Buried in Stuff

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This article is more than 9 years old.

Vacuuming my living room the other day, I started feeling nostalgic about my first apartment. I was in my 20s, and it was my first time really living on my own. It was a tiny studio in a crummy part of town. And although I don't miss the neighborhood or the shabby building, I do miss one thing about that apartment.

It was empty.

In my hazy recollection, there was a bed, a table and chair, and not much more.

And today, maneuvering the vacuum around tastefully matched furniture, electronic devices, sleek floor lamps, tons of books, heaps of baseball caps, the thought crossed my mind: How did I end up with so much junk?

Thirty-five years after my first apartment, the years have brought me more than maturity, marriage and a mortgage. They've brought stuff.


Like most Americans, I have too many possessions. In fact, everyone I know has too much stuff: a garage filled with boxes of who-knows-what, an attic of dusty cast-offs, clothes that haven't seen the light of day since Reagan was president. In our consumer culture, we all spend way too much energy endlessly accumulating more and more. We're a nation of hoarders.The United States now has more storage rental units than Starbucks. And, despite my own occasional bursts of ruthless purging and a yearly garage sale, the junk just keeps piling up. Like most of us, I could probably toss half my stuff and never even notice it's gone.

And there, in the middle of vacuuming, I realized something. Stuff is exhausting. All these things own me as much as I own them. Although I have a lot of things, I can never find the one thing I need when I need it. Thirty-five years later, I miss those uncomplicated days of owning nothing.

I wish I could say this forced me to unload all my worldly belongings and live a life of pure and simple uncluttered zen minimalism. I still have too much stuff. But I'm working on it. I just bought three books on how to cut clutter.

I know they're here someplace...
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at the Robert Louis Stevenson School in San Francisco.