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The siren lure of stuff

One of the aspects of moving to a new country that excited me most was the prospect of doing away with stuff. All of the accretions that build up through daily living, the trinkets and knick knacks and goeters that clog one up, hold one down.

No more house or furniture or books. No more lamps and throw cushions. If I couldn’t fit it into a suitcase and get that below the Qantas weight limit, then it wasn’t going, which meant that I took clothing and a couple of volumes on marketing strategy and pretty much nothing else. My aim was pure, wonderful, minimalist living.

Naturally, that has all gone out the window.

Stuff has a way of ingratiating itself into one’s life, you see. Archaeologists search for the things that mattered to generations long since past. Stuff is geological in its significance. How can one pass through time and not collect things, like alluvial deposits on a distant shore? Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Stuff is comforting — just as the lack of it frees one up to go wherever and whenever one chooses, so its accumulation has a way of anchoring you to a place. Without stuff, you’re not entirely of this world. You’re too light, you could be tossed away by the winds of chance. Perhaps that’s why homeless people have so much stuff, even though their lifestyle is hardly conducive to collection. They move their things around in a purloined trolley, or store it behind pillars and in doorways.

Once I saw a homeless man in Paris, who sat with his dog amidst his kingdom of boxes, confident in the possession of his patch of pavement. In the same way, someone keeps all that cardboard and those canvas bags piled up in dark corners down at Circular Quay because they are proof of their own humanity. Let those things go, and the self finally crumbles.

So my own resolve regarding stuff has evaporated. Naturally, I have good reasons for having shelled out on the things that I did. Books and DVDs (important for research into Australian culture and society), small cheap rugs from Ikea (the tiled floor is cold), a pink phalaeonopsis orchid (I have to have something alive around me). My greatest extravagance is a small red heart-shaped rug from Ikea, a nod to whimsy in my intensely minimalist abode.

All of this is going to make moving to another place — a painful exercise I will have to undergo in the next couple of months — so much less convenient. But the siren lure of stuff — well, that’s something I have found I cannot resist.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. OneFlew OneFlew 17 June 2008

    The stuff I am most pleased to have got rid of is live animals. What a positive lifestyle change that was.

  2. amandzing amandzing 17 June 2008

    lol, creature comforts and wanting the place to look nice are ok. it’s when you start hoarding that it becomes a problem…

  3. Jon Jon 17 June 2008

    Move home once every 5 years.

  4. Nick Nick 17 June 2008


    I know you’ve only been in Aus a little while, but i’d love to hear your thoughts on the Australian people through South African eyes….?

    I’ve read comments by those on your blog who’ve referenced historical tagedies (colonial and post colonial treatment of indigenous people), small minded political hacks who will soon be, if not already are, in the dust bin of history and sporting icons as the basis of their attitude toward Australia and Australians.

    But, you live and work in Australia and are thus in a position to go past the superficial – what are your first impressions???

    It seems to me that if the South African psyche and character were judged by others only on the South African people and events that make world headlines – it would not only be one dimentional but incredibly inaccurate!!

    However, it seems thats what many in South Africans do when giving opinions about Australia…?

    I hope I don’t get howled down by the “this is a South African post about South Africa” crowd for writing this. IT IS as South African perspective I want!! For those of you who aren’t happy it’s not a South African perspective about South Africa – atleast it breaks up reading about Zimbabwe concerning more serious topics.

  5. owen owen 17 June 2008

    Was there not some famous terminally ill person who when asked what he would change in his life if he could do it agian said something like ‘I would travel through life, lighter’.

  6. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 17 June 2008

    Interesting point Nick. I will think about it and write about something along the lines of “what are Australians really like?” Bearing in mind, of course, that I’ve only encountered Sydney Australians and that’s like judging South Africans based on Joburgers. My assessment in a nutshell: mostly quite friendly, depending on the context.

  7. Craig Craig 17 June 2008

    @Nick, from my point of view, Australians are the nicest bunch of South Africans I have ever met ;)

  8. CB CB 17 June 2008

    I was a bit sad to read OneFlew’s response: The live animals I am lucky enough to be the guardian of are not possessions, but friends – they enrich my life. Oh well, to each their own …! Nice observation, though, Sarah. Stuff probably does define our humanity. I’m a bit minimalist myself but in the meantime, the “toy collection” my husband and I have is growing: Windsurf equipment, wakeboards, boats, motorcycles, guitars, etc. I guess your stuff doesn’t just anchor you – it says alot about who you are. Good luck in Oz and enjoy your new “stuff”!

  9. Panic Panic 17 June 2008

    Eight months ago I moved to Durban. I sat for a week contemplating what to take with me.

    My rules for disposal:
    1. If I hadn’t used it in 6 months
    2. If I wasn’t likely to use it in 6 months.
    3. It couldn’t fit in my car

    It was a ruthless pruning of possesions, the end result was a giddy sense of freedom.

    I only stayed in Durban for 8 months, but every purchase was carefully considered – would it make the trip back to Cape Town?

    Living light is very refreshing – I no longer feel encumbered by STUFF.

  10. Nick Nick 18 June 2008


    Point taken Sarah! Sydney does have a culture all its own, as indeed many Australian capitals do. Look forward to your post on the topic when it comes!

  11. Eish Eish 18 June 2008

    I did the same, Sarah – arrived in the future with a suitcase and nothing else. I felt the blood draining out of my body when my furniture started growing legs and leaving through the backdoor. The sofa I recently upholstered, the cupboard I restored, the bed I bought on lay-bye, soft furnishings carefully selected to match my decor – it all walked away. When I sold all I could and was left with a lounge filled with a strange collection of mac’gafters and goodies, sentimentals, magazines, odd bits and pieces and stuff not even Cash Converters wanted donated to them, which included the toolshed and kennel outside and started offering freebies, ‘friends’ appeared from nowhere with trailers and bakkies to help rid me of the ‘freebies’. I felt a bit like a school kid with sweeties. Everybody wanted to know me. I was seriously popular. Seeing them swoon and scramble over my left-overs could probably be taken as a compliment to my good taste. Most people miss the opportunity to witness this – it usually happens after your death. I looked on as if I was on the ‘other side’ and floating above my body near the ceiling. My son was wearing a shocked expression when his bed left through the back door. The last picture taken in SA is of me sitting on the floor (no more chairs) among all my immigration papers, with a sleeping bag in the corner of my bedroom which once boasted a lovely Victorian cast iron bed and matching French style sidetables. I wanted ‘stuff’ the moment I set foot in my new country, as if I left my identity in SA. I guess our stuff defines us – it says who we are, besides being a visible indicator that we are starting to cope in our new environment.

  12. Alisha Alisha 18 June 2008

    I have just gotten rid of 11 yrs of my accumulated worldy possesions as I too am moving countries (and 40Kg’s doesn’t get you much). It has been the most liberating expereince. Everything from the curtains that I didn’t really like that my Mom sponsored me, to a stolen table – long and hysterical story – (not that stealing is funny, of course) to the items of my wardrobe that I really shouldn’t have bought. I feel light as a feather.
    Highly reccomended to everyone even if you are staying put!

  13. Tash Joseph Tash Joseph 18 June 2008

    I keep meaning to give up “stuff”, but then I get paid and my Fanatics card starts whispering to me, or I realise that owning all seven seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is really very, very important and aids my development as a human being.

    Sigh. Maybe next month…?

  14. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 19 June 2008

    Being in Australia means I can’t justify going to Clicks to spend money in order to earn Clubcard points in order to get vouchers. I am a complete loyalty card slut, and I’m starting the habit again. (So far I have Myer and have applied for Priceline, considering Franklins and possibly a bookshop too. And I have a buy ten smoothies get one free card from the local juice joint.)

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