Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What Owns Me?

I moved again last month—the fifth time in two years—and it got me thinking about ownership and what it means to own things and the way ownership confers both status and responsibility.

With all that moving around, I don’t own very much right now. About a year ago, as I planned for this most recent relocation, I sold off all the furniture I had taken years to accumulate and packed the rest of my belongings into storage. I felt as if I’d been cut loose from something that anchored me in place. Since then I’ve lived in furnished accommodations—hotels, sublets, shares. The few personal items I wanted to use—toiletries, clothing, utensils—moved with me in several medium-sized plastic containers that I could manage myself.
The fact that I have a storage unit baffles me. What, I frequently ask myself, is in there? And why do I need to hang on to it? I know a part of the answer: a lot of papers—I’m a writer and I like to keep what I’ve written. It’s not replaceable. And books and records and souvenirs—even a box of rocks and shells and geodes—that I’ve accumulated. The reality is that I could probably leave it all behind and my life would not be significantly different.

So then, why do I own these things—the ones I keep and the ones I store—and what does it mean to own them?
Let’s start with the fundamentals. I own my clothes, for example, so that means, I think, I have the ability to do with them what I will—wear them, keep them, store them, give them away, even tear them into shreds and use them as rags to dust the empty spaces that come from not owning furniture. I don’t have an obligation to take care of them, that’s a choice. If I want them to last and I want to look good, then I care for the clothes. If I have tons of money and can replace them whenever I want, then I can wear something once and pass it along. I have these clothes partly out of necessity—to keep me warm and to cover me in public—and because I love fashion and enjoy looking nice.

I own a car as well. I’ve paid for it in full, so in today’s terms that means I really own it. I learned through friends who cheerfully accrued debt beyond their means, that having something in your possession is not the same as ownership. As far too many people who took out mortgages they could not afford are finding out, ownership comes at a price. The car is a necessity for getting from place to place. When I lived in Manhattan it was nice to rely on public transportation, but once I left the city owning the means of transportation became a requirement if I didn’t want to stay in all the time.
The car is not the same as the clothes. There are limits on what I can do with it. I have to take care of it to keep it running—wash it, service it, fill it with fuel. I can only drive it as fast as the local speed limit will allow, and I have to have some kind of insurance to protect myself and others who may encounter the car along the way.  These responsibilities mean that in a sense the car owns a part of me, a part of my time and money. Ownership of a car is a dual obligation.

I used to have a dog. I suppose I owned the dog—money was exchanged, the breeder got the money, I got the dog. I took her home, but from that moment on the dog owned me. I had to give her shots, feed her, bathe her, walk her. I’ve never had a cat, but I understand that cats are a very different experience. Cats are very independent. I think you can own a dog; you can have a relationship with a cat. I’d like to own a dog again, but that would require settling down into one place.

Ultimately, I have come to realize that for me things have a kind of impermanence. I’m often exchanging what I have for the next version or replacing what has worn out—I’ve just bought my third iteration of the Ikea Poang chair in a different color. I’m on my third laptop which replaces my third desktop computer. My tapes and CDs have already been replaced by MP3 and WAV files. My clothes wear out, or at the least go out of style, before they become retro and stylish again.
I admit I’m fascinated by the TV shows on hoarders. I am fascinated by the way we need to constantly acquire stuff beyond what we can actually use. And the way the world keeps inviting us to own more. I used to love shopping and yard sales and making things. I especially liked making pillows until I found I had no place to sit anymore. Then I started making quilts that piled up in the closet. Then I made jewelry that I still give to people on occasions.

I traveled for many years with just one rule—for everything I bought, I had to get rid of something because I was limited to the one small suitcase I could carry. And that worked fine for many years.
After all, what do we really need in this life? A place to sleep; a basic wardrobe; as many pairs of underpants as days between laundry loads—start with 14 if you’ve got the room; a set of sheets and covers; a bed, a chair; a place setting—two if you like to entertain; and, in today’s world, a cell phone, a TV, a computer, an extension cord, and a way to connect to the internet.  

Which brings me back to where I started. Why do I have all this stuff? Why can’t I live like the Amish in a plain room with very little that needs dusting.
And that question is also part of the answer. I don’t want to live in a plain room. I want my space to reflect who I am, and who I am changes over time and so do my surroundings. I want my clothing to make a statement about who I am. Some of the things I own reflect my successes—proof that I was able to buy that expensive and trendy toy. Some are keepers of memories—the shell from the beach in Cannes, the impossibly mod dress from Carnaby Street in its heyday. And some I own just because I like looking at them.

So, perhaps, it doesn’t matter that I have acquired a few too many things over time. In the end, I know that while I may enjoy these possessions, be proud of them, claim status from them, it is ultimately the experiences I’ve had that define my life, not some papers sitting in a box somewhere.

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