It’s two days after Christmas and the topic of gifts is still a current one. While I was sitting in the salon chair this morning, Michael, who has cut my hair for at least twenty-five years, asked whether I thought he could gracefully return a Christmas gift from his brother-in-law and exchange it for something he wanted without causing a family feud. Since he already owned a similar item and didn’t need two I recommended, without a second thought, that he exchange it for something he needed. But then I don’t have to live with his wife or her brother and I know family dynamics are tricky. If he lived in another culture, this might not be a question he would ask. When my co-facilitator and I asked Japanese students in our English conversation class whether they had ever returned a gift one said, “Never. This is not something we would do,” and the rest nodded their heads in agreement.
Whether Michael kept his gift or exchanged it, his question reminded me of a day-after- Christmas newspaper column titled “The Christmas gifts that go on taking up space,” which talks about “stuff,” how much we have and how hard it is to say goodbye to it. The columnist, Jerry Large, begins with, “If you celebrated Christmas or Hannukkah, you probably have more stuff today than you had last week.” He’s right. And he knows that for many of us getting rid of possessions is not easy. In my family, the habit of saving everything came from grandparents and parents who lived through the Great Depression. They passed on the values of “you’ll never know when you might need this” and “waste not want not” to their grandchildren. When we cleaned out my grandparents’ house after their death we found, among other things, small pieces of string tied together and rolled into a big ball, and jars of home-canned green beans busily concocting botulism on shelves in the basement. My father-in-law also couldn’t bring himself to throw things away.
I once heard a psychologist tell an audience of school administrators that Americans lived in only two-thirds of the space in their houses because they needed one-third to store their stuff. There are so-called experts who will help us get rid of stuff for a price by insisting we follow certain rules, such as, “If you haven’t worn it or used it for a year give it away or throw it away.” Most of us know these rules, but as Mr. Large says, “Decisions about stuff are always deeper than the stuff itself.” Deciding what to do with old letters, favorite books, childhood toys, and parents’ treasured mementos all require more painstaking effort than a single rule can prescribe and we all believe we are too busy with other responsibilities to invest in this effort. The simplest solution is to shuffle things around in that one-third of the house and make room for more stuff. Or, as an alternative, give me a dumpster and a month.