I know. We just met. Things seem to be moving too fast. But don’t worry. This is just a social (/environmental justice) visit.
I admit, I have a fairly liberal take on what is appropriate in terms of decorating. Things don’t, you know, match exactly. But everyone who comes over finds my house cozy. They feel like they’re in a home. Sure, there’s a part of me that would love to have a house full of well-orchestrated, tastefully chosen IKEA furniture in a classy color scheme, but, there’s so much more to consider when we create the spaces in which we live.
My house is full of memories, full of love. Come this way. Wait. Could you take off your shoes? It’s very snowy outside. Thanks.
Now if you look just to your right, here’s my jewelry box. Cute, right? Deep brown wood with stained glass doors. It sat in my parents’ house for years, gathering dust in the room my 4-years older sister, Rachel, hasn’t used in years but never manages to fully vacate. Really, though, it belonged to Jana, the oldest of us three daughters. I don’t know where she got it from. Bat Mitzvah gift maybe? I can see it, sitting just so in my childhood memories, on the dresser that used to seem so tall to me. Then it seemed to be full of adult things, magically so. Anyway, lately I was getting really frustrated trying to keep my necklaces organized and untangled. I was home over a break, saw it sitting there, considered how Rachel hasn’t really lived there in years, and decided to just ask her if I could take it. Now it sits near my bed, holds my jewelry, anchors me back to those childhood memories.
The art? Yeah. This one was an old print my friend Angie, now a graphic designer, did for an undergrad art class. She was going to throw it out because she said this line here was a mistake during the printing process, but I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s fire the woman is walking through; it’s supposed to illustrate an old fairy tale. The piece next to it? I found it in my parents’ basement. I think it was my Aunt Lillian’s. She was an artist, but she didn’t make this piece. She worked mainly in basketstowards the end of her life. But I like the reminder of her, of having here something that she chose and liked.
These boxes, these book cases, all the art, they used to belong to my friends, my family. The stories that linger in their curves and angles, their material existence—stories of their acquisition, the lives they led before they came to live in my house, the objects they held or sat on top of—they fill my home with a sense of context, of meaning. Sure, I have new things, too. And some of this furniture belongs to the company from which I’m leasing this apartment. And those new things have stories, too. These are stories of how they were made, the resources that went into their process, the mental power that went into their planning and execution, the humans who produced, packaged, shipped, and sold these items. But I much prefer the texture of the stories that accompany these objects that used to live with the people I love.
Every time a new product is made, as you well know, a great deal of waste is made. Waste we have the luxury to forget about. Then it is packaged in more waste, travels halfway around the world eating up fuel, is sold to us, handed over with a plastic bag and a receipt, or a big box. Sure, I’ll recycle whatever I can from all that mess, but why not use what we have? We have SO MUCH. So many new objects made without rhyme or reason. Do they add to our lives? I’m not saying I’m innocent; I love objects, too. Sometimes these are newly made and utterly pointless objects. But what could happen if instead of valuing newness in our objects, we valued their stories, the way they connect us to other humans?
Let’s reorient ourselves. To see the waste that a new product makes rather than its glitz and glamor. To see the land where we dug our landfill in as just as precious as Niagara Falls, or the redwood forests on the west coast. Let’s think about the amount of energy, etc. it takes to recycle an item as itself a precious, finite resource. Let’s begin to appreciate objects less for their fetishistic capacity—the sense of magic we have about them that they will somehow make our lives better—and more for the tree that grew so that it could be cut down to be turned into the object, for the friend who used to love the object, for the way objects can reflect not only the human ingenuity that allows us to imagine and build objects, but also for how they can reflect human responsibility to this earth.
You can have all the objects in the world. So what? Is your life so much better (than someone who has no objects) because you have an adroid phone, or a big screen TV, or this season’s newest sweater that you will only wear 5 times? You are the one that gives them meaning. You are in control of that choice.
There is so much unused stuff in this world. Why not try and use it as much as possible? Why not find and appreciate these objects, build that meaning? Human ingenuity gives us the power to make objects, but I don’t think that’s what makes us human. I think it is instead our human capacity to appreciate, to build webs of meaning, to be responsible, and clever, and artistic with the raw materials of life.
I’m sorry. Here I am babbling away, and I didn’t even offer you anything to drink. Did you want some tea? I’ll bring it to you in a silly mug with a festive palm tree design. They used to belong to Alana."