©Evan Nichols, 2010

“It’s just stuff,” my mother assured me when I reported the broken heirloom. She says this often, and each time it shames me out of my materialism, at least for the moment. The implications: Stuff and people are opposite. If you value one too much, you don’t value the other enough, and if stuff wins out, your priorities are screwed up.  I wonder if  and how I can appreciate both stuff and people without being stuck in a zero sum.

Untying ribbons, tugging at their silky edges till they’re free.

Unpacking the boxes was like Christmas, each one a surprise because I have never been very organized and had no memory of what I had put where. I had gotten rid of boxes and boxes of stuff in preparation for a cross-country move. Maybe I felt I had to hunker down, cherish and protect each item that had passed muster, because my heart broke a little when I unwrapped the crystal bowl and found pieces. It was an heirloom in a way, although I cringe a little at the grandiosity of that term.

I don’t have a family history. There were hasty escapes from persecution in Russia and Lithuania a ways back, I believe, and some name changes that confused things further; the living relatives that I know seem to lack any curiosity that might help bring out story. My parents have both been estranged in ways from their families, and so the only two main points of contact have been weddings and funerals, and even those have faded out.

After someone has died, my nuclear family expresses a great distaste for picking over the material remains. We also have relatives who seem much more avid and aggressive about staking their claim. So over the years my parents have accumulated an odd assortment of leftover, unpopular items that I never paid any attention to, until my younger sister Karen helped clear some out and put a bunch in a box that she sent off to me.

The crystal dish was one of these items — things I never thought I wanted but treasured once I had them — as if they somehow represented my ancestry, and compensated for my complete ignorance about the people and experiences of my family’s past. I didn’t make up a story of who had held that dish and what that person had felt and seen. I didn’t ask my mother anything about it. But somehow a story or a range of possible stories lingered in the background each time that I touched it. And now it was gone forever.

My reflection in a window. Luster rubs off on me?

I’m embarrassed about my love for a car that is no longer with me. It was just so cute, the round body, the name: bug or beetle. Soon after getting it, I went away on a trip and actually missed it! I felt ridiculous even acknowledging this, but I did let the feeling be, mainly out of curiosity. How could I be so attached to a vehicle? I was very flattered when neighbors said it suited me: cute and little.  Like when you go out with an attractive friend, and feel that some of her glow spreads to you, was I thinking that my car would make me cuter? After getting rid of it because it was starting to fall apart and get expensive, I missed it. I felt a pang every time I saw another one and couldn’t help wondering if that particular silver VW Beetle rolling towards me in all its playful roundness was the one I had forsaken. Maybe I wondered if it missed me too.

I love my stuff, because I chose it, because therefore it says something about me. I want to like myself or want others to see my stuff and know and like me, but I don’t want to be equated with it or love it so much that I mourn it or forget about the most important elements of my life. The people, for example.

Fitting shapes. A puzzle piece snaps into place and the brain clicks like a dolphin.

I’ve always loved circles and round things. If I were to think about ecological psychology or Freud, I’m sure there would be plenty of analysis to contemplate. But for whatever reasons roundness appeals to me, it brings me joy and, as I gravitate towards, notice and touch globes, spheres, circles and curlicues, I’m connected to my world and it to me.

I want to be understood and loved, but not stereotyped or pandered to. Advertisers are not my friends. When ads directed right at me find their way into my mailbox, all the absurdity of my material attachments makes me cringe. How could they know me? I see a TV ad that I find clever and amusing, and then realize that I am a demographic. They made that commercial for me. But where they fail to reach me is in their message that the only relationship we need is to our stuff. They are pretending to speak to me and making impossible promises about their product. They dangle a sort of solipsism or self-love: if I buy the thing they tell me is so ‘me,’ I’ll be fulfilled. No one else is needed for my happiness. I don’t buy that.

But I can’t deny that my attachment to things is made up of not a little narcissism. Just as we cherish our memories, bad along with good, partly because they are ours, they belong to us, make us, speak of us, so too each item that I own is me.

My ring collection, mainly plastic, with a few minor gemstones at best, is not worth anything, but the bright, compelling candy colors make me happy. I sometimes choose what clothes to wear to go with a ring I want on my finger that day. I’m pleased when someone else admires what I’m wearing, but I don’t put clothes or accessories on for others. I put them on for myself.

A plastic strap gives off warmth. Bright stitches bind unlikely remnants.

I still feel sad about the plastic purse I lost. It was made from the earliest plastic –a clear purse with pink and red pressed flowers in between the layers, like psychedelic versions of shapes in amber. There was a little change purse to match, with all of the same touches but in miniature.  Once again younger sister Karen was the hero. She was the one who helped my mother through the death of her father, and who ended up picking through things after my father’s father’s death, ignoring the unfriendly cousins whom we found crass and greedy. They dove for the expensive furniture and rugs, and Karen happily picked through the overlooked items that had character. I can still feel her saying to me, “I knew you’d love this,” and so maybe I partly cherished that purse because it showed that my sister really knows me, and while undergoing an unpleasant ordeal, she was looking out for me.

That purse belonged to a Grandma whom I never liked. She was cold, distant, and grumpy. The more mature me realized also that she was depressed, maybe all her life. Even when we were little, she used to say, “Well, I’m going to bed now. I hope I don’t wake up in the morning.” She was vain, always slim and quite fashionable, or at least interested in clothes.  Maybe the shape of her body and the clothes she hung on it were the only things in her life she had control over.  I know she was a teacher who lived under her father’s rule, until she was married and lived under my grandfather’s rule (back in the day when you could not be a married female teacher). When I could fit into that periwinkle wool suit of hers, it was a victory — a shapely, fitted dress with a wide wool belt and big brass circles, useless decorations vaguely buckle-like, on either side, and a satin top meant to be covered by the waist-length tight jacket with mid-length sleeves. I don’t remember what happened to it, but know it doesn’t fit me anymore. I loved that suit! Somehow I felt that I could honor Grandma while being happy in it as she never was able to be.

Fingers touch as the eraser-red ball passes hands.

Then there’s the short history of my small family, Teddy and me. For some random reason, it’s a story of ducks. First is the tiny stuffed duck that fits in the palm of my hand, his very first toy. Next comes “Henry Quackling Duckling”, whom Teddy and I named together. Henry makes a very realistic sound when his tummy is squeezed, a six-note cadence, rising and falling, much like the chattering real ducks on the campus pond.

The third duck toy I think I always liked more than Teddy did – it is kitsch and 50’s in a charming way, its origins a mystery, as I found it in a second-hand shop. In a three-inch thick, flat, plastic world, sits a duck on a pond. When you wind it up, you hear the Blue Danube as he bends down and pecks at his forever pond lilies. It has the safe, self-enclosed feel of a snow globe. At each paired note, he quacks along.

Teddy gets nostalgic about this toy now that he’s too old for it, building a sentiment that might not have always been there. Maybe it’s partly that I’ve bothered to save the toy, after many years and a move across the country. Maybe Teddy is starting to develop his mom’s taste in kitsch. Or maybe it’s also the way I look at or carry that toy, as if holding again the tiny Teddy who once fit easily in the cradle of my arms.

Humans have bodies. We are not just floating minds and hearts. What we can touch, see, sense perhaps we feel closest to.

Why was I so excited by the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house? I hadn’t read her poetry in a while or read biographies of her. The most important part of her, her mind, her poetry, wasn’t motivating me particularly, but when I saw the little desk that had been hers, at which she sat to compose all of those poems, my heart raced.

Maybe I feel I am touching my family’s past, even an invented better past for Grandma. Touching Emily Dickinson — the person and the poet — Touching not just my son’s past but my relationship with him, as if those appealing ducks stand in for the joy, love, surprises (not all good ones) that are us.

A sparkle button falls off and still shines. A dusty marble rolls towards the grating and lands on a flower petal.

Madeleine –- a poet and photographer — loves shopping, often for other people. She finds unusual trinkets, luscious textures, and enjoys the form or look of something. She loves odd, exotic fruit too, for looking and tasting. She’s one of those people who can uncover a treasure in chaotic clutter. Once she finds an object interesting, it becomes interesting. She loves things for their own sake. We humans are in a world full of other living beings and inanimate objects too. It’s not all about us, and therefore it isn’t always a matter of stuff versus people.  We can appreciate each for what it is.

A door knob on the moon is still a door knob.

Stuff stays the same. Every time I pick up the goofy duck in his happy plastic pond, I get the same result. My finger may fatten in the heat, but the cheery orange ring waits patiently, keeping its shape and charm until it fits again. A world I can count on. Is that why I freak out if even a pencil or a paper clip goes missing? People are never exactly what you expect, need, or remember, and I love them for that.  But I love stuff for the opposite reason. And, in its very thingness, it can even detach itself from people. There might be a certain CD or song that I’m sure will forever remind me of a certain person, not just a gentle, cozy reminder, but a poignant, felt flashback that recreates the pulse and shivers of the original experience. And then one day, my body has forgotten, and next my mind has almost forgotten too. Or my diamond ring that had to do with my ex-husband but doesn’t anymore. I stubbornly decided to wear it every day so it would be enjoyed, and so that each day’s new experience could wear away at the original one. It worked, and I was glad.  Sometimes I need things to just be things, and usually they comply.

“It’s just stuff” my mother says as a mantra for me and for herself too, like “always avoid gossip.” She offers handy reminders of how to live, friendly little word bubbles that she doesn’t judge or bully with, but simply offers to whoever can use them.

Let the shoe fall. Massage the foot.

I remember bringing my clam-shell tangerine laptop to the Apple store for repair, and when the computer fix-it fellow helped load it into the trunk of my Beetle, I felt ashamed of myself, the well-educated, poor but protected optimist who considers herself progressive but has never once had to take important risks.  My cute, pretty computer that I mainly chose for those reasons, going into my cute, pretty car, which I’d soon drive to my assured shelter, full fridge, heat when I needed it.

What does this tell me? That stuff and people are both important, but if stuff is in competition with people, people must win. Otherwise, we all become objects to add to a collection. The things I have that someone else doesn’t have are also part of the story of my stuff.  When looked at that way, it is about the people; it has to be. I don’t want this to bring me debilitating shame, nor do I want to ignore it.  The things that other people have that I don’t… I am better off not cataloguing those.

Swing a glowing yo-yo around and around till you’re giddy.

When I say ‘my home’ or ‘my world’ is that really about possession or connection? Sometimes my world goes as far as the corners of my bed, with a NY Times and a few favorite books strewn around; that’s all I need.  My son certainly does not belong to me. He’s his own person. My neighborhood and my library connote fondness and attachment, but not ownership.  In fact, I often tell Teddy, “Libraries are great. After all, there are so many books that you don’t have to own.” Yes, I’m a self-centered human who builds a reality, a world of things and people around herself, and sees the parameters through her own eyes. Invisible strings tie each object and person to me. Because I put the pattern there, I love it all. The people and objects that this web comprises are part of me. That doesn’t mean I can’t share. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t welcome, even need, disruptions to those patterns and threads.

Layers of fingerprints on a penny worth more than a cent.

Most of Madeleine’s purchases are for someone else. She seems to love most of all the discovery of some special item waiting to be appreciated, and next comes the fun of bringing that object into someone else’s life. She doesn’t  much need to own treasures.

Gifts from friends far away keep them present. Gifts, presents, presence. The pendant made from part of a Chinese vase that Stephanie coyly had waiting for me on my dinner plate when I got back from the restroom. Each time I wear it, I see her friendly curls and hear her sweet voice that carries sharp, eloquent messages. The orange scarf from sister Laura in Paris. She indulges my orange obsession without judgment, only merriment. Each time I pick it up, I see her and her many scarves that she wears with flair; I see her generous mouth open in an inclusive laugh or smile. I can’t say I’ve ever learned to wear a scarf right, but I still love the juicy glow and the silky feel of the one she lovingly selected for me.

Sister Karen, who can have a brusque, off-putting manner, is also a brilliant gift-giver. Without letting on, she is observing people closely, and has a knack for finding just the right thing. I would like to think that one can be a very caring person and an awkward gift-giver. It’s just stuff, after all. But I admire those who have the talent, and who, like Karen, don’t need to wait around for a gratifying reaction.

In Hong Kong, where everything is shiny and new — buildings, electronic gadgets, you name it — I gave away my authentic 1960’s peace sign pendant, and it felt good. Cute Michael, who Paul and I both liked, with his puppy energy and eager dancing, became more my friend than Paul’s, after Michael’s crush got annoying and Paul’s passed.  He seemed intrigued by my story of being in a peace march when I was 2, and that there could really be an object so old. I was pretty sure ours was not a forever friendship, but I wanted to make him happy with a parting gift. He seemed truly touched, and the moment of thrill in his face was all that I needed. I may have said something like “now when you wear this you can think of me,” but I didn’t even fully believe or need that. I just wanted him to love the pendant as I had, and to be happy to have it.

Something given up is a kind of gift: releasing an object to the grand collective. Second-hand stores appeal to me not just because of the adventure of bargain hunting, but because each book or toy or household item that I touch has been handled by unknown others. After I drop off my own contribution, some stranger down the road will feel my touch. Just as the crystal heirloom connected me to ancestors through silent stories, so each object that I find or give away adds to a flow of untold stories and some that will be told.

©Sara Schupack, 2010

Sara Schupack completed the East Asia Writing Project Summer Institute in Thailand in 1997. She has called Mill Valley, Hong Kong, Oakland, and Amherst home, in that order. She has lived in a few other places too. She currently studies education and plays banagrams with her son, Teddy. She does a few other things too, like supervise student teachers, swim, teach, and sit around in a small patch of sun, missing the Bay Area. <sara_schupack@yahoo.com>

One Response to “Stuff by Sara Schupack”

  1. Sara,

    I am thrilled to find this and to enjoy your engaging writing. I look forward to reading more of your entries. I just came back from a visit to Mill Valley. I hadn’t been back since Laura’s wedding. I went past your home on Corte Madera. So many wonderful memories…

    Harriet (who lived with your family in the 70’s)

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