Meaning Mondays: Stuff and Meaning

THIS IS AN ORDINARY POTTED PLANT.

I don’t even know its botanical name. But perched on a shelf or a table, garnering a brief glance now and then, it leads a rather ordinary existence. Let’s just put it this way: the plant flies low under the radar.

For all that though, it has an unusual back story. My aunt kindly gave it to me five years ago, and as it turned out, it was a cutting taken from another plant.

A PLANT THAT BELONGED TO MY MOTHER.

Now, my mother has been gone for 35 years, but her plant still thrives, apparently. And who knows how long she had it before she died? I’m guessing the original plant might be 40 or 50 years old by now.

So we’re talking hardy. Long lived. Definitely forgiving. Makes sense, considering that I routinely forget to water my plant (the offspring) and by now it must certainly be root-bound. Given what I know about the mother plant, though, maybe my plant is destined to live for 30 or more years.

AND YET, I’M NOT SURE I WANT THIS PLANT FOR ANOTHER 30 YEARS.

Heck, I don’t even know if I want it for another 30 minutes. Since my garden took off about a year ago, the view from every window is one of abundant greenery and color. And I’ve slowly let go of all the indoor plants, because frankly, they got in the way of that view. They somehow confused my eye, as it sought to travel toward the meandering potato vine or those towering butterfly bushes.

Yes, the potted plants are history. All except this one, child of my mother’s plant. The lone survivor, kept for sentimental reasons.

The funny thing is, I don’t feel much attachment to the plant. Nor does it particularly invoke memories of my mother. As a matter of fact, I suspect that she saw it as merely an ordinary plant, and might chuckle at the thought of it being tended for 30-plus years as a legacy to her.

SO LATELY I’M THINKING OF GIVING IT A NEW HOME ON THE COMPOST PILE.

Letting it be food for other plants. Completing its life cycle by going back into the earth. Moving on and remembering my mother in other, more personally meaningful ways.

I could do that, without much of a backward glance. But then again, I’ve never really been a “stuff” person. Perhaps it’s because I moved a lot in my early adult years, and got used to routinely paring down.

But I do understand, and appreciate, that not everyone shares my experience. Many people find great meaning and value in things, especially those that have been handed down.

Yet I also hear, from some clients, that they feel overwhelmed by an accumulation of stuff. They feel guilty about letting go of things that belonged to a long-gone relative. They struggle to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of. They put off facing it for fear they might miss those things that are absent. And some deep part of them worries that the loss of these things might somehow lead to a smaller life.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

How much meaning do you find in stuff?

How do you decide what to hold on to and what to let go of?

Does letting go lead to a smaller life or a larger life?

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41 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: Stuff and Meaning

  1. Patty,

    When you said you might put this plant in the compost pile, I was crying “NOOOOOOO!” You got me all attached to this little sweet plant and it’s connection to your mom.

    On the other hand, I must confess that I have too much stuff that belonged to some relative or another…and, in honesty, a lot of it is junk.

    So, I appreciated your reminder to let go of some of things I’m hanging on to. I don’t know yet how I will feel once I let go of this stuff, but my house will look a lot better:~)

    • Hi Sara – Looks like you won’t be the only one expressing that “NOOOO.” Thanks for your comment. There’s a lot of confusion tied up with the things that get passed down, don’t you think?

  2. Hi Patty, I think this is a great topic because guilt/meaning over stuff is something many of us know well. Apart from the thrill of acquiring/owning something new, stuff can evoke emotions we want to hold on to or replicate. Like feeling close to a long departed loved one, or reliving fond memories of childhood or any other special time. Sometimes, our sense of security gets wrapped up in material things (a house, a safe car, a favorite chair, etc.). And I think this comes from our general human need to attach, to belong, to feel grounded and safe.

    As for me, I’ve moved around a lot and can be merciless about paring down. I have a support system that loves to give gifts and so the influx of stuff into my home is constant. Too much stuff starts to feel suffocating so I routinely give stuff away every few months.

    I love the idea of turning the plant into nourishment for other plants — life rich with meaning, purpose and substance, something many of us dream about.

    • Hi Belinda – Well that’s a beautiful way to put it. I agree that “stuff” is complicated, and we often project our identities onto it. Funny thing for me, though, when I get past that and just let go, then I never miss it. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hey Patty. I’m not very sentimental when it comes to old stuff handed down. I do like the circle of life idea for your plant. It’s a fitting end to return it to the soil so that it may provide nourishment for all your wonderful outdoor plants.

    In a somewhat out of place but kind of related note, how do you go about composting? Do you have one of those compost box things or do you just have a pile off to the side somewhere?

    • Hi Eric – Ah, the circle of life. That is a nice way to say it. And I compost with one of those boxes. Thanks for the visit, friend.

  4. If it isn’t useful or beautiful I let it go. My desire is to live simply until the day I die. I treasure photos and have a lot of them framed of family and friends.

    My life is free and rich because I don’t carry around a lot of baggage internal or external! But I would keep the plant;)

    • That’s interesting, Tess. Sounds like you’re very good at letting go (and you articulate the freedom of that very well), yet you’d keep the plant. Is that because it’s a living thing? If so, I thought about that too. It’s a little easier for me with inanimate objects. This one seems more complicated.

  5. What a enlightening post on letting go. I reflected on that which I find to let go and realize now that I have a very hard time letting go of photographs. In fact there are some photographs that I have lost, have been stolen, faded, etc, that I still truely wish I could see again. I have very few photos of my mother and father – only one of each actually, and I do wish I had more photos of them, as I now find it hard to picture them as they have both been gone so long. I’m greatful for the invent of digital cameras, but must admit I have a problem with needing to print these digital images in fear that perhaps those shots will only last until the software is outdated, which might not be too long considering technology booms.

    Well in time even memories fade or are obscured – but that’s life.

    Again, thanks for the enlightenment. I’ll have to ponder on this a bit.

    Peace! C.

    • Hi CordieB – Welcome, and thanks for your comment. I’m glad you stopped by. What you say is poignant, capturing that slipping away of time and connection. I wonder though, can things or even photos keep that alive?

  6. Patty, I tend to pare down on a regular basis too, and I must confess that I harbour no guilt about doing it. My rule of thumb tends to be this: if I haven’t looked at it or used it in the last six months, then it goes. I have too much stuff as it is, so I need to pare down! Also, I’m not opposed to regifting as long as I genuinely feel that the item in question is appropriate for the person I’m giving it to. :)

    • Hi Tony – No guilt is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. Too much of that in the world. I also feel no guilt about letting things go, and would not feel it if I were to toss this plant on the compost pile. And like you, I’m a fan of regifting, in the right circumstance! Thanks!

  7. Like you said, it is just “stuff”. The plant is not your Mother or a representation of her. It is your thoughts that give the plant relevance or not. You don’t need the plant to think of your Mom. Their is no reason to feel guilty over getting rid of the plant, it’s only power or significance is that which you choose to give it.

    • Absolutely, Mark, the plant doesn’t tie me to my mother in any way. But it’s not guilt so much that I’m experiencing with it, something harder to articulate. Truth be told, I’ve hung onto this because it’s a living thing, it was a gift, it’s the last indoor plant, and it was my mother’s. I suspect it just takes a bit more time to work through the letting go process with this one. And I’m glad I didn’t toss it yet, because then what would I have had to write about???

  8. I use to be a saver of every little sentimental lock of hair, ticket stub, etc, etc. About 13 years ago when I knew I would be moving away, I started getting rid of this stuff. I was really thinking like you said about having a “smaller life” without these things. The freedom I had when I downsized was life changing. Almost addicting, looking around at what else I could get rid of.

    I also think not keeping these things around helps our relationship with the people we collect stuff/gifts/cards from. I think it lowers our expectations of people, in a good way. It takes away the value of the stuff we’re given and helps keep the relationship more real by valuing instead the substance of the real gift of energy exchanged between two people. Less stuff = less distractions from what’s real at the core = the ever-so-beautiful nitty gritty.

    Keepin’ it real,

    Angela

    • Hey Angela – So good to see you! Love what you say about how letting go has the capacity to shift our relationships with others. Very wise. And the irony, to me, about downsizing is that a smaller life is actually a larger life. Of course, one of my favorite quotes is from Rilke on just this topic, “And then the knowledge came to me that I have space within for a second, timeless, larger life.” A smaller life on the outside means a larger life on the inside. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. I think you should sleep on it – give it a week. You might be sad if you added it to the compost pile to hastily.

    I LOVE getting rid of things. Giving them to charity, to a friend, to a new purpose and new life of usefulness. I hate clutter.

    But having said this, there are things I would be very sad to lose. Photos. Handwritten letters from parents and grandparents. Books that were meaningful gifts. These are little things that don’t take up much space but give me such a rich trip down memory lane.

    • OK, Eva, I will take your advice, and thanks for your thoughts on this. And I do know what you mean about certain books and letters. To me they’re like a bit of history. I have some letters from my great-great grandmother, who I never knew, and they are mesmerizing.

  10. Hi Patty,
    You’re really touched on something here. I’ve enjoyed reading comments from your tribe, too. (You gorgeous chieftess, you.)

    Like you and Tony, I pare down quite often — also having moved around a lot when I was younger. If it didn’t fit in the trunk of my car, out it went.

    All that said, parting with your cutting gave me pause. What would I do in that situation? Would I hold on to it for dear life? I’m not sure I can say. The only thing I chose to keep of my grandmother’s was her Czech cookbook and an embroidered hand towel. Do they remind me of her? kinda

    But not really.

    The smell of baked goods remind me of her. My nose reminds me of her. Jam reminds me of her.

    Thanks for igniting my memories and also for posting such an interesting article. You always get me thinking, Patty B.!

    I love it!
    ~xo

    • Hi Lori – Hey, I never though of myself as a chieftess. Don’t you think I need a fancy head-dress to claim that one??? But seriously, I like how your memories of grandma show up as sensation, and smell is such a powerful one. I think you’re really on to something here: so much of memory is stored in our bodies, and one of my favorite takeaways from studying theatre was “sense memory.” And now I use that concept in workshops and presentations. The thing is, we don’t need things to take us there. We actually don’t even need the baked goods and jam (but they’re nice!). It’s all inside of us, ready to be called upon whenever we want it. Thanks so much for reminding me of that! xo

  11. I pitch stuff without a second thought. I have only ever missed a thing I threw away once or twice in my life, and even then not very much.

    However, I do keep things I have a sentimental attachment to. In fact, I am far more likely to keep something because it has value to me emotionally than because it “might be worth money some day.” I couldn’t care less about that.

    • I’m with you, Shay. I routinely give away stuff to Goodwill that I could probably sell on Craigslist, because I figure I’ve gotten my use out of it and I really don’t care about the money. Can you tell, money is not a big motivator for me? Emotional value always trumps money for me, but even then I don’t always need to keep the thing to have that emotional value.

  12. If I am to be remembered by stuff I will throw everything in the trash right now. I do NOT want to be remembered by stuff.
    I am with Tess, get rid of things you do no longer like. The plant will be alright as food for others.
    If your mother is like me she wouldn’t care about the plant either.
    Much love to you and good to hear Leo is doing fine. xox Wilma

    • That’s great, Wilma! I love the fierceness of your first two statements. And you’re so right, my mom wouldn’t give a darn (well, she might say s**t) about that plant. Thanks, my friend, and thanks for you kind words about Leo. xoxo

  13. Hi Patty,

    Another gem of a post. Ugh. We are drowning in stuff. And what do they tell us we need to do more of it get the economy going? Buy more stuff. I challenge that. It’s just one economic model — outdated, earth-destroying, brain-numbing, and life-adventure limiting.

    I’m with you on tossing the junk so we’ll have room for ourselves.

    I hear you about wanting to let go of the little plant. Yet I love all things alive and green. Maybe ask one of your nearby readers if they’d like it? Or drop off at a plant orphanage?

    Plants and trees and animals fall for me into the nature category. Plants give off much needed oxygen. And are great listeners. I guess I’m saying, “spare its life.”

    Thx. G.

    • Hi G – I love things alive and green too. I wish you could see the bounty of it out my windows now, since I started gardening. That’s a big reason why I’ve let the other indoor plants go, and may let this one go, too. I’ve taken on the responsibility for a big outdoor garden, and no longer want the responsibility indoors. Part of living a life in balance, if that makes sense, and in some ways, taking care of myself. But I do value the oxygen-giving qualities of indoor plants. That’s important too. So you’ve given me something to think about! Thanks.
      p.s. Plant orphanage – good one!

  14. Patty, I feel the same way as you. I would have hung on to that plant for years, out of sentimental value. But at some point I would be ready to let it go. Or, give it away if it were still healthy.

    I have a kettle, of all things, that I grew attached to. I bought it over 12 years ago. It boils the water very quickly. I bought it while on a break from my dream job, when I lived in Toronto. It moved across Canada with me.

    A couple of months ago I found myself really appreciating it for all the cups of coffee and tea it’s made me (does that sound silly? lol). I marveled at how long I’d had it. Weeks passed and it died, just like that. It’s still sitting on the top of my fridge. I’m just not ready to toss it in the garbage. What a nut, eh?

    • Hi Davina – It’s interesting, isn’t it, how time comes into play with this? I think that process of letting go and releasing takes more time for some things. We know we’ll do it, but first we have to honor the little kettles, and other things, in our lives. Then we’re finally ready. I don’t think you’re a nut, and I’m sure that one day you will let go of the kettle! Thanks for the visit.

  15. I have hung onto family stuff for years. I was the storage facility. My responsibility entirely as I allowed family members who could not bear to part with things themselves, to show up and leave bags and boxes of stuff at my house.

    I have recently been cleaning out stuff that hold no meaning for me. It feels great. I have gotten rid of about a third of my kitchen stuff.

    • Hi Erin – Good for you! It’s no fun being the storage facility for other people, that’s for sure. Sounds like a great relief and an opening up of energy for you to let go of it. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Hi Patty — thanks for this — that’s interesting, because I’ve always been very anti-stuff — perhaps, particularly when I was a kid, out of a desire to show the world that I don’t want or need anything. In fact, I admit, I feel anger at relatives who hold on to pictures or mementos of other kinds, thinking that it’s a “part” of someone else. Even when I was very little, I would see that as ridiculous. But this certainly helps me to help others “declutter”!

    • Hi Chris – Wow, that’s interesting, about going all the way back to childhood and having that sense of the meaninglessness of stuff. Sounds like you were very wise at an early age. Although the anger is interesting. I’ve been feeling anger myself about something I’m noticing everywhere these days. And you know what they say about anger – it’s mostly projection of our stuff (inner stuff, that other kind). I’m trying to figure it out. Just curious -do think your anger is about projection? Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  17. In transition for a job in a new place, and I’ve been living in an efficiency for four months. Don’t miss my stuff at all, so thinking of minimizing it to bare essentials. Don’t know what bare essentials are, I might already be there.

    Maybe plop the plant in a hole somewhere in the backyard.

    • That’s so interesting, K. I’ve read articles about people putting their stuff in storage when they move, only to realize after a year or so that they don’t need it and don’t want it. Bare essentials sounds very freeing. And you’re right, the little plant probably could survive a transplant since it appears to be so hardy.

  18. My grandma died about ten years ago. The things I “wanted” from her house were weird – her grilled cheese maker thing, her in the fireplace popcorn popper… I wanted them because they represented memories; yet, I quickly found that they were objects to me; I had no attachment to them at all. Thus, I no longer have them. I also took some of her plants – I love plants. I quickly learned that I didn’t like spider plants and neglected the one from her home – which miraculously survives to date despite its “death” last summer. (It came back this past spring and I have no idea how!!)

    It took me this experience to learn that the memory is mine, not something that is about the object. There are some objects that might mean something to me personally that aren’t so much about the memory but, for the most part, I am not an object person.

    That said, it is hard for me to let a plant die or purposefully kill it – it is living thing. ;)

    • Hey, M! You and I have a similar plant experience! Hmmm, maybe there’s something here. The spirits of our grandmothers and mothers living in the plants, not about to let us let them die. I’m kidding but it’s interesting to consider. I too have a bit of a challenge with a living thing, but the compost pile has helped me come a long way with that, since it becomes nourishment rather than dying. At least that’s what I tell myself! Thanks for stopping by.

  19. Hi Patty! Mercy but I’m behind with blog reading! Company at the lake will do that – oh well – I’m just glad I didn’t miss this one!

    Sentimental attachment – wow – yes, I had a table of my mother’s, hauled it from house to house as we moved over the past 30 years and just a few years ago I had to ask myself WHY? It didn’t fit the decor – ever – anywhere we went – it was hard to accomodate, harder to clean, and I realized that my memory of mom had nothing to do with the table. She loved it. I did not. But I DID love her!

    I really felt lighter letting go of it, I don’t miss it at all. It was not her after all, but a remant of her life. It takes people awhile to get to this place of non-attachment. I feel you pain with this plant but your idea of the composting is wonderful!

    You’ve also made me re-think the whole house plant idea. I may be giving a lot of mine away when I get back home this fall – assuming hubs didn’t kill them! ha!
    hugs
    suZen

    • Hi suZen – Never too late to visit here, my dear. And the company of friends must always trump blogging, I think. I like your story of the table. And I think you’re right that it takes awhile to get to that non-attachment. All those things they say about getting older and wanting to simplify are true. So yes, I think you might like the house plant simplification (if hubby hasn’t already accomplished that for you!). Hugs!

  20. Guilty! Yeah that’s my verdict to myself in talking about keeping old stuff, though it is not a thing from my ascendants but from my childhood days. I know that it has no use anymore but it’s just hard to let it go, and others are saying that it’s all in the mind. I don’t know! :) But if i will get rid something it is either the oldest one or those lesser memorable. :D

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