I’m helping my parents pack up their house, where they have lived for the last 25 years. Given that we were five siblings, there was always someone coming and going through the house – on the way back from overseas, on the way to emigrate or after the birth of a baby. We find traces of adult children – one of my brothers’ tuxedos and another’s framed degree certificate. There are stacks of Mother’s Day cards, nursery books my mum loves to read to her grandchildren, and letters from all of us who spent time overseas. The house bears witness to my parents’ generosity and hospitality. It calls back memories of times when we needed, even as adults, our parents’ embrace.
We unpack my mother’s sewing cupboard and find scraps of fabric left over from her mother-of-the-bride dresses and incomplete sewing projects; old curtains made with precious fabrics. There are my gran’s quilts and my grandfather’s collection of spiritual books; baskets we used to collect fruit and vegetables on our family farm. Nearly every item tells a story and evokes emotion, especially as my mum and I are equally sentimental.
What to take with to the smaller home in the retirement village, is the big question. What to do with all these sentimental objects? Shall we throw them out, give them away, sell them or should we ask a cousin whether they attach sentimental value to Ouma’s antique vase? Precious and sentimental antiques simply don’t fit the children’s homes. Regretfully, they let go of the beautifully carved rosewood dressing table where my mum did her make-up and hair every morning. I fix the memory of her at that table, smelling of First perfume and foundation, forever. My dad videos her playing the grand piano that has been her life-long companion, for the last time.
The endless decisions and concurrent emotions are more tiring than the physical task of packing up. It leads me to ponder on material possessions.
Throughout our lives, we attach so much value to gaining stuff. Apart from the few pieces of inherited furniture, everything in that house was bought with hard-earned money. It’s true for all of us. That new big-screen TV, the even better coffee machine, a piece of furniture we desire – we believe, subconsciously at least, that the stuff will transform us and our lives. Life will be more glamorous, more convenient, more entertaining or have more meaning if only we owned that next possession. We buy acceptance, esteem, and many other feelings.
And our attachment to those objects can become an issue. Once we own an object, attachment forms as we associate the possession with our emotions around that possession. Like my mother’s rosewood dressing table – my attachment to the dressing table is in fact a reflection of my emotions towards my mother; my attachment to her. Letting go of that dressing table becomes painful because it reminds us of the true loss – the times we had together. A time that is now moving on.
Everything that we covet, for whatever reason, comes into our house and our lives but will need to leave again at some stage. It breaks, reaches the end of its usefulness, is overtaken by even better or more convenient technology, we run out of space or age forces us to scale down. Eventually, we leave everything behind when we die.
Looking at material possessions in this way alerts us to our desire to always earn more or even invest better. If it’s to buy more stuff, it seems meaningless. This arch of accumulation and decumulation of possessions is somewhat senseless. Yet, we all participate in it. We attach value to it. We gauge our peers on their stuff.
If we desired less, we could scale down our frantic activity to earn more. We could even gain more joy from what we already have. But how do we get to the point of desiring less? Perhaps by taking a moment to simply realise that more does not equal happiness. If we can make this realisation true for ourselves, if we can be honest enough about it, we may more easily let go of this desire?
I resolve to live more lightly, to gather less stuff, to let go of stuff and to let go of my attachment of what I already own.
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//23 April 2021