Space, Stuff, Meaning

Spring cleaning seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Yard sales and garage sales have blossomed forth here and there in residential neighborhoods alongside the abundance of azaleas, peonies, and irises that nature has given us this year. Where once neat little garbage cans stood at solitary attention in front of the houses on trash pickup day, amorphous piles of household detritus now accumulate where driveways meet the street – patiently awaiting the trash fairy’s arrival. Yes, spring cleaning has become a yearly ritual of modern suburban living. All hail special trash pickup day!

I’ve been an especially dutiful observer of the ritual this year – given the cosmic coincidence in my life of a deep urge to simplify, a church whose work I respect preparing for its annual second-hand sale, and a pastor friend with a van big enough to haul my stuff from here to there. And so it is that I’ve been thinking a lot these days about stuff: why we accumulate it, what it means to us, what it’s like to hang onto it, and what it’s like to get rid of it.

I moved into the house where I presently reside from a two-bedroom apartment not too far away. Having been something of a vagabond in my early adult life I’d generally gravitated toward household furnishings that were compact or capable of quick disassembly in order to facilitate movement from place to place to place. It was rather humorous for a while how I had to spread my stuff around in order to make my new home seem just a little less vacant. Yes, my little glass-topped bistro table sure did look funny with a big dining room chandelier hanging over it! Oh, and I remember waking up on my futon in the middle of the night in my spacious bedroom and listening to the drip, drip, dripping of the dehumidifier echoing through the house from way down in the empty basement! Ah, what beautiful space the house had way back then!

Needless to say, that spaciousness didn’t last very long. After all, what do we do when we have any excess space? We fill it. I now had a covered back porch that was just crying out for a couple of big rattan armchairs – so I complied. I had a dining room that was pleading for the biggest table I could afford – and I listened. Oh, and when my sister was upgrading to a new bedroom set, I simply couldn’t pass up a great buy on a four-poster bed, side tables, and chests of drawers. This wasn’t just stuff, though. It had meaning. The rattan armchairs represented relaxed enjoyment of the beauty of the outdoors – the little patch of the outdoors that was now my very own domain. The dining room set stood for dinner parties with friends and family, discussions of the meaning of life over tea with diverse-minded individuals, a nurturing table for all who might enter. Yes, and the bedroom set signified stability. I wasn’t a young vagabond anymore and it was high time that the thirty year-old man that I was acquired some furniture that actually required two people to transport! Yeah, and what self-respecting thirty year-old invites a woman to, ahem, accompany him on his futon? No, I needed all of that stuff!

Flash forward twenty years. Those rattan chairs never really got as much use as I’d thought they would. The sunlight heats up the porch so quickly that there’s only an hour or so during summer mornings and evenings that the room is all that comfortable; and in the winter it’s just unbearably cold. Besides, the chairs ended up being a little too big and awkward for the space. My ex’s cat probably got more use out of them than anyone, may she rest in peace – the cat, I mean. Yeah, and I haven’t really had as many dinner parties as I thought I might have, either. Oh, and that bedroom set kind of soaked up the energy of a marriage that never quite lived up to its potential. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to once again lay my head down to sleep on a well-travelled futon in a far-too-spacious home that echoes with the dripping of water way down in the basement. It’s all just stuff, anyway. Chuck it all. Chuck it all. Unplug the dehumidifier and set it out by the curb for some scavenger to find. Settle into the silence – the deep, rich, spacious silence.

When my marriage ended and I was in the throes of grief – that bardo realm that I’ve spoken of in the past – I wondered how I would ever be able to survive the financial storm that was hovering just over the horizon. What would it take to settle the whole mess? What would it take to pay off the lawyers? Would I end up having to sell everything that I owned? Would I even have the right to sell everything that I owned? Just what did I own, anyway? In the throes of grief we don’t think all that clearly; and so it was that I pondered how much money I might get if I staged a garage sale and sold everything, lock, stock, and barrel – regardless of what might be said about who now owned that which I’d always thought of as mine. Just get rid of it all and start all over again. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than it is to ask permission. What a joyous rebirth that would be, I thought, to start all over again. At the time I figured that if I were lucky I might even make enough money to pay the mortgage for a couple of months. People just don’t want to spend that much money for someone else’s stuff. A lifetime of acquisition, hopeful years spent together, all that investment of time and money and energy and emotion and this is what it amounts to… Such was my state of mind at the time.  

I actually enjoy getting rid of stuff. I enjoy knowing that someone else is getting so much more use and enjoyment out of something than I ever did. That is far more enriching than whatever paltry sum of money I might receive if I were to sell it. That little glass-topped bistro table has reminded me numerous times over the years whenever I see it in its new home that my stuff can be so much more enjoyable when it is in the possession of others.  The space left behind is enriching as well. It provides a home in which stillness may dwell, and stillness has come to be that which I value the most at this time in my life. Now, if I could only remember that before I acquire anything else that I’ll ultimately end up giving away!


Image Credits

Rattan chair, by Chris 73 via:
Wicker chair abandoned at road side, by Peter Barr via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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