I need a theology of stuff. This need has come home to me recently both in sober and in light-hearted moments.
To begin with, my mom, my in-laws, and my aunt are all in the process of downsizing and moving. That is 6 people times 70 years each of stuff accumulation. That’s 420 years of stuff. Enough to get my attention.
Then, during my parents’ recent house clean-out, we contemplated a yard sale. We abandoned the idea quickly for many reasons, one of them being the jarring task of putting prices on their stuff. What does 25 cents mean when it is stuck on the carved box from Honduras? In the end it was easier to let the box go for nothing. As a gift it retained some of the value Dad gave it by bringing it home with him. For a quarter it did not.
Next, on a recent evening out with a friend who manages a storage facility, she described to us the world of storage facility dysfunction. The place is a psychologist’s dream. You probably never considered a storage facility as anything other than an off-campus garage for extra stuff. Oh, no. It is far more than that. People who cannot pay rent and are homeless have storage facilities, for stuff, that they manage to pay for by hook or by crook. They have no home, but their stuff darn well does. Others spend thousands and thousands of dollars over years housing stuff that isn’t worth a tiny fraction of the storage fees. Legal battles and illicit lock-cutters rage over access to certain units because the relationship is o.ver. and she wants her stuff, but his name is the only one on the paperwork. Her stuff is his leverage and he wields it like a third-world chieftain.
And then, the clincher: I looked at my bedside table the other day and saw something chilling. Here’s how my thoughts went: If I suddenly go on to glory, someone will be cleaning out this table and drawing conclusions about me. This stuff, they will say, most sums her up. This is what she used every day. This stuff tells her story. Fine, no problem. Except that among the Bible, lotion, and back-scratcher, was a hilarious little dictionary on flatulence. I didn’t buy it. It was given to me. I have laughed over it several times. And somehow in the cleaning and flux of books that come and go, that one has stayed there. Why, I don’t know. But the chilling part was the thought of someone on the ‘Allison’s-gone-to-heaven’ yard sale crew thinking that I cherished that little book. You know? Go look at the table by your bed. You’ll see what I mean.
So, I reasoned, our stuff tells a story of our life.
Yes, I agree with you; the real story of our life lives in the people we love and influence during our time here. But, like it or not, our stuff tells our story too. It is a story read and interpreted by the ones who handle our stuff when we are no longer here to do it. And what if they get it wrong? Like the obit might read, “A loving mother, among her precious possessions was a flatulence dictionary.” For the first time I find comfort in James telling me “You are a mist that appears for a little time, then vanishes” (4:14). No one will remember me. Thank goodness.
Unless I become famous. Because I do worry about that. My biographers will include the little dictionary. They will inflate it into an obsession. 400 years from now, A.D. 2415, after a ho-hum unit on Shakespeare, American students will thrill to finally get to study the odd turn-of-the-millennium gas-obsessed blogger. Such are my daydreams and nightmares.
Yes, one day it will be our stuff – yours, mine – out in the spotlight and telling stories. Like Pip in Great Expectations I will find myself hoping then for people to look on me with a kinder eye than I deserve and to forget my faults.
And I can sure mock those stuff-enslaved storage folks until I try to clean out the bins of baby memorabilia. Ha! Try to throw one thing away that baby wore or touched. It’s like an amputation. I can’t do it. And one day, stuff – rooms, beds, food, books, toys – will be the way I love my visiting children and grandchildren.
So, stuff. It’s inescapable. It’s odd. I’ll be working on a theology. What do you think?
(With thanks to Carolyn Byer for the dictionary, and with acknowlegment that larger things are happening in the world, but what can I say about Baltimore that Jen Hatmaker hasn’t already said well?)