All that stuff

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(Host) Recently commentator Peter Gilbert was inspired by the images in two books to reflect on the human tendancy to collect… stuff.

(Gilbert) Anyone who has moved knows what an astonishing amount of stuff we accumulate – even without being particularly acquisitive. My family moved recently, and the days are long past when I could pack everything into a VW. We got rid of hundreds of beloved books, had a yard sale, and took multiple loads to Goodwill and the dump. And yet what a lot of stuff we moved!

We are not materialistic people, and yet it is important to remain alert to the issue. Catholic social worker Peter Maurin, colleague of Dorothy Day, used to say, “The coat in the closet belongs to the poor.” And Lord knows, I have more than one coat in the closet.

A stunning photography book entitled Material World captures families around the world in front of their homes with all their worldly possessions: in some countries, a large family stands before a hut with a few pots and bedrolls. In other photos, many more objects accompany people through their life’s journey, just as Pharaohs were buried with treasures to accompany them to the next world. My American family would need a wide-angle lens, even after the yard sale.

I think also of The Donkey Prince, M. Jean Craig’s adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. It’s the story of a king and queen who have everything they could want except a child. When their son arrives, he’ s a donkey because they tried to short-change the wizard who had helped them. I read it numerous times to our young daughters before I was struck by its first pages: on one page is an illustration of a medieval king who resembles Henry VIII counting gold coins, and on the opposite page, his queen gazes in a mirror while maids dress her.

The book says: The King loved nothing better than his riches. He spent most of his time in his strongroom, counting silver bars and golden coins and bags of rubies and pearls. The Queen loved nothing better than pretty clothes. She spent most of her time before her mirror, trying on gowns and robes, collars and capes, feathers and silks and furs.

Setting aside the gender stereotyping, the medieval setting had blinded me to the fact that this is the way we often spend our lives today! How many of us spend too-long hours at work making and counting our money? How much time do we shopping as a past-time, rather than because we need something?

Traditionally, Vermonters have done pretty well in this area: there’s the old joke about the woman from the city who asks, “It’s so lovely up here in Vermont, but where do you buy your clothes?” And the Vermonter replies, “We have our clothes.”

And so I am reminded that we have to stay attentive. Materialism and covetousness are less likely to appear to us as Imelda Marcos’s shoe closet than as our favorite shopping catalogue.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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