An American’s life is plagued by things. Keepsakes, chachkas, trinkets, knockoffs, hand-me-downs, and superfluous appliances of all kinds overwhelm our closets, attics and garages, lurk in our dusty corners, and haunt the spaces beneath our beds. Things come easily and cheaply. For evidence of this, one need only visit one’s local thrift store where a twenty-dollar bill is more than enough to refurbish a kitchen, create a wardrobe, or decorate a home.
Thrift stores are not only evidence of the effortless way in which things can be acquired. They equally reveal how willing Americans are to throw away. Donation based thrift only survives in a society in which people don’t give a damn about their old things- are not interested in selling them or re-gifting them to friends. The donations on which these thrift stores are based, are not the result of kind-hearted souls parting with their precious goods so that they might brighten the lives of others. These donations, tellingly delivered in oversized black trash bags, are as good as garbage to their owners. Some mysterious sense of guilt or shame prevents us from outright throwing these things away. And so, donation provides us with a painless alternative that is almost as easy as abandoning them by the curbside (which we also do).
Old things are discarded for newer things. Instead of repairing we replace.
Things fill our lives with such an abundance that they loose all meaning. They blur together into an amorphous blob at which point they are renamed ‘junk’ or ‘clutter’. Some of us hoard, some of us throw away; both being legitimate responses to lives bombarded, weighed down, and assaulted by things.
I was of the later of the two camps mentioned. Things were everywhere, cluttered everything I knew, and as a result I despised them- wanting to watermark the coffee tables on which I was told to use coasters, misuse appliances, accidentally lose others favorite items of clothing, all in an attempt to reveal the meaningless of things that I saw to be inherently true, yet overlooked. When I moved out of my apartment after graduating, I wanted to purge my life of the tedious collections, the nameless keepsakes, and the ratty clothing that I had been accumulating for years. I burned old love letters, trashed memorabilia from the places my friends, family or I had been, and discarded books, papers, and old journals. I wanted a new start, free of unnecessary items, an existence in which my drawers and cupboards gleamed with the brilliance of their emptiness. To me, a clutter-free home meant a clutter-free mind.
While I have far from abandoned this perspective, I have been forced to seriously reconsider. Here, things are sacred. While at first I was amused by Jeremias’ various collections of cardboard boxes, tacky trinkets, and lamentable keepsakes, I have come to understand the profound meaning that they embody for him. Things are hard to come by, thus the things that one does possess are revered, cared for incessantly, repaired and re-patched and refurbished. Here, the sparcity of things gives each individual one importance. Things that in the U.S. would automatically be considered garbage have importance here. Old newspapers, scrap metal, cardboard, can be manipulated and reinvented to have new meanings and uses. Todo sirve para algo- Everything can be used for something.
This huge difference in the mentality towards things now seems obvious to me, is as pervasive and all-encompassing as the air we breathe. Yet it took a while for this distinction to dawn on me, and looking back on several occasions I could have interpreted better had I been aware.
The first occurred just after I had arrived on one of my first visits to Jere’s family’s house. I remarked with muffled surprise that a box in which I had delivered a gift to his mother, six months earlier, was perched on a ledge on display for all to see. Although it was a sightly box, I remember thinking that in my own home, that same box would have long been misplaced, filed away, hidden along with all the other meaningless collections we had amassed.
Another example of this mentality arose as we were moving out of our first (and current) abode into our second. All of my things fit into two suitcases, as I had recently arrived, but Jere’s things seemed never ending, most of which appeared to me to be ‘junk,’ Cardboard boxes stuffed with old papers and magazines, half broken chairs and tables, rusted nails and screws. I remember laughing and pleading him to get rid of some of his things so our move would go smoother. He flushed and became angry. These were his possessions within which he could visualize each hour of hard work he had traded for them. “These are my things”, he told me, “me han costado [they have cost me].”