The Stuff We Leave

What if you disappeared tonight, and at some point in the future, even tomorrow, an archeologist tried to understand who you were by the stuff you left behind?

If someone had only my possessions to determine my character, to try to chart my life and my culture, I wonder what conclusions they would draw. Here is a woman who liked sweaters and boots and jewelry and religious icons and nail polish. Or, here is a woman who was vain and shallow but tried to appear spiritual by collecting religious crap.

Maybe they would factor in my books, and deduce that somewhere in that shallowness, there was once a thinking organism that read and cherished Flaubert, William Burroughs, George Eliot and Balzac. Maybe they would see all the books on abnormal psychology and assume I was a therapist or a mental patient.

One of the Christmas gifts I received this year is a book of old photos, published by a guy who collects found art and the personal effects of dead strangers. The photos show some gay men in the early 70s, wearing Biker gear for get-togethers in the woods somewhere. They are only vaguely interesting and don’t inspire my curiosity, but rather a dim sense of pity that they probably lived much of their lives in secret longing to just be themselves.

I wish I could take my shit with me when I die, like the ancient pharos. It’s not that I own anything valuable. I just don’t want to be judged or pitied. I don’t want strangers to evaluate my accumulated crap and decide I was a loser. I will need to give everything away first or burn it all. Or maybe I’ll realize how stupid it is to worry about some idiot trying on my clothes in a thrift shop or my poor underwear laying under some rotting fruit in a dumpster.

I now possess a big suitcase full of my son’s clothes. Everything is so indicative of who he was! He was a gentle soul who loved softness. A pile of old cashmere sweaters, some I have mended, some with huge holes at the elbow, all of them black, grey or dark bottle green. Huge pairs of baggy trousers in corduroy or velvet. No denim jeans. Maybe they weren’t soft enough or maybe he just wanted to reject the uniform of his peers.   So many dark soft clothes that I can’t go through all of it at once.

And yet, after he hurt himself, he lived like a monk, with only two sweaters and a few t-shirts and a single pair of shoes, He didn’t want any of his other belongings. He had already given most of his guitars to his brother. His belongings might mislead a stranger to guess he was a dandy of some kind, but nothing could be further from the truth. He never felt comfortable in his body. He once told me that he felt like a radio or some other device, with all its wires exposed. I agreed that I felt like an amoeba without a protective membrane.

Both of us eventually tried antidepressants. For me, they worked. After trying seven different medications, he gave up believing there was anything to cure his depression.

In the pocket of one of his jackets, I was stunned to find a bag of old needles and plastic spoons. What were they doing there? Had he stashed them there in a hurry one day? He hadn’t worn that jacket in more than a year but no one had come upon that bag.

It didn’t make me angry. It didn’t disgust me. It was part of his life and part of who he was. It was part of everything he went through. I’m keeping the bag because there isn’t one thing about him that I want to forget or that I don’t love and won’t keep on loving.

33 Responses to “The Stuff We Leave”

  1. Graham Jolicoeur Says:

    I can totally relate. I kind of dint want anything about me
    To be around after I die. I kind of just want do dematerilze and disappear with all my belongings when I die. Kind of the way you see angles disappear in movies. I fid it scary to think the kind of digital footprint that I will leave behind that my family will have to deal with. Facebook profiles, emails, etc. I have been thinking about this Soo much I have even considered being mummified with my shit so I just sort of disappear.

  2. Jane Schott Says:

    Whew. I really am grateful that you are writing this blog.

  3. Aja Says:

    I often wonder about the judgments strangers might make of me based upon my belongings. First things first, gross materialism. An enormous amount of shoes. Dresses of all shapes and sizes. But then there are the things which hold such value. An Esprit dress from high school I spent hard earned money on when I was first developing my sense of style. A $2 thrift blazer I wore almost every Friday in high school (with hospital scrubs!) My father’s vintage Dior pajamas (the ones you loving referred to as “hospital pajamas” once).

    At this very moment, I am wearing my boyfriend’s pajama pants. He has moved as far away from me as you can possibly get on this green planet for his work. I’m not sure that we’ll survive this move and now all I have left is faint memories of how much we loved being around each other and a few of his possessions.

    A friend of a friend lost her brother in a traumatic way when he was only 23. In an interview on television she recalls receiving a bag of his belongings and clutching it to her chest.. She mentioned something about feeling a bit silly for holding on to his toothbrush . . . but not feeling ready to let go of any item which may have small pieces of him left. This still breaks my heart when I think about it.

    Sometimes I wonder if my reason for being is to leave this earth as undisturbed as possible while doing as many nice things as possible for others. Other times I’m not sure. I just hope the future doesn’t judge me too hard. I may have bought a lot of shoes, but I had plenty of other good intentions.

  4. Sister Wolf Says:

    Aja – You had good intentions and I know for a fact that you made good on at least a couple of them. xo

  5. Dru Says:

    I don’t think my actual possessions would say very much about me, since I own mainly tatty clothes and a lot of patterned socks. That, and books (not much “serious” literature) and about a hundred fashion magazines. I guess they’d figure out fast enough that I loved magazines in languages I couldn’t really read too well or at all. Wonder what they’d make of that combined with the clothes.

    I suspect that what will really give people a clue about what made me tick will be the contents of my laptop. That one would give away my fanfiction habit, all the shit (music, movies, manga- in Japanese when I was studying it) I downloaded, and who knows what else.

    Of course, if my glasses got left behind, most people in your country would probably conclude that I was a hipster. People in mine would just assume my eyesight was terrible, based on the thickness of the frames. And everyone would probably conclude that I was a college student, based on the lack of possessions apart from readables and wearables.

  6. elle Says:

    It’s funny how paradoxical our relationship to material possessions is. We cling to them, need them, constantly desire more – they do represent us in a way because we naturally gravitate to things we love, little symbolic totems, books on our interests, the paint colours we choose to surround ourself with, even the junk we accumulate. We fluctuate between defining ourselves by these things we own and denying that they define us at all.

    Then – in death – we’re afraid of being judged by the bits and pieces we left behind. We’re afraid of our body itself being left behind without us, what it will become. We suddenly don’t want to exist anymore, and yet we want to be remembered, to make some kind of a mark. And, as always, our family and friends treasure the things they dig up from our closets, the photo albums in the attic – they want a physical reminder we were here, a ring to wear, a suitcase full of dark clothes. It’s like – we are free at last, no longer tied to this world, but here we are still.

    I don’t buy the asceticist doctrine/minimalist argument of living a life more spiritually fulfilling by throwing all our stuff away. What is life but to be corporeal and earth-bound? Existence is in the flesh, it’s material, solid. We use things, we consume things, we enjoy things – they’re important. And yet it’s not – without any momento, we were still once real, and we still exist, somehow. There is an essence to any person, alive or passed, that can’t be summed up by their “stuff”, but those objects make it easier to find and hold, firmly, physically, once again.

  7. Sister Wolf Says:

    elle – Thank you. xoxoxo

  8. E Says:

    I live in an old house, lived in by many generations of dead people – I even have a photograph of the Victorian family that lived here when it was new. My house is furnished with dead people’s furniture, books and knick-knacks. I eat off 1930s crockery – I wear other people’s clothes from both the far past and nearer. I don’t judge – but I am curious. What did someone buy the dress for? Did they have a great adventure in it? Who else sat on this old sofa? Was this tableware a wedding present? Who loved this?

    And in the case of my father – just opening his wardrobe – it smells of him. The shoe that always falls out still holds the shape of his foot. His favourite sweater. The clothes he bought just before he died – still in the bag, still with the receipt – all of the stuff that my Mum hasn’t the heart to look at – but takes comfort in knowing IS still there even if he isn’t.

    The symbolism of our stuff is deep. The mania for minimalist living (when it is counterintuative to everything you are) is a kind of disorder that seems more self-flagellatory and symptomatic of our detox-crazy need for control to me. Why not surround yourself with stuff that pleases your senses or gives you comfort – especially so when you need it.

    Also – what Elle said (so beautifully).

  9. Ann Says:

    Love this blog, SW. I always yearned for a minimalist existence until I read E’s last paragraph in the comment above and it really resonated with me exactly why I wish to purge myself of nearly everything around me. So thanks, E, and thanks SW for sharing.

  10. carla fox Says:

    Wow. This is what I read your blog for. Not the silly fashion-blog bashing. Forget about them. This is your strength. Wield it like a sword, Sister. Thank you.

  11. Artful Lawyer Says:

    I am so sorry that Max is gone, and that at some point he wanted or needed the needles. But he probably really felt like he really needed them at that time, and that just makes me feel compassion.

    I will leave behind a TON of books and CDs (unless I donate even more of the ones I don’t or no longer like/love) and white and black turtlenecks (that I wear until they are gross) and scarves.

    I’ve started to get a new sense of wanting to get rid of stuff after going to local estate sales. A lot just have the junk that rightfully no one wanted- acres of 1970s harvest gold plates and drinking glasses, etc., but I went to one where the poor woman’s entire teaching career was up for sale – all of her “teacher of the year” awards, handbells from the local handbell club (“ringer of the year”) etc. That was sad – so much stuff that no one wanted. It makes me want to accumulate only the crap I really want, and then have some plan for selling/donating/etc. it without the rest of the world going through my thangs.

  12. jomama Says:

    I stumbled on your blog when I was writing my own for TLC. I think I even quoted and linked back to you. But once I found it I stayed with it, checking in once in a while for a rant or a rave. When I learned about your son’s suicide, I was heartbroken. Obviously I don’t know you but as a mother I kind of do. The raw candidness with which you write about your feelings and experiences touches, and breaks, my heart. This last post is so beautifully written and thought-provoking I felt I had to finally post a comment. My 2010 brought grief as well, although it can’t ever be compared to your experience, and I’m anxious for it to end. I just wanted to wish you a peaceful new year and I hope that 2011 brings you some solace and light.

  13. liz Says:

    My grandmother died when I was 10, and when we ventured into her apartment, surrounded by beautiful vintage furs and jewerly, old dolls, antique silver trays, I took only one thing, a tiny plastic doll like keychain that she kept in her jewerly box. Anyone who would come into her apartment would have probably thought she was this lavish, fabulous woman but I knew what really mattered to her and what really epitomized her. Who cares what strangers think, they’re strangers for a reason. The people that know you, in some way, will know how to look through the crap and find you.

  14. WendyB Says:

    Beautiful post by Sister Wolf and I love the comment from Elle too. Funny, I often think about what would be left behind. I was thinking about it just the other day after visiting my 92-year-old grandmother, who is now in an assisted living facility. I was looking at what she took from her house and thinking about how one decides what to keep in the end. I often brood about my best vintage clothes getting to the right museum/vintage store and my jewelry inventory being liquidated easily. Well, that stuff I can put in a will, which I really, really have to get on ASAP. But I guess no one would bother keeping books or things like my AIDS Dance-a-Thon sweatshirts from 1993 and 1994. (I’m wearing 1994 now.) Or my Madonna concert t-shirt from 1990. They’d probably just think, “This stuff is really old,” and out it will go.

  15. Tina Says:

    Wow. What an amazing post, SW. Thanks to Elle and E for responding. I always felt a twinge of guilt for having so much stuff so and not living the minimalist lives of my peers. And WendyB, I found my Madonna concert T-shirt from 1990 (Blonde Ambition tour?) as well only yesterday and thought the same thing.

  16. WendyB Says:

    Tina, yes! Blonde Ambition! Here’s mine: http://wendybrandes.com/blog/2008/08/in-honor-of-madonnas-50th-birthday/

    I wonder if anyone would think, “She kept this shirt because it meant something to her”? Probably not.

    I think Elle and E are so right-on about minimalism. I figure you come into this world with nothing and when you leave you don’t take anything with you. You might as well enjoy some stuff in between.

  17. Tina Says:

    @WendyB–thanks for sharing, I remember that one–Mine is white with a pic of her face. I also think you are fabulous for raising money for SW’s roof. Love your blog as well!

  18. Dru Says:

    I just got off the phone with my grandparents earlier in the day, and they are born pack rats- their tiny house is crammed full of things, from old nails and bits of string that my grandfather uses to mend things, to furniture. When they’re gone, I don’t know if I’ll associate any particular objects with them so much as the clutter itself.

    I don’t think ownership of things needs to come with guilt attached, it’s part of, well, life. Mine will probably mean nothing to anyone, but it’s enough that I like it enough to keep- no one else needs to approve or disapprove.

  19. Esme Green Says:

    I love ‘stuff’. Always have always will. I never make any apologies for it and have lost a few friends along the way because of it. I guess I’m a hoarder. I keep things that remind me of my family who all live so so far away that I might never see them again. I keep stones they have touched, notes, sweet wrappers, if I could bottle their smell I would.

    When I was younger I used to get panicky if my ‘stuff’ was in different locations. It drove me crazy. Now with half of my belongings packed up in Europe and living life on the hoof in North America, I’ve had to calm down a bit. In fact sometimes the notion of a more minimalist streamlined lifestyle does sound appealing, especially with a toddler. But it’s not at the heart of who I am and never will be.

    Keep whatever you need and love it.

    Esme x

  20. my favorite and my best- MFAMB to you Says:

    every single time i come here i am moved beyond myself.
    usually i start typing something and it just doesn’t do justice to what i am wanting to say. at all.
    i am very thankful that you write this blog though. very.

  21. Cricket9 Says:

    SW, a big hug to you…you write with your guts, and often it hurts.
    Who knows what will happen with my “stuff”. I live in Canada, my family in Europe. I left piles and piles of books on two continents, and I accumulated another on the third one. If I don’t have time to give “stuff” away, as in: “died suddenly” , I hope that some of it will end up on some estate sale, bought by someone who will enjoy it – just like I enjoy my collection of second-hand scarves, jewelry, prints and so on. I always think warmly about the previous, unknown owners, who had such a good taste – just like mine ;-)

  22. Sister Wolf Says:

    Jomama – Thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope 2011 is better for you! xo

    Liz – Yep. That is the hope.

  23. Mayan Says:

    SW I always feel a deep truth when I read your blogs – like you have found the core of a feeling.
    When my father died my mother took a very very long time to change the answering machine message… she said erasing it would feel like he was entirely gone.
    I have some quite treasured items of his clothing: a red velvet bow tie (he was quite stylish in the 70s), cufflinks and a 70s ruffled shirt in lavender.
    I wear the cufflinks regularly – but it is funny because looking at those items you might think he was a dandy. But he was a country boy, an alcoholic in the end, who just had an eye for design and a bit of style that was really incongruent to his (usual) outer appearance.

  24. Taylor Says:

    I don’t know what to say to this at all except that it made me tear up a lot; my first boyfriend died in August. Because I live across the country, I found out over instant messenger from a friend but the worst part was the Facebook shit. His Facebook is still up, and someone from his family updates it and adds people. They even changed his relationship status to “single.” It was difficult to see his profile continuing to change after he was gone. He was one of those people who had a love/hate relationship with social networking sites and I just wonder sometimes how he would feel about it.

    I can’t imagine what it is like going through someone’s things, and I try not to think about what people would maybe say about my clothing hoarding. But I think we all have our vices, that’s what makes us distinct. And I agree with Esme that no one should have to make apologies for what they leave behind.

  25. Make Do Style Says:

    I feel I should go and get my shit in order now! I love my books, clothes, jewellery and photos. I did love a lot of other things like my camera and record collection but they all got stolen plus one boyfriend cut up a whole load of my clothes once. I keep meaning to sort them all out so no one else has too.

    I love that Max had no jeans how amazing and such lovely textured clothes. I think having stuff is part of us, our journey. My only worry is I attach more importance to my belongings than I should.

    PS the petit had his first guitar for christmas he loves it.

  26. prettypistol Says:

    My son Rainier is almost 3, I still feel like a “new mother”, even though I know I should be figuring this out by now. I have been following you since he was born, mostly for the fashion/comical insight. It has been hard to read what you have been going through with Max. This post, more than any other, has made me sit back and think. Screw what all the parenting mags and other peoples “helpful” advice has to offer. I know that if I can love my son as much as you do Max I will have succeeded. Thank you.

  27. Sister Wolf Says:

    Taylor – I wish they had chosen to leave his FB page frozen exactly as he left it. My son also felt ambivalent about FB. But he hated those memorial pages for friends who had died.

    Mayan – Your dad had great style, it sounds like. I would treasure those things too. xo

    prettypistol – Thank you for your kindness, it made me cry, because I don’t feel successful. The love part is so easy, It’s just everything else that’s so hard. But you’re right: err on the side of unconditional love and support. Blessings to you and your little boy. xoxoxoxoxo

  28. ellio100 Says:

    I don’t know what i can add that hasn’t been put better already.

    Sometimes I work at a museum, and the objects there which are careworn and damaged and used are the ones which are the most powerful. The pristine stuff is impressive, but there is something undeniable about battered books and ratty clothes.

    I think this post and some of its comments is wonderful because they show how things are important. For my course I was reading some wacky theory before Christmas, about thing-power, (google Jane Bennett if you’re curious), but this all explains it better.

    With hope for a happy new year.

  29. Marky Says:

    Beautiful post.

  30. auntkitten Says:

    I’m so drawn to that haunting image illustrating this post.

    I follow the words of William Morris “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

  31. Jacqui Says:

    Beautiful and hauntingly written. I can’t really say anymore. Thank you.

  32. lisa ann Says:

    I think about this often, and I like to think that I’d leave behind quite an accurate portrait of who I was — both in my belongings and through the lives I’ve touched.

    I love your blog (I found you through my friend Grace @ wool&misc).

    Reading back and discovering what had happened to your son…there were so many entries that I wanted to comment on but just didn’t feel that my condolences were enough. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  33. OMGGMAB Says:

    I have spent many hours gathering knowledge about my ancestors. The sense of intimacy that I feel is overwhelming when I come across a letter, a newspaper article, or an item of clothing that helps me to understand, to “know” that person who has long left earthly presence. 100 years from now, one of your descendants will happen across your lovely writing and be gratified that she can learn about your beautiful Max. In this way, as with the Pharos, Max is memorialized, and the the tangible objects that he held dear are adjectives to his person.

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