Category: Stuffed Project

Sugar babies

Sugar babies

Dear Saint Valentine,

I’ve tried to learn about your life via a hasty scroll through Wikipedia—that’s something we humans use now (it’s 2020) to grapple with the unknown. Well, it’s something we use to review facts. It doesn’t help us know what to do, what to choose. For that, we have to look at the data and then be thoughtful about the result we want.

The facts about your life are pretty vague. Who you were, why you were killed, how that’s related to hearts and courtly love. It sounds like you had a knack for changing people’s perspectives. You healed your jailer’s daughter. You were killed for refusing to deny your beliefs, that seems clear. And there’s a creepy flower-capped skull at a church in Rome that is said to be yours. I saw a picture of your skull in a golden box. People come to see it to ask for help in love. I hope you feel okay about that.

I’m not in the habit of writing letters to people I’ve never met, or the deceased, or people who may be more than one person, but I’ve been struggling with some questions and sometimes it changes my perspective to write letters to inanimate objects. I thought it might be the same if I wrote to you (not to your skull, but to your soul). Also, I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of mail, maybe you don’t even know about all of this, maybe you’d be interested. (Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.)

I wonder what you’d think, do you know, that on February 14 every year in the US (it’s on a continent you didn’t know about, south, west and across an ocean from Thule), in your name we have a tradition of exchanging $18.2 billion dollars worth of cards, candy, and flowers with friends and loved ones. It sounds like the tradition dates back to Chaucer (a poet about 700 years ago). He wrote 700 lines and referenced an imaginary day celebrating romance and the tradition we know today grew from there.

As a tiny slice of modernity, here’s an example of one Valentine’s Day, last year. My two children, my daughter and my son, had painted cards for their classmates. They had spent time thinking briefly of each friend. This one likes dolphins, this one likes blue. Based on glitter density and heart color, they had selected a card for each friend, composed a unique, if grammatically vague, sentiment for each child, and addressed envelopes to pass out during their annual classroom celebration, ostensibly of love and friendship.

I sent them off to school in the morning (girls go to school now), cards in hand. Time passed. I went to pick them up.

Saint Valentine, as I approached my children, I saw that my daughter held an envelope filled with colored sugar. To eat its contents you lick a hardened sugar wand with your spit, creating a saliva adhesive for attaching the loose sugar onto the sugar rod, thereby eating the full pouch of sugar. It’s called “Fun Dip.”

She was eating the Fun Dip quickly, as if aware she risked its imminent confiscation. Her eyes were dark pools of emptiness, she could not answer basic questions.

Each child brought home a bag of treasure collected during the day from friends and teachers. Collapsing on the floor, my daughter emptied and pawed through the contents of her bag, tossing aside the various cards in search of seatrash (we exchange miniature plastic trinkets, often themed, that break upon contact with human flesh, and are eaten by turtles or alternately formed into giant sculptures at the zoo to illustrate the plight of the oceans. I know they’re vast, we didn’t mean to). She was hunting for some undiscovered marvel in the bag, or perhaps an eraser she will never use when, in addition to a number of empty wrappers, she discovered a ziplock bag full of candy.

I asked her to eat something, to introduce a protein-based substance into her endocrine system, so that life might return to her face. She was not hungry. “Did you have something to eat at the Valentine’s Day Party?” I asked, smiling, like I was merely asking out of curiosity, feigning a casual indifference so as not to put her on guard. “Oh yes,” she replied. “I had one and a half donuts, the big kind, two cupcakes, and three iced sugar cookies. They had a cake too but I didn’t try it.” Saint Valentine, I am not exaggerating for the sake of humor. I’m talking about a 50-pound child, one-third the size of an adult woman.

In 2013, a prominent group of physicians in America (we call them the American Heart Association) recommended that grown women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar. That is the equivalent of 10 jelly beans.

And this isn’t just a one-time deal, one extreme-sugar event on the day of your decapitation. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s Halloween, Winter Holiday season which extends from late November to early January, back to school celebrations, teacher birthdays, “making it fun to count things” (a common math curriculum), what they eat in France day, celebrating sweet foods of the world day. (And birthday parties outside of school, after-soccer Oreos and Capri Sun, hey its Sunday snow cones.) Trying to find an event or venue targeted to children without freely available sugar is like searching for Atlantis.

Val, I know you never tasted sugar. It’s kind of like honey but devoid of nutrients. Two hundred years ago the average American ate 2 (TWO) pounds of sugar per year. One hundred years ago, we ate 17.5 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 2011 Americans were eating 150 pounds of sugar per person annually.

Maybe you’re thinking, well honey is delicious. Maybe people eat more now because they can, it’s cheap and available. Americans also save more lives with medicine now than we did 200 years ago and nobody is complaining about that. It’s called progress lady!

Honey IS delicious. But here’s the thing: as much as we might wish otherwise, sugar’s really not good for us. One in eight Americans is diabetic now. Diabetes is a disease you never heard of because it pretty much didn’t exist until 120 years ago. That’s a lot of people dying younger, living less healthily, being predisposed to a bunch of other health issues.

And there is mounting evidence of the harm from sugar’s ascendancy: Diets high in sugar slow down the brain and damage synaptic activity.

Consuming sugar stimulates the release of serotonin (that’s why it feels so good). Seratonin is related to our feeling of happiness. When we consistently surge our seratonin, this not only depletes our body’s supply, but it means we need more. Once a body builds up a tolerance to sugar it needs more for the same “happiness” surge.

And researchers think that teenagers might be especially vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood.

So, contrary to research funded by the sugar industry and shared with the public for many years, it looks like sugar is probably not a health food, also probably not a neutral food, at least in the quantities we are consuming now which, again, is 75 times more than our great-great-great grandmother.

But life is hard (you surely know that), and sugar is tasty, and sometimes you just need to relax, have some fun, live in the moment.

My daughter and I sat down by her treasure bag. I looked at the cards, curious. Most were the cards I remembered from childhood, a platonically encouraging phrase like “Valentine, you’re the bomb” and a picture of Spiderman jumping away from a giant explosion (I’m sure they were bad guys so it’s ok). I’d show her a card, ask who it was from. No idea. She hadn’t read any of the cards, she had separated the wheat from the chaff immediately and had no idea who had given her the Fun Dip, or that sticky plastic guy that you throw at the wall and is coated with a mystery substance that helps him to sort of hop down at least three times before becoming seatrash. She hadn’t looked at the cards, they were like the tag on a new shirt, something to cut off and dispose of, irrelevant.

I remember reading the cards as a girl, wondering when Stephen Stout gave me a card that said “Valentine, you’re outta this world” with a picture of ALF giving a thumbs-up while mysteriously floating in space. Did Stephen pick that card just for me? What could it mean?

Val, my daughter spent hours writing cards to her friends. She was so excited to share them. And she didn’t even read the cards they gave her in return. Please do not think I am painting her as callous. I am drawing a picture of the strength of this substance. And thinking about the relationship between sugar, and trinkets, and connection – maybe the heart of my question. Does the sugar, do the trinkets, support connection, the very aspect of our nature that we honor with this day?

My son, five-years-old, had not had a dessert buffet with his class. They had exchanged cards and, yes, he received a few pieces of candy and several seatrash-items. But my son, after only moderate exposure to sugar, looked at every card. Felt very excited that Thomas had given him this one and Rosie had made that one. He brought them up to his room. My friends gave these to me, these little scraps of paper with their names on them. He seemed to cherish his cards. He still has them up there and it is many months later.


Saint Valentine, I have wrestled with these thoughts. Wondering if I’m just trying to have control in an uncontrollable world. Wondering in the grand scheme of life on Earth and all of the struggles of all of the people, does it really matter? It’s just a few cookies, no matter that we know now that rats addicted to heroine choose sugar in preference to heroine.

I’m afraid of the sugar. And I’m afraid of the fear of the sugar. I’m afraid we’re damaging their bodies. That we are training them, physically, to need this taste at the expense of all other tastes. To dull their palettes with sweetness so that nothing else tastes good, or even edible. So many of the children around me will not eat. Food, the kind that has a nutrient, does not taste good to them. They can’t taste it. They aren’t being stubborn, their bodies are trained that way.

I’m scared for their minds. Because I know what it is like to look for the next easy surge of pleasure. We do it all the time, every day, I guess every animal does. But we are smart animals and there is so much money to be made from providing quick, cheap surges, and so many smart people figuring out ways to give them to us. Whether it is a like or a beep or a drag or a sip or a bite, it is much easier in 2020 to drift from hit to hit, from tiny buzz to tiny buzz, looking for the next one when your chemical state changes. Sugar is so powerful. It carves a deep, strong bond to the pleasure centers in your brain so that, without it, pleasure becomes harder to find. And the more you consume, the more you need to get to the same level of okay.

And I’m scared for their hearts. Surrounded by sweets and seatrash, each little object a tiny surge of chemicals, each bite another surge, the slower burn of friendship, of human warmth, has trouble competing. What does it say to them when we teach that friendship needs a dessert buffet to be pleasurable? Does it? Is that what we think?


I wonder what you would think. I hesitate, somewhat ashamed after what I’ve described above, to tell you that one in six children in America today, 13 million children, don’t have enough to eat. They are hungry. This is another fact. Data that we can use to guide our decisions, or not.

And then about the $18 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on love, right? In my dream of the perfect world, we show kids first that love doesn’t cost anything and that it doesn’t need to come with a trinket, it’s how you treat people, how you make them feel safe and known. How you work to take care of something. What if we spent $18 billion each year showing that love is taking care of people, of a community, of the world, together? Wouldn’t that be an amazing legacy of connection to hand down to our kids?

Val, I realize that in writing to you I have been focusing on what scares me, what I don’t want. So here’s what I do want:

I want my children to know how to feel love, to feel loved. I want them to learn to be strong, to learn to be kind, to learn to feel hope. I want that for all of the kids.

So show them love, how to love, show your strength, treat them kindly, share your hope.

Is that what you would say?

With the evidence in front of us, we make choices. As a culture, we need to eat less sugar. We need to look at our patterns. Find better ones. I think we are trying.

My earnest prayer is that in our traditions and celebrations, we show that love is not four kinds of cake or a bagful of anything. That we learn enough so there’s more to share, or less to take. But also that we don’t live in fear, that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dessert buffet, we look for the love, share our joy, our warmth, and our laughter. Breathe. Help the children find their own ways in their own world, the one we can try to influence but will never control. A beautiful world where they are free to hold different opinions, as you, Valentine, were not.

I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much for listening, that’s something a friend does. If I ever find myself in Rome, maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to your creepy skull.

With love,

This piece was written as part of The Stuffed Project (One woman’s quest to re-examine our relationship to the material world). My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

A “brief” meditation

I have never known a world without Underoos. When I was born in late 1975 Underoos did not exist, but by the time I was old enough to say “mama I dropped my eggs” (reported to be my first sentence) or even something as simple as “I want,” superhero-themed underpants were being sold in grocery stores across America.

I imagine it, a world free from cartoon characters smiling or glowering from the surface of any product large enough to be so emblazoned. No Fred Flintstone on a box of cereal. No sultry tween, hands on her hips, pouting from the corner of a pair of cheap sunglasses. No plastic bits of crap that break immediately upon exposure to human flesh (TOA: Trash On Arrival) but were purchased because they happened to have a sticker of a Paw Patrol somewhere on their useless petrochemical body.

But such a world did once exist, and not so long ago. A world of solid colored, functional children’s underpants.

In 1977, it was calculated that children in the US wore out 250 million pairs of underwear each year. Sold at $2.25 a pair, this made for a $600 million dollar annual market. Wanting to increase their market share in children’s skivvies, the Union Underwear Company licensed the use of various comic-book characters. Images related to the characters were printed on underwear which was packaged as “Underoos” and sold for $4.79 per pair (more than double the going price for standard-issue drawers).

Philip Dougherty, in a column about advertising that he regularly wrote for the New York Times,discussed Underoos in 1978:

“There has never been a product like this before,” exclaimed Mr. [James W.] Johnston [Union’s marketing vice president], who noted that not only would it deliver higher profit margins than conservative underwear, but it would also react better to advertising and “for the first time add children’s influence to the purchasing decision…” Mr. Johnston … was later to say, “Advertising is not necessary to sell the product, because it’s a powerful product, but advertising is necessary to establish it as a permanent part of the children’s culture.”

Hey! That’s me he’s talking about! My culture!

Several years ago, after I had become a mom, I read the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a story of the daughter of Jacob and Leah (from the Bible) that explores the traditions, and the brutality, of ancient womanhood. I remember a scene where the main character, Dinah, as a girl, sits in the lap of her aunt. As is common in the book there has been some kind of gory trauma that day. The aunt is brushing or braiding the girl’s hair to soothe her and singing songs that tell stories. The stories are about life, often using metaphor to explain the world and how to find meaning and what has value and what is beautiful. I remember being moved. I remember wondering, then, about the stories we use to teach children these same things in my world.

So back to Mr. Johnston’s quote, which I must acknowledge gives me a bit of a sick taste in my throat each time I read it, Underoos was a permanent part of my culture. So were Strawberry Shortcake and G.I. Joe and He-Man. All had TV shows that I guess were developed to sell products to me. I don’t know what came first, the characters and the shows or the plastic empire? Somebody made these things to sell them to my parents, via my brainwaves, my imagination, my myths, the ones that I would internalize as the stories of what had value, how we act, how we make decisions. My stories, the ones I spent the most time with, were thought up by people like this underwear guy who used advertising to make his product, his story, a permanent part of my culture.

I had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos. I think my brother had Superman, maybe Spiderman too. Incredible Hulk? I don’t know, that kid loved to dress up like superheroes. In seeing the word, and trying to remember us at that age, all of my brain synapses in relation to the term “Underoos” are firing “happiness,” “joy,” “fun,” “love.”

Lewis Hyde discusses Underoos in his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, noting that the company seeks to market not an improved product but an image, in particular images of superheroes. Hyde writes: 

“The profit depends on this formula: an innocent and imaginative child plus a parent with money plus an affectionate tie between the two. The people who marketed Underoos sold them in supermarkets rather than clothing stores because children more often accompany their mothers to the market and the whole promotional strategy would fall apart if this third thing, the bond between the parent and the child, was missing at the moment of the sale.”

In The Gift, Hyde defines a true gift as something very different from an exchange, it is not transactional. A gift is a movement of value, it is a transfer from have to need, and it has a liveliness to it, it is an offer of creative, life energy from one being to another and it flows in a circular way, giving when you have an abundance, receiving when you do not.

And the problem we begin to encounter with Underoos is that the marketers know that the relationship between a parent and child is an emotional bond. There is a life force and a willingness to give, to let energy and resource flow to a genuine, heartfelt desire. And then the marketer takes the emotional, imaginative life of the child, his desire to be strong and powerful, an age-old, beautiful, vital, vibrant part of being a child. And Underoos rolls that into a transaction. In Underoos we see the love, the gift urge, the imagination, recombined into a new dynamic.

In my experience, in the world we live in with cartoons on boxes of food, notebooks, shoes, crappy plastic rulers, this new dynamic often breeds a sort of horridness. Where, instead of gifts as defined by Hyde, we deal in transactions. And frequently in demands that are either met or not met. The innocence and imagination are still part of the equation, they still underpin the exchange, but there is such a weight of transactions in the life of my children. I imagine, from everything they have seen, from their lived experience, these products seem to be a rite of childhood, a given, an obligation. If I meet the demands, we lose. If I don’t meet the demands, we lose.

CHILD: Mom, can we get a box of Choco-Syrup-Stars? The one with the picture of iPhoneX Man on it?

MOM: Sweetheart, the picture has nothing to do with the taste of the cereal and those look really disgusting and also they are not food. There is not one food ingredient on the list. Look.

CHILD: But there are games on the back. You can help IPhoneX man find his missing charger and then there are instructions for how to take selfies and post them on a special site that will draw a phone right in your hand.

MOM: We’re not buying this cereal. We come to the grocery store to buy food. Not pictures of fake phones and a box full of corn syrup and glyphosate.

CHILD: When am I going to get a phone? Ella has a phone already. And she gets to eat this cereal. Her mom buys it.

MOM: I’m pretty sure we’ve gone over this before but I’m not Ella’s mom.

CHILD: We never get anything good. I wish I lived at Ella’s house.

(Mom silently pushes cart along, thinks about Caroline, mother to Laura Ingalls Wilder, thinks back to Underoos, shrugs).

More from The Gift:

But what is the fate of affection and imagination if, whenever we are drawn in their direction, we must pass a stranger collecting tolls?

Once goodwill has been separated from its vehicles, matter will increase without spirit. Objects will begin to appear that carry no social or spiritual feeling, though they are the products of human hands.

I hear friends say things like “Susie won’t wear [such-and-such].” But there was a world, not so long ago, where all these decisions weren’t up to Susie. There were functional things that a person needed and was provided with. Except for Nellie Olsen and we all know that she didn’t turn out well. A world full of trashy junk covered with stickers and logos, the one that needs Marie Kondo to help us all declutter, and that accepts the use of the word “clutter” as a way to remove us from the responsibility of all of the stuff we have somehow accumulated, it’s not the only path.

And it isn’t a satisfying path. It has taken what was love and imagination and it has created a transaction that almost always ends in dissatisfaction. Matter has increased. Spirit has diminished.

I’m curious about what it does to the relationships. The saying yes or the saying no. What it does to the experience of getting, of having, of valuing, of appreciating.

I’ve read about ads making us feel worse about ourselves. How marketers use the tension of our wanting to be or feel something different to get us to take some action. Occasionally the action taken leads to an improvement of some sort or a different feeling, at least momentarily. But often we are paying to feel the hopefulness in the gap between wanting and having, we are paying for the imagination of things being different. And then we have the thing in our hands and nothing is different and we still have to look at the thing, organize the thing, somewhat embarrassed to have spent the money and that it didn’t actually fix us by magic, life is still the same, and we’re determined to get some use out of this “matter” that is sucking the life force out of us.

In thinking about Underoos I’m wondering about the shift in our relationship to our things when this transactionality is introduced into what used to be a different kind of relationship. When the best parts of us, our love and our imagination are monetized. When what existed more in the space of a gift is intentionally manipulated to become a transaction, what is spiritually lost in that change? And does that have anything to do with how we feel about all of the things that surround us? Have they lost the energy to ‘spark joy’ because the transaction somehow depletes the life force, the goodwill has evaporated with the commodification of love and imagination?

I’m not going to come to any conclusions today. We loved our Underoos. We spent hours playing GI Joe, possibly with mixed psychological results. I probably have a screwed up body image but there are so many possible culprits, I don’t dare blame Barbie (or Three’s Company which we always watched after He-Man and GI Joe even though my mom doesn’t remember it that way).

It seems relevant to The Stuffed Project (one woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world) to consider the story of Underoos. To recognize the change that has occurred during my lifetime. To think about the nature of how a thing comes to be in your space, the intent behind it, by whom, and if that changes in any way your relationship to the thing. And if that changed relationship is in some way linked to less soul, more stuff. Just a lot of thoughts. Jotted down. Shared with you.

My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.


I was sitting with a friend, recounting our 2018 versions of The Holidays. He was describing a situation with his mother-in-law, setting the scene so I could understand, and he said something along the lines of: every year she asks this (same) question, and every year she gets this (same) answer, and then she’s upset and then things go downhill and we’re trying to fit so much in (and so on, you can likely substitute your own situation here)…

I was rude. In the middle of his sentence, I fumbled around for a pen and scribbled an urgent note to myself (he’s a writer, he understood).

I noted that January is the time to make holiday plans. Of course!

It seems that every year in December we smile (our eyes slightly twitching) and joke with each other: Have you gotten everything done yet? And we look forward to/complain about time spent with whichever holiday companions we may have. And we take solace knowing this time of year is difficult for everyone, fun, festive, difficult. That’s just how it is. We spend weeks or months preparing and we schedule or buy as much festivity as we can fit or (sort-of) afford.

Maybe we is not the right pronoun. Maybe it’s just me. It doesn’t seem like it, from the time I spend with others, from the conversations I have, from the advertisements I hear or receive in the mail. I feel surrounded by messaging telling me that I’m supposed to feel overspent (in all ways) at this time of year, that’s part of the tradition, it’s okay, we’re all in this together.

And November always creeps up on me and it’s too late. It’s too late to make a different plan, to change course. Because it isn’t just me. I’m connected to others and they are way more organized.

While my friend was talking about the things we do that are predictably difficult, and often unnecessary, or the things that are necessary but are adjustable, where I can behave differently and there might be a different outcome, or a different feeling in me or in those around me, I thought: why not spend some time, in January, to consider, to make some notes. To write a letter, draw a kind of map, thinking about what you loved, where you found light, where you shared light, and where you felt its absence. When did you laugh? When did you make someone smile? When did you feel peace or make peace and what were you doing and with who?

If things went seriously downhill on Christmas Eve because you needed to get some food into your kids before church and that caused some memorable unpleasantness, you could make a note: remember to plan time to eat accounting for Christmas Eve church schedule. If your husband gave himself a concussion or your sister had strep throat, or both at the same time, I guess you can’t really prepare for that, but you could make a note that nothing will go according to plan and there will always be more to do than you thought, encouraging yourself to let go of some expectations or plan less or do more earlier (no, not this). Or just write the words “leave space for life” and maybe that will help. Maybe it will.

Make the notes now, save the file, set a calendar reminder and read the notes in October. Before Thanksgiving. Before Black Friday. BEFORE you get this year’s version of last year’s email:

Date: Nov 30, 2018
Subject: Please send me Christmas idea

Note: Christmas idea does not refer to a soulful thought about peace on earth or goodwill toward men. It refers to an object, or possibly an experience (but usually an object), within a particular price range (price range determined based on the individual from whom the note comes). Christmas idea, in my case, refers to one idea per family member (myself, husband, two children) per requestee. Anyone who has requested Christmas idea signifies the need for a requisite return idea for members of that household. Additionally, a number of others who do not request idea but provide wrapped object also warrant their own Christmas idea and so it goes.

Thus, the tougher part of my brilliant plan involves some kind of discussion amongst those with whom you celebrate The Holidays. Yes, now it comes to talking about the gift part.

My beloved people, can we talk about the gift part? Acknowledging that elements of this can be fun and that I love my new sweater (the one I selected but did not pay for), I want to lovingly communicate that the parcel parade, in its current manifestation, is hard on my soul. I wonder if it is selfish of me to mention this, to raise the question. Maybe recognizing that your buying things — or experiences — and giving them to me (or my offspring) is something you like to do, I should connect to your heart, to your light, and appreciate the love behind the gesture.
I see that.
I do.

But if my daughter doesn’t want to be kissed, I teach her that she can tell you that. She can tell you what feels good to her and what feels not good to her. And you listen, because that is respect, that is connection. You care enough to listen and try to understand the kind of giving that makes her feel given to, considered, understood, and the kind that feels the opposite.

My dear family and family-like people, I think we love each other enough, we have known each other long enough, that I can listen to you and you can listen to me.

My soul and spirit feel good when you smile. When you wash the dishes after I have cooked something. When I make you laugh. When we make a puzzle together. When you listen to me or ask me questions about things you know that I care about. When you play with my children so that I can take a shower. When you do something silly, just because. When you turn on music in the kitchen.

My soul and spirit feel good when we help someone. When we make a plan together to do something caring for someone else. When I see you building a relationship with my kids, when I build a relationship with yours. When you teach Maggie how to knit. When you make me a breakfast sandwich. When you do the best you can. When we all pitch in.

The wrapping and unwrapping, the quantity of things and paper, the lesson to the children about what has meaning or where we find joy, the packing or shipping, the number of decisions, the more-than-enoughness of it all, exhausts me. It saddens me. There is less room for spirit. I try. I want to show you love and share it. But I am so tired with all of the thingness.

We don’t need more things.

We need more smiles. From you. To you. With you. From us. To others. To the world.

Can we celebrate light by sharing light? Can we share light where it is most needed? Can we do that together? Can we let go of the thing exchange, or change it?

Through our example, through what we emphasize, where we put our care, can we teach the children to value relationships and time spent with loved ones rather than emphasizing the brief thrill of another wrapped surprise? Another acquisition, another division of what is mine and not mine. What they need, for their happiness, for their spirit, is to learn how to find connection in the world — can we help them learn about finding joy in people rather than in cataloguing and comparing and protecting and admiring their stuff?

Maggie loves that donut pillow, she sleeps with it every night. And the Birmingham picture and sign, the garden seeds and the beeswax candles, and the sweater that I picked out for myself but would never have purchased on my own dime, these represent love and I feel it. So I don’t know what I’m asking exactly. We are fortunate to have people who care, people to spend time with.

I can’t seem to find a model that fits. I’m not looking for a day-off-work, get drunk at breakfast kind of day. I’m not looking for an all-pious, Jesus’s birthday kind of day. I’m not looking for a kale salad, experience-gifts-only where the depths of your creative thoughtfulness are the measure kind of day, that is exhausting too. I like our way. Sort of. But I don’t want to spend December shopping and wrapping, shipping and organizing. Is it okay for me to express that, to feel that?

My beautiful, emotional, sometimes dramatic family (and family-like people), we did just fine in 2018. If we had been sailing in four separate lifeboats, and for a few days the loads of all of those boats were tossed into one slightly larger boat, almost big enough for everyone, and the sea was rough but not so rough that it completely drowned anyone, in the midst of sogginess we worked together, finding places for everyone to sit (when they absolutely had to, but only then), sharing vests, raincoats, snacks, so that we all made it, and there was a little bit of laughter, or at least sometimes a feeling of rowing together, and the kids will remember it fondly.

But this year, before we all pile in together, maybe we could find a way to pack differently, pack less—so that our boat can float a bit higher, so there’s more space.

I’ve made my notes for next year. I’ll bring the puzzle.



This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.

A letter to unmet objects

Dear future life companion, aka little object that I have not yet met,

Before you cross the threshold into our often happy home, I want to celebrate that you have met the Hole Family joy/usefulness criteria. You are so welcome here. I will happily trade some of my precious life energy to care for you, to maintain you, to appreciate you, to make sure you return to your own little space, your special spot in our abode, the one where I always know just where to find you.

Thank you for all you will do to brighten our lives, nurture our spirits, lighten our loads.

You know, it isn’t any old thing that makes it across that doorstep. True, lately many leaves, more than you might expect, have found their way in, uninvited. These we put into the compost, returning them to their friends, a mutually agreeable outcome.

Other than the leaves, and the sunglasses given as a prize at the dentist that broke on the way home, or the wind-up car, a backpack stowaway discovered yesterday from some unknown source (list not exhaustive), to cross the threshold items under consideration for adoption are evaluated in light of the brighten, nurture, lighten criteria and as follows: 

One. Do we need it? Will [object] bring joy or likely more aggravation? Do we already have something else that can be used to the same purpose? Do we need a new [object] in a theme/color or can we use a [similar object] we already have? What else could I do with the time that I will not spend looking for just the right [object]? Would it be nicer to take a 30 minute walk and talk to a friend or to store another set of holiday-themed [objects]?

Two. Could I borrow an [object]?

Three. Is there somewhere I can find an [object] in need of a good home? An [object] that already exists? Can I pay someone who is selling their gently-used [object] instead of buying it new?

Four. Is there someone awesome making beautiful [objects] who is trying to make a living through making great [objects] thoughtfully? Can my purchase support more creations by this very cool human being or organization? And if it costs more, did I perhaps save some money by asking question #1 so many times that now I can spend a little bit more to support someone putting beautiful, thoughtful, healthy [objects] into the world? Wouldn’t it feel good to see a beautiful, useful [object] in our home and feel the joy of connection to its maker?

Five. When I am finished needing [object], am I willing to take the time to respectfully transfer it to someone else who can use it or return it to Mother Nature in a way that does not harm humans, wildlife and the water, air, and soil that nourishes and nurtures our lives (all life)? Or do I already have so many [objects] that I’m maintaining that I struggle to recirculate them and/or their materials when I have finished using them?

[This concludes the criteria portion of the letter]

I love you, beautiful object. You keep me warm, you keep me healthy, you teach my children, you give comfort, you remind me of loved ones, of happy times, of connection. I am so happy that you have joined our family. I will treat you respectfully and appreciatively for as long as you stay here with us and I promise, as a respected member of the family, that I will take care to give you an honorable discharge when your time with us is done. You will not fester underneath wasted, rotting food in some huge methane-producing landfill or end up in a turtle’s belly in the sea.

I know you may have questions about some of your roommates and I can only say that many of them were acquired “before” which could refer to 100 years ago, which is cool, and also sometimes difficult. Criteria to address the stagnant pools of life energy collecting all over the place will take a lot more doing. And these criteria will too.

Anyway, glad you are here. I will find a home for you once we store all of the Christmas decorations back in the attic and find new homes for whatever other [objects] appear festively wrapped under the adorned (yet decaying) tree of communal object-exchange.

With love and appreciation,


This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.

This little light of mine

This little light of mine

Dear flashing LED light-up bumpy ring,

I’m so sorry. I know it is no excuse, but I’d like to give you a bit of background to explain. Spur of the moment, and uncharacteristically, I decided we should go see the lights at the National Zoo on Tuesday night. Something fun, festive, and free to do as a family. I didn’t remember Memorial Bridge was down to one lane. I didn’t reckon properly on the rush-hour traffic. So we showed up to the zoo after 6:00 pm, with two hungry kids, two hungry parents, not quite enough gloves. 

We walked up the pathway – as members of the zoo we were eligible for free parking, a pass for 10 free rides, and a special gift, while quantities lasted. I had already decided that we would not need the free gift, whatever it might be. We approached the member station. The first thing my girl child did was to complement the zoo lady on her brightly flashing bumpy ring. “I love your ring,” she said. The zoo lady did not seem moved in one way or another, I don’t remember her responding at all. But she did reach over to get our free gift, a zoo tote bag containing our 10-ride pass and four individually wrapped bumpy rings. You were one of them. I told the zoo lady, as rehearsed, no thanks, no free gift needed. “You sure?” she asked, gesturing to the bag’s bottom where I saw the rings, so small, and remembered the girl child’s words, and thought, hey, relax, a couple of little rings will be fun. I took out one for each child. I pressed the buttons to start the batteries and we were off into the light-filled night, fingers blinking in delight.

As the children walked down the path, playing with their rings, I looked at the lights. “Oh, look, icicles,” I said. It was cold. “Oh, look, a seal riding a bicycle, a wolf wearing sunglasses, a polar bear eating a sandwich.” They turned the rings on. They turned the rings off. They turned the rings on. They…. 

And then, little ring, your time was done. Your battery either destroyed or some malfunction. Your seven-to-eight minute life span of functionality over forever. And the boy child was inconsolable. 

“Look – it’s a penguin wearing suspenders and jumping through a hoop of fire!” The ring was broken! 

“Look, glittery sparkles lighting the night” It’s not fair, that boy has a necklace of lights, I wanted the necklace of lights instead, like he has. 

“Smell the funnel cakes, listen to the choir singing” Tears, snot, refusal to walk, sister pretending she will give brother a turn with her ring and then not doing so, second ring confiscated and put into pocket to not cause conflict, tears, snot, cold, requisite family photo.

Waiting in line to spin too quickly in the cold night air next to the girl child, I overheard another boy whose ring had broken. He too was full of sorrow at his lost joy. 

Small squishy green ring of silicone, today I performed an autopsy. Your tiny light source made from rare earth materials, your petite battery to power the tiny light source, your bumpy green shell made from silicone, otherwise known as hydrocarbon-transformed quartz. 

I think about the giant sculptures we saw at the zoo last year. Huge, larger than life, made from garbage that had been removed from coasts of oceans around the world. It was an amazing exhibit, shared with us so we could think about the things we are putting into the sea, that don’t disappear. And here, at Christmas, that same zoo is putting little packs of sea trash into a bag so that kids can have a worse time not paying attention to the experience but, instead, focusing on a new “thing” that they were not in any way expecting to get when they came to the zoo. It would have been cool to walk around and see all of those lights. But you, little ring, became the focus, a source of friction and discontent. And now, you are a piece of garbage, which you were always destined to become. 

Rings like you do give people, many people, great joy — sometimes for several times longer than seven minutes. A brief google search demonstrates the service to humanity that a ring such as yourself, a noble use of Earth’s rare earth materials, can provide:

Michelle says: Adds a lot of fun to any party. We will be using them for a night time beach party this summer. 

Deb, who gave your brethren only three stars, writes: Bought these for a rehearsal dinner. I lit them up ahead of time so they’d look good on display and draw attention. By the time of the event, several rings only had 1 or 2 LEDs flashing. I was disappointed that they didn’t last longer. Would have been good to know life expectancy ahead of time. They were very popular though and people loved seeing the ones that worked and picking one to take home.

From Piggy689: This is really cool it lights up and is really squishy

Will also provided some helpful perspective: These were so fun and really quite bright. For the price they were really great. We’ve used our set on 3 separate occasions and all but one ring has worked each time. The on-off button works pretty well and I love that it is squishy.

Squishy one, you won’t biodegrade. So I can either throw you into the trash or add your light and battery to my growing bag of electronic-related waste to take to the special dump for that kind of thing. Maybe you can be recycled into something that will provide a more lasting light. That is my hope for you. Just imagine, maybe you could be part of a spotlight lighting a little girl for her first violin concert. Or a light at a hospital, where a new mother is having a life-saving surgery, or a studio light where someone is painting a vision of a world where everyone has enough to eat.

I learned my lesson little ring. I promise to find a way to recycle your components because it wasn’t your fault you were made this way. There are bigger plans for your future. I loved those trash sculptures, but I don’t want to see you end up there.

Thank you. Thank you for teaching me an important lesson. I’ve learned it before, but maybe it will stick this time. Focus on the experience. Introducing an object, a new thing, into the equation almost never adds. Almost always subtracts. The kids remember the rings, the tears, not the lights.

So here is to lasting light.

With love and respectfully,


This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.

Announcing: The Stuffed Project

Announcing: The Stuffed Project

Dear sofa,

I want you to know that I love you. We dreamed of having you for a long time, but it was so hard to let go of your predecessor (who will receive her own letter in time, but since that is a break-up letter, it is more emotionally complex). I love that your springs are intact. That my feet don’t leave the ground as my tired derrière slides towards the pit at the back of your cushions. You have no pit. May I long protect your integrity as a couch.

Sofa, I love that you are big enough for three people, four good friends, or up to six children to sit comfortably upon. It is nice to imagine inviting a friend over for a cup of tea. I know I’ve been promising something like this for a long time, and someday it will be more than just a dream.

I apologize and recognize that you were not sold as a trampoline. I am working on it and he will get older. We, you and I, will be happy that he is older. And also sad. I think we will both miss the jumping.

Thank you, dear sofa, for sheltering my body, covered, and uncovered, and covered, and uncovered with that sleeping bag when I could do nothing but roll into your embrace and hope my children didn’t pull the knives out of the knife drawer while my husband was away and I had that undetermined dread virus last winter. I will never forget those 24 hours my dear friend.

I am so glad, so thankful, that your cover is washable. I promise that someday I will remove the old chocolate from your corner, the orange marker, deposited to your main cushion the very day of your arrival/assembly. Today will not be the day. But it will, eventually, come.

I remember when we met you, just three separate cardboard boxes too heavy for me to lift but that somehow fit into the back of our SportWagen. And now here you are, a part of the family.

Sofa, I know that you were once a towering tree, cleaning the air, feeling the breeze. That your cover is made from plants that felt the sun and drank the rain. That your joints came from within mountains, your stuffing from aged dinosaur bones. I honor your provenance and will do my best to treat you with the respect due to your sacred heritage.

May I take one moment, each time I rest upon your Flodafors beige threads, to cherish the comfort that you provide to me and to my loved ones.

I know the jumping is ill-advised. And you need a bath.

With love and gratitude,




A(nother) new project!

Stuffed: One woman’s odyssey to reimagine our relationship to the material world

This project (and eventual book) might be for you if:

You see heartbreaking videos about palm oil and chimps, read about ice sheets crumbling and the link to your daily commute, or some girl at Starbucks gives you the evil eye for using a disposable straw. Maybe you should have remembered to bring your cup but you live in suburbia juggling children, work, parents, community, broken appliances, holiday prep. So you buy things on Amazon and feel guilty/remorseful afterwards when the local toy shop goes out of business.

Unless you stop living, you use stuff. But you are surrounded by messages that the stuff you use is damaging someone or something else. You feel bad for wanting things, for buying things, and for feeling bad about the things that you’ve wanted and bought. And it is piled up around you, you spend so much time sorting it, moving it, organizing it, donating it, replacing it, repairing it, arranging it, selecting it, wanting it, not wanting it.

You know you can “vote with your checkbook” for the kind of world you want. But it feels like each choice takes so much effort, so much research. So you vote with your checkbook at The Container Store.

Your child asks you what a Pez dispenser is and you tell him it is just a piece of plastic that will turn into trash, and some sugar pellets. You overhear yourself and know you are no fun. But you’re also right.

Your parents are/soon will be downsizing or no longer able to maintain a lifetime of material accumulation. And they are even more attached to things than you are as evidenced by the hurt look on the maternal face when the offer of a silver-plated candy dish, a wedding gift unused since the 60s, is politely declined. And how many conversations will you have about that broken candelabra? I know it was your mother’s. I know. Something will need to be done with their stuff, and the thought of all of the decisions – and emotions – is difficult.

Holidays come that are focused on buying stuff, giving stuff. Most of the people you know have more than enough. And you know that lots of other people don’t. But, in the name of love, you buy your parcels and wrap them. It feels fun, sometimes, (stressful and expensive, often) but you also wonder. What is the lesson to the little ones from all of this getting and giving? Giving is a fundamental joy of being human – can we do it differently (but, not just substituting with homemade certificates for quality time)?

You have read or heard about numerous clutter-clearing strategies and tried to KonMari your home but the birthday party favors never stop coming. You are also somewhat uncomfortable with the ethos of just getting rid of what you don’t want to purchase different stuff, recognizing that every object equals nature transformed, life energy spent. You aren’t going to give up your trash can, but could there be a benefit, some joy dividend you might gain, from creating less trash?

You want a balanced, joyful relationship with material things, not the possibility of a nervous breakdown every time you walk into the basement.

And it’s not just your home and storage spaces that are overflowing. Your schedule, mind, and list of shoulds is rammed full too. You may vacillate between super healthy/restrictive eating and binging on cheese and crackers or Quadratini Dark Chocolate bite-size wafer cookies.

And yet, in the light of all of this over-fullness, there is a feeling that something is missing.

Maybe you need to redecorate.

Maybe you need to minimize.

Maybe you need to spark joy.


Hi, I’m Jennifer, and I’m on an adventure to reinvent my relationship to Stuff.

Along the way I aim to develop:

  • a joyful appreciation of the material world as reflected in my daily life
  • clear criteria for decision-making, to dispel exhaustion in the face of hundreds of daily decisions about the stuff I/we are managing
  • A framework for discussion so that visits to my/our parents are no longer overshadowed by the looming question of what is going to happen with all of the stuff
  • A way to consider obligations, including the obligation of organizing, acquiring, disposing of all the stuff, that restores time and energy for living

Do I have any guiding principles in this work?

Yes, thanks for asking. I am looking for joy and light. I will not focus on the harm done through acquiring and using stuff, but will look to describe a relationship with the material world that is connected and life-affirming.

Topics to explore include:

  • Linking stuff back to its source – the connection between things and the earth
  • Kids and stuff (sub-section: birthday party favors)
  • Sharing/repurposing/reusing stuff (who is doing it, how)
  • Good stuff – beautiful, useful things made respectfully that comply with [principles/criteria TBD]
  • Giving stuff (history of gifting, its cultural purpose)
  • Eating stuff
  • The climate-stuff link: loving the atmosphere through your healthy relationship to stuff
  • Are millennials doing stuff differently?
  • Other cultures and stuff
  • Queen Elizabeth I and the nobility: stuff as status
  • The growth economy – do we need to buy more stuff to make more jobs?
  • The paradox: what many need more of is less

Hasn’t a lot already been written about stuff?

There is great work out there on these different topics. I want to explore what’s been done, what is helpful, how it works in real life, in my real life. My current plan is to read a lot, to do experiments with popular stuff-management approaches, to write a mix of personal essays, notes on history and culture, and a bunch of letters to my stuff, and hopefully write a few songs on the nature of glow sticks and Chuck E. Cheese.  I want to shine a light on good alternatives and help you to see more beauty and feel more connection to the world through stuff, but less of it.


I am really excited about this project and I think it is going to be a lot of fun. I also think – I hope – that it can be healing, because the guilty feeling, and occasional paralysis, that accompanies your choices is weighing you down to the ground. Because you don’t want to spend all of your time organizing, curating, making decisions about all of the STUFF that surrounds you, but the indecision, lack of clarity, and conflicted values that all the stuff represents is draining your life energy.

So I’m going to chat with you about it, to help you laugh about it and think about it in new ways. I’m not going to get too heavy, focusing on harm and doom. You can trust me, because I understand a lot about harm and doom, I promise to be a thoughtful and thorough advisor. But I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of what is hurting the world and how. I’m going to talk about how we can protect and restore and nourish and love through more connection, not more information. I will be an understanding friend, not a purveyor of judgement, I will talk in real language about real life and not an idealized, spiritual nirvana.

So that’s the plan. I figured December is the most Stuffed month of the year, a perfect time to announce my intentions.

Sign up for updates to learn more about this project (and my others) and to learn with me as I go.