Stuff rules. At its most elegiac, this fact of modern living is manifested in novels such as Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, its very title lampooning the auction catalogue that can be unwanted stuff’s ultimate stop, or in Web shticks such as the Significant Objects Project, in which writers use stories to infuse hitherto neglected objects with meaning and then test their new worth on eBay. At its worst is the dull revelation that we simply keep producing it. Already, the laminated cloth bags that were meant to be emblems of recycling stuff are their own glut, about to pollute our creeks or fly in the wind just as an old plastic one did in Sam Mendes’s film, American Beauty.
A friend of mine likes to recount how his partner, a dynamic woman who heads a large successful company—you’ll see why—entered the vacated room of her university-bound son and, picking up a framed photograph of him as a boy, cooed uncharacteristically for a brief moment before abruptly turning on her heels. “Right then,” she said, waving her partner into the room. “All this must go.”
In our house, clearing our departed child’s detritus has quickly evolved into the halting task of clearing out 10 years of accumulated stuff and a job that my wife Sarah and I would rather avoid. Clearly we needed a stuff counsellor—a declutterer—and so I called upon Judy Chamney, previously a psychiatric nurse and parent education facilitator, who had recently embarked on a year-long sort of the home of a media pal of mine. It seemed, at the very least, that she would understand our clutter. Know what a book was. Why we have shelves of pots in the kitchen and hordes of tins and spices on the open shelf. No such luck.
Chamney, a warm and soft-spoken woman who charges $25 an hour for her stuff-defying services, was okay with the front deck that, with its small cloth-covered table and two wicker chairs, she thought “friendly.” My vestibule, with its stepladder overflowing with hats and scarves and gloves (last winter’s gear, not much point in storing it now), and its antique shoe store rack (filled to the brim, though with Sarah’s and the girls’ footwear in neat rows, toes pointing out), Chamney did not. “There’s too much going on in such a small space,” she said. “The message that I am getting is that I should stay here and wait for an invitation to step in.”
In truth, halting the various folk who come to my door—the umpteen kids with their bogus crumpled pages wanting money for some suspect school basketball trip, or selling overpriced plastic wrap while dodgy-looking drivers wait in vans for their cut of the take—did not strike me as a bad idea, but I took note.
The kitchen, however, she would not enter. She frowned at the shelf of cookbooks above the wall-bench. “Is no one afraid it will fall on their heads?” I should keep just a few favourite cookbooks, not a hundred, as most recipes are available online. “She says that too much stuff’s an emblem of greed,” I told Sarah over the telephone. “Did you say we run a catering service?” said Sarah. “Did you tell her that we use the cookbooks and have people over practically every night?”
Chamney’s approach was very sensitive, I explained. She’d worked with the sick. Studied psychology. She interviews people about their relationship to the places they find themselves in, and believes that defining a space is important—a room should not have several functions, be an office and a bedroom and have a piano all at the same time. And she added that getting rid of stuff is good for your health. It eliminates the tyranny objects can exert, alleviating the bad sleep they can induce or the physical pain that some acquire moving around their piles of stuff.
“Like the stuff in the basement,” I dared mention. “All those kids’ books the girls don’t read.”
“We’ll have grandchildren.”
“But they’ll be reading e-Babar off Mattel iPhones.”
“Okay. Fine. So we can get rid of all of your books in the third-floor bedroom then?”
“That’s my office,” I said tersely. To a long silence.
“And what about the bedroom? What about my shoes? Did you show her all my shoes?”
“No, honey, the shoes are safe. I didn’t let her see your shoes.”
And on the weekend we threw out not one thing. Stuff rules.