stuff and us
Let me say at the outset that I believe in stuff. You know, the whatever we pull out of the ground, get from growing things and shear off live animals to make up the things we own and use. I believe we need houses to live in, chairs to sit on, clothes to cover us. I believe we need sinks and pots, pillows and pans, knives and pockets, shelves and shoes. I believe also that we need tchotchkes of some sort and to some degree, for it is our choice and display of unnecessary (discretionary) stuff that defines and expresses who we are even more than the styles and design of our necessary (essential) stuff.
So while I may be a minimalist when it comes to stuff (except books, and most recently their distant cousin, pocketbooks), I believe in stuff. Which is why watching now how we are learning to deal with our stuff, or more accurately, our loss of stuff and our limited ability to accumulate more stuff, offers a fascinating study of raw, radical human identity.
What happens when we can't define ourselves by or drape ourselves in new stuff? What happens when all we own is all we have to express our selves by? Who are we when we are stripped of the proclamation of self through stuff? The answer seems to be, "I" is increasingly found in "we". That is, "I" find myself less in my things and more in my people; less in my accumulated symbols and more in my collection of community. We seem to be turning to each other, our past and our present close circles of family and friends. They are enduring, and hopefully do not size us up and measure us by our stuff, but by our being.
So in hard times the old becomes golden, and the home becomes haven. Family become friends again and we find companionship and entertainment in the close, cheap and mundane. And that is good!
Video games, for example, have been selling like hotcakes. NPR reported in December 2008 that "overall video game sales are up 43 percent from this time in 2007". (Hotcakes, btw, were a hot commodity in America in the 1700s. Made of cornmeal and fried in animal fat, they were good home-cooked food sold at church functions and county fairs. They were a way to bring home-ness to the public domain.)
The movie business is booming, too. Despite netflix, movies on demand, downloads and the old-fashioned rent a flick, in these trying times, more people than ever are plunking down $10 or so to sit in a dark room with strangers and friends to share an experience that sometimes takes them far away, and sometimes powerfully hits home. Ticket sales are up sixteen percent over last year, according to the NYT. We may no longer be a nation united by broadcast tv or Sunday night's The Wonderful World of Disney, but we are still united by the movies.
I am far from the first to note that in tough economic times we turn toward each other and away from the ephemeral limitations of stuff. Our senses sharpen and we reject the veneer of modern sociability for the more durable, real pleasure of people and stories. Having little money, or worrying about whatever money we have, makes use realize that we are so much more than the numbers on our ledgers. We are not worth less, nor is our value diminished, because our accounts are lighter.
Rather, we realize, we are worth more. Our costly gifts become ourselves, our time, our attention and affection. So much more valuable than that expensive bag. For that gift, that jewel, that momentarily joy-making closet fodder will most likely cease to bring joy once the warmth of its transaction has fled.
So, it is here we learn that less-is-more, and enjoy the presence of each other.