18th-century British textile designer, poet, writer and socialist activist William Morris famously advised: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
It’s become a sort of go-to standard that organizers, minimalists and de-clutterers of every ilk use to look at the stuff with which we all surround ourselves.
These days every time you hear that phrase, you can pretty much expect that somebody is going to try to persuade you to get rid of some beloved something.
The perpetrator of the phrase may even hand you some sort of condescending, mealy-mouthed, holier-than-thou thing about your “unhealthy” attachments to “mere material objects.”
Either that, or you are at the start of some tornado whirligig round of tossing out the stuff you’ve piled up yet again since the last time you had a hard time getting the front door to close on your over-stuffed abode.
In the YouTube video below, published by Vickin Kane in 2013, funny-man George Carlin pokes gentle fun at our human propensity for surrounding ourselves with “our” stuff:
Isn’t that a truth? No matter who we are, we do apparently need to have at least a modicum of “our own stuff” to begin to relax in a new-to-us space.
We never do completely outgrow our Inner Linus. (And, no, you cannot persuade me to let go of my blankie. Just…NO.)
SPIELZEUG = THE SENSE OF HUMAN CONNECTION TO STUFF
I keep tripping over a weird-to-me German word, “spielzeug.” I may be wrong, but I think the thing is pronounced, “sch-PEEL-zoyg.”
The word itself means “toy” or “plaything.” It literally translates as “play piece.”
Underneath that everyday meaning is one that points to a palpable, peculiar, unarticulated and elusive quality of an object (either man-made or natural) that feels “right” for reasons you can’t explain.
Places and people can have the same quality as well.
When you meet that particular “rightness,” you feel well and right and good. The world feels well and right and good.
That rightness lifts you up and opens you up to another level of energy that you can use when you do your walk.
Think about some of your favorite things. Here are five of mine:
- There’s that mug that pleases my eye and fits well in my hand and holds just the right amount of coffee to help me start my day well.
- There’s that bit of artwork that makes me smile whenever I see it because it was lovingly made just for me by an old friend who is gone now. It was the inspiration for a whole new kind of making that led me to other good adventures.
- There’s the little baby teddy-bear, long-abandoned by one of my grown babies, peeking out at me from its place on a shelf — a reminder of a lifetime of special joys and sorrows.
- The mondo stash of crafting and art supplies and equipment sits, waiting for my next foray into “little-god” world, where I get to let out my Inner Maker.
- And then there’s the ever-changing library of books by authors whose minds and hearts resonate with mine that I can revisit whenever I like.
You probably have your own favorites that help make your own life feel richer. They probably could be labeled as “spielzug” too.
They are the things to which you feel a connection, the things that you can, maybe, love.
THE LOVE OF STUFF….
Okay. I get it. It’s probably not politically correct or something to confess that one “loves” things or even that things do matter – a lot, sometimes.
The ubiquitous Right-Thinking Folks keep telling us that people and life experiences and all that are more important and worthier of attention than mere “things.”
In this post-modern world, it seems, a love of stuff has been reframed as a propensity for hoarding and cluttering up the place with useless junk as well as some sort of sure sign of a certain shallowness of character, perhaps.
As Carlin points out, “Other people’s stuff is shit and your shit is stuff.”
(If I were pressed to the wall, though, I’d probably confess that I love Boo-Bear way more than a lot of the people with whom I am acquainted. Fact is, I probably love my coffee cup more than…. Nah, nah, nah. Getting carried away. Sorry.)
The fact is, we all love certain things more than other things.
So, of course, I have to ask: Why IS that?
THE SMARTY-PANTS PONTIFICATE
Archaeologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers have all weighed in with studies and musings about the function of stuff-love in the evolution of our flavor of human-ness.
The development, structure, and function of our societies, our psyches and even our souls, they say, can be sussed out by looking at our “material culture,” the stuff with which we surround ourselves.
One interesting perspective is the idea that objects can have (or be given) “agency,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power; a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.”
We humans are all about making things. These things are meant to be used.
It is probable, according to the ones who study such things, that our stuff are our intentions and goals and everyday actions made manifest as well as the means to make our dreams possible.
We make the tools we use to make our physical worlds – our houses, the way we travel, what and how we eat, how we clothe and decorate ourselves, and so on.
We make evocative bits of art as well as music and dance and word-play and all the accoutrements we need to produce such things. These bits of self-expression stir up the emotions of the people around us as we try to get them and the Universe to do what we want them to do.
We make objects (everything from amulets and talismans to city walls and intrusion alarms and smoke detectors) that we employ to protect our own safety zones in the world and so on.
Archaeologists, social scientists and others who study the trails that humans have made across our world through the millenia have pointed out that many times modern-day scientists are able to understand a long-gone civilization by studying the objects connected to that certain group of people.
Because we can understand how we ourselves would like to manipulate our own world to create our own comfort zones, we can often understand why these extinct tribes made and used the objects they created.
Like us, these peoples made stuff to influence how their own societies and the world worked for them. If the things were designed and constructed well and were properly aligned with their maker’s intentions, then the objects probably did the job they were supposed to do.
The psychologists and others who study modern humans say that our motivations and desires haven’t changed all that much from those our ancestors and precursors presumably held.
Some neuroscientists even say that all those desires and such are probably a product of our inherited human DNA.
(This last perspective tends to make me wonder just how much actual progress humankind has made over all these centuries of so-called self-improvement and spiritual striving and all that, but that’s another story.)
In more modern studies focused on individual personhood and self-definition, it seems it is a given. We humans love our stuff partly because the objects really do seem to be connected to how we attempt to satisfy our personal needs and desires.
Those needs and desires affect and influence us and the people around us when we choose what we call “our own stuff.” Often, it seems, we define ourselves and set out our personal boundaries of who we are and who we are not by the material objects we allow into our lives.
WHAT WOULD YOU GRAB IF YOUR HOUSE WAS BURNING DOWN?
One intriguing online Tumblr project-turned-book was crafted by freelance photographer Foster Huntington. He asked a question that struck a chord in many people: “If your house was burning, what would you take with you?”
He asked the question on February 10, 2011 when he launched a Tumblr account The Burning House with 10 photographs of the things he and nine of his friends would rescue. Within a few hours of the launch he got his first submission from a complete stranger.
Within a few days Huntington was making headlines.
To broaden the sampling of respondents and make the collection of pictures more diverse, the Manhattan-based photographer embarked on an answer-collecting trip, traveling thousands of miles up and down the American West Coast and around the Rockies.
He wanted, he said, to include answers from people “other than typical blog readers”– people who were technologically challenged as well as other sorts who were not into the techno-revolution.
More than 5,000 people spanning six continents with age differences of as many as 80 years or so responded to the question. Huntington received or recorded the images of their personal treasures arranged in pleasing compositions.
His book, published in 2012, THE BURNING HOUSE: What Would You Take?, features the most interesting of these responses and gives you a bit of an insight into the very human commonality of stuff-love.
It can be surprising, what people think they would like to save once they’ve rescued their beloved people and pets from an inferno.
If you’d like a taste of the book, you might want to look at this video by filmmaker Lubomir Velev in 2014:
It could also be a springboard for your own thought-experiment: What would YOU grab if your house was burning down?
Why? What meaning do these things hold for you in your life? Why are they your special things?
SHINING ANOTHER LIGHT ON STUFF-LOVE
Another book that illuminates how stuff-love works in our lives is Daniel Miller’s THE COMFORT OF THINGS, published in 2008.
Miller is Professor of Anthropology at University College London (UCL) and is the author/editor of more than 30 other books, some of them decidedly esoteric and perhaps less understandable to us regular sorts.
He and his team of students collected the stories of the lives of 30 ordinary people, neighbors living on a randomly chosen London street. They focused on the things that mattered most to the people in each of these households.
Using the data from these oral histories, Miller fashioned a book that helps us understand the different ways people use things to help them make sense of their lives.
It is a most interesting use of story-making and an intriguing glimpse at the diversity of life in an everyday ordinary community.
Miller is an anthropologist who believes in trying to use the scientific methods and processes of his discipline to help shed light for us regular folks on our very human social behaviors and on what we think we already know about them.
It is a cool thing.
SPIELZEUG = MANA
Back to this new-to-me word, “spielzeug.”
I found the most cogent (to me) explanation for the under-meaning (kaona) of this most unusual word in a 2017 self-help book by Chris Baréz-Brown, WAKE UP!: A Handbook to Living in the Here and Now – 54 Playful Strategies to Help You Snap Out of Autopilot.
Baréz-Brown says the word “spielzeug” points to the “palpable energy certain objects have that connect it to us.”
For me, the concept resonates with the Hawaiian concept of mana, the inherent power contained in certain natural or man-made objects that have a special sort of energy we can tap into that makes us feel more alive and that energizes us somehow.
His book, which is a playfully serious read that contains a lot of mind-gaming exercises that are fun to explore, even has an exercise you might want to try your own self.
First, Baréz-Brown says, you have to sensitize yourself and make yourself aware of this spielzeug energy. He suggests spending 10 minutes a day for a week quietly holding some of your favorite things in your hands.
- Focus on feeling the shape, weight and texture of the thing. Pay attention to the colors of it and the lines that move you or to other special features about it that you especially like.
- Then soften that intense focus and just hold the object. Enjoy holding it and allow yourself to connect to it more deeply, feeling the emotions and memories it might evoke in you.
- Then, pick up another similar object (a cup, book or whatever) with which you have no connection. Feel the difference.
According to Baréz-Brown, the pay-off for doing this bit of a woo-woo exercise is that you will become aware of and notice the energies around you that are inherent in the assorted objects in your world.
The ones that sing for you are the ones you’ll want to be able to touch frequently and “plug” into. Those are the ones, he says, that help you tune in to the world around you and that expand your perceptions beyond your usual awareness.
They can give you a positive energetic kick and often can help you connect to the interconnectedness of the life around us as well.
After you’ve been doing that for a while, “you may find that you can plug into places, times, people, sound perceptions, perspectives, art, literature, food, the sea, animals, family, plants, yourself,” he says.
MY OWN TAKE
I, personally, have always done this way of tuning-in as a matter of course. We Hawaiians learn to do it as children, I think.
We have been taught, very early, that there are certain places and people and things that make us feel more alive and alert and others that can creep us out or make us feel weak and drained.
We live in a many-storied place, a land of legends – light and dark – and the world, for us, is always more than its seeming. We learn early to look at the world and respect the life-energy, the mana that is there in it.
To me, that is a good way to walk through the world. (It certainly keeps things from getting too boring.)
I agree with Baréz-Brown when he points out that, “The wider our repertoire of plug-ins, the more we can adjust to what’s needed here. Then we can wake up whenever we feel like it.”
I think that is a very good thing.
Here’s a poem:
WHAT UGLY IS FOR
Rainbows only last
as long as rain
and sunshine mingle…
Dawns and sunsets
are the sweetest notes
between day and night.
Butterflies flitter and
are gone in a twinkle,
a flash of color….
The sweetest flowers
fade away to sludge,
a scent of glory.
The heartbreaking curve
of a beautiful face is marred
by traces of inexorable age,
And “new” just lasts
until you use it…
(after that, it’s used).
Beauty, they say, is ephemeral,
which is a fancy way
of saying it doesn’t last.
The heart can only stand
so much uplift before it
tries to find the ground again.
Maybe that’s what ugly’s for.
By Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “I was tagged” by Alexis Mire via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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