The Stuff of Simplicity

Editor’s Note: I failed to post this essay by Wendy before Christmas. I humbly apologize, and I know readers will be both encouraged and prodded by this now-updated piece. –Jeff

In the last of what were my single years, I lived alone in a ground floor apartment across the street from Union College, where I had been a rather unenthusiastic student in the mid-90s. I had broken up with my boyfriend (who is now my husband), and my stepsister, who had shared this apartment, had moved far away and I found myself really alone for the first time in my life. And I didn’t like it very much.

I was lonely. I had cats that would sleep behind every curve of my body at night–ensuring a minimum of tossing and turning–and this helped. But cats couldn’t pay bills, or advise me on work. To quell the feelings of being alone, I began to control the only thing I could control–my stuff. Somehow, I had managed to collect not just every paper I had ever written in my failed college career and all the way back to kindergarten, but I had also collected the papers of others because I had a garage. Allow me to explain: Apparently, having a garage leads one’s friends to believe that they do not need to go through their things before they move- simply backing their vehicle up to my garage and unloading were all that was required. Surely Wendy could use this stuff, right? Yeah, well, no. I clearly remember the moment when I looked at my garage and found the meaning of life.

Simplify. Life is not “stuff”, it leans more towards freedom from stuff, and Wendy had work to do in that area. It is safe to say that I didn’t and don’t place pets in the category of “stuff”.

Now, about three years after this epiphany, I noticed the word ‘simplify’ becoming a rallying cry, albeit a ridiculously ironic one in the society we live. I grew up with grandparents who had grown up during the depression, and who fought in World War II–both abroad and on the home front. They knew how to bottle vegetables, how to darn their socks, and how to fix anything that happened to break down. Gone are those days. In fact, I clearly remember watching the smoke rise from the rubble that was the World Trade Center and hearing our leader tell us to keep shopping. So, simplification wasn’t going to catch on anytime soon–not in its truest sense. And since then, I fear it has been molded into a meaning having to do with organization of “stuff” rather than the un-need of it.

Today I have four children, and I find the struggle for simplification to be an ongoing one, although one that is deeply meaningful in every effect. In parenting land, I have watched my kids come home from school not to talk about what they’ve learned that day, but to describe with intricate detail the newest plastic toy made by their favorite company, and I ask myself; Is this what I wish for my children? To be made into mindless consumers? In fiscal responsibility land, I watch the money spent around Christmas time or birthdays, and I wonder how worth it any of it is, especially considering that two weeks later, many small pieces of toys end up sucked into my trusty, plastic vacuum cleaner. In environmental responsibility land I think of the ridiculousness of rubber ducks washing ashore in Alaska, and around the world, fifteen years after their shipping container fell overboard in the North Pacific Sub polar Gyre. I think of the overall harm that our addiction to plastic inflicts on this planet. In the land of my heart, I wonder about the Chinese workers making these toys for American consumers, and hope that they’ll someday be able to use the bathroom without being fined, and that they will be able to see their kids more often than only once a year.

We survived Christmas this year without buying quite as much stuff as we normally do. I bought books, made knitted gifts, supplied some new clothes- and yes, bought a few small mass-market toys, namely Thomas the Tank Engine, Lego and something called a Ninjago that I haven’t quite figured out the point of yet. It spins–this is all I know.

But the most memorable things about this Christmas weren’t the toys, but the evening we spent caroling with our neighbors, the friends we had over for dinner and those who had us over–and the day we took Leonard (my mother’s step-father who lives alone about thirty minutes away) dinner, cookies, and just ourselves. Oh, and the garage–the two days it took to clean out our garage and take two carloads of old clothing and toys to the Goodwill. Those are the things we talk about and remember.

Holidays aren’t supposed to be stressful, but they so often are–and not only for those of us celebrating, but for the people that make the stuff that supplies our holidays. I suppose it comes down to mindfulness and the part that compassion should play in life–and what we’ll do about that. If we uphold the importance of family, but harm other families in other lands by the way we celebrate a holiday (or even in the way we live day to day), we probably aren’t celebrating the birth of Christ in a worthy way. This isn’t easy–it was never supposed to be. We live in a time and place where things and stuff are emphasized, and so I ask- what would Jesus do? I doubt he would stampede into stores at midnight on black Friday, or fight over a waffle iron at Wal-Mart. I doubt he would buy any old toy or electronic device or pair of jeans without thought for how that item was made and the overall effect of our current drive to consume. It’s a matter of stepping out of our current mold, being a little choosey, and viewing stuff as stuff, rather than happiness. And maybe, just maybe, the Christmas miracle will begin to change the world.

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