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“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” — William Morris

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, for heaven’s sake, not another anti-consumerist screed about the holidays. And I’m thinking, Well, you’d think, it being about that time and all, but that’s not where I’m going — at least, not exactly.

I actually have relatively little to say specifically about consumerism during the holiday season, or Xmess. My main beef about it is this: Every year, as the holidays make their inexorable way through the end of the calendar year, I feel even more smothered than usual by extraneous and superfluous things, objects: stuff.


My own stuff is burden enough the rest of the year, but I also live with three other people, two of them under the age of 18, who have plenty of their own. Around Xmess, even in our relatively non-acquisitive household, there’s the potential for more stuff to enter the house all at once as gifts, some of them neither useful nor beautiful but given instead, out of a sense of hopeful obligation, which obliges us to keep them, even if it’s in the garage. We do the same unto others, of course; we must manage the stuff we plan to give to other people so they may add to their collection of things, and we must hope we choose wisely, knowing that it’s likely we didn’t.

While I love the opening quote and try really hard to adhere to that philosophy, why can it be so damn difficult to make that distinction: Useful and Beautiful vs. Everything Else? The answer, I think, is layered. The acquisition of things involves physical objects that are acquired out of need and/or desire. We, as a culture, are primed to desire more from a very early age, with media and advertising especially great at helping us dull our discernment instrument. Eventually, we’re drowning in possessions, and instead of being honestly encouraged to do more with less (but better), we’re exhorted by the Decluttering Industry to purchase more things in order to best “organize” our things and, even, to make room for more. Only in America!

Just about four years ago, we left the large house near Carle Park we’d rented for seven years and bought a significantly smaller house in east Urbana. Over the course of the seven years, we’d managed to fill the larger house with thrifted furniture, clothes, books and toys plus a whole raft of trinkets; as it turns out, that acquisitive tendency we seem to have also applies to stuff bought used. Most of it wasn’t going to come with us, so we had to employ the Useful/Beautiful criteria.

When we moved out, I was totally ashamed and aghast at how much stuff we donated. What was really horrifying, though, was how much was left over and the trashed condition it was in. We’d hung on to stuff we shouldn’t have hung on to because we never noticed it in our big house. It is with no small amount of shame that we paid someone a couple hundred bucks — a couple hundred bucks! — to haul the trash away. I’m ashamed admitting to it now.

I’ve noticed my relationship to my things has gradually changed since the consolidation. I’m slightly better able to walk away from a garage sale or the thrift store without buying anything. No large pieces of furniture come in unless something of comparable size goes out. I realized that my desire for local/quality/handmade food could be translated into buying quality in other things, too, like shoes and clothes and appliances, sometimes new, sometimes used. Since I grew up with an emphasis on the Least Expensive Option At All Times, it can be a struggle to occasionally spend what seems to be a lot of money on one or two small things. But smart, conscious consumerism takes up less room and seems to sit better long-term. It works the same way with food, right?

I found a site called Viridian Design the other day. It looks like they’re done posting new material, but the final entry has stuck with me as I prepare to navigate Xmess. To wit:

What is “sustainability?” Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time — time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space. … It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you genuinely like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not “economize.” Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It’s melting the North Pole. So “economization” is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don’t seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects.

Be picky out there.