Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?

Ed note: This story isn’t strictly about adventure. But, it’s about something so many of us deal with — stuff creep. We’re suckers for stories about people simplifying their lives, especially if that means they gain a sense of freedom and lightness. Enjoy. 


A few years ago, I turned a carport into a bedroom. But first I had to empty out the books, papers, furniture, rugs and tools that were in the carport. Then I took it all to a storage unit where rent was $50 a month.

After three years of thinking about it, and only occasionally pawing through the storage unit for a lost item, I finally sorted out a handful of books and items that meant something—I could have fit them in a suitcase!—and held a yard sale for the rest.

I think about that when I see storage facilities spreading and expanding across the country. At least 500 units have been built here in eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County, population 7,500, and storage businesses can be found in towns and suburbs across the West. 

It’s a good lesson—giving is always more important than storing stuff away.

A local entrepreneur who owns about half the local units is now building in regional towns as well: Concrete slabs with metal buildings on top, single light bulbs inside, no plumbing. 

I’m past 80 now, and, although my house is small, I have held onto a lot of stuff. In the normal course of events, my children would inherit it. 

But my two children and their families live in Arizona and Guam, busy building their own inventories of stuff. In a previous age, when there was a family house and three or more children to a house, the house and its basic furnishings would go to one child, and the remaining children would parcel out anything else. 

In my nuclear family, it worked like this: Mom passed on, and no one wanted or needed the house, so Dad called a summit meeting as he prepared to go into assisted living. 

We four siblings gathered for a week in the sunny Southern California backyard and emptied the house. Dad sat in his captain’s chair and laid down the rules: if you brought it into the house— sculpture from Africa, old sports equipment—you took it away. Or traded with a sibling. One table was set up for stuff to go to Dad’s best friend and another for a yard sale, and off we went to sort through the remaining items.

When it came to Dad’s fine collection of old cameras, they went to brother Phil, in Dad’s estimation the only one of us who knew how to take a decent photo. The tools were split between sister Mary and me: “You both at least know the difference between an end wrench and a crescent.”

Dad said that he had seen families argue and split over parental leavings, and he wanted no part of that. So on we went, sorting through grandma’s rag rugs, old diplomas, a collection of bell bottom pants and lots of keepsakes, all the while drinking beer and retelling old stories. 

We cried some as we set Dad up with a few things for the assisted living place, then left for our own homes. I got Dad’s last Ford—his cars were always Fords—as he figured my family needed a good second car more than did the others. 

It was a wonderful week.

I don’t have plans for a summit, but I am looking around the house and thinking about what child or grandchild might want the things I have held onto, such as carpets from Turkey, artwork by Northwest artist friends, cast iron cookware and so many books. 

Books written and signed by Ivan Doig and Ursula LeGuin—they can go to libraries now. And I smile thinking about taking my best Turkish carpet to a granddaughter’s first house. 

Last week, Nez Perce artist Carla Timentwa brought a fine collection of beadwork, woven basket hats and shell dresses to the Josephy Center in the town of Joseph, where I work. She said she’d ignored her grandmother’s teachings as a child, but on becoming a grandmother herself, took up the arts and began making things to give away: hats for granddaughters who serve food in the Longhouse, a fine beaded vest for her husband, dresses for young women to wear at naming and mourning ceremonies. 

It’s important, Carla said, to take care of others as they come into the world, as they grow and as they leave. It’s a good lesson—giving is always more important than storing stuff away.


Words by Rich Wandschneider. Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He feels lighter in Joseph, Oregon.



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