Thursday, December 5, 2013

Guest post: The Things We Carry

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” begins with a list of items carried by a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey….  Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.  Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.  

In a writing class, you might learn about O’Brien’s use of repetition, about how he uses the list to reveal something about each man’s character.  But I’ve been wondering lately, what do the things that we carry through life reveal about each of us?

My husband and I have too many possessions, this I know; more than we need or can even use.  I am also aware that this is a developed-world, middle-to-upper-class problem, and that such complaints are at best insensitive and petty.  This is not a war zone and our possessions are not strapped to our backs; instead these are the clothing and household items that pad our comfortable lives.  Acknowledging these facts, I still believe that things deserve some examination.

There are the hand-painted margarita glasses that we purchased in Mexico and that have followed us, cloaked in too much bubble wrap, from apartment to apartment.  Each time they settle onto a new shelf where they sit undisturbed until the next move.  There are the clothes that get passed over each time we dress for work or a special occasion, but that remain in our closet because they might be perfect for an event that just hasn’t happened yet.  There is the chair reminiscent of the one that sat in my parents’ vacation home when I was a child, the one that brings back memories of hours spent reading novel after novel.  Except neither my husband nor I has sat in the current chair since at least two apartments ago.  Instead it holds stacks of books, clothing, and anything else temporarily without a home or that we are too tired at the end of the day to put away. 

Why do we keep all of these things?  Is it emotional attachment, fear of loss, just plain inertia (of the staying-at-rest variety)?  And how might our lives be affected if we were able to detach from our possessions, declutter, simplify?

I recently came across an article written by a woman who, along with her husband, had decided that it was time to do exactly that.  They sold or donated many of their possessions, making it a point to buy only what they truly need and will use.  In the process, they paid off a large chunk of debt, but the benefit that interested me most is somewhat surprising, something that I crave more than anything: “We're finding more time for the things we gave a lot of lip service to but didn't always make time for: health, fitness, reading and each other.”

Over time I’ve started to realize that, at least in my own life, carrying around a lot of physical stuff can feel just as burdensome as carrying a lot of emotional or psychological baggage.  All of that stuff demands management – cleaning, storing, organizing, or at least sifting through as you search for something else – and thus time, energy, attention.  If I had less stuff, if I limited my possessions to those that were really important to me, would I use them more?  And would I discover more time to devote to the things that I really want to do in life?

It certainly seems possible.  My husband and I have decided to give it a try.  We are not emptying out our home by any means, but we are parting with a lot of the extras, the things that we had previously kept around on the basis of “what if” or “someday.”  Already in our lives it feels a bit easier to move and to breathe.
Except there is one complication.  A large part of the impetus for our decluttering is the fact that we are expecting our first baby in February and we desperately want to maximize the time that we are able to spend together as a family, as well as to grow even more fiscally responsible in order to provide for the baby’s future.   But with a baby comes stuff.  A lot of stuff.  And how easily the line between the things we need and the things we need becomes blurred.
When we made the obligatory trip to Babies “R” Us to set up a registry, my husband paused before scanning our first item and warned, “Let’s just stick to the basics.  Let’s not go overboard like we did for our wedding.”  I paused and recalled the hours we had spent perusing china, crystal, and every isn’t-that-neat-looking kitchen gadget that caught our eye, ultimately adding several of each to our wish list.  With this approach in mind, we braved the first overstuffed aisle.
This, I suppose, will be our first test.  It is one thing to purge one’s home of a few belongings; it is another to retain the patience and thoughtfulness to avoid reflexively refilling it just because there is space available.  And while we have no desire to raise a child or children with rooms overstuffed with rarely-used and under-appreciated toys, neither do we wish to impose on them a stringently spartan lifestyle.   The answer for us, it seems, lies somewhere in the balance.  And for the first time, we feel ready to set out in search of it.

Becky MacDonell-Yilmaz is a pediatrics resident at Brown University/Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI.  Her work has been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, The Writer's Circle, and The New Physician. She blogs about her experiences in training at The Growth Curve: ruminations of a pediatrician in training.


  1. Hahaha. I totally hear you, and I remember thinking the same thing -- that we would only buy "the basics" for our baby. Many friends who have subsequently had kids have expressed the same wish. The problem is that they grow up really fast and their needs change, and it's hard to get rid of the stuff you no longer use because of sentimental reasons and! You might have another child some day. Plus, a lot of the "junk" really does make life easier in a tangible way, and after you have a kid, making things easier for yourself becomes a necessity.

    So, we have become THAT family on carseat#3 (1 infant carseat, since outgrown, and 2 convertibles -- 1 for each car), and stroller #4 (1 carseat compatible snap on stroller base, 1 stroller that can be used ages 0-4 that is bulky and turned out to be annoying to fold, 1 cheap umbrella stroller that just broke after a year of use, and 1 new cheap umbrella stroller).

    In a way I'd like to have to move for residency so that we can get rid of most of it.

  2. We actually didn't buy much for the baby. I was terrified that if I did, the baby would die (IF and miscarriage will do that to a person), so other than a carseat we really didn't get anything ourselves until about a week before the baby was born when my mom and DH went and got a packnplay and a stroller (that DC1 hated, preferring a sling, but DC2 loves) and a baby bath (which turned out to be useless) and some diapers and a few onsies. Oh, and soothies and lansinoh and breast pads (necessary for baby 1, not used for baby 2). We got a little bit of actually useful stuff from a baby shower that my colleagues threw (most useful: cheap cloth diapers to use as rags and baby blankets.) Pretty much everything else we got after the baby was born on an as-need basis.

    Turns out you really *don't* need a lot of that stuff. (We never did get the crib I'd planned to get after the pack n play got too small.) And plenty of people just give you things, both new and used, especially if you know people with older kids. Random neighbors and colleagues would see our baby and want to declutter their own houses. So our house is overrun with baby stuff and kids stuff, but very little that we purchased ourselves. We're handing down to another colleague as DC2 outgrows things.

    1. So jealous! We were the first of our friends to reproduce, so we were not the recipients of any stuff and had to buy a lot of it ourselves. We did much the same as you before the baby arrived. Thank God for Amazon Prime.

      And I agree, cloth diapers make the best rags.

    2. We were also the first of our friends to reproduce (at the old age of 28!), but our neighbors with older kids that we barely know would stop us while we were out walking and ask if they could give us their out-grown clothing and toys. Similarly with my older co-workers. I'd bring the kid to work and they'd remember that they had bags of clothing in the attic. For the latest child, we got a bunch of girl clothing from one of my returning grad students (who saw me walking around pregnant a lot) whose wife had finally decided that kid #3 wasn't going to happen. She had amazing taste in girl's clothing.

      Most of this stuff didn't come before the baby was born.

      I'm still looking for someone to give our infant carseat and bases to... last time I had a student whose wife was pregnant with their first, but this time all the pregnant students and those with pregnant wives are expecting their second and still have unexpired seats.

  3. Our problem is that people (grandparents) like to give our kids a ton of stuff. And I don't really have the time/energy to manage it well, so our house is overflowing with crap. I sometimes take quick breaks on days I work from home and throw out some toys or torn up books, but if the kids are around, they will suddenly decide they NEED to play with the teething toy (they are 2 and 4) or whatnot.
    I think regular culling is the secret to avoid a pile-up. I've been doing it with my own stuff, and it works wonders. need to find a system for doing it with the kids (and yes, its hard to get rid of outgrown stuff for the reasons stated above)

  4. I keep a few boxes in the garage to throw in things to be donated. When the boxes are full, we put them on the driveway for pick up. (We have trucks from charities driving by almost weekly.) This system worked great until my seven-year-old daughter became old enough to attach to all her toys. She is furious when I try to donate any of her toys, even her baby toys. I donated some things without telling her once and she is still angry with me now about it, a year later. Not sure what to do about this.


Comments on posts older than 14 days are moderated as a spam precaution. So.Much.Spam.