My Relationship to Things
I have an XXL plain black cotton t-shirt that I’ve been meaning to get rid of, but in the past month alone, I’ve worn, washed, and ironed it at least four times. Usually, that’s a sign for me to keep something because a) it works and b) I use it regularly. The shirt is five sizes too big, has two pin–prick sized holes, and has faded into a non-fashionable washed black. It’s a Fruit of the Loom generic cotton tee that I got from a Goodwill for a design project many years ago and bought for a single US dollar that I paid for in quarters. I only wear it when I’m in a mood to drown in my clothes at home, or when I run out of exercise tops. It’s a sloppy shirt and the material is thinning, but I love wearing it.
A few years ago, I faced 5 years’ worth of an accumulation of things. I was working full time, about to start a Master’s program on the other coast, and was moving out of my third apartment in the Bay area. Furniture was the easiest to get rid of—big pieces are mentally manageable. Couch, mattress, rug, a dining table set, a couple of shelves. I took a few pictures and put these items up for sale on Craigslist. Easy. But the pileup of memorabilia and clothes was insane. I wasn’t a hoarder by any means, but almost everything I owned had a story. In both Oakland and San Francisco, I was surrounded by secondhand stores with a killer collection of stuff like sheets of transfer letters, disembodied mannequin parts, old copies of National Geographic, tubs full of printed photographs that depicted families and trips of people I didn’t know, plastic bags with loose beads, glitter, and a lot of other stuff that was mostly priced at check-out. Whether these things were to be used or were just found under charming circumstances, I kept a lot of it around. I was also in art school, and my artist friends were especially generous. They made things, and I kept them. In my home, if you pointed at something, I had a riveting story to tell about it. But when faced with the task of moving, I suddenly became apprehensive about my relationship to my stuff.
It was at that time I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. This book turned into a polarizing phenomenon. For those who question the legitimacy of an idea based on the media frenzy that ensues have an important point to make: the irony in a less-is-more philosophy that ultimately becomes a multiplier of things is a little too on the nose. A new language that produces a new way of daily living inevitably breeds more things to accommodate that. It’s useless to play dumb to the reality (and paradox) of material production in the name of ‘less.’ But Netflix show and unsettling cultural hegemony aside, Marie Kondo’s book was simply a good tool to have while moving. Kondo’s question, which in English has translated to the popular “Does it bring you joy?,” prompts you to direct that question to your items. Does this thing give me joy? I never understood how to answer that; the question was vague and discursive. Everything gave me joy, because everything was a portal to a memory. If I held this drawing that someone put time into making, of course it brought me joy. There’s a story behind it.
Asking myself if my things brought me joy proved a near impossible method to help get rid of my things, but there was another strategy I tried. It involves collecting everything you own from a certain category (i.e., craft supplies) into one giant pile in front of you, and then evaluating whether you wanted to keep the items in the pile or not. Kondo also underscores this fact: if you happen to forget something that doesn’t make it to the pile right then and there, that’s a telltale sign that you should probably get rid of that thing. It’s a little harsh and prescriptive, but it should do at least one of two things: rid you of something you probably didn’t need to keep, or force you to face your assumptions about your own stuff. Do you really need to keep this thing that you forgot you had? While moving, this exact practice changed the way I thought about all my belongings.
When I aggregated everything that was similar into a single space on the floor, I started to see a whole host of things that were too close to one another to want to keep multiples of. For example, I had at least three sets of pencils, when I needed a maximum of one. Should I lose a pencil, I had a backup set, and that was all I needed. But it’s already obvious to all of us consumers in the 21st century that buying things is rarely about needing. Of course I didn’t need all of these things, but at some point, I wanted them. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I had—it really wasn’t that bad. But just seeing my stuff laying around in front of me made it clear how little attention so many of my own things received from me. On a regular basis, I barely thought about most of the items I had. They were mostly tucked away in places that I could forget about. That was overwhelming.
During my move, I grew to become reactionary to anything that signaled excess in my own life. I removed my nose ring and two of my five ear piercings. I looked into getting my three small hand tattoos removed. I took half of my clothes to consignment stores, donated the other half, and gave away nearly all of my art supplies to people from the school I went to. I didn’t want to have things anymore, but I knew I wasn’t going to try to live minimally, either. Any dogma, including minimalism, can prove to be problematic. I would also just grow insanely bored of always dressing up a crisp white shirt. Not knowing how to proceed yet knowing I needed the space to figure it out, I kept only the items I needed, plus more. Not one plate, but five, because I loved having people over. Not just a single pair of pants, but all my neutral clothes that I could still create variety from by using differently. In my head, I knew that it would be impossible for me to escape the cycle of always attaining new things. Ideally, I want to live in a forced uniform—but given the option, even the cut of a plain, versatile shirt can become boring for me after a while. Still—that huge, slow shift in perception is foundational to my beginning to figure out: what is my relationship to things?
“Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am)” by Barbara Kruger, 1987
Since then, I’ve had a much harder time deciding to buy things, especially things I already have, use, and love. This hasn’t prevented me from still wanting so many things. A stationery store is exciting to me, and it’s not because of a marketing gimmick that might be analyzed as a brand narrativizing the idea of stationary into a story about productivity or something. A stationery store is exciting to me simply because the prospect of buying new pens feels great, and new things feel great. This shouldn’t be groundbreaking. In 1987, Barbara Kruger criticizes this consumer obsession with buying in her work I Shop Therefore I Am. The title of this piece is the bulk of the work, and it’s both hard and easy to think about. Hard because it’s difficult to reckon with my socially-intrinsic reliance on things in order to live (rather than to survive). Easy...because it’s true. I can’t imagine not being happy if I buy a new set of mugs to drink my coffee in. What is the problem with that?
There isn’t one. It’s not the act of buying in and of itself that’s problematic. A social pattern that reveals an over-reliance on stuff is exactly that—a social pattern. In large (or micro) numbers, things can quickly gain or lose meaning. If I’m super excited about a new mug, I have a captivating story: maybe it’s part of a modular ceramic set, and I’ve reserved this cup for darker coffees because it feels too heavy for tea… and then we get into the specifics of why I don’t drink tea out of cups that are too heavy. Having a quirky story about mugs and tea can sound like I care about this thing—and to a certain extent, I do. On the other hand, if an algorithmic feed of 500+ people are posting about new mugs, it will feel like witnessing society at large engage in what feels like consumerist herd behavior. What neither of these cases tell, though, is the lifespan of this mug. Not just ‘Do I still use this thing?,’ because use alone is a weak argument for keeping something, but—Does it exist beyond a single moment?. Does the mug exist beyond my one-time storytelling of it, and does it exist beyond the post? Prior to laying down everything I owned on the floor, I wasn’t actively thinking about a lot of the things I had, which also means they definitely weren’t being used. Their sentimental value was shelved until I was forced to look at them. That has proven to be a potent reminder that when I think about buying something, I have to think about my commitment to it. All of these things exist in my name, and no matter how small, I have to be held accountable for them.
After moving, I can’t not have a relationship to my things. A year later, when I left New York and moved back to Kuwait, I spent the first three days home going through everything I had before I started college. I was more experienced that time around—knowing exactly whether or not I would care about my items, and what their individual futures would look like under my responsibility. Big items with sentimental value were hardest to part with, but I had to do it anyway. I don’t want to hold onto something simply because it carries sentimental value. That sounds cold, but I keep smaller memorabilia like the cards or notes I’ve received from friends and family over the years. They are not only harbingers of the messages they literally carry, but also remind me of the things that I didn’t keep—the items that I can’t show for anymore. I can’t tell you exactly about all the stuff I have now, as I probably hold hostage some travel toiletry bags I don’t use and a flimsy iPhone tripod that I could really go without. In fact, it’s been at least three years since I’ve actively re-evaluated my relationship to the things I have. It wasn’t until I was ironing a shirt with holes in it that I remembered—I’ve been meaning to throw it out. After one last wear, I left it in a hotel room today, just before check out.