rid of those old friends, those pocket universes, those enjoyable but not classic science fiction novels that are basically unavailable, relics of an almost lost popular culture. (The book covers, especially from the early 60s, preserve a style of abstract illustration found nowhere else!)

And when I was done with all of this, and the sale of Ravenhill was concluded, I went to my office at Nipissing University and got rid of  about half the stuff that was stored there.
This whole process took a psychic toll on me. Lots of questions were raised,   like what on earth was I thinking. Well, I was probably thinking that I would live forever and didn’t want to lose track of anything that happened to me, especially if it was pleasant. And after all I am a historian. The great purge forced me to wrestle with these attitudes.  It shows the state that I was in during much of it that I took comfort in the idea that if we were in a car crash and killed, it would all have to go anyway. Comfort, eh?

You young whippersnappers, take a lesson from this. You might just maybe want to start cutting down your possessions now instead of having to do it at some very inconvenient time in the future.

Or at least slow down your pace of acquisition.


  1. Actually I think one of the strong motivations that supported me in the getting rid of stuff was the idea of said car crash leaving the children not only grieving but having to do that thankless task

  2. Young whippersnapper? Hah! I have been thinking about culling possessions again. We moved into our current house in 2007 and, having purged mightily then, have let matters accumulate again. As you say, books are also an irresistible force for academics - I've been buying ebooks where practicable but that's leaving a mountain of digital debris if not properly managed.

    So, where are you and yours settled in for the immediate future? Are you still in the near North or are you down south in the warmer parts? Inquiring minds want to know!

  3. The whole family except me is in Windsor; I am still in the near North. Living in a monastery. Really.

  4. I hardly ever buy anything, and what I do buy comes mostly from thrift shops. I live in a small apartment. But there is a constant stream of objects being discarded from the building I live in, many of them tempting. This is also a neighbourhood of gay couples, living-together students, and many young professionals ---- the type of people who often break up angrily and throw each others possessions out on the street -- often expensive, high quality items. I have two espresso machines! So despite hardly spending a dime on anything, I still need to engage in an endless struggle to prevent my apartment from filling up with STUFF.

    1. Do the espresso machines work?

  5. I toss books that are in print. No matter how much I love them. I figure if they are in print, I can get another. My first edition of Voyage to Arctarus...or my signed Rider Haggard... well. Maybe it can find a place here...

  6. I have a lot of culling and organizing to do. I'm trying to reduce the paper by going digital (scanning or buying that way) with media. Still your last comment is the key one, "Or at least slow down your pace of acquisition."