What shall we do with all of this stuff?
It’s yard sale weekend in our neighborhood. Signs are up and cars are circulating—people come from some distance for the event, and our neighbors will be selling their stuff Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then next Saturday the city offers a bulky item pick up. Put your unwanted, unsold items out on the curb Friday night. Anything that’s left over after another flurry of those looking for treasures in the trash comes through Friday night, the city carts off to the landfill on Saturday. The energy shifts in the neighborhood during these two weekends each year.
Last week the grocery store on the hill was decked out for their spring party. Welcome to the Wild West. The cashiers and stock clerks and sackers and even some of the managers were wearing cowboy hats and plaid shirts. A few had on cowboy boots. In the store where I can’t usually get down a single aisle without at least one employee effusively greeting me, making sure I’m finding everything okay, and wishing me a great day, the man stocking yogurt merely tipped his hat to me with a western swagger, “ma’am.”
By the time I got to the cash register, passing wagon wheel displays and more than one bin of hobby horses for sale, I was over stimulated. The store is massive to begin with, the lights bright, the aisles vast and full of products. Last Friday morning I felt like I had walked outside of any place comfortable, some altered reality. And in my haste to get out of there, I left a bag of groceries in the bottom of my cart.
At home I had the ingredients out and the mixer started when I realized that the bag with two boxes of tissues, the candles for my son’s birthday cake, and an extra-large mouthwash was missing. I had left it behind at the store where the salad bar was a chuck wagon and Wild West was spelled out in Coke and Diet Coke twelve packs overhead. I didn’t want to, but I drove back.
The story ends happily. A kind Samaritan had discovered the bag and turned it into customer service. I was home in under ten minutes, the store being on the horizon from our dining room window. So why did the episode make me fume?
It’s the management of stuff that I find to be one of the most exhausting trials of daily life. I am sentimental for the days when everything I owned fit in the back of my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle. But, to be completely fair, when stuff works, when it accommodates easily my activities, it’s, well, it’s like when words work. When words work, you’re less apt to notice them, wrapped up instead in the meaning they’re putting forth. Stuff is the same way—if the small, nonstick frying pan for my daughter’s egg with cheese is clean and put away where I expect it to be, making one of her go-to breakfasts on the fly on a weekday morning, provided there are eggs on the left side of the second shelf in the fridge and a slice of sharp cheddar in the cheese drawer, is a snap. Two spatulas in the cooking utensils drawer directly to the right of the cooktop mean that if one is in the dishwasher, the second is at the ready. I am grateful for such abundance.
And using and washing and putting away these things can be an act of meditation, a straightening up and maintaining of this tiny spot in the world that feels orderly and makes sense. So it is by my own inaction, when I neglect to prep for the next time or when I don’t put away the laundry or when I skip backing up my computer, updating the software and understanding what that means, or when I’m in such a hurry that I leave one bag of groceries in the bottom of the cart, when the stuff closes in, it takes on an importance I don’t want to give it.
It would seem, then, that stuff too requires a practice. It is the practice that seeks to stem the ebb and flow of stuff, to keep close and cared for all that is necessary and to reduce, reuse, and recycle, to borrow the parlance of the day, all that is no longer useful. And there’s more, of course, as we cull our belongings, for we, too, will participate in the neighborhood yard sale on Saturday morning. It’s important for me to remember not to bring anything into the house in the first place if it isn’t utterly useful or delightful. Or maybe I should use the tiny cargo space in my car as a measure of what I may bring home, harkening back to my VW days. Then again, last December I put the top down on a rare forty-degree day and got the Christmas tree home in that car!