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The Society of Things

Not so long ago, we thought about our “stuff” in a very different way. This word has evolved from the Greek stuphein, to draw together, reminding us of the joy that comes from entering the society of things. The world was perhaps a kinder place when we regarded household objects with tenderness and devotion — when we felt empathy for a sofa, a painting, or vase, and our belongings gave us a sense that we, too, belonged to certain time and place.

The sociologist Max Weber had this to say about our love affair with the contents of our homes.  “Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the simple things of life,”  when people feel at one with their surroundings. When they are able to “touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye.”

We rely upon our creature comforts and until fairly recently, we fashioned most of them by hand.  In long hours of loving labor, we made cushions, drapes and tapestries,  monogrammed sheets and napkins,  polished silver and artfully displayed our porcelain plates on open shelves.  We knew how to card wool, carve chairs, build tables, patch upholstery, restore dressers and keep the house in good repair.  It was our job to protect and preserve our own small portion of the world and Thomas Hardy describes this form of housekeeping as a sacred trust.

I know not how it may be with others

Who sit amid relics of householdry

That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers,
But well I know how it is with me

Continually.

I see the hands of the generations

That owned each shiny familiar thing

In play

on its knobs and indentations,

And with its ancient fashioning
 Still dallying.

Dallying — now that’s the key.  Caring for the home takes time.  Something we have so much less of in the age of overwork and rising stress.  Sadly, my generation may be the last to value our collections and our heirlooms, believing that they give a home its character.  We still receive great pleasure reading the books inherited from a literary aunt; playing the 1927 piano that belonged to an opera-loving grandmother; sitting in a Queen Anne chair that has been reupholstered more times than we can count; storing dishes in a blue Shaker hutch; displaying a Yokuts wedding basket or an 18th century candlestick on the mantel.

When younger people ask about the significance of such things, I say: Heirlooms are important because they help us tell our stories and make sense of the world.  More than a connection to the past, they are an antidote to a fast-moving future, grounding us in time and place.  But this magic happens only if we take the time to cozy up to our belongings and hear what they have to say to us.

From Makers to Consumers

When did we bow out of this conversation? And how did we lose touch with the narrative of things?

According to University of Chicago historian Bill Brown,  this rift in communication occurred in the early 1900s,  once sofas and spoons, bowls and bric-a-brac began to fly off the production line.  With the growth of manufacturing,  we became obsessed with the sheer volume of goods we could accumulate.  In “The Tyranny of Things” the editors of The Atlantic warned that we were now dominated by our possessions: “We fill our rooms, walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.”

In Sister Carrie, novelist Theodore Dreiser described a country girl corrupted by the blandishments of a big-city department store, its aisles bursting with the thrill of merchandise: “(Carrie) could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, hair combs, purses, all touched her with individual desire.”

For more than a hundred years, marketers have been appealing to our unconscious need for power and status — a need so bottomless that it has lefts us with cluttered living rooms,  packed attics and garages, and spill-over storage units.  Overcome with stuff, we now long for the bare ruined choirs of simplicity and to be liberated from our endless wants.

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Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

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14 CONVERSATIONS

    • Thank you! I do hope you’ll join us at Reinventing Home. Looking forward to your response to our other articles.

  1. Love this. I ended up with tears in my eyes from reading this beautiful piece. There was a time several years ago when I traded in almost all of my belongings as well as my sanity for the promise of love that turned out to be just an illusion. I literally gave everything I owned away. Somehow, gratefully, I came away with 3 heirlooms, a sock monkey given to me by my paternal grandmother (several decades ago), the dining room rug from my childhood home and a wooden armoire from my maternal grandmother. Every once in a while, I reflect on some of the “stuff” I once had before that life storm…Thank you for the reminder to begin a conversation with the heirlooms I still have and the new things calling for connection.

    • Shelley, I love your exquisite sensitivity to the consciousness in things and your brave and determined search for the Real. I have a feeling this is a large part of your work with mindfulness. Your ability to sense and savor all the energies around you — to honor and respect them. Whether in things or in people. You have an added skill of relating, in a creative and imaginative way, to the things that you no no longer
      “have” but still possess in your heart. This is the sacred sense of re-membering. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt post.

  2. I have so many images in my head of the amazing things my family and their families had in their homes. My daddy raised us to know somethings value. He had a few nice things and needed no more yet as a carpenter his tools were the best money could buy. As I am in my twilight years I too find myself giving away things and needing less and less. That being said a lot of my stories are based on remembering something that was in a family members house. Great story Valerie

    • I know just what you mean, Larry. At this stage, we don’t need to own a thing, just remember it in all its glory. In that way those things become a little like dreams. We can go back in time like Proust did, lying in his cork-lined room, and create whole stories from the memory of a madeleine. If Time Remembered came from the taste and aroma of a cookie (so ephemeral!), just imagine the eloquence of a beautifully made plane or hammer, or a cherished vase. We can conjure up your father’s workshop from your description; I think it does us good to assemble these objects in our imagination. They are so endowed with feeling!

  3. Thank you Valerie for your insight into the emotional power of heirlooms and the wonder of hand-made ‘stuff’ which create a loving nest called home. I am passionate about anything handmade because it is always a labour of love. You are so right when you say that ‘life is not an algorithm’ and that ‘It’s time to revalue the basic evolutionary tasks like homemaking and storytelling and hospitality – the things that make us human… and feed our creative desire.’ It is indeed sad to see how the very notions of appreciation and gratitude are trashed in today’s hectic lives. At the same time I would also like to stress the significance of revering the objects we love with a sense of bonding rather than bondage because I feel what is ultimately important is to appreciate what we are and how we can reach out to each other, rather than being obsessive about what we have.

    • Noemi, Thank you for this beautiful response. I agree — bonding not bondage. It is the same with any I-Thou relationship characterized by grace and freedom not obsession, which I think goes with our speed and hectic way of life. Obsession with perfection, with work, with getting it all done. It’s the mindful aspect of home that so appeals to me, as a freelancer, and as one who has always had a cat on her desk, and a china tea cup at hand. I’ve moved enough times to say goodbye to things, and welcome new ones, and keep a few talismans that speak to me of important moments in my life. You make such an important distinction between an attachment out of love not need for power or accumulation. It is one Jung made as well, noting where there is a power over another person/object/situation, there is no room for love.

  4. Society of things… I do love that. I love museums, and restored historical homes of famous people, or ones that are preserved in an effort to help us understand a period of time… Having just been through moving in the last year, and having helped both my parents and my wife’s mom move before that, we know what it is like to constructively downsize and try to be logical and unemotional about parting ways with stuff. It’s so hard, as I love history, and I foresee a time when no one will know what it is like to read an old letter that will help them bridge a gap of memory, or solve a family history mystery… Times are changing, and as someone who has nearly 3,000 photos on my phone, I wonder if someday we won’t know it’s like to slowly meander through a photo album. Society and culture do not move forward by clinging to the past, but I see a coming absence of stories and storytelling because what will we have to serve as stimulus for those memories that fuel good stories. I love how evocative your writing is, and agree that the types of things that you cherish are disappearing. You do a wonderful service to the preservation of memory and those things that enhance and embroider our lives. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Tom thank you so much for this lovely appreciation of soulful things that remind us of our culture and our family ties. I too am concerned that we are losing touch with the things that help us tell our stories and remember who we are. Life is not an algorithm. There is a flow from one stage of the journey to the next and yet so much of our technology reduces us to a binary system. Yes or no, one or zero, doth not a story make. We are also so over stressed and overwhelmed and overworked that we need to reground ourselves in the simple acts of house holding. Home is the place we drop the mask and can be fully ourselves. It’s time to revalue the basic evolutionary tasks like homemaking and storytelling and hospitality – the things that make us human… and feed our creative desire. Thanks for walking with me on this one.

    • I replied to your later comment and am so glad you agree. Heirlooms in the home are like heirloom seeds – a way to preserve our taste and history:) I hope they will become fashionable again!

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