Oh No, That’s Just for Show: A Personal Essay in Defence of All My Useless Crap

I like things.

I’ve often thought I should become less materialistic. Part with some of my possessions. Lighten the load. Choose experiences over objects. Save rather than spend. Less is more, blah blah blah.

Minimalism seems to be all the rage these days. I blame this book. Also the Swedes. So fresh and so clean, clean.

My house is the opposite. So old and so dusty, dusty. That’s my motto. There are things everywhere. There are things on top of things on top of other things like a giant unwinnable game of retro knick-knack Jenga. I like to think of my house as a giant cabinet of curiosities, an island of misfit midcentury office supplies. When friends come over for the first time, they usually spend ten minutes or so wandering around, perusing my collections, turning tchotchkes over in their hands, asking where this came from or what’s the story behind that. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received: “Your house makes me feel like I’m at a rummage sale,” to which I of course replied, “NOTHING IS FOR SALE, PLEASE LEAVE NOW.”

Half the stuff on display doesn’t work and I bought it that way: cameras that came with “as is” warnings; a century-old sewing machine missing all its important parts (is a foot pedal essential? I don’t know); ribbon-less, key-jammed typewriters; a Soviet-era rotary phone that hasn’t had a dial tone since the 1980s. What do they all have in common? Form over function. I love my mint green 1950s milkshake mixer even though I’m lactose intolerant, and I love my 1970s peacock wicker chair I scored for $20 at a thrift store even though it gives me butt splinters. I’ve been known to yell at my fiancé for using the oven mitt that’s “just for show” or matches from the pretty matchbook I’ve been saving for four years and plan to save for another eighty. I can’t acquire two of something without thinking, “I should start a collection.” An empty side table is a wasted opportunity, a blank wall is unfinished, a single teacup is a lonely thing.

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This way of living runs completely counter to my mother’s philosophy. If something no longer serves a purpose, out it goes. Finished reading that book? Donate it to charity. Haven’t worn that shirt in a year? Goodbye! We couldn’t get new toys until we parted with our old toys. You want a new Barbie? Which Barbie are you willing to give away? She wouldn’t let me have more than a few stuffed animals at any given time, and they had to fit at the head of the bed like tasteful throw pillows. Things whose only purpose was to sit on a shelf and look pretty she called dust collectors. Everything had to have their place, and I doubt she would consider “on top of some books” or “I’ll figure it out after I buy it” to be a legitimate place.

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Most of the time I like my way better. If a cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind, I must enjoy my mind cluttered. Being surrounded by a bunch of pretty things makes me happy. Each object reminds me of something, somewhere, or someone special. The old Singer sewing machine? I got it during my first week of living on my own in a new city. Thousands of kilometres from my hometown, alone and lonely, I spent the week exploring my new neighbourhood and happened upon a killer garage sale. The matryoshka dolls? I could tell you where I got each one (British Columbia, Michigan, Prague, the same killer garage sale) and from whom (my grandmother, an ex-boyfriend, a friend I no longer speak to). And because most of my things lived a different life before coming to live in my apartment, to me they’re mysterious treasures, a haberdashery of things I’ve saved from being pitched into non-existence. I imagine myself an old lady still in possession of the dress I bought when I was twenty, the bicycle that is now a vintage classic. You’ll have to pry this turquoise egg beater I’ve never used from my cold, dead hands. Someday the head curator of the Smithsonian will call and it will be my time to shine.

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They don’t make things like they used to. I’m aware it’s a tired cliche and that I sound hokey and nostalgic, but I’m not even trying to suggest that new things are of poorer quality. I’m only saying: look at the colours and the shapes and the attention to detail. It’s just hard to find a good bubblegum pink atomic alarm clock radio these days, so I’ll take the old one that doesn’t work and just play music from my iPhone, thanks.

I’m currently trying to part with an old bicycle. I got a new one (well, an old one from a pawn shop, but it’s new to me), which brings my current total of bicycles to three, and that seems excessive even to me. I’m very aware that it would make sense to sell one of my bikes—our apartment is not huge, we don’t have access to a garage or shed, and my fiancé has two bikes himself, which, if you’re keeping track, means there are five bikes inside our apartment. But every time I think of selling my old bike, I remember buying it: I had just graduated with my BA and was about to start grad school. I think about how my years of grad school were my favourite years. I think about how great it felt to be back on a bike after more than ten years of not biking. I remember loading the bike onto the back of my car, pulling out of my parents’ driveway, and embarking on a cross-country road trip to my new home where I knew not one person. Will I still have these memories if I part with the thing? Yes. But. . . . Will the bicycle mean this much to someone else? Will they promise to ride it regularly so it doesn’t feel neglected? Maybe I should keep it just to make sure it still feels loved. It probably doesn’t help that the bicycle is mint green.

The only time I don’t love my things is when it’s time to move. So mostly I avoid moving. I’m still in the apartment I started renting six years ago that I thought would be a temporary stopover on the way to bigger and better things. But in a couple months I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to move. And if you think I’m going to do a pre-moving purge or have a garage sale or some such nonsense, my heavier-than-God record player must have fallen on your head. It’s all coming to the new place even if I need to rent five moving trucks to get it there. I apologize now, dear friends who are close enough to me that I’ll feel no shame asking for your help. Because: if I don’t bring my things, how will I know when I’m home?

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