Moving to a new home when we were 38 weeks pregnant wasn’t ideal, I’ll give you that.
But then our moving truck’s engine spontaneously caught on fire and exploded. Nearly everything we owned — packed Tetris-style onto that truck — was gone. We hadn’t planned for that.
It was a full 24 hours before my husband pulled out a chair and asked me to take a seat to deliver the news. The plan had been to move out of our condo and into a new one a few days later, and we were staying with family in the interim.
I remember him starting with something along the lines of, “The important thing is that everyone is safe. We’re safe, our baby is safe …” My heart raced. What happened?!
I let out a loud, maniacal cackle immediately after he told me we were essentially possession-less. What’s that sound? I wondered. Oh! That’s coming from me. The laughter became more unhinged with each passing moment. “You can’t make this stuff up,” I gasped as tears of laughter streamed down my face.
Equally surprised by my reaction as I was, he took a slow exhale, shook his head, and laughed. “No,” he agreed. “You can’t.” I continued to laugh uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop. And then, suddenly my laughter turned into sobs.
“It’s just stuff,” we kept telling ourselves over and over through our tears that night. “It’s just stuff.”
Over the coming weeks, months, and now almost years, I found myself mourning that stuff. The bench from our front entryway. Our salt and pepper shakers. A framed greeting card. Some place card holders. A large collection of gardening books.
I also found myself feeling guilty for experiencing so much grief over … stuff. To be sure, some things I didn’t miss at all. But it’s remarkable how much I still do.
Take the bench. We bought it at an antique shop on our honeymoon. It had felt like an extravagant purchase, but it also felt like the perfect way to begin making our new home together. So we splurged and never regretted it.
The salt and pepper shakers were a gift from my brother and sister-in-law, who bought them as souvenirs for us in Switzerland. I thought of them every time I used the shakers. The greeting card came from a beloved team of coworkers my last day on the job. The place card holders were left over from our wedding, handmade by my husband and father-in-law. The gardening books represented a nostalgic time in my mid-20s when I was going to save the world, one garden at a time.
Our home was not large — just one bedroom, the reason we were moving in the first place. But despite its size — or rather, maybe because of its size — it was filled with stuff we loved. Anything that made the cut had purpose or meaning or both.
As a teenager, I was an expert eye-roller, and my parents — bless them — were usually the undeserving recipients. For years I found my dad’s aversion to anything that could be perceived as “fancy” to be particularly exasperating. But as he still maintains today, he doesn’t like anything too “bourgeois.” (Cue the eye roll.)
Yet my dad also deeply appreciates what he calls “Real Things.” A Real Thing has meaning and value outside of itself, for any number of reasons. Maybe it was made by hand, maybe it was a gift; maybe it was longed for, maybe it was a happy surprise; maybe it holds a memory, maybe it serves as a symbol. Undoubtedly it tells a story, and quite likely it connects us to others. A home filled with Real Things is a home filled with love.
While my dad’s collection of Real Things may look different from mine or yours, I stopped rolling my eyes at those words when I moved out of my parents’ house. When I had a home of my own, I finally understood.
As we’ve written before, studies show that people are in a better mood when they reflect on experiences they’ve purchased, rather than on stuff. Likewise, gift recipients are more likely to value an experience or activity over material objects.
This is because, as James Hamblin writes in “Buy Experiences, Not Things,” “experiential purchases are … more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior.”
Yet, as described in a recent piece in The New York Times, much of the stuff we surround ourselves with is valued “for its connection to another person, a place, a time in our lives, a meaningful affiliation.”
In other words, Real Things.
In her Atlantic article “For the Love of Stuff,” Julie Beck shares a quote from Dr. Russell Belk: “It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions.”
And she writes: “The loss of possessions, ones deeply associated with the self, can cause real grief … If your house was burning, and you had no time to save your favorite things, you might feel like you’d lost part of yourself.”
Wow. That last line certainly hit home.
Mindlessly accumulating stuff for stuff’s sake won’t bring happiness or contentment. And yet, the stuff we surround ourselves with, those things that tell the story of our lives — the people we love, the memories we cling to, the beliefs we hold dear — those are Real Things. And surely there’s value in that.
Read “In Defense of Real Things” in the Piedmont Exedra.