I am overwhelmed by stuff. Each week I survey, yet again, the mounds of possessions our family has acquired over 20 years living in the same house. Rooms of furniture, boxes of books, shelves of CDs and records, closets of clothes, cabinets of kitchenware and a storeroom of items not currently "in use."
Often it seems these things no longer serve me, but I serve them as I push the vacuum over the rug, dust the picture frames, wash my 10th load of laundry and sort through broken and outgrown toys.
In any one week, we may use only 50 percent of our possessions, but we pay for them every day in maintenance costs and storage space.
I haven't always lived this way. My first venture out of my parents' home was to a college dorm. At the end of four years I could still fit all my belongings in the trunk and back seat of a car -- clothes, books, bike, linens, camera, typewriter, toiletries, and one or two pieces of small furniture.
I liked that feeling. With the wings of an eagle I could fly off to take up a new life, a new persona.
After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., with a few more things. My parents gave me my childhood dresser and desk to get me going in the townhouse I shared with four other girls on Capitol Hill. I bought a used bed, rug and a few lamps, but still managed to take up no more than one room.
Then I married and we bought a house. Not only did we pool our possessions, but we started to acquire.
Our new home had seven rooms to furnish and our first year was a testament to our former frugal ways. Between us we had a small sofa, two leather chairs, one lamp, one rug, one small table with four chairs, two dressers, one desk and two beds.
Twenty years, three children and an addition later, we have three sofas, two love seats, two easy chairs, 15 wooden chairs, four beds, five dressers, three tables, two desks, six area rugs, wall-to-wall carpet and eight closets filled with clothes.
Now in middle age, my years of necessary acquisition are largely behind me. My house is full and I am in need of very little. Yet I continue to buy. With some remorse I'm having to recognize that many of the things I now purchase are to fill me rather than my home.
I'll have a bad day, a confrontation with an acquaintance or a setback at work. Instead of reaching within myself and outward to others for replenishment, I instinctively yearn for more stuff to fill my temporary emptiness and feelings of despair. I remember something I've "been meaning to buy" and almost unconsciously find myself -- minutes or hours later -- racing to the mall to find it. Then I feel better. For a while.
No wonder many of the things I now purchase -- things that seemed so important when I bought them -- quickly lose their appeal.
The silver bracelet is not unique as I had thought, the luxury soap has a slightly off smell and the extra set of pajamas lies barely worn in my drawer while I rotate through the six additional pairs I own.
I'm having to recognize that I have a tendency to reach for my pocketbook when my heart feels empty. I use stuff to measure my personal and emotional safety in the world. But since security is elusive, it is no wonder I never seem to get enough stuff and can't let go of what I have.
An empty heart is healed through closer connections. Not more stuff. I notice this when I take a vacation with my family and live out of a suitcase for two weeks.
Lo and behold, I don't miss my "left behind" stuff. My heart is full, yet light, despite wearing the same outfit two or three times in one week.
Having experienced this, I'm forced to admit that stuff only serves me when it creates a conducive environment to cultivate family, friends, community, faith and work -- the essentials that nurture the soul and replenish the body.
Nevertheless, it is hard to break old habits. Too often, I find myself -- yet again -- racing down the highway to the mall, driven by the urge to feel better inside. But before I do, I now try to take steps to curb my desire. I consider the source of my temporary emptiness, address it, acknowledge it and let it go before masking the symptoms with a bag of more goods.
I also spend a moment considering the blessings in my life instead of the losses. Those two little exercises often curtail my impulse to buy.
Sometimes I genuinely do need something. My towels are frayed, the toaster is broken or my last pair of jeans has a hole in the leg. At those times I indulge my pleasure in shopping without an ounce of guilt. But I often wonder to myself, when I observe the malls packed to the gills with shoppers, what the world would look like if everyone adopted a bit of the anti-stuff attitude. I suspect it would be a happier, calmer and more contented place. Our hearts and pocketbooks would be fuller and we'd have more time for the activities and people that give genuine meaning to our lives.