The Society of Things

By Valerie Andrews

Not so long ago, we thought about our “stuff” in a very different way. This word has evolved from the Greek stuphein, to draw together, reminding us of the joy that comes from entering the society of things.   The world was perhaps a kinder place when we regarded household objects with tenderness and devotion — when we felt empathy for a sofa, a painting, or a vase, and our belongings gave us a sense that we, too, belonged to a certain time and place.  

Charles Essenhigh Corke, drawing of Seven Oaks, Kent, temporary home of Jane Austen

The sociologist Max Weber had this to say about our love affair with the contents of our homes.  “Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the inanimate simple things of life,”  when people feel at one with their surroundings. When they are able to “touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye.”

We rely upon our creature comforts and until fairly recently, we fashioned most of them by hand.  In long hours of loving labor, we made cushions, drapes and tapestries,  monogrammed sheets and napkins,  polished silver and artfully displayed our porcelain plates on open shelves.  We knew how to card wool, carve chairs, build tables, patch upholstery, restore dressers and keep the house in good repair.  It was our job to protect and preserve our own small portion of the world and Thomas Hardy describes this form of housekeeping as a sacred trust.

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying.

Dallying — now that’s the key.  Caring for the home takes time.  Something we have so much less of in the age of overwork and rising stress.  Sadly, my generation may be the last to value our collections and our heirlooms, believing that they give a home its character.  We still receive great pleasure reading the books inherited from a literary aunt; playing the 1927 piano that belonged to an opera-loving grandmother; sitting in a Queen Anne chair that has been reupholstered more times than we can count; storing dishes in a blue Shaker hutch; displaying a Yokuts wedding basket or an 18th century candlestick on the mantel.

When younger people ask about the significance of such things, I say: Heirlooms are important because they help us tell our stories and make sense of the world.  More than a connection to the past, they are an antidote to a fast-moving future, grounding us in time and place.  But this magic happens only  if we take the time to cozy up to our belongings and hear what they have to say to us.

From Makers to Consumers

Marshall Field’s Department Store, Great Hall 1920

When did we bow out of this conversation? And how did we lose touch with the narrative of things?

According to University of Chicago historian Bill Brown,  this rift in communication occurred in the early 1900s,  once sofas and spoons, bowls and bric-a-brac began to fly off the production line.  With the growth of manufacturing,  we became obsessed with the sheer volume of goods we could accumulate.  In “The Tyranny of Things” the editors of The Atlantic warned that we were now dominated by our possessions: “We fill our rooms, walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.”

In Sister Carrie, novelist Theodore Dreiser described a country girl corrupted by the blandishments of a big city department store, its aisles bursting with the thrill of merchandise: “(Carrie) could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, hair combs, purses, all touched her with individual desire.”

For more than a hundred years, marketers have been appealing to our unconscious need for power and status — a need so bottomless that it has left us with cluttered living rooms,  packed attics and garages, and overflowing storage units.  Overcome with stuff, we now long for the bare ruined choirs of simplicity and to be liberated from our endless wants.

From Kondo to Community

This desire for a new sense of spaciousness has led to the popularity of  Marie Kondo’s  Magical Art of Tidying Up.  The author suggests that we winnow through our belongings, keeping only those items that “spark joy” in us, noting that the house will then be happy, too.  

Kondo, who once served as a handmaid in a Shinto Buddhist temple, bows to the home and encourages us to dialogue with our possessions as if they were living things. (Your socks don’t like to be balled up and jammed into a drawer, for example, but prefer to be smoothed out and placed gently near their mates.)  This notion, to me, seems even more therapeutic than her advice on organizing and decluttering. 

At the core of Shinto Buddhism is the notion that after years of service, household objects acquire souls and are deserving of our kindness and compassion.  Kondo’s advice is to say  “Thank you!” to the neglected plate or chair that takes us back to a time when we believed in the sacredness of things.  Enlightened Kondo followers show their respect for unwanted items by taking them to the local thrift store or consignment shop where they will get more years of happy use.  But I worry about those who shove their rejects into black plastic bags and simply leave them at the curb.  When we disrespect them in this way, Holy Simplicity becomes Entitled Waste and our newfound virtue just another contribution to the Age of Throwaway. 

 To keep with the spirit of Kondo’s book, we ought to take time from our frenzied organizing and heed an object’s plea for recognition — to ask not only if it sparks joy in us, but, “Where will does that sweater/toaster/set of golf clubs want to go?  Where will it feel loved and appreciated? and  finally, “How can it spark joy in someone else?”

Kondo is educating Americans in how to simplify their lives and how to  forge a more mindful relationship with our belongings.  But there’s even more at stake than that.  Things are the glue that connect us to each other.  

In The Gift, Lewis Hyde notes that a healthy society values “the erotic life of property.”  He is not referring to an X-rated home but to the way we build community through every day acts of generosity.

“Unlike the sale of a commodity,” Hyde writes, “the giving of a gift tends to establish relationships between the parties involved.”   An object that changes hands transfers energy from one person to another and is holy because in this way it contributes to the flow of life.  Indigenous societies held periodic giveaways, distributing their surplus to those in need, operating on the principle that goods and resources should be shared by all.

In the Native American giveaway, surplus baskets, bowls, and blankets were regularly passed out to those in need.   The fact that an item would be regifted many times was the origin of the pejorative term “Indian giver,” yet these gifts represented the values of love and loyalty, and this communal exchange was the lifeblood of the tribe.  The pioneers developed their own rituals of sharing, too,  from barn-raisings to canning days to quilting bees.   

Apache-still-life_restored.jpg: Edward S. Curtis/Public Domain,

Fifteen years ago I introduced a variation on this tradition to my women’s group.  Every few months, we’d gather those impulse purchases that didn’t fit our wardrobes (wrong color, wrong style, wrong fit) or apartments (too bold, too shiny or too big for the space) and put them in the center of the room.  As the wine and conversation began to flow, we’d each pull out an item or two we found appealing. By the end of the evening, most of the rejects — a scarf, a toaster, a set of Imari bowls — had found a home, and instead of feeling guilty about our “bad purchases” we each got to play Lady Bountiful, watching a woman’s face light up as she discovered something wonderful.   As one friend said, “I knew that shawl was a good value. I just didn’t realize I was buying it for someone else.”

Humans have a deep evolutionary drive to forage.  We’ve been genetically programmed to gather,  to create a surplus as a hedge against hard times.  Yet we’ve also learned that objects have manna or energy — and this power only grows as an object is passed on and reused.

“Let the object come to you.”

There is a truth known to poets and mystics: If we look at an object long enough, we will fall in love with it. It doesn’t matter whether we focus on a tree, a matchbook, a tea kettle, a table or a piece of pottery.  If we can sustain the gaze, we will begin to peer into the heart of things.

Just as lovers come together through the act of beholding — the flicker of an eyelash, the parting of the lips, the set of a chin — we fall in love without surroundings.  It’s all in the details, the grain of a table, the shape of a chair, the way a ray of light is captured in a crystal vase.

We have only to sit still and let the object have its way with us.  Keats spoke of the poet’s ability to bury his own self-consciousness, to whole-heartedly identify with the object he is contemplating.  He knew that things will divulge their secrets, if we approach them carefully, relinquishing our impulse to dictate or control.

Robert Kipniss, The Old Print Shop, New York, NY

Virginia Woolf understood this practice long before we went Zen and began to speak about a mindful relationship with the home.  In the 1920s she told her sister, “I shall have to write a novel entirely about carpets, old silver, cut glass and furniture.” As one of Woolf’s characters observes in The Waves, How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself…Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being  myself.”

Objects have their own kind of integrity. They can elevate us morally and even lead us into the realm of grace.   Henry David Thoreau said we can establish this kind of I-Thou with relationship with things simply by slowing down and refocusing our attention.  He often sat in his parlor allowing his gaze to fall lightly on one of his possessions.   “I let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes (begin to) see without looking,’  he explained.  In this way he might mark the heartbeat of a clock, catch a book basking in the sunlight, feel the carpet curling at his feet.

“Go not to the object,” Thoreau advised, stressing gentleness and humility. “Let it come to you.”

Make no mistake, this is a form of intimacy.  A love affair with the stuff of daily life.

Reader's Forum

Our way of living changes once we enter the society of things.  Homemaking is no longer about sorting and organizing and making things behave but knowing where a pillow likes to nestle, how much space a lamp needs to stretch its neck, and how to coax the curtains just far enough apart to bathe the room in amber light.

Imagine this: Each thing in your household is alive and calling to you. All you have to do is start the conversation.  Pay close attention to one of your possessions, and let us know what it says to you.

Valerie Andrews is the founder of Sacred Words: A Center for Healing Stories and the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home.  She is finishing a book called Where the Heart Is:  Renewing our Love Affair with Home. 

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