It's just stuff... It's just, stuff... It's just stuff...
"It's just stuff!" I said to my dad, shrugging my shoulders and letting out a slight bemused laugh. It was the first of two thoughts that got me through the day. The other one was that someday, it would be a great story. Someday I would sit with friends laughing as I recalled the morning I was going to move to college and woke up to find that my mom's car, packed with all my belongings, had been stolen from our driveway in the middle of the night.
I moved to Princeton University carrying my sister's green duffel and the few things that had not been stolen -- my violin, my laptop, a box of desk supplies, and a dress bag with a coat and three dresses. The duffel contained replacement exercise clothes and hiking gear I purchased that day for my Outdoor Action frosh trip. I felt like a fake fitness buff hiking thought the Shenandoah Valley a few days later in matching, sparkling workout clothes instead of the high school cross country t-shirt I originally packed, but I knew I would have to get used to that -- soon everything would be new.
I initially refrained from telling new friends at school about the theft for fear of receiving undeserved attention. And emotionally, I handled the theft with surprising composure. The involuntary purging of, well, almost all the possessions I cared about was freeing. During the first few weeks in which I slowly rebuilt my wardrobe and replaced lost items, I realized that as a society, we have so much more than we need, that I could (and did) live without many things. My sister once jokingly said, "Oh no Isabelle, are you going to turn into one of those hippies who stops shaving and wears the same shirt every day?" I never reached that extreme, but my perspective shifted. I began to call the theft "When all my shit was stolen," and took on a harsh attitude that shit (stuff) doesn't matter.
It wasn't too long before the sense of violation began to sink in, and these sad feelings confused me. On one particularly bad day, as I stood on Nassau Street waiting to cross the street, an incredible wave of vulnerability engulfed me. For the few minutes I waited for the light to change, I could not shake the sensation that someone was going to take my backpack off my shoulders. It was irrational -- I could feel my bag being lifted off my back over and over again though my hands gripped the straps. The moment eventually passed, but I became aware of emotions that had built up into a crushing, monstrous mountain inside me.
It pissed me off. I was euphoric at Princeton. I thought I had figured everything out. I didn't understand why, at the end of the day, I still missed my black and white mini-polka dot dress that I wore in Paris, or the little owl necklace my friend gave me for graduation that I wore every day last summer. I wished I could be as rational about my stuff as I was the first few weeks. It bothered me that the reason why I missed certain clothes, aside from the sentimental connections they had, was that I looked good in them and felt good in them. And if I missed things because I felt good in them, there was a possibility, just maybe, that I sometimes needed those things to feel good about myself. That thought killed me.
I wanted to prove to myself that this was not true. I needed to find some equilibrium, a balance of all the explosive emotions and ideas the theft precipitated, just as a new center must be found in all transformations. It is not always so easy to find. I still refer to the theft as "When all my shit was stolen," and there are times when I don't give a shit about stuff, but I know that my feelings are more nuanced than that. My stuff wasn't actually "shit." I have had to accept that it meant something to me, and that no matter how much the theft has made me hate clutter even more, question the value that we as a society give material possessions, and feel less of a need for things, stuff still matters. We choose certain things to call our own and surround ourselves with them daily, and the choices we make ultimately play a part in the careful construction our self-image. I was not sure I would be able to reconcile this new idea with my initial reactions.
I finally found my balance by revisiting the morning of the theft. In those moments, I was able to see the good things that would come out of the theft -- getting a fresh start and realizing how relaxed and strong I could be in a crazy situation. As the morning wore on, the final chord that completed my sense of harmony struck: I'm still here. Nothing had really changed. OK, my stuff was gone, but I was still ME. What else mattered? I love myself the way I am, and while I still like having beautiful things, I know that losing all my possessions gave me a greater awareness of the best possession I have -- myself. I feel more comfortable in my own skin.
We often think of transformation as a drastic and definitive change, from one thing to some completely different other thing. My transformation was not drastic, nor definitive, but it is real. I am both the same person I was before and not the same person I was before. Because regardless of the events that constantly move forward my self-evolution, centering and re-centering me, I will always have myself. Thus, transformation is the blossoming of some new form, such as an idea, belief-system, or appearance, which reconfigures an individual. More importantly, however, it is a rediscovery of our conviction of self. That conviction is both the belief and the unbreakable certainty that we are who we are. As for everything else? It's just stuff.