I just had some heartwarming reminders of how wealthy I am and how rich most of us are, without even thinking about it much of the time. First, there was this odd item I came across on a fashion/shopping site that startled me. “R13 Denim & Plaid Combo Vest.”
Available at Saks Fifth Avenue for $695. Yes. Now, imagine this: one could buy a denim shirt + a plaid one at the local thrift store for a combined hundredth of the price (yes, it can still be done, with relatively little hunting), tear off the sleeves and lower portions of both, layer them together, and give the remaining $680+ to the poor, many of whom can’t afford a single one of the thrift store shirts. If a few people who wanted to buy the SFA garment did the latter instead of, or even in addition to, buying the Saks combo for themselves, what might the world look like then? Better dressed at more price points, I’ll wager. My personal taste would argue for not doing any of the ripping and faux-aging of clothes, as I live a life wherein my clothes get naturally beat up more than quickly enough for my taste, but that’s irrelevant to this train of thought.
Am I declaring Saks Fifth Avenue or people who shop there terrible? Certainly not. For one thing, I know plenty of people of moderate-to-massive wealth who are incredibly thoughtful and generous in their philanthropy, regardless of how they spend on themselves. Today I have been wearing a brand name denim dress, still in pristine condition, that I bought at one of the aforementioned thrift stores for $5 USD several years ago because someone well-to-do enough to own and no longer need it donated it while it was still in great shape for further use. Even major businesses, those often characterized as heartless, soulless, and solely dollar driven, can be usefully attentive to the needs of the larger world at times, and if they didn’t make those large amounts of money in the first place, how would they give away any such amounts of largesse?
Am I ranting against materialism because I despise wealth or hate acquisitive people? Far from it. If you’ve been around this blog for more than two minutes, you know I’m a highly dedicated magpie myself, loving Things and Stuff, and sometimes, the shinier and more pointlessly beautiful the better. Nature herself is great at promoting such things, and if you can open your eyes and mind to the view, even the urban ‘wasteland’ or the middle of a massive landfill can offer amazing perspectives on color, texture, pattern, and any number of other sensory attractions that comprise what a person might perceive as beautiful and even useful. But why should it all be consigned to the landfill, then, or just as sadly, to hidden stashes and caches of forgotten junk in our homes and offices and storage spaces? One person’s trash, as it’s said….
On top of the commercial reminder I fell upon today, my friend Switters recently put up a couple of fantastic posts about dealing with the aftermath of getting, keeping, and trying to part with large quantities of the Stuff of life, and I was moved to revisit my own experiences of that process. His commenter Jenny’s recommendations are outstanding. I’ve done most of what she suggests myself, and with great success. Somewhere along the line I imagine I’ve posted about it here, too, but it’s never an outdated topic among us rich folk, we who have anything more than barely enough. And I have learned—most importantly, for me—that decluttering and reviewing my belongings and responsibilities is an ongoing process. I’ll never stop needing to ‘rinse and repeat‘ periodically so that the big buildup never gets overwhelming for me. My original successful foray into the practice has made every subsequent one that much easier and more desirable.
I did learn from my mother and other influential family members and friends that no matter how high the sentimental value of a Thing, it’s increased rather than diminished by use. If Mom had kept her best china and silver like untouchable trophies for Special Occasions only, I’d have been terrified of using them, and I would have missed out on innumerable events that gave them additional mnemonic value through my own experiences. So what if a plate gets chipped or a sterling spoon gets bent? That in itself may add story, character, and relevance to the object. Otherwise, it’s just taking up physical and psychic space while waiting for Specialness that might never happen. So the Venetian wine decanter here holds mouthwash right now, because it comes off of the shelf where I forget it that it even exists to occupy the bathroom counter where, if I’m honest, it’ll get seen and enjoyed much more: every morning and evening at the least.
Being a highly visual person, while decluttering I’ve clung particularly to the strategy of documentation-before-disposition and photographed—digitally only, to avoid adding photos to the Stuff already requiring management (talk about Unintended Consequences!)—every little thing in great detail, preferably ‘in situ‘ or as I remembered loving or using it most, before parting with it. What I discovered: out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of things I’ve given away or sold or discarded in the years since my first great household purge, I can think of literally two or three that I’ve ever subsequently missed, let alone replaced. The latter, upgraded, of course. I can barely remember any times I’ve even actually looked at those memory-jogging photos. Knowing that they’re available should I become wistful is enough. For a sentimental softie like me, that was a shocker. Definitely a lesson well worth learning.
A peripheral item that turned out to be helpful to me is my recollection of what meant a great deal to me in years past: my grandmothers were both dedicated to the idea that anything they wanted us grandkids to treasure, they gave us when they were still around to tell us the stories and help us appreciate the context, so that there was a much greater chance we’d invest equivalent interest in their beloved belongings. I don’t even still own all of those items; much as I appreciated the gifts, it was the interaction that gave them the most meaning, and so the memories are the most significant part of the package. Any of those things that were part of that kind of transaction I in turn passed along to treasured people—niece, nephews, beloved friends, neighbors, and former students who became family—with the same story attached, and my own layer of the experience added on. The delight with which these are received is the center of the gift, and makes it irrelevant if they are, in turn, passed on to yet other dear ones, because the items become connectors of history and community that far surpass the inherent value of any of the objects.
That was the bottom line, for me. The realization that what I have loved most in any object is its emotional content and its connection to important people and events in my life makes the keeping of the objects less necessary than the honoring of the love they’ve contained. I will continue to buy, accept, and bear the caretaker burdens of Things. But I think it’s safe to say that the collection will continue to be more sharply curated, limited, and specialized with the passing of time and changes in my values and occupations, too. I have found that some of the beauty in objects arises from their not having cost much or taken a lot of care over the years. I love having my drawing and writing tools organized and readily available, but I don’t much care to store them in lead crystal vases and leather-bound boxes. A clean soup tin does very nicely. And in a pleasing nod to magpie-ism, tin cans are shiny. For the double win.