I didn’t write last week because I was overwhelmed in getting ready for our annual migration west. We spend the summer months doing research, writing, traveling and visiting our west coast-located parents and extended family. Especially because we live so far from family, this summer flexibility is one of the greatest perks of an academic career, as far as I’m concerned (I’ve blogged about this before). But no matter how far in advance I plan, the week before we leave is inevitably a hectic affair whereby my husband and I race the clock to pack up most of the stuff in our house before we turn over the keys to our summer renters and race to the airport, not to return for two and a half months.
This year we filled our entire front porch with old stuff that we took in load after load to our local thrift store (actually the store at which we purchase much of the clothes, toys, and stuff in our house, too!) You might think that after 11 years of such pre-summer cleanup our house would be organized and uncluttered, but no, it magically refills every year, and each year I find many sealed boxes labeled “To be opened after summer 2005,” and the like (which I am loathe to even open). I am amazed by the amount of stuff we have.
One of my own personal theories is that those who are more environmentally conscious have a tendency to keep more stuff. I find it traumatic to get rid of a chair, even an extremely uncomfortable one, if I know it’s next home will be a landfill. It’s hard to drive past items on the street knowing they are waiting for the trash pickup. I get upset when it rains on these items and ruins them – I feel a responsibility to at least get them to a place where they will be recycled rather than discarded. But I really cringe when the huge metal dumpsters are brought into the residential areas of our university campus and over the next couple days fill to overflowing as students move out of the dorms for the summer. Have you ever looked in those dumpsters? My kids are still young enough to see an evening out at the campus dumpsters as great fun and adventure. So we have a large selection of almost-new electric fans in our basement (which have come in quite handy). One of our best area rugs, an expensive wool rug with nary a stain or mark on it that we saved on an evening family dumpster raid a couple Junes ago, didn’t even seem to need the rug cleaner we rented from Home Depot. We have much of our (now packed up) belongings in new-looking clear plastic storage boxes with matching lids. We have all manner of tools, ironing boards, shoe racks. All of this, and much, much more spills out of dumpsters every late spring. It’s a short trip from Target to the dump. We need to develop a solution to this waste.
Now, on the other side of the country, in an 800-square foot cabin with very basic furnishings I have a new perspective on stuff. Each member of our family gets one duffel bag of belongings for the summer. Sure, we can buy anything we might need (and there’s a great thrift store here, too!) But really, we don’t need much more than this, and we don’t miss anything. We use the library, join the pool, listen to music and books and news on our computers, and spend as much time outdoors as possible. I know we can’t get rid of many things at home that have meaning for us, but I have a renewed sense of all that stuff that we don’t need. The experience of being without it for an extended period is a pleasure; it’s refreshing to see how much we do with so little (the long, warm days of summer lend themselves to this kind of experiment, of course).
An article I saw earlier this spring highlights research done at Cornell  in which psychologists found that buying experiences (vacations, movies/evenings out, exercise) gives people a sense of long-lived happiness that actually grows over time. This is in contrast to the happiness from buying possessions – even the snazziest wangdoodle – which does not endure, perhaps because we habituate to new purchase and over time get less and less satisfaction from it. I believe it. If only we could internalize this as we fill up our lives, and the world, with more stuff.