Last weekend, an estimated 226 million Americans spent a record $52.4 billion, CNN reported, as Black Friday sales kicked off around the country at midnight: Shoppers fought over towels and waffle irons, a woman in a Los Angeles Wal-Mart pepper-sprayed a crowd surging to purchase Xboxes, and one family camped for three nights outside a Best Buy in Michigan waiting to buy a flat screen television for $199.
For many Americans the holiday gift-giving season is all about stuff. Buying stuff, wrapping stuff, mailing stuff. Given out of love or obligation, the giver hopes the recipient will want the gift. Many, especially the young, are enthralled. For others, gifts of things may be an unwanted burden.
I’m one of the latter. I tell my loved ones, if you want to give me things, make them ones that I can immediately consume, like food, soap, or candles.
Or make them not stuff at all—a massage, a meal at a favorite restaurant, or help around the house.
This holiday season, when, for so many people, cash is scarce and the need for healthy relationships great, is a good moment to unstuff our celebrations. And for those of us with too many belongings, it’s a great time to unstuff our homes.
My un-love affair with stuff kicks in every time we move. Arriving in the new spot, I find the mound of stuff overwhelming. I swear I will never buy another object. But once everything is tucked into place, my resolve drops away.
That changed in November 2008 when I read the YES! article about Dee Williams. You may remember Dee. She was on the cover of the Sustainable Happiness issue, smiling, with legs dangling from the loft of her 84-square-foot house. Dee, who downsized from a much bigger house, had gotten her belongings down to a mere 300 objects. If she brought in something new, she got rid of something old. Even though I had no wish to live that spare a life, I kept mulling on Dee’s feat. Did she count a pair of socks as two or one?
My fascination with Dee’s downsizing made me aware once again that my belongings felt burdensome. The house felt stuffed. It was hard to find things. I longed for simpler surroundings. So I made a resolution: Each week I would move more stuff out of the house than came in. That was three years ago.
Over those three years, drawer by drawer, closet by closet, the house and garage cleared out. Now, we no longer fight our way through chairs and boxes to get from the car to the kitchen door. It’s easy to find the perfect vase for that rose or the right pan for the pizza.
With so many people in need, I wanted to be sure my excess belongings found good uses. I easily found opportunities. During an especially cold December, Seattle’s organization for the homeless asked for sleeping bags, jackets, and blankets. I had extras of all three. The local thrift shop, where business has been brisk, welcomed my clothes and tablecloths. The wildlife shelter put out a call for old sheets and towels, of which I had many. Occupy Seattle was happy to receive my extra tarp.
YES! Picks: Green Gift Ideas
Our holiday guide to thoughtful gifts that don't require buying stuff.
Last May, for my 70th birthday party, I asked guests not to bring gifts. Instead of receiving, I gave. For each of the 42 guests, I wrapped in newspaper an object gleaned from my closets—a wooden salad fork and spoon, a Hawaiian necklace, a garden trowel, a Balinese bird mobile. Each guest chose a wrapped gift and then, amid uproarious laughter and much hawking, they traded until most everyone went home with something they wanted.
Now my belongings no longer feel like my enemy. I have what I want and know where it is. I experience a delightful ease of living. And I carry the satisfaction that things I no longer need are in the hands of others who can use them.
So as the holidays approach, I look forward to a time of relationships, food, and fun—with a minimum of stuff.
Dee Williams doesn't need a big house to be happy. Instead she found happiness in a 84-square foot house on wheels.
"No Impact Man" suspected the holidays would be just as merry without all the stuff.
The Story of Stuff will take you on a provocative tour of our consumer-driven culture—from resourc extraction to iPod incineration—exposing the real costs of our use-it and lose-it approach to stuff.