The Hours is one of my favorite movies of all time. My first time seeing it in the theater created such a profound reaction in me that I wept uncontrollably through the entire film. I was still so emotional afterwards, I had to hide in the bathroom stall before facing the world. When people asked me if The Hours was a good movie, I couldn’t even answer. I didn’t know if it was objectively good or merely spoke to me. Spoke? More like reached in and tore my guts out. The second time I saw it, I had almost the same reaction. So when the film came out on DVD, I bought it immediately.
A few nights ago, I thought I would watch The Hours again. I pulled it off the shelf and realized that from the time I purchased it around 2003, I had watched it exactly nonce (which is once minus one.) Zero times. It was still in the plastic packaging! As I pulled off the wrapper, I thought about the idea of possessions, owning things that we put aside and never look at again. I looked at all the books on the shelf I had read exactly once. Or nonce. I looked at the rows of DVDs and video tapes. I looked at the tower of CDs. How often do I ever play these things? Almost never, actually.
What use is this stuff? And what is my relationship to it? It burdens me, actually. It fills up our home uselessly. What’s more, it’s now my responsibility to ensure that it moves on properly. I have to find other people who might want it. Or who think they want it and end up cluttering their own lives. It wastes resources (so much plastic!) And if no one wants it, what then? Recycling, which also requires energy.
As I went through the shelf last night, I found even more videos and music CDs still in their plastic wrappers, some of which, like Gorillaz and Tilly & the Wall, I love but already own in mp3 format.
Never opened. Never appreciated. Unvalued, apparently, because the items have been sitting here for years, never watched or played. I’m going to go through and cull this stuff. Try and sell some to second hand stores. Give some away to thrift stores or Freecycle. Because honestly? I only watch three DVDs I’ve purchased: Donnie Darko, Fight Club, and Napoleon Dynamite. And now, maybe The Hours. (I wonder what these movie choices say about me.) Other movies I can rent or borrow, watch once, and give back — keeping the energy of these materials circulating rather than stagnating in my house. (And when I say “energy,” I don’t mean it in any metaphysical way, but simply that energy went into creating this stuff, and that energy ought to move along to stem the consumption of energy for manufacturing new stuff.)
I’m thinking that during the holidays, when gift giving is at its peak, we need to consider the value of the stuff we buy for ourselves and others, and to think realistically about how useful it will be in the long run. Are our gifts of benefit to the recipient or actually burdens to be dealt with? Can we find ways to express our love that don’t involve filling up our lives with more stuff?
Several years go, a friend of mine told me a story about the musician Jane Siberry, of whom she was a big fan. Siberry was holding several salons in various cities where a select number of fans could come and interact with her and each other, discussing philosophical topics, I believe. My friend told me that Siberry had specifically asked them not to bring gifts for her because she considered these objects to be a burden and responsibility. She wanted their company, not their stuff. As I recall, my friend made a mixed tape for Jane, thinking this item would be more personal. And Siberry politely handed it back, asking my friend to enjoy it herself. Or something like that. It heard the story a long time ago, so don’t quote me.
I understand Siberry’s feelings! I don’t want more stuff cluttering up my home any more than she did. The kind of gifts I appreciate are like the gluten-free cookies that my co-worker baked and brought me yesterday. She thought about me and my special needs. And those cookies are not going to end up stashed in a corner of my house! I appreciate dinners with friends. Or hand-made items that remind me of the giver and the time and energy that went into creating them for me, even if it is technically more stuff. I appreciate gifts that can be used up, like soaps or candles or food, as long as they don’t come with packaging that I will have to deal with or chemicals that will stick around in my body after the product is gone.
And of course I appreciate that thought that goes into any gift. I’m not intending to be callous or ungrateful here. But if we spent more time appreciating what we already have than spending energy acquiring more, would our lives be easier and would we feel more free? What do you think?