On Monday in Toronto, 126 mm of rain fell in two hours. It came down with the force of waves crashing against a cliff, and the massive ditch where dogs play in my local park turned into a swimming pool. My house was fine, but in the morning, as a repair trucks circled, hollow-eyed friends and neighbours spoke of bailing, and a couple of waterlogged items – a mattress, a cabinet – appeared on nearby curbs.
In the wake of this kind of misfortune, TV crews descend. Stunned citizens, knee-deep in water as their furniture floats by, deliver the obligatory virtuous sentiment about the loss of their material goods: "All that matters is we're safe." Yes, of course. Now is not the time to get upset about stuff, and there's nothing like a disaster to set one's priorities straight. And yet … why does it hurt to discover those mixed tapes irrevocably damaged? Is it really so wrong to think about possessions in a time of calamity?
When the power came back on, I went to my computer to be reminded of what real flooding looks like, scanning recent disasters around the world (more on the way: a University of Tokyo study published in June claims that if climate change goes unchecked, and temperatures rise 3.5 C by 2100, the number of people exposed to risk of flooding could increase from 5.6 million to 80 million). Southern Alberta got it much worse than Toronto, with four dead and thousands displaced from their homes. News images of that flood evoke the loss of stuff, like a front yard littered with wet files or a cowboy hat floating by in a streaming stairwell. Where our things are concerned, disasters are great equalizers: Grandma's embroidered chair is as wet and done for as the new flat-screen TV.
Here's a game for a lucky unharmed person on a dry day: What would you take if you could only take one thing with you before disaster struck? Probably not that TV. We cling to the things that can't be replaced: the baby shoes, the photographs, the letters. Mementoes, as the word implies, hold our memories, becoming physical extensions of lives lived. After a disaster, those very lives, so vividly threatened, seem more valuable than ever. Why wouldn't we want our stuff around us? It's evidence of the life before. When the Asiana flight crash landed in San Francisco this week, many passengers reportedly slid down emergency chutes clutching their carry-on baggage, a dangerous no-no in a plane evacuation, but one that speaks to the intensity of our relationship to our things.
One study shows that after a flood, reports of post-traumatic stress disorder increase when people are removed from their homes and their possessions. In a curious 1996 paper published in Advances in Consumer Research, California State University researchers interviewed people who had lost most or all of their household items in disasters. Some victims struggled with the disappearance of objects that embodied their personal skills and talents, wondering: "Did the missing trophy erase the championship game?" Losing mementoes is a direct route to the biggest question of all: "Who am I?"
Of course, it's an accepted fact that we all have way too much stuff. An annoying optimist might note that a flood is a great symbolic cleansing and a chance for a do-over, which is what everyone is supposed to want. Organization is very much in style. Entire industries preach cleanliness and order. Nate Berkus and self-help books with titles like Organizing from the Inside Out encourage constant purging. We can hire professional organizers and "domestic therapists" to tidy and order our messy spaces. Shows like Hoarders offer smug schadenfreude to those of us with less stuff, or less creepy stuff. All this ordering promises that a clean room means a clean inner life.
A book I read a few years ago called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder rejects the claims of the tidy-up industry, and takes a stand in favour of mess. Authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman point out the inherent flexibility of a messy mind – the mode of imagination and creativity. Though they recognize the difference between the seriousness of the aforementioned hoarders and the average eclectic, lived-in space, they argue that the perfect, Martha Stewart-living space leaves little room for sentiment, or individuality: "Our personalities tend to be more clearly expressed in our disorder than in our neatness. When we are being ruthless about ridding ourselves of what naturally accumulates around us and about meticulously straightening out what remains, we are in a sense tidying our identities."
I've felt just this disorienting sensation when stepping into an empty, hyper-modern apartment: Who is this person who lives here? The austere, memento-free life is one of suppression and sameness. We enter the home to see the things that the occupants care about, and therefore, see them. When those things are destroyed, suddenly and ruthlessly, the feelings of loss aren't simply an expression of petty materialism. Yes, it's just stuff, and yes, you will get over it, but until then, there's nothing trivial about the self being washed away.