The joy (and misery) of possessions

By Caitlin Kelly

“I don’t believe in storage lockers” — prop stylist/blogger Chelsea Fuss

If you’ve never seen Chelsea’s blog, go!

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls -- so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret...
I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

I’ve been following it for years, for which she’s won all sorts of awards. Fuss worked in Portland, Oregon for 14 years as a props stylist and lived like a nomad for a bit, (no husband or kids.) Now, at 37 — an age when some of us are deeply mired in conventional-if-bored-to-tears work and domesticity — is happily re-settled in, of all places, Lisbon.

I enjoy everything about her blog, and her spirit of adventure. She really has the perfect name for a woman who creates lovely images for a living!

I also share her values: a devotion to connection, to beauty, flowers, travel, quiet, making a pretty home, wherever you live, that welcomes you without spending a fortune.

Paris, January 2015. I'd rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff
Paris, January 2015. I’d rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff

I loved her comments here, on another woman’s blog,

When you spend your day driving around town in a cargo van buying $1000’s of dollars worth of props from Anthropologie and West Elm [NOTE: chic chain-store shops, for those who don’t know them] for photo shoots, those products start to mean very little. I am very detached (possibly to the extreme) from possessions! There are very few stores I walk into and find myself ooh-ing and aww-ing. As a prop stylist, after a while, you’ve seen it all. What’s really special are the one-off pieces, the heirlooms, the perfectly weathered linens, or the family postcard with old script that tells just the right story.

As I sort through my stuff, organizing/ditching/selling/donating/offering for consignment as much as I possibly can, it’s a powerful time to reflect on what we own, what we keep and why.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it's versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.
This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions — bought in 1985. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

Even as I’m pitching, Jose and I are treating our home to a few nice new pieces: framing a lovely image by the talented pinhole photographer Michael Falco (a gift); a striking striped kilim we’re having shipped from Istanbul that I found online, rewiring and adding a fresh new white linen shade to an early pale grey ginger jar lamp we recently found in Ontario and a spectacular mirror, probably mid-Eastern in origin, I found dusty and grimy in an antique shop in North Hatley, Quebec.

So…how can I possibly advocate less stuff?

Because we live in a one-bedroom apartment, with very limited closet space. I’ve lived here for decades, and we both work at home now and don’t plan to move into a larger space any time soon, so a constant attention to add/pitch is crucial to our sanity and tidiness. (Yes, we do have a storage locker and keep some things in our garage as well: out of season clothing, luggage, ski equipment, etc.)

I grew up in homes where my parents’ primary interests were travel and owning fewer/better quality objects than piles ‘o stuff. My family home, and ours today, was filled with original art, (prints, paintings and photos, some of them made by us, Eskimo sculpture, a Japanese mask and scroll) and a few good antiques.

I’m typing this blog post atop a table my father gave us last year, which is 18th.century English oak.

One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected
One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected, atop an Art Deco-era Japanese vanity, a gift for my 35th birthday

It boggles my mind to enjoy and use every day in 2015 an object that’s given elegant service for multiple centuries. I prefer, for a variety of reasons, using older things (pre-1900, even 1800, when possible) to new/plastic/Formica/mass-produced.

Many people inherit things from their families and cherish them for their beauty and sentimental attachment. Not me.

I own nothing from either grandfather, and only a vintage watch and a few gifts from one grandmother — she was a terrible spendthrift who simply never bothered to pay three levels of tax on her inherited fortune. Her things were sold to pay debt; if I want to see a nice armoire she once owned, it’s now in a Toronto museum.

So…no big emotional draaaaaaama for me over stuff. I’ve bought 99% of what I own, as has my husband.

I’m also of an age now when too many of my friends, even some of them decades younger, face the exhausting, time-sucking, emotionally-draining task of emptying out a parent’s home and disposing of (keeping?) their possessions. One friend is even flying to various American cities from Canada to hand-deliver some willed pieces of jewelry, so complicated is it to ship them across the border.

When my mother had to enter a nursing home on barely a week’s notice four years ago, we had to clear out and dispose of a life’s acquisitions within a week or so. Most went to a local auction house.

It was sad, painful and highly instructive.

$31. Score!
$31. Score!

Today I’m lucky enough to enjoy a few of her things: a pretty wool rug by my bedside and several exquisite pieces of early/Indian textiles; she lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there wasn’t a lot to deal with.

But if we’re lucky enough to acquire some items we really enjoy, parting with them can feel difficult.

Maybe better to keep them to a minimum?

Check out this amazing 650 square foot NYC apartment with handsome multi-functional pieces and built-ins.

How do you feel about owning/cleaning/ditching your possessions — or those of others?

20 thoughts on “The joy (and misery) of possessions

  1. like you, i tend to go through things and put them ‘back into the universe’ on a regular basis. i prefer to have a few things that i really love, rather than a tiny house full of ‘lots of stuff.’ when someone in my family passes on, i choose one of two things i connect with them or that hold a special meaning to me. i’m not about going for all the antiques of volume of things. i’ll check out the writers you’ve mentioned, as they sound like very interesting people. with all of your travel and your experiences, i love seeing the special things that you treasure.

    1. Thanks!

      I drive past the new mega-mansions in my town — 5 and 6 bedrooms, 7,000 square feet — and just see a horror show of buying, cleaning, maintaining it all. I also know that our tastes and styles can change, so clinging to stuff you liked 5 or 10 years ago, to me, means hanging onto your past self. Not very healthy, even if emotionally comforting perhaps. 🙂

  2. Pingback: The joy (and misery) of possessions | avpp2610

  3. I am a minimalist almost to a fault. I prefer to spend my hard-earned money on travel and key pieces I love. I do struggle with holding on to books and photographs (the horribly blurry ones of my kids clog up my hard drive), but even those I prune several times a year. We’re about to part with my late father-in-law’s stuff and will be hosting an estate sale in the next few weeks. It’s been emotionally taxing and has reinforced the importance of getting a handle on one’s stuff so it isn’t left to grieving children. We also recently moved into a 1500 sf home (for four people), and it’s much easier than the 3000+ one we had previously. We have to make more of an effort to not bring in too much, and it’s been an adjustment for all of us, but overall it’s much more manageable. Plus, I feel strongly that it’s important to show our kids that we value experiences over mammoth homes and piles of stuff.

    1. Thanks for sharing this…It’s de facto so much easier to care for a smaller home. It does require discipline (being tidy and organized!) but when I have had more space to fill up…voila, I did. 🙂

      We have no children so this is also a pressing matter.

  4. We recently moved to California but all of our stuff is still in PA. I went back to get the house ready for the movers. When I opened the door it was like seeing old friends I`d missed. Can`t wait to have my own stuff around me.

    1. I get that, too. 🙂

      Having spent my childhood in boarding school and summer camp, I enjoy the objects I have chosen. I create my own environment — no more chenille bedspreads for me!

  5. Have you read Stuffocation: Living More with Less by James Wallman? It’s on my to-read list.

    I don’t like having too much stuff, and I don’t understand people whose leisure pursuit of choice is shopping. It’s fun to go shopping sometimes, but not every weekend!

  6. I’m just not a very good materialist. I like old things and worn things much more than shiny new things. I do have several heirlooms and because of that, I do not buy tchotchkes. I dust daily because of allergies, and cannot imagine dusting more.
    I had a smile at your little black lamp, for I have a little black lamp from the 80’s as well. I was so young then, I didn’t know how long I’d have it — bedside light eternal, named Lampy.
    I hoard fabric for quilts, but eventually, it all gets used, or at least, I think it will. I’m more of a purger. Things serve us well and then when they don’t, they need a new place to serve.

    1. I love older stuff, too. I like some new things (like good china and glassware) but we use flea market silver plate cutlery, mixed patterns.

      That lamp was insanely expensive — like a week’s salary. But I have never regretted it and it sits on my desk in use today.

  7. This reminds me of a woman I used to know. She was a fellow mom at school who had a few of us over for a jewelry party (yes, I used to show up). She opened up a closet to show me something and it was stacked, top to bottom, with shopping bags full of clothes, shoes, etc. I must have looked shocked because she admitted quietly to buying all of that in just ONE day–and said she was planning on returning most of it the next day. She’d reached the point where shopping for things was compulsive and satisfied a temporary need–but not a longer-term one. I often think of her and wonder if they’re in bankruptcy yet . . .

  8. With the exception of batik fabrics for quilting (and high-quality thread), I am a minimalist. I never liked nick-nacks or cluttered rooms. When I got divorced I left three-quarters of my old life possessions behind. When I moved across the country, I left half of what I had accumulated in 5 years of my new life behind and when I got to my new home, I donated another quarter of the stuff to Goodwill because it didn’t fit the “vibe” of the new home.

    For me, stuff is stuff and I can let go easily. If I made it, I can give it as a gift or keep it–I have a hard time just ditching something I spent hours creating. But that’s me.

    My mom experienced WWII as a child in Occupied Paris. She grew up with nothing of her own. Now she is a hoarder. She knows she has a problem and still is loathe to get rid of anything (everything has value to her). So I say let her keep her stuff as long as it’s not causing her any danger–and it’s not. I could not live like she does, but I don’t have to. Her mental health depends on having her possessions around her. I understand that.

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