I spent the past two days purging old clothes from my closets. I hauled five bags of stuff off to Goodwill, and upon returning home, I felt ... awful. My sense is that one is supposed to feel liberated on such occasions, and also not a little holy for contributing to charity (though one is also aware that clothing donations from the first world can interfere with nascent clothes-making businesses in the third). While I kept reminding myself of how lame it is to hang onto stuff I don't wear, when others might be able to use it, when I drove away from the Goodwill container I felt almost like I was fleeing the scene of a crime I had just committed.
Yes, things are just things. And yet they are not. In the same way that in fiction, the specific, telling detail is a window into a character's psyche, things--in our consumer society, anyway--are portals to the past. To me, even the most trivial piece of clothing I heaved into the Hefty bag had some bit of memory stuck to it, along with lint and cat hair. I almost always remembered where I'd bought the thing, and what life was like at that time (I really have hung onto things far too long). If the piece of clothing was a gift, well, so much the worse. How ungrateful I felt for never wearing that jacket (even if it didn't fit, or made me look like Carmela Soprano, or both). How I felt like I was stabbing the giver in the heart, like I was tossing a kitten out of a car into the rain.
It's my guess that although I may be nuttier than many in this area, I'm not alone. (I am fortunate, too, that our condo is small enough that full-on hoarding is simply not possible.) Consumerism, I think, depends on this fear of loss, especially of the loss of memory. We buy to ward off Alzheimer's, and we give to keep others from forgetting us. Those aren't the only reasons, of course, but they come into play--maybe more so when we feel ourselves isolated, and people close to us start dying, and we start to think of how many people we've already lost track of over the course of our lives.
What will keep our memories for us, if not objects? Stories? Facebook? The Cloud? Fine, but we can't touch and see these things in the same way I could have--but didn't--wear that TV-test-pattern sweater I bought in England two-plus decades ago. You can tell stories to kids and grandkids, but if they're not connected to tangible things, those stories mutate and dissipate over generations, even if they're written down. Objects don't change, although they do decay, and their original appeal or function can become questionable.
This is where Buddhism is supposed to help, right? Impermanence, impermanence. Further: giving up clothing is nothing compared to giving up one's life, which is what Memorial Day is about. Yet Memorial Day is also about sales. It really seems like this endless circulation of stuff through our lives is really the presence (presents?) of death.
Anyway, I've moved more junk into the empty spaces in the closets, so there's lots more space in my office now. That's kind of nice.