“These are just things.”
“At least nobody was hurt.”
“My loved ones matter more than the dining room table that washed away in the flood.”
This is what you say if you lose your home or its ingredients and are interviewed by a reporter who wants to show the human side of natural disaster. After all, it’s just stuff. In fact, to focus too much on the importance of stuff can make people seem materialistic or somehow immoral. Imagine the outcry if someone said, “We lost Grandma, but thank goodness her table was salvaged in the storm.”
Despite the absurdity of this scenario, I want to make a case for why the stuff in our homes matters, especially in light of the stories we’re seeing about our friends and families in the throes of disaster and evacuation. Our home stuff impacts us when we have it, to be sure. But it also impacts us when we lose it. Socioeconomic inequalities play an important role, too – as in, stuff matters differently depending on your access to the stuff in the first place.
We seem to be in the midst of visible large-scale disaster after disaster from coast to coast and beyond. I spent the last part of the summer avoiding the outdoors because I live in a spot in the inland Pacific Northwest that was surrounded by wildfires with wind blowing the smoke into our valley from all directions. My husband and I shared stories of burning eyes and sore throats with friends as we ensured our children were having athletic practices indoors, moved our backyard dinners inside, and kept our windows shut. I stayed glued to my TV and social media feeds to track the safety of friends and family in the Columbia River Gorge, Montana, Houston, Puerto Rico, Santa Rosa, and all of Florida. Seeing the “marked safe” button from Facebook friends brought a sigh of relief. Admittedly, I was more concerned about the well-being of friends and family than about the well-being of their dining room tables.
But what about the stuff? There are a lot of articles floating about regarding the children of baby boomer parents not wanting their home possessions. The old wobbly oak table that made it through the Depression seems cumbersome, out of style, and indicative of an outdated era when the sturdiness of putting down roots in one spot mattered more. Now the narrow tapered legs of midcentury modern furniture – easy to move, easy to see under, easy to replicate inexpensively – are preferred. These reports include mention of aging seniors spending thousands of dollars to enlist the time-consuming help of professional organizers and move management companies. What’s not mentioned much is the fact that the process of getting rid of stuff in many of these cases includes the element of choice. Of course for many it’s a constrained or challenging choice, where ailing health, emotional pain of parting with cherished possessions, or the geographic dispersal of family members to claim items in a timely manner create stress. But these are not necessarily situations where the wobbly oak table owners have less than two days to figure out whether that table matters. And the passing down of valuable possessions requires at least some affluence in the first place.
The difficult work associated with getting rid of things that present or future family members may or may not want cannot happen when there’s a disaster, because there’s no time. The emotional work that is needed to suddenly say goodbye to something you may have hoped would outlive you is punching you in the face. Gone is the work of having to sort through your things, but gone also is the opportunity to do so.
People in precarious economic situations are already at a point where losing objects and the homes that house them can be immanent. Environmental scholar Nicole Youngman wrote in the 2014 book Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology that “disasters exacerbate rather than ‘even out’ the preexisting social inequalities in devastated regions.” Perhaps there is a table to be passed down, but probably not. Add disaster (both huge and small) and the loss is assured. The recipe includes: homes that would never pass building code muster; no flood insurance, let alone money to hire a company to organize the stuff that remains; extended family and friends limited to local areas so there’s no trusted home to go to in an evacuation; no reliable means of transportation; and jobs that don’t have the permanence needed to pick up the pieces left when all you have is what you’re wearing or carrying. The loss lasts longer for those in precarious economic conditions – weeks and months of wondering, wandering, and trying to rebuild while starting in a worse spot than before. In some cases, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, some may not return to rebuild at all.
A natural disaster carries with it a confusing emotional journey. Losing a table in a tornado doesn’t allow blame toward an individual person. Loss due to forced evacuation elicits different coping compared to loss due to disloyalty and estimation from a child that your stuff doesn’t matter. To paraphrase one of my friends’ sentiments in the heyday of late 1990s disaster movies (remember “Twister,” “Deep Impact,” and “Dante’s Peak?”): “You just can’t turn a natural disaster into an antagonist the same way you can turn a living breathing person into an enemy to fight.” The loss of home stuff in either case requires figuring out its meaning, but the meaning cannot be detached from the way it was lost in the first place. It’s sad to lose a table, but it’s also sad to lose confidence in your child’s love because she refuses to take that table. Both cases involve grieving the loss of family connection. And both cases are harder when financial resources are limited.
This year I’m doing an interview project on the meaning of home (in this case, second homes, broadly defined) in which I ask interviewees, “If you lost your second home, what would you be losing besides the financial part?” It may seem surprising that these interviews have helped me understand the meaning of loss that may happen if someone’s only home is destroyed in a flood or a fire, given that these people have not just one home, but two (or sometimes three). But their responses – time, family, memories, connections with those near and dear – matter for everyone regardless of the status of their home ownership.
Now, imagine if I asked the same question of the person being interviewed by a reporter about losing her only home – a home for which she has no insurance, a home near a support network of friends and family who also lost their homes and who do not have the energy or resources to offer needed support. Now, multiply the loss – financial, emotional, relational – by a thousand. All of a sudden, her stuff does matter. To focus on the importance of stuff in this instance calls to mind not materialism or immorality, but the necessary recognition of the material nature of our livelihoods, our ability to offer and seek support, and our love for others.
Michelle Janning is Professor Sociology at Whitman College and the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives. In this book, she talks about how home spaces and objects tell the story of contemporary family life, including what happens in individual home disasters such as a burst pipe, and what happens when families need to deliberate what to do when home stuff is passed down to, or refused by, the next generation.