And How Micro-Disaster Taught Me the Difference Between 'Stuff' and 'Things'



Throughout elementary school, my teachers had lists of words and phrases we were not allowed to use. “Nice” and “cool” were forbidden — branded as unspecific cop-out adjectives. “I think” was banned for being redundant. For one teacher, “stuff” was Public Enemy No. 1. 

“Stuff,” was looked down upon for its lack of specificity, but there was another, more important, reason. “Stuff” was irreverent. It reflected a lack of appreciation for items on their own, as objects to cherish.

But its banishment from our lexicon left a void: 

“If we can’t say ‘stuff,’ what do we call ‘stuff’?” asked one of my classmates. Our teachers suggested the word “things” as an elegant, more respectful alternative to “stuff.” But I always grudgingly held that the two are not at all synonymous. On July 4th last year that belief was vindicated at long last.

I awoke that morning to a loud crashing noise. My eyes shot open to see my ceiling falling down toward me, stopped only by my canopy bed frame. A tree had crashed through my roof. After some screaming and hysterical hyperventilating, I ran out of my room and away from the giant hole in my ceiling, through which I could now see some snapped trusses — and the sky beyond. 

After some phone calls and frantic pacing, it became clear I needed to get out of the house as quickly as possible. In order, I grabbed: my dog (who I had to hoist out a window into the rain, since the front door was blocked by branches); my laptop and charger; gorgeous Dior stilettos my mother hand-me-down gifted me; and some important documents and undeposited checks.

Before the disaster occurred, I had already been downsizing because I was preparing to uproot my life and move across the country for grad school. By August, all of my worldly possessions needed to fit in my car (a garnet Toyota Yaris I lovingly nicknamed “The Kidney Bean”). Going through all of my items and categorizing them with the usual labels of “donate/sell,” “trash” and “keep” had me thinking a lot about “stuff.”

I had an easy time clearing out trash. Throwing away unwanted clothing was a cinch. But after the obvious, I had been finding it very difficult to narrow down what I needed and valued, and what I had that was just lying around. 

Now I know: Nothing shows what you actually value better than what you grab when you think your house will collapse in 24 hours.

My most valued and valuable possessions made it out with me on the first pass: my lifelong companion, my main source of productivity, one of my possessions of highest monetary (and materialistic, if we’re being honest) value and pieces of paper with huge societal/bureaucratic value.

The items I salvaged from my apartment upon returning were “things.” I valued them individually, enough to remember to grab them when rushed and numb with shock. My grandfather’s behemoth of a heavy typewriter from Cuba. Clothes I wear often. Crucial electronics. Important jewelry and expensive cosmetics. Books that managed to stay dry. Important sentimental tokens from friends and moments past.

“Stuff” is what I grabbed as days wore on: dishes, less-important jewelry, small electronics I don’t use often, and tchotchkes collected over the years. A couple weeks earlier, I thought all of this was necessary, but my willingness to leave it in the house says otherwise. These are the things I disregarded and forgot when faced with a snap decision (although I had once regarded them as a collection of items symbolizing me and where I had been). These are the things I knew in my heart I did not need to be happy. These things are “stuff.”

I recovered a lot of “stuff” from the apartment, cleaning it out so my landlord could repair the structure. I sold or threw most of it away. “Stuff” is gotten rid of as we make transitions. It’s an act that demarcates a turning point from who we were and what we once did to what we are becoming and what we will do. “Things” stay with us as we move along — each getting its own place among the cluttered car that gets us there. 

So sorry to inform you, teachers of my past, “stuff” is an invaluable word. At the risk of sounding cliché, corny or pretentious, “stuff” by any other name is simply not the same “thing.”

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