The Spirit of Stuff

I have never been all that keen about material stuff. I love clear white walls, oriental rugs on wood floors and a few throw pillows. Space to quiet the mind or do a headstand. I dislike clothes shopping and go into overwhelm at garage sales, flea markets and large box stores. My thoughts are, “Oh my god, where would I put it?” as my eyes glaze over.

Mom and Dad at home with wall art

I suspect that my aversion to stuff can be traced to my childhood home. Stuff crowded every room and adorned every wall. When you arrived at the front door you were well advised to leave your bag, coat and umbrella in the front hall or risk their disappearance in the cacophony of things inhabiting the rooms within. It’s not that my mother was a hoarder. There were no piles of newspapers or old coffee cans. My mother was an artist and the stuff that filled her space comprised her bone pile, the material and inspirations she used to create her art. Paper, pens, paint, brushes, magazine clippings, photographs, cameras, photo albums, and shelf upon shelf of toys and dolls filled nearly every room. She was a photographer and a toy designer and these were the materials of her life.

George’s Rolodex

As the humor of the cosmos would have it, I am wed to an artist who shares my mother’s enthusiasm for stuff. A woodworker and sculptor, George has a bone pile that matches if not surpasses my mother’s. I do appreciate the magic he can perform with his stuff –the intricate designs and unique combinations that yield one-of-a-kind mirrors, lamps, desk, rolodexes, toys and clocks. He almost always has whatever is needed for a current project. What is most impressive to me is his ability to find it. Unfortunately his stuff has a way of migrating into any unoccupied space in the house and this has occasionally been a source of tension between us.

I suppose I have always felt a bit superior in my attitude regarding stuff—as though my detachment and disdain were somehow more spiritual. So it was no surprise when we recently got into a bit of a row over the inadvertent breaking of a foley mill – one of those old-time kitchen contraptions for removing seeds and skin from tomatoes or berries. I didn’t really break it. I merely lost a tiny part essential to its function. Well, I was happy to order another foley mill! Oh Nooooo! This was a special foley mill! It belonged to his mother, maybe even her mother. He had searched high and low for days to find the precise copper tube that would form the spacer bushing between handle and spring so that the mill would work smoothly. I had ruined it! I would have to fix it. No other foley mill would do! Geeez!

George carving wood.

The next morning George explained to me his feelings about stuff. He loves the materials of his trade — the texture, the feel, and the smell of wood or stone or paper. He can speak at length on the superior qualities of a particular piece of lumber, pointing out the closeness of its grain, the lack of knots and the hardness or clarity of its surface. Most of his own tools are either made or refined by his hand. He is a stickler for quality and craftsmanship. Everything he owns has a personal history. And when he acquires the tools or materials of someone else, he learns the stories that come with them so that he might recall them with each use.

I got it! The foley mill was not just a tool to separate tomato pulp from its skin (with a part that falls out when you wash it!) It is the gift he asked his mother to give him this year on his birthday. It was also the days he spent finding the right part to fix it. And it embodied a piece of his childhood—the blackberry jams, tomato pastes, and raspberry preserves warmly made in his family’s kitchen. He described for me his vision of future years of using it, savoring his memories each time he brought it out. Maybe he would even show it to my niece and share its story as he demonstrated its simple efficiency.

Since our morning’s discussion, I have begun to see the material world in a different way, as made up of objects with spirit. Each contains a multitude of spirits: the spirit of its composition such as the tree that gave its wood or the ground that yielded its metal; and the spirit of it maker—whether it was made in love by a craftsman or under duress by a factory worker. Then there’s the history of its existence—who has used it, when, for what, how long—and all the tales that accompany its life.


I am reminded of my 1985 Honda Civic, a good little car. I discovered her name, Angelina, shortly after I bought her, when she helped me avoid an accident. I heard her warning in my head. My guardian angel! There were subsequent close-saves in the fourteen years I drove her. She was a reliable beast, as those old Hondas tended to be. She never left me stranded. And she came with a mechanic who knew her history. I cried when I had to leave her at the car dismantler this past spring after expressing my love and gratitude for all her years of service.

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