There is a Bernstein Bears children’s book called Too Much Stuff. In the book, Mama Bear looks around the house and decides the family needs to give away many of their things to the needy. Papa bear has fishing supplies he hasn’t used in years. Brother Bear and Sister Bear have more games than they could ever play with. And Mama Bear herself admits there is no need to save stacks of magazines and scraps of material from her sewing projects.
We recently moved, and I’ve been feeling a lot like Mama Bear. Our family has too much stuff. It took six adults nearly five hours to move boxes and boxes of our things to our new house. Then, the following weekend, four young, strong professional movers spent another couple of hours moving our furniture. After that, Bill and I still needed to return to the old house for about four or five carloads of “just what’s left in the garage.”
I’m not completely sure what all this stuff is or where we got it. I doubt that we need more than half of it.
“Live simply so that others may simply live,” said St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Mama Bear would have very much agreed with this. All over the world, there are families who struggle just to put together enough rice and beans for one meal. Our family has so much food that packing the pantry of dry goods to move from house to house took several large boxes. In our own city, there are families who would look at the dressers filled with clothes and boxes of shoes we were moving and assume we must have eight or nine kids, not three. We have enough toys to open our own daycare center, enough paper, pens, markers and art supplies to operate a small school, and enough books to keep every kid in the neighborhood busy reading for the rest of the summer.
In my early twenties, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s “Live simply,” philosophy was mine as well. I lived in community for a year. Fifteen young adults, we worked in the Chicago’s central city, serving the poor and came home each night to a converted convent where we each had our own tiny room. We shared all other living quarters. I remember in-depth discussions of whether buying a package of cookies was in keeping with the simple life. When I left my year of service work, I fit all my belongings in my parents’ car, with both of my parents and my sister also in the car. What has happened to me?
Family life happened. It used to be all I needed to go running was a pair of running shoes. Now, I need a running stroller for the baby and bikes for each of the boys so that everyone can join in. Every age of childhood seems to come with its own equipment, and since there’s an eight-year gap between two-year-old Jamie and ten-year-old Jacob, it means we have both baby-toting equipment and big-kid sports equipment in the garage and basement.
Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Baptisms and First Communions bring a rush of presents from well-meaning relatives buying more stuff for us. And I can’t blame it all on the kids. As Bill and I have moved from the “Early Marriage” style of decorating (think futons and framed posters) to having specific tastes, we have accumulated quite a bit on our own. And living as a family, rather than in community necessitates a certain amount of material things — from having enough plates so as to be able to invite people over, to owning power tools so that we can fix the house on our own.
So what is the answer? In the Bernstein Bears, the Bear family, under Mama’s direction, gives away much of their excess stuff to the needy. Everyone grumbles a bit, but they feel good in the end. In our family, the move has taught me to question our possessions. We had the St. Vincent De Paul Society make one pick-up at our old house and two at our new, so far. I’m now less likely to hold onto something thinking we might find a use for it. If we haven’t used it or worn it in six months, it’s better to go to someone who has a more pressing need. Picturing myself packing, moving and unpacking the item gives me an immediate sense of if the item is all that important.
Almost three weeks into our life in our new house, we still aren’t completely unpacked. Yet, the kids play with toys, we eat three meals a day, wear clothes, and use a pretty operable office. The unopened boxes speak directly to the question of too much stuff, as we certainly aren’t missing what’s in those boxes. I want to simplify, but don’t have all the answers yet. I’m praying to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for guidance. And maybe I’ll read that Bernstein Bears book one more time.