Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” begins with a list of items carried by a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War:
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey…. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.
In a writing class, you might examine O’Brien’s use of repetition, about how he uses the list to reveal something about each man’s character. But I’ve been wondering lately, what do the things that we carry through life reveal about each of us?
My husband and I have too many possessions, this I know; more than we need or can even use. I am also aware that this is a developed-world, middle-to-upper-class problem, and that such complaints are at best insensitive and petty. This is not a war zone and our possessions are not strapped to our backs; instead these are the clothing and household items that pad our comfortable lives. Acknowledging these facts, I still believe that things deserve some examination.
There are the hand-painted margarita glasses that we purchased in Mexico and that have followed us, cloaked in too much bubble wrap, from apartment to apartment. Each time they settle onto a new shelf where they sit undisturbed until the next move. There are the clothes that get passed over each time we dress for work or a special occasion, but that remain in our closet because they might be perfect for an event that just hasn’t happened yet. There is the chair reminiscent of the one that sat in my parents’ vacation home when I was a child, the one that brings back memories of hours spent reading novel after novel. Except neither my husband nor I has sat in the current chair since at least two apartments ago. Instead it holds stacks of books, clothing, and anything else temporarily without a home or that we are too tired at the end of the day to put away.
Why do we keep all of these things? Is it emotional attachment, fear of loss, just plain inertia (of the staying-at-rest variety)? And how might our lives be affected if we were able to detach from our possessions, declutter, simplify?
I recently came across an article written by a woman who, along with her husband, had decided that it was time to do exactly that. They sold or donated many of their possessions, making it a point to buy only what they truly need and will use. In the process, they paid off a large chunk of debt, but the benefit that interested me most is somewhat surprising, something that I crave more than anything: “We’re finding more time for the things we gave a lot of lip service to but didn’t always make time for: health, fitness, reading and each other.”
Over time I’ve started to realize that, at least in my own life, carrying around a lot of physical stuff can feel just as burdensome as carrying a lot of emotional or psychological baggage. All of that stuff demands management – cleaning, storing, organizing, or at least sifting through as you search for something else – and thus time, energy, attention. If I had less stuff, if I limited my possessions to those that were really important to me, would I use them more? And would I discover more time to devote to the things that I really want to do in life?
It certainly seems possible. My husband and I have decided to give it a try. We are not emptying out our home by any means, but we are parting with a lot of the extras, the things that we had previously kept around on the basis of “what if” or “someday.” Already in our lives it feels a bit easier to move and to breathe.
Except there is one complication. A large part of the impetus for our decluttering is the fact that we are expecting our first baby in February and we desperately want to maximize the time that we are able to spend together as a family, as well as to grow even more fiscally responsible in order to provide for the baby’s future. But with a baby comes stuff. A lot of stuff. And how easily the line between the things we need and the things we need becomes blurred.
When we made the obligatory trip to Babies “R” Us to set up a registry, my husband paused before scanning our first item and warned, “Let’s just stick to the basics. Let’s not go overboard like we did for our wedding.” I paused and recalled the hours we had spent perusing china, crystal, and every isn’t-that-neat-looking kitchen gadget that caught our eye, ultimately adding several of each to our wish list. With this approach in mind, we braved the first overstuffed aisle.
This, I suppose, will be our first test. It is one thing to purge one’s home of a few belongings; it is another to retain the patience and thoughtfulness to avoid reflexively refilling it just because there is space available. And while we have no desire to raise a child or children with rooms overstuffed with rarely-used and under-appreciated toys, neither do we wish to impose on them a stringently spartan lifestyle. The answer for us, it seems, lies somewhere in the balance. And for the first time, we feel ready to set out in search of it.