On Getting Rid of Stuff

I recently disposed of an old toiletry bag. It was an unlovely thing: pallid gray, the color of chewed chewing gum. It was given away free at the last baseball game I attended before leaving San Francisco to move to Europe (that was, um, 17 years ago), so it had the SF Giants logo on one side and the Ortho corporate logo on the other. Ortho, a petroleum company, I think, was the sponsor for this particular giveaway. It was my very first toiletry bag (how did I get by without one for so long?) and, until a week or so ago, the only one I ever owned. Now I have a sleek new black toiletry bag that my wife picked up at Ikea. That’s the kind of store Ikea is: you go there for a bed or some shelves or a kitchen cabinet and come home with a set of collapsible cardboard storage boxes, a cheap and cheerful throw rug and four toiletry bags instead. Anyway, when I finally heaved the old Giants toiletry bag, I took one long last look at it and saw for the first time how shabby, battered and unappealing it really was. Why had I kept it for so long?

I’m not by nature a hoarder. In fact, I’m pretty meticulous about chucking stuff that’s been outgrown, passed its sell-by date or generally outlived its usefulness. Especially packaging. I hate having packaging lying around. This is a constant source of friction with my wife. She not only leaves empty packaging lying around, she actually puts the stuff back where she found it—even though there’s nothing left in it! I regularly find boxes of tea (without any teabags), yogurt containers (without any yogurt) and cans of beans (with about 11 mold-encrusted beans in the bottom) carefully replaced in their appropriate places in the kitchen. Why does she do it? Maybe she doesn’t realize the packaging is, in fact, empty. Or maybe, for some weird aesthetic reason, she just likes having the stuff around. Or is it some genetic memory of the Dutch “hunger winter” of 1944-45, when her parents and grandparents and everyone else in the northern half of the Netherlands survived on grass and potatoes until the Allies arrived? Anyway, having taken a more clear-eyed view of my dilapidated and, frankly, disgusting old toiletry bag, I have become less critical of this particular peccadillo.

I once had a pair of shoes that I wore for ten years. When I bought them, they were probably the single most expensive article of clothing I had ever purchased. I was determined to get value for money. But I kept on wearing them even long after they really should have been respectfully retired. When I finally did concede that I needed a new pair of shoes, I went to a shoe shop to buy them. Under the harsh glare of the shop’s fluorescent lights, with the shoe salesmen looking on disapprovingly and (I imagined at least) with a slight sense of pity, I held my old shoes in my hands and looked at them. They were incredibly shabby: all scuffed and discolored, a couple of deep gouges in the leather, and the sole peeling away from the rest of the shoe in several places. They were, I realize now, a disgrace. They looked like the shoes Charlie Chaplin wore (and ate) in The Gold Rush. But, heck, they sure were comfortable. As it says in The Upanishads:

The mind being full, the whole universe is filled with the juice of nectar; the whole earth is covered with leather to him who has put his foot in the shoe.