Managing Possessions: Do You Own Things, or Do They Own You?

Liora wrote a post about letting go of certain possessions and at the end, she asked her readers if anyone had ever done a massive unloading of keepsakes and if so, was that decision regretted.

An excellent question.

My relationship with “stuff” has long been ambivalent. When I was an adolescent, sometimes I received gifts for my trousseau, or hope chest, that were quite lovely but that I just could not embrace. These items took space in my bedroom and I felt claustrophobic; I also felt owned by them because a loved one had given them to me and not to keep them felt like an act of rejection. Since I had no intentions of following a traditional life path (i.e., getting married anytime in the next decade), the accumulation of such items was not as useful as it would be for someone destined to set up a household. The tension I felt arose from generational and personality differences. My parents’ generation had a tradition of women marrying young; that was simply what was expected of women, not college or career. My mother was preparing me as she had been prepared. Yet I was growing up in the feminist era and received the message that my life could include other choices. Also, what feels homey to one personality may feel too austere (or too cluttered) to another.

When I was 17 I dated my first love, an earthy granola-type who shared an interest in simplicity and non-materialism. That year I wrote a letter to my parents attempting to explain my position about owning stuff and asking them to consider giving less of it to me at Christmas. This resulted in hurt feelings. Because really, a gift is something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance; a present. Learning to accept gifts graciously is an important social skill. One doesn’t dictate to the giver. Many people take pleasure bestowing presents that are symbolic and special to them. Of course, people also give gifts that are related to wishes the recipient expressed. The essential response to all gifts is a sincere “thank you.” You may not want or like the gift, but your expressed gratitude is for the intention, not the item. This person thought of you and make an effort to express it in the form of a present. That merits a warm and courteous response. I kept unwanted items for many years, until I learned that just because I am given a gift does not mean I must keep it. Likewise, if you give a present to another, you must release your interest in what becomes of it. Once you give something away, you have no claim on it and no business inquiring what the recipient did with it. To be a true gift, there must be no emotional or material strings attached.

Anyway, for most of my twenties I carried the trousseau items with me when I moved from place to place, which was frequent. I made very little income at my job and worked two jobs to get by. I often lived in cramped quarters (one room in a flat) and so could not take the possessions out to use. They remained boxed in closets wherever I lived. I fretted that I would live a life “owned by my possessions.” I feared losing them somehow in a fire or by theft, and I did not like the control I gave to that fear. I frequently purged things as well. When I was planning to return to school full-time and needed to pay off debt, I realized I would not need my childhood furniture while living in a dorm. So I sold the white French provincial desk and chair and other things to raise money. Other times I donated unwanted items to Goodwill. If I haven’t worn an outfit for a year, it gets donated. The small quarters in which I lived and the frequency of moving made owning and lugging possessions onerous; purging was one way to manage this. (The challenge is to limit acquisition of stuff as well, which is something I’ve not been as skilled at.)

I cherished owning books and correspondence. I had hundreds of books and two trunks of papers: old letters, yearbooks, and so on. These I lugged everywhere that I lived in New York state. But in late 1993 and January of 1994, I made a decision: I needed to move out of state, far away from Syracuse, to a place with a better economy, more graduate school choices, and better weather. It was imperative that I break out of my small and safe existence, or else my life would wither. I researched where I might move: New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas were contenders. I chose Austin, because it had similarities to upstate New York in terrain (lakes, trees, hills), numerous schools, a diverse and more liberal population, and a booming economy. Texas also had a number of large cities; if I couldn’t make it in Austin, there was Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Corpus Christi, and Lubbock to try. New Mexico and Arizona had fewer major metropolitan areas. It didn’t hurt that my brother and sister-in-law were also in Austin attending graduate school. I would know at least two people there.

The next step was the move. I researched what size of U-haul I would need to rent to move all of my belongings to Austin, Texas. I gulped when I learned it would cost $4,000. I did not have that much money on hand. I wanted to move with a couple thousand dollars in savings, and I didn’t even have that. If I waited until I had the money to cover the move and have savings, it would take several years. So I made a decision: all my furniture could be reacquired in Austin. That left the small possessions, and my task was to decide what to keep and ship to my brother.

That frigid winter I sorted through old yearbooks and decided to keep only my high school senior yearbook. I perused old love letters and decided to toss them. I did keep journals. I liberated a lot of old correspondence. I decided to keep my Christmas ornaments (many being gifts from my parents) and shadowboxes my father had made. I kept childhood stuffed animals but ditched the handmade woven napkins. Alas, I could not bring all my books: I owned six bookcases six feet tall, with books double-shelved on them. I chose the books I cherished (mostly childhood) and some from college. The rest I sold to a local bookstore for a criminally small amount. In the end, I shipped 20 boxes to my brother in Austin, and this included clothing, kitchen items, books, keepsakes, and other essentials. I also packed my little car to the ceiling with other items I could not ship (my stereo, some breakables). Then I headed out to my life. I have no regrets, because I gained so much more than I sacrificed.

One other possession of emotional importance I gave up right after the move. I’ve mentioned before a 10-year correspondence with a penpal that was also a type of journaling. I would photocopy my letters to him, and I also saved what he sent me. After the move, I got thinking that perhaps if I died suddenly I would not want others to read these letters. They went into the trash. There were thousands and thousands of pages, at least three photocopy paper-sized boxes. Here was my reasoning: I reckoned that I hung on to them because I harbored a fantasy of immortality through my words. Maybe someday I would be significant and famous, and these letters would be read by a biographer. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this fantasy. I just didn’t want to live by it, because lugging the weight of these letters interfered with living.

Occasionally I do wonder if tossing those letters or my old yearbooks was a good decision. Then I realize that’s my ego grappling with the Big Questions of significance and what happens to the memory of me after I die. I have a heart-to-heart talk with myself about the fact that living happens here and now, and ultimately these possessions are insignificant. The papers will crumble, the trinkets will break. Nothing lasts forever. My peace with the decision is reaffirmed.

We don’t live in a McMansion, and we move fairly often; it’s a fact of our life. Streamlining possessions is therefore vital. Husband and I must be careful about the keepsakes we collect. And there simply isn’t enough room to inherit generational tokens that others might like to see carried on in the family. I periodically sort through possessions and decide what to keep. I see little point in keeping items boxed in closets simply because they were owned by a family member in the past. It’s just stuff. I won’t take it with me when I die. If it isn’t useful to me now, if I don’t have the space to put it out, and if it isn’t deeply symbolic and meaningful to me to possess it, then it belongs somewhere else.

The inheritance we leave is the effect we’ve had on other people’s lives and hearts, not the things we owned. This is a realization I hope to impart to my daughter.

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7 Comments on “Managing Possessions: Do You Own Things, or Do They Own You?”

  1. Brenda Says:

    What a fresh perspective! I’ve long struggled with the acquisition of things and the need to release what I don’t need. I may just have to print this off and post it in my house as a reminder. 🙂

    You could rival the Clean Sweep guy in your rationale of why to let go of possessions! 😉

  2. acm Says:

    yeah, it’s funny how you need less and less to feel tethered to warm memories — every decade or so I go back through old boxes and end up compressing them another increment. all of childhood down to two boxes, all of highschool down to a few yearbooks, all of graduate school now in one file box… it’s like memory, with more and more of your life available, and thus less space for each volume — a year representing a thinner and thinner slice, where once it was big beyond comprehension.

    the occasional old thing found in a drawer makes me smile. but even there, sometimes once is enough. best is when it can be passed along…

  3. Liora Says:

    I hated my high school and college years so I really wish I could feel free to throw away the yearbooks. But I always wonder if something will change, if I’ll wonder about a certain student or whatever. So I hang onto them. They’re in a box in storage.

    My family did the “hope chest” thing, too. It’s really from another time, when the man didn’t just get the bride, but he also scored a bunch of material things with her.

    I’m getting more and more zen in my desire for a home that has empty space to “breathe.” When I look around, things look lighter and I *feel* lighter not seeing all of the stuff.

  4. M Sinclair Stevens Says:

    Wow! This post speaks to me. First of all, because I live in Austin and didn’t realize that you once did. Second of all, because, I moved around a lot when I was young but not so much as an adult. Although I enjoyed purging items before a move for many of the reasons you mention, I also became very attached to certain items because they stood in for having a sense of place; ie, I carried my place with me like a portable shrine. As such, I could never throw away my letters or journals or photographs or books. They are my touchstones; the ground me and give me a sense of perspective. In fact, I regret deeply that other people threw away my letters rather than return them to me.

    What I worry about now is not having anyone to pass on certain keepsakes. Each thing tells a story and is part of history. I don’t look on them as gifts. I wasn’t a recipient of my mother’s heirlooms but a steward, a caretaker of memory.

  5. Kathryn Says:

    M., I understand about items being a touchstone. That’s why I kept my journals, and certain items I’ve been given years and years ago became aspects of my portable home/shrine.

    The thing with keepsakes is that if one’s parents and grandparents had a lot of things, it’s overwhelming to be expected to become steward of it (or to know they hope you might). For me, it is a burden. When does the current generation get to have their own things? What about their own desire to pass items of relevence to them along? And so on. What if one isn’t as attached to the idea of heirlooms being significant? Is it reasonable to expect one’s child(ren) to take this on? My daughter will probably be the ONLY grandchild on my side of the family; three other siblings have not had children. At my age I’m not likely to have more than one. I certainly won’t expect this of her.

    There are some items of my parents I’ve been given that I’m pleased to have and to take care of. But there is so much more stuff, and such meaning placed on these material things, that I think preoccupation with it detracts from the fullness of living. Perhaps my perspective results in part from growing up in the “planned obsolescence” generation, where everything one acquires is not made for quality but destined to break and be discarded. My perspective is also a function of the mobility of our culture, the idea that one must move on to find opportunities. My parents lived in one house for about 35 years, and in their current home for 13. In my adulthood I’ve moved every year or two — I only lived in one abode for three years, in Austin. This engenders in me a desire to remain light.

    The stories keepsakes tell can lose their meaning over generations. I would rather have a few items that have great significance to me and let the rest go to people who can appreciate the history of an item (people interested in antiques, etc.) Practicality (limited space) requires that we (my husband and I) be judicious about what we acquire.

    One reason this stirs so much in me (and led to this uber-long comment) is that each and every visit to my parents’ home usually involves a session in which the visiting child is asked to identify what items she might want to have someday from the Hummel collection, the glass collection, the cookbook collection, the furniture, etc. I don’t want the pressure of having to determine this now, or the pressure of feeling like someday I’m going to have to make room and manage these things. This activity also focuses on mortality in a way that borders on morbidity, and that also is distressing, especially when it is raised at every visit (which can only happen about once a year at best and thus is saturated in a kind of intensity that frequent visits, if I lived close by, would not).

  6. gerry rosser Says:

    I have too much stuff.
    There is almost nothing that I want.
    The only gift I want from anyone is that they pay me some attention (the positive kind, where possible).

  7. Fran aka Redondowriter Says:

    This was particularly relevant to me because i am starting my spring housecleaning late and starting to get rid of some stuff. I am a collector who dreams of being a minimalist. When my grandson finally moves out in early August, I really am going to take a close look at a lot of chatkes and antiques I have collected. At my age, if I don’t divest myself of some of them, my kids will have to do it.