Posted in Family

The Curious Significance of STUFF

Yesterday I was stowing some papers in our fire-proof safe, and I paused for a moment to contemplate the odd assortment of items tucked into it.  In theory, an inventory of this little fire-proof box should answer the question people sometimes ask: “If your house were on fire (and the PEOPLE were all safe) what item would you grab on your way out?”  In actual fact, however, the things in the safe aren’t the items I’d grab on my exit in such an event.  Sure, they’re “important” in their own way–passports and social security cards and birth certificates and court custody orders and even my sailing certifications–but everything in that safe could actually be replaced. It would be a hassle, of course, but nothing in that box is truly irreplaceable.

my Irish great-grandma’s shamrock–older than I by almost a decade…

The burning-house query operates on the underlying assumption that there’s some stuff from which each of us couldn’t bear to be separated, and asks us to contemplate what stuff that would be. I’ve had one opportunity to answer the question in practice–though not on quite as tight a timeline as that proposed by the burning-house scenario.

After I left my first husband, he gave me a four-hour window in which to return to the house and round up my things. I had the advantage of being able to think it through in advance (as well as the assistance of several gentlemen co-workers and their trucks)–and the personal guideline that I wasn’t going to take away anything that wasn’t strictly mine.  What I came away with that day were my own books and journals; clothing and personal items; my lathe & pen-turning tools; my Scuba gear, snow-shoes, and hiking backpack; four pieces of furniture that had belonged to my great-grandparents; and (with the agreement of the soon-to-be-Ex) one of the two beds we owned.  A few other items were already out of the house and decorating my office–my favorite wall-hangings, and my shamrock plant, the seeds for which my mother bought on her 1965 trip to Ireland, as a gift for my Irish great-grandmother.

After fourteen years of jointly accumulating stuff–from camping equipment, canoe and tent-trailer to the furnishings and decor of the house we’d owned and improved for a decade–none of that community-property stuff seemed more important to me than simply getting out.  Despite the love and attention and emotional investment that had gone into hundreds of items I’d added to that household over the years, none of that stuff passed the grab-it-on-my-way-out test of attachment, or the test of being worth-fighting-for.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. My thesaurus doesn’t have an antonym for the word “packrat,” but whatever that nonexistent word would be, it’s a word that should be applied to me.  I have this almost compulsive urge to continually streamline, simplify, consolidate–and get rid of things.

several decades’ worth of journals… All digitized and stored in the “clouds”

“Cloud computing”–digitizing and storing things online–is a concept that seems positively made for me.  Where previously I had shelves and drawers and boxes and storage cupboards full of journals, yearbooks, photo albums, movies, and books, the digital copies of those things are now all accessible from the little iPad that fits in my purse.  So I suppose if the house were burning down, I’d grab my precious Mac and the iPad.

Although even if I didn’t manage that, I could log in anywhere to retrieve everything stored out there in the “cloud”… I’m becoming increasingly “portable”–and our next move should be far easier than the last.  (Which is just as well, since we’re actually intending to leave the continent when the kids are through with school here in Idaho, and move back to my husband’s native Hawai’i.)

Come to that, our last move was easier than the previous one, thanks to the “emergency yard sale” we staged as our house headed into foreclosure and our overall financial situation crashed around our ears…  Anticipating a move to a much smaller living situation (and trying to keep our power turned on and our cupboards from going bare in the meantime), we offloaded everything from furniture and wall hangings to movies and (for the first time in my life) books.  To my oddly anti-packrat nature, an intensely satisfying “purge” of extra stuff.

©Mark Parisi, image from

My recurring urge to purge makes for an interesting dynamic in our home, because my husband definitely does fit the “packrat” category.  A few months back he was pawing and rifling through his bedside drawer, muttering over and over: “I know it’s in here somewhere.  It’s got to be here somewhere…”  I inquired what he was searching for, but he just went on digging and muttering the mantra, broken at last with a triumphant “HA! I knew it was here!” Intensely curious, I asked one more time what it was that he had finally found.

“The bottom of the drawer!” he announced with a proud grin. Later that day (with his permission) I staged an intervention, tackling the drawer with a garbage can. It was jam-packed with sales receipts. For things we’ll never be returning–like groceries and tattoos.

He generally doesn’t object to a purge–he just can’t bear to do it himself.  He leaves the room and busies himself elsewhere whenever I go into clean-out mode and start tackling drawers and closets with my give-away bin and a garbage can.

I should take a moment for a disclaimer…  You might expect, given my habit of regularly getting rid of stuff, that my house would be spotless, spit-shined, and utterly uncluttered. Not so! For one thing (for reasons unknown even to myself), I’m more often moved to target drawers, cupboards, closets, boxes, bins, and storage units than the things that are out in the open.  For another thing, three kids live here (and a pack of teenage boys spend a lot of time here)–and it’s okay with us that the place looks as though we’re LIVING here.

At any given time, you might find the living room floor dotted with segregated piles of Legos for some building project, the coffee tables invisible beneath Beyblade battle arena, Bakugan pieces, doll clothes, stacks of kids’ books, an in-progress game of Monotony (pardon me–Monopoly), Crayola markers, and pieces of unfinished kid-art…  The corner of the living room has been draped in blankets for some time now, as the semi-permanent “tent-fort” in which Christian has taken up residence in preference to his actual bed.  And because we have no one to “impress” but ourselves, we don’t ask the kids to interrupt their kid-living or clear away its evidence for the sake of a clear coffee table.

But back to the subject at hand…  Given the tendency on my part to offload stuff, any item that still remains with me through several years’ worth of clearing-the-decks episodes must be something that tugs on me in some way.  I may have a tendency toward offloading stuff, but I’m not immune to stuff-attachments either.

I just went wandering through the house (not a time-consuming stroll, as we live in a double-wide trailer now) with this question in mind, and I conclude that the things of which I’m most fond aren’t the useful things.

Willow Tree carving mother with childrenThere’s a bowl of dried rosebuds from the first summer we were married, when Keoni used to cut a bud from our backyard bush every morning for me to tuck into a pigtail.  (On the left side, according to Hawai’ian culture, signaling that I’m married.)

And the Willow Tree carving of a mother with two little ones, which I bought when my own Squirts were precisely that size and shape.

A memento booklet I made when my favorite poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, gave a reading here in town. Her reading coincided with my daughter’s sojourn in Neonatal Intensive care, and the book’s pockets contain items from the hospital and some of my own verse, along with Nye’s “Different Ways to Pray”…

Great-Grandpa’s camera, my frog, and Great-Grandma’s teaching certificate hanging behind
prayer beads
prayer beads & hiking hat

There’s my great-grandmother’s New York teaching certificate, dated 1913, and my great-grandfather’s camera, which he took with him on a tour of Europe about the same time.  A little frog with a book, which my parents gave me. The turquoise prayer beads Keoni strung for me, and my straw “hiking hat,” which I like to wear when we go adventuring.

These are all things to which I’m attached, and which won’t be subject to my clearing-out impulses.  But if it really came down to it, I’d be content enough to have photos of these things if I lost the things themselves. (And I guess I’ve just taken care of that by including pictures here…)  There really aren’t that many things from which I couldn’t bear to be separated.  Only two items actually come to mind.

The first, I wouldn’t be in danger of leaving behind–it’s my wedding ring.  A traditional Hawai’ian-style band, with “Keoni” engraved among maile leaves on the outside, and “We will be amazed” (from the A.A. Ninth Step Promises) on the inside.  I wear it with my great-great-great-grandma’s diamond–one of a set of three, with the other two on my mother’s and my sister’s hands.

Toots & Co.

And the second, my battered teddy bear, Toots, about whom I write in “(Used) Lions & Bunnies & Bears, oh my!”  And yes, Toots is definitely a “who” rather than an “it” (despite his puzzling physiology), which is no doubt why I can’t imagine leaving him behind.  That raggedy item has a little piece of my soul in him… not in a creepy Voldemort-black-magic-horcrux kind of way, but in an I’ve-loved-him-till-he’s-real kind of way.  Toots is the stuff I would grieve if I lost him.

In contrast to my stuff-collecting window of time at the end of my previous marriage, Keoni experienced the loss of everything at the end of his. He exited his last marriage by ambulance after hanging himself, and when he left the hospital a few weeks later, he had literally the clothes on his back, his eyeglasses, and the iPod he’d had in his pocket.  (He jokes that I married him for his money–he’s sure he had thirty-seven cents in his pocket.)  Despite the court-order requiring his Ex to relinquish his personal items, he never got so much as his wallet back.  And while there are a number of sentimental items he dearly wishes he had, we have proof that Life goes on without the stuff.

wedding rings
The ring I love–but the GUY I need!

Keoni has been putting away a clean load of laundry while I write, and (not knowing what I’m writing about), he just paused in the doorway to offer the bemused observation: “You know, those towels have been with us a long time. When I see those striped towels hanging there, I just know I’m home.”

So there we have it–we DO get attached to Stuff, even seemingly insignificant stuff like our towels.

But we also know that “Home” can be recreated in a new place, or with new Stuff.  At the end of the day (literally), I’ll be HOME if I fall asleep with his arms around me–wherever we are.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

32 thoughts on “The Curious Significance of STUFF

  1. Yes we do get attached to stuff!!! Often, the attachment is not to the actual thing, but what it represents for us. I am in the process of purging and trying to make room. I find as my life changes that things I used to care so much for mean nothing to me now. Time to go…. :) Angie


  2. I have to hand it to you, Kana. You have a handle on this whole ‘thing’ situation. I’ve said this recently that other than my family members, I’d be A-OK with leaving everything. Except, I’d be so sad if anything happened to my books. Go figure. Anyway, I’ve been purging for three years and still have CRAP I haven’t unloaded.


  3. This post speaks to me in so many ways. After leaving home when I was 20 I, too, literally left with the clothes on my back. It completely baffled my friends that I took nothing with me. To me it was just stuff. I can get a job and purchase more stuff. I only get one life and I took that with me. Thanks for this post, Kana.


  4. This post is interesting timing for me, as a friend asked me where my “fire bag” was. We live in the mountains and the wildfire season has begun already, everyone is supposed to have the important things packed up & ready to go at a moment’s notice. I have tons of sentimental “stuff” from past generations (and present) but I wouldn’t know where to start! Rich just looks at me and says “it’s only stuff”.


    1. A “fire bag”–what a fascinating idea! Truly puts the theoretical question into practice, doesn’t it? ;)


  5. How did you get all the journals and stuff digitised? Did you painstakingly scan all the pages, or what? I’ve been culling recently because of getting married and moving into my husband’s (much smaller) digs. And it’s true–those things Take Up Space!


    1. It was more painstaking than that, I’m afraid–I typed a transcript of every journal. And then added digital photos of some of the pages (particularly where I’d been sketching, or “scrapbooking” in the journal pages) and the covers. Scanning would be a great option (though also time-consuming) if only I had access to a scanner. ;)


  6. I can totally relate! I, too, am anti-packrat and my husband not so much. I run with the phrase “haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it” to which my husband cringes at the thought of wanting it again some day. I say by the time you want to use it again, there will be an upgraded model you’ll want to replace it with anyway. I have become better, however, as I think of the financial savings of not having to replace items you once owned. We’ve balanced each other out a bit, like we do in so many life situations, but if I need/want something out of our storage unit, I usually ask him to go and get it for me. I can’t stand the sight of all that stuff just sitting around.


    1. I love your point about balancing one another! (In many aspects of life!) This is true–I don’t toss things with quite such the wild abandon I used to. And I, too, avoid the storage sheds for the exact same reason. I send Keoni, or our teenager, on those expeditions. ;)

      Keoni adds this note: He’s better suited to find stuff in the shed because HE knows where it is. He has an ever-evolving “filing system,” he insists–based on the idea that if I need him to find stuff, I won’t be able to get rid of HIM. (As if!) I reminded him that the mission is already thoroughly accomplished in our kitchen, where I can find exactly two things: my coffee mug, and the coffee pot! ;)


  7. My husband and I are the opposite of you and Keoni. I keep everything, he throws away cards with the wrapping paper. A few years ago my sister stole all 19 family photo albums so I had NO pictures of myself as a child, or of my parents. I mourned the loss. After my mom died last month, I found a few dozen photos in the bottom of one of her boxes. Instead of keeping them all, I shared them with 4 other family members (not my sister, needless to say!) and kept only a couple that I had framed. They are just stuff. EVERYTHING is just stuff. Just save each other.


    1. Isn’t it interesting how we can evolve in our feelings about the STUFF? Yours is a most moving example… :)


  8. What a beautiful story Kana! I think I would miss things most that involved memories of my children at different stages. There was a time or two in our past that we struggled financially and I was so worried to possibly lose our house, our first home, our home where we raise our children, because of the memories that we created there. But in reality I would rather have my boys and my husband safe with me than have the house. Things are just things and can be replaced, memories stay with us forever!


  9. Great post! I am also a purger, married to somewhat of a packrat. it’s an interesting dynamic, but it seems to bring a balance that can work.


  10. I am a die hard packrat. There are heaps of things that I have with sentimental value — including shelves of journals and the like — that I am incapable of getting rid of. I also cannot get rid of my books, which makes moving fun.

    Great post. This makes me want to do a little survey of the things I have — a lot of it is trinkets I bought in various countries that have value through the associated memories. I don’t own much that is actually worth much money. Or anything.


    1. I was right there with you on “keeping books”–for thirty-five years! That recent yard sale was the first time EVER in my biblio-hoarding life that I had let go of ANY of them… And I never expected to be satisfied with e-Books–but having discovered that I can still scribble & highlight in the e-Books (as I do in the printed ones), I confess I’m a convert now. Not that I’m intending to offload ALL my printed books–now or ever–but I will say that our NEXT move will involve a lot fewer boxes of them… ;)


  11. A beautiful post. One of my manic symptoms is to purge. I’ve given away or destroyed things I now wish I’d kept—like every scrap of evidence that I once wrote a novel that *almost* got published, or years of journals that would come in handy now that I’m writing a memoir. It doesn’t help that I can’t remember a lot of these purges–there’s just a niggling hole where *something* used to be. But, like you, I don’t really need that stuff. What I need are the people I love and the means by which to accumulate the essentials along the way.


  12. When I was a teenager, I asked my mother, “If the house caught fire some night, would you want me to grab the oil painting your grandmother did or your sterling flatware?” Her reply: “Forget everything else, just get yourself out.” I’m a pack rat, as she was, but I can also do without it.


  13. Wonderful post! I am the packrat, my husband not so much. We’re starting to feel quite encumbered by all the stuff we’ve acquired. After we donated two large boxes of books to Goodwill, some arsonist set fire to the store and everything that was not burned was ruined by water. I felt so bad about the needless loss of those books that it put a stop to my purging for the time being.


  14. Brilliant post. Stuff is only as important as what it represents. And if the thing it represents is imprinted indelibly in your heart, then you’re golden, no matter what.


  15. When I split with my ex, the thing that actually made me leave (or should I say FLEE!) the house that night was an argument over who would take a particular set of minatures for some roleplay games we’d been playing. He’d bought them, but I’d labouriously painted them and made them purdy.

    In the end, I didn’t take the miniatures, but its funny what seems so important at the time and later isn’t. When I went by the house a week later with my mum, sister and a massive van in tow I didn’t look twice at the minatures. They’d stopped being important.

    I even left the bed that I’d slowly inched into debt to pay for. I picked up things like my computer, all hard copy prints of my stories, my teddy bear gifted to me on my third birthday. It was a real eye opener in terms of what was important and what just wasn’t and I’m grateful for it in hindsight.

    Wonderful post, Kana, as always! x


  16. Kana, somehow I just KNEW the direction you were headed in all along–Keoni! I really enjoyed all the chuckles over all the STUFF–especially the shamrock plant and the items from your grandparents and the $.37 in Keoni’s pocket! But still, I knew where you were headed, because of following you for months on this blog. Wonderful sharing and funny and joyful!


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