An article by writer and journalist Lee Randall has been going around with my friends on Facebook. In “For the Love of Stuff,” Randall makes an argument for keeping all the things that make us who we are. But recently, my husband and I started downsizing. Not because we have to, but because we want to. We’ve been going through possessions from our 40-plus years of marriage and letting items go. It feels good to us, but are we in the minority?

“Humans have a fundamental need to store memories, values and experiences in objects,” wrote York University marketing professor Russell Belk in 1988. And in 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness that we “can only know who we are by observing what we have.”

Am I the same person I was?

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Did we all have one of these in the 1970s?

I think it’s’s true that we can easily observe who someone else might be by their possessions. If I walk into someone’s house and see a glass bead curtain in a doorway, a plant in a macrame hanger, and an original copy of The Whole Earth Catalog on a bookshelf, I’m pretty certain that person came of age at the same time I did. Do I need those reminders from my own past to know who I was then or who I am now? I don’t think I need that old book or piece of 1970s art any more than I need my fringed vest from that era (and no, I haven’t kept the vest). What I acquired then was a reflection of who I was then, and that was good. Now I’m a different person, and that’s good, too.

Overflowing bookshelves

My husband and I love books, and we like to keep the books we love. Consequently, we have many very full book shelves. We have a rule: One of us puts a book on the table that we think we can part with, but if the other has any objection, it goes back. No questions asked. We still have books we bought the first year we were married, but I’m fairly certain some of those may make the “discard” pile the next time.

Things with real stories

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My mother’s old mixing bowl

As a personal historian, I know that things in our lives have stories. Some stories are only important to us, others are significant and deserve to be preserved and passed on. There is a series of posts in this blog about “Things That Matter.” I began the series with a post about a green jadeite mixing bowl that my parents received as a wedding present in 1941. If I ever part with that bowl, I’ll give it and its stories to a family member.

My husband and I are “end of the line” people. We have no children, but even if we did, would they want our precious old items? Young people today don’t really want our old art, furniture, or “vintage” collectibles, according to this article in The Washington Post.

Where do we draw the line when it comes to divesting? I am appalled by the story of British artist Michael Landy who destroyed more than 7,000 of his personal items in a performance art act he called Break Down. But also, I loathe the idea that some day my possessions will be meaningless. When elderly neighbors packed up to move to an assisted living facility, their adult children carted away only a few items. Over a series of yard sales, I watched as their possessions dwindle down into trash that was hauled away. Yet I wondered, what’s the story behind this poster? Why did they keep this book? Where did they find those glasses? Why did no one care about this?

Let the stories continue

As we declutter and downsize, we focus on the idea that we’re doing a good thing. We’re sending items out to have new lives and new stories. We give things away to friends or relatives who will appreciate them anew. I sell an old book online and hope the buyer is really glad to have found it. We donate to a charity and envision the item filling someone’s need. And when we send any important item to a family member, we include its story, so the items and the story can be passed on together to future generations.

And as we go through our old things, we talk about our lives. We remember what we did and who we were then, and we talk about who we are now and what we still want to become.

What does this mean to personal historians?

All of us today can be totally overwhelmed by the stuff we accumulate. I think one of the best things we can do as personal historians is to help people save the stories of the important things in their lives. The story of the antique table might matter more to descendants than the actual table. And  then, once the stories are saved, maybe they’ll feel better about letting some of those things go.

Fran Morley

Fran Morley

D. Fran Morley is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer who specializes in helping people and businesses tell their stories. She frequently teaches workshops in personal history writing. She joined the Association of Personal Historians in 2002 and has been Content Editor for APH since 2011.
Fran Morley

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