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Dusty Essay: The Meaning of Things

Hello again! This is Nancy with Dusty Old Thing and the photo above is NOT how I live! The “things” are mine and most have “meaning” to me but I’d never have them all jumbled up like this.

I love antiques and have many, but I’m a minimalist at heart. Everything has a place. It’s manageable.

After I took this photo I put the things all back into their places: a trunk, a Jackson press, a bookcase, a drawer for broken things yet to be fixed. The only thing that remained on the top of the antique bonnet chest was the lamp on its crocheted doily. It had been my mother’s when she started teaching in a one-room Kentucky school when she was just 20. It reminds me of her courage and how the source of light changes over time.

Fortunately I did not grow up in a home with hoarding nor did I see it until I was grown. What I have seen terrifies me to this day. I’ve seen homes stacked from floor to ceiling with what were claimed to be “treasures”. I’ve felt terror at the thought of maybe being trapped in the goat paths. I’ve seen collapsing floors from the weight of collected “stuff”. I’ve seen people who wouldn’t leave homes full of mold and bugs and cats. I’ve known children of hoarders and seen the damage it’s done to them.

My house, full of antiques, looks more like the photo, below, from my entryway:

It’s sparse, minimalist, functional. The sewing machine works; a piece of art to me. It’s cranked by hand. The chromolithograph was my grandmother’s. The turtle top Victorian table was in my Ohio home growing up.

Everyone has their own style. Collectors can arrange their things in ways that become art itself. Shelves full of pottery or glass catching the sunlight or the bare bones of old farm tools can be as much art as anything.

But When Does It Cross the Line?

Many people wonder when their collections move over to hoarding. Others wonder if their urge to acquire, to “find”, to keep is crossing the line. Some of us may worry about relatives who can’t seem to distinguish between things of value and things that are, for most of us, simply trash. Many of us may be torn between the Biblical imperative in Matthew to “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” and Ben Franklin’s “Waste not, want not”.

The discussion of hoarding is too complex, and too full of new information, for us to go into here. Randy Frost of Smith College and Gail Steketee of Boston University have an excellent book on the subject, Stuff, Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, 2010, Mariner Books. It provides newer neurological information as well as having important chapters about hoarding in children and the effects on families. If you are interested in learning more, it’s a very good place to start. Much seems to revolve around the meaning that objects have and the role that meaning has in memory, in feelings of safety, in visual perception and categorization abilities. The book is also an interesting “read”.

Look for the Positive Purpose.

When we start to look at the “meaning of things”, at why we like antiques, we may have to look at how they serve specific purposes in our lives. An antique may have a positive purpose, a positive meaning, if:

  • It is functional. We can use it. We need it.
  • It can be easily converted to cash at a greater or equal value to what we paid to get it, to care for it, move it and insure it over time.
  • It relates to a specific time period, manufacturer, use, artist or other category of objects we collect based on clear, discreet criteria.
  • It is beautiful to us. It has a sensory appeal we find satisfying in some way.
  • It triggers a pleasurable memory for us or inspires us in some way to adopt certain attributes or values.
  • It is a symbol of a social status or group affiliation that is important for us.

Clearly the first three have objective and practical purposes. We might buy an antique chest for clothes storage rather than spending the same amount of money for a new one made of pressed wood and chemicals. That’s functional. Research can show us objectively if it is likely to hold its value or appreciate and the new one won’t. Maybe we collect things from the Arts and Crafts period and it fits perfectly. We know the dates of the Arts and Crafts period, the major creators and companies and the characteristics of the pieces.

The last three are more subjective.

Many of our readers (and I do it, too) talk about how certain inherited objects remind them of a loved one who has passed on. Old photos, our grandmother’s quilts or sewing machine, a old handmade tool…all these things can be triggers for good memories. Experts in the study of happiness have shown us that such triggers are important for building and maintaining a more positive outlook on life. They recommend telling the good stories. Objects can also be triggers, or markers, for aspirations –for what we want to become or where we want to go or learn.

Antiques can have amazing beauty. Perhaps we all have an innate need for beauty. We can be lifted and carried away by light and color and lines and spacial arrangements. There can, however, be a problem here. Frost and Steketee document cases where hoarders think they are creating beauty in their piles of “stuff”. I knew of one hoarder who thought that used pop and beer cans were objects of great beauty and could be used in lieu of payment for medical bills. Sometimes people only see what they wish to see or need to see. Again, beauty is subjective.

People may also buy, or keep, antiques that show their actual or hoped for social status or membership in a certain group. In days gone by many families believed they needed a silver tea service. Professors may today prowl for old books. Regional heritage or identification can be proclaimed with antiques. Urbanites may go for streamlined industrial re-use. Rural folks may show they’re “country” with cast iron and oil lamps.

When It’s Not Positive.

Hoarders seem to seek a somewhat different set of meanings, meanings that don’t result in positive outcomes. A big part of it may be neurological, a difficulty with categorization, a fear of loss of memory, a need to build barriers, an addiction to the pleasure of acquisition. Much research still needs to be done, not only on the causes, but on therapies and interventions to turn the meanings into something that enhances the person’s life and that of their family and community.

Keeping It Simple.

The best words may, again, come from Matthew “But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven…for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

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