We come into the world naked and possessionless, then are scooped up within moments to be swaddled in warm comforting materials, diaper in place, our toes wrapped in plastic name tags, a little beanie on our vulnerable heads—all of these our first possessions, serving as the forerunners of hundreds of thousands more if we are fortunate enough to eventually join the ranks of the aged.
Human beings: Homo-accumulitis.
In my youth, I owned an MG Midget, a sporty wisp hardly bigger than the plastic cars parents push their toddlers in as they circle the block in that charming, devoted way they do.
I jammed most everything I owned into that Midget in the several moves I made while it was in my possession during my four-year early career as a special education teacher.
Two weeks ago, some 40 years later, I employed one of those giant pods (biggest size available at 8’ X 8’ X 16’) to move my life from the west to the east coast, and I’m pretty certain I could have fit my Midget into it right along with all the items that are even now making their way across the country toward me:
bookcases and books to put in them,
an easy chair in which to read the books,
business and personal files,
boxes of correspondence from those halcyon days before email,
kitchenware, art, photographs, more books,
many shirts and outerware torn from their hangers
in the last frantic hours before the new owners
claimed my house as theirs,
a gaggle of T-shirts from runs and other events dating back to the ‘70s,
more socks than I thought I had,
an ancient road bike gifted to me by my late brother,
a comfy quilt or two,
various hard copy academic papers,
a few favorite shot glasses, beer glasses,
aw hell, wine glasses and champagne flutes too,
coffee cups and bottle openers,
some more books,
“big event” newspaper front sections
(Nixon’s resignation, Obama’s victory, the Giants in 2010, ’12, ’14…),
darling drawings and notes from my daughter when she was a tyke…
And here I will stop in deference to that famous listmaker Walt Whitman, who could and did go on for pages chronicling such matters in that song he sang of himself.
About these and the many other unlisted items, however, I hasten to add that they were placed in the pod after I spent several weeks, no, months, divesting myself of hundreds more items large and small, either to various and multiple charities, some select sales, and giveaways to the daughter, friends and neighbors.
(The wine and bourbon giveaways really hurt, but good, true giving should hurt a little—heightens the feeling of true generosity…)
Not to forget, either, the shredding or recycling of hundreds of pounds of paper, so much paper wrought from so many trees I feel like my parents should have bought a small-but-fast-growing forest at my birth to offset the deforestation that my seeming addiction to paper has entailed.
I am making light of this here, but the truth is that moving was one of if not the hardest and most emotion-laden experience of my life, and the combination of physical and emotional expenditure it required over a sustained period has left me spent in a way I have never quite felt before.
No, I have not been kidnapped and left in a dark room for 700 days, have not lost my beloveds to a terrorist bomb or mass shooting, nor lost every possession in a sudden inferno. So all evaluations of hardship must be tempered by the understanding that many things in this life can be much, much worse than we have previously endured, and certainly more than I endured here.
Life need not be catastrophic to be hard.
I am also happy to add: In such trials, such great meaning. Of this there is virtually no doubt.
So I want to talk a little bit here about what a high regard I have for stuff.
Things with physical properties.
I know, I know—it’s bad to have too much stuff, or to care about it. Very unspiritual.
Dust to dust, and all that.
Minimalism is next to godliness, and anyone transgressing against the Holy Church of KonMari risks a giant H being affixed to their reputation.
Lie, cheat, betray and defraud and you, too, can become president. But modern society cannot abide a Hoarder.
Central to the KonMari Method (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) are these lines:
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. ….The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”
Things that speak to my heart?
Does she mean several shoeboxes full of letters and cards from lifelong friends tossed into said boxes while on the run from one residence to another through my transient 20s and 30s?
As I was hauling the larger boxes in which these boxes had resided through the moves of many decades into the dining room, all of them something of a jumble, I was astonished and gratified to find entire caches of letters from certain periods of these friends’ lives.
One a trove of letters from a friend playing professional basketball in France after college.
Another a set of aerograms from a pal devoting his time to the Peace Corps in Africa.
Still others from various romantic partners over the years from whom I was separated for one reason or other, or ex-romantic partners with whom I had continued in friendship.
A goodly number of them complete and happy surprises, their contents bringing these precious friends to life in a vibrant, essential way, good souls all.
And then, a small cache of letters I didn’t even know existed from a woman I met and then corresponded with for a little over a year starting in 1981 before we lost contact with each other. The same one who inspired my move east last week to join her, as it turns out, these nearly four decades later.
Does that comprise a full enough circle to “spark joy?”
Still more: a trove of letters from my parents, including far more than I remembered from my father, written in his native Hungarian with an elegant longhand. I had grown up speaking the language, but had never learned to read or write it until I visited Hungary in 1983 and I came back determined to pick up enough to sustain some basic written volleys with my father. The resultant correspondence was a great joy to him the rest of his life, as it was to me again in these recent weeks of rediscovery.
Found myself snagged by all these missives as I sat at my table surrounded by boxes and the grit shedding from them. I wound up reading for many minutes at a time before my inner timekeeper caught wind of what was happening and skooched me along. But I did manage to snap pics of various friends’ letters and to send text excerpts to the writers themselves with a “Look what I found!” note appended, receiving gratified and curious notes in return.
Sometimes I added photos I also found in my box excavations. I resolved to find more time in the near future (once my pod completes its cross country trek) to bundle these letters and photos and return them to the senders, given the snapshots they were at a particular, highly formative period of their lives. Perfect for any memoir or life recap they might want to put together for posterity—or just to hand over to a child who may appreciate them.
What they offered me was a zipline to my own past, a chance to flit in and out of these relationships and the love that they entailed, to revisit situations equally riotous and sober, ecstatic and embarrassing, most always with a warm funny glow.
I’m not so sure I decided specifically to save these letters as much as I decided simply not to throw them away. That may sound too subtle by half, a distinction without a difference, but from either perspective, these objects of pen set to paper are imbued through and through with the souls of those who took the time to write and convey them.
In each person’s radically distinctive handwriting, their equally distinctive thoughts and descriptions of both their external and internal lives flow forth like the most pleasing of waters, a material link to the soulfulness their lives have added to the collective goodwill of the world. I am fortunate to be in touch with most of these people today, that good fortune enhanced by my possession of these literal vestiges from their past.
In the case of those who have passed—among them my mother, father, and brother—it still brings me up short to see their handwriting, to open a letter and literally hear their voices speaking via the marvelous apparatus of my brain, where the timbre, pitch and modulation of their diction and laughter miraculously occupy and are summoned forth from a few million cells of gray matter where such memories reside.
It’s not just the letters, precious as they are.
Every ancient t-shirt or glass focuses me for a moment on the event it memorialized, and the people surrounding it at the time. Every hat brought back from a favorite destination or gifted to me by a friend who went there summons forth that place, that person.
One can spend time and money and occupy drawers and closets in far less meaningful ways than this.
My intention here is not to imply that one should never make use of a thrift store, recycling bin or landfill to depart with items that might otherwise overwhelm one’s premises or life. But only to suggest that saying good-bye in the service of an absolutely uncluttered life may not always serve another, equally or more compelling need to maintain material links to our past, particularly when those links are to people whose voices and visages are summoned forth in joy and lasting regard from an item associated with them.
Nearly seven years ago, in a post titled “The Sacramentality of ‘Things,’” I wrote:
“But here, things matter. Things imbue our imaginations, trigger memories, inspire admiration and conversation and communion. Your delicate wind chime, my old mitt, this liquid in a glass on the counter that will soon be poured into this other thing called my stomach—all of it represents the only world we know, offering up its visceral pleasures, its sensory delights, its scratch to our sacramental itch.”
I recognize that this is a profoundly incarnationist view, holding that the creation is good, a thick bodiliness rather than thin minimalism being next to godliness. No world denial while awaiting a better fate up above or beyond.
Call me a closet Christian, if you will, taking the incarnation with the seriousness and sanctity it seems to suggest.
This world, here today, its things holy, its passing from one moment to the next, one thing to the next, including the very “thinginess” of our bodies themselves, redolent of the entire creation in its inexhaustible and tragic majesty that gives it whatever meaning we choose to give it.
The national treasure that is John Prine…
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Andrew, it’s 5:44 am in Chicago and your blog called to me over the N.Y. Times this morning—glad I followed the call. I sit here waking up with my first coffee of the day before I walk to my daughter’s apartment so that new baby Mercy can sleep on my chest while his parents go back to bed for a few hours—maybe. Congratulations on the sale of the house ( meant to send them much sooner than this) and on the move! And thanks for this meditation on things. Loved it.
Thank you very much, Jackie. One of the semi-regular pleasures of my current life is my aged cat, recently moved from the only home he has ever known, climbing (with a boost from me as he reaches) up to loll about on my chest as I read or maneuver my laptop around him in order to write. Only thing better than that is a baby occupying that space, truly, so you are one lucky grandma, and I know you will savor it with all due immersion and gratefulness. Talk about a fully embodied, heart-suffused pleasure!
I have heard people talk of losing every possession when their long occupied houses burned to the ground. Almost to a person they speak of the loss with equal measures of both sorrow and relief. The sorrow is, of course, for all the tangible evidence of life’s many memories and experience and the relief is for the understanding that they did not just have to go through the intensive sorting and reckoning you have chronicled here so well.
Inundated as many of us are with possessions and the need to simplify at some point, the topic of downsizing is a common one. It certainly is for baby boomers but many younger persons feel the literal and figurative weight of stuff as well, thus the need for direction found in Marie Kondo’s work. When people hear of an impending downsizing move they commonly react in one of two ways: The first being the steely eyes and tough air of a war veteran “Oh yes, I did all that for my parents/for myself” and the other, usually accompanied by a visceral shudder and sometimes literally covering their face with their hands “Oh my God, I can’t even think about it. I. Can’t. Even.”
Most people who have conquered this task and are resting, (sometimes smugly) on the other side advise others not to wait to do this assessing, sorting, lightening up. Don’t wait until it’s an emergency or imperative, such as experiencing a health problem and needing to live in a restricted space more quickly than anticipated. But also don’t wait because it’s easier to live in an uncluttered space, and also there’s that lovely feeling of knowing where things are and also the even lovelier feeling of having finished your homework before the weekend.
From my own experience I would add that, unless one has the funds to pay for substantial assistance, this task is best undertaken by the able-bodied. In addition to the emotional tasks the old heave-ho takes strength and agility, and not to put too fine a point on it: tripping hazards and muscle strain opportunities abound.
I was raised in a small, extremely cluttered house with a lot of people. Creating order was a survival skill as well as an aesthetic that I continually employ and refine to this day. Yet I am just about as sentimental as they come and have great compassion for the heartfelt and arduous task Andrew outlines here. It’s just our whole life we’re talking about, after all.
While I champion judicious, conservative acquisition and active editing of possessions, I would also refer you to another essay by Dominique Browning that supports Andrew’s testimony of delight and value in his recent excavations:
Yes, ultimately we carry all these memories in our failing brains and memories and treasure them deep in our hearts. We do not need all the books, papers, glasses (need being a highly subjective term). We certainly don’t need all the Costco receipts, but a handwritten note promising “I love everywoun! No mater what,” I think there’s room for that.
So glad you referenced my daughter’s note to conclude your lovely reflection, Mary. More I look at those scrawled words, the more I realize their profundity. Once again, “out of the mouths of babes…”
And her addendum—”Nomater what”—had me wondering whether she had just experienced something—a rebuke of her? her own perceived misbehavior?—that had her reflecting on the virtues of unconditionality and resiliency, and seeing fit to reaffirm those for her parents. Found myself charmed and deeply in love with her all over again with this note, just one more benefit of this extended, arduous, rewarding life passage.
Andrew, The resonance of you piece cannot be overstated, certainly for me, but I am sure for all your other friends who read this in preference to the Times. After going through it carefully I am tempted to simply invoke the Latin bibliographic phrase ” op cit” meaning “work cited” and just reference most of your piece, saving me having to make the same points far less eloquently. But a couple things are probably worth noting. As an athlete who values practice you would think I would be better at this than most people encompassing at least the tactical aspects of the process that you have so meticulously described. I have lived in, at last count, 33 distinct locations ( houses, homes, apartments, etc) in my life, which works out to a little over one every 2.2 years. This is the product of a number of things including my dad being a diplomat, my decade in the USAF and then working for over 20 years with an international corporation. Separation and divorce contributed as well. Yet when Sudi and I got married about 8 years ago, I still had a whole garage of stuff, all precious at the time. She wisely told me the only things I could bring into the house were crystal, jewelry and signed original art. In hindsight a wise prescription.
Then last year when we moved into our new house ( we took no furniture, no appliances and only one bed) , we still had the same issues everyone has when moving. All duly noted in your piece. It is the American Van Lines version of Groundhog Day.
So rather than prattle on, I am simply going to say…….Op Cit Hidas 9-15-2019
You know I am in awe of your writing abilities and storytelling capabilities, so consider this comment a complete Grade A+ in nailing the physical and emotional taxes of packing up and going.
I did want to say I was touched by your inclusion of Pete’s bike as part of the flotsam making its way back east. You and I share the hole a lost sibling can bring.
Man, that is a lotta moves, Bruce! At one period of my life I counted and discovered I had lived in 14 places in 14 years, but then I slowed way down—while all the boxes got shoved more deeply into the garage & cabinets. Meanwhile, “the American Van Lines version of Groundhog Day” pretty much nails the whole phenomenon in this incredibly mobile society, and gave me a good laugh in the bargain, thanks!
Moon, many thanks for the compliment, and glad you picked up on the reference to Pete. It’s actually a hella bike, a classic in its own right, like the Thing. Pete gave it to me, reluctantly, when he felt he had to upgrade for performance purposes, given he was a much more serious rider than me. I treasure it, though, and hope to get it out on the Carolina country roads this very fall, thinking of and riding along with him frequently.
What a post my friend, your ability to capture in a very few well conjured words such pithy experiences we can all relate to – LOVE it! I am reminded of the George Carlin bit about our important stuff and everyone else has too much “shit”! I have kind of taken a stance of less is more relative to “stuff”, recall vividly leaving So Cal for Nor Cal some 40 yrs ago and realizing my dear album collection of some 3-5,000 records could not fit in our van, and the CD revolution was in full swing so I found a collector who was willing to take the whole lot and still pay me $500 or so – he only wanted about 10 of them! Also conjurs my college years smitten by Castenada’s Don Juan and his advice to “erase your personal history” as an important step to some form of enlightenment (looks like DJ was a figment of CC’s imagination, yet still important books in my early 20s.) Yet, our personal histories, family – friends – lessons sometimes learned with heartache, mind blowing experiences, kids growing up, etc – form too much of who we are to be erased – enlightenment be damned! I look forward to the follow up post on receiving the “POD” and going through all the stuff as you ponder where it goes, what it means, and so forth.
PS Loved the John Prine song too – have long loved this guy, have had the good fortune to see him a number of times over the years – that fella can turn a phrase, make you laugh while giving you pause to reflect… excellent choice!
Oh Drew. Such a sweet and tender missive to our precious life and the mementos reflecting the lessons, adventures, challenges, joys, loss, grief, and deep, deep love. I’m so glad I read this before I face the basement of boxes retrieved after 7 years in storage. I too purged from home and office for months, and the boxes of treasures I couldn’t release have now returned to me.
I lived without them, traveling light and free for 7 glorious years, and now the treasure troves feel like a burden, as I face the sweet joy of the memories and the need to let at least some of it go. Thanks to your thoughts on this, I will be gentler with myself in deciding what to keep for future walks down memory lane.
Yo Kevin, I’m still trying to grok 500 bucks for 10 or so records—what were they, signed first pressings by all the Beatles?
I well recall the Castaneda, which, like many works from supposedly profound sources, seem to be big on sweeping declaratives, absolute truths on HOW TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I have come much more to a “Yeah, but…” and “Well, on the other hand…” perspective on such matters, I must say, shy of absolutes, including any sense of the absoluteness of “There are no absolutes…”
Dawn, I very much appreciate you taking the time to share these thoughts, so directly tied to the other end of this same experience. Most curious how it will play out for you, and I would encourage you to take a few notes and pictures along the way, and if you’re feeling generous with your time, return to this very space months or whatever from now and let us know what you came across…what decided to come across you…and how you experienced it. There is never a time limit on adding to the conversation here!
Wonderful piece, Andrew. Really defines those feelings when we connect with things from our past. I went through all my saved letters and cards when I moved to Cal. in 1993. Most I did send back to the authors, although I had to keep some, I sent copies if I thought they would appreciate. I downsized big time when I sold my house 3 years ago, but now am getting ready to tackle the storage unit…
Oh, my the resonance of this piece hits deep. The deep emotional toll and fatigue felt in prying ourselves away from our home of twenty + years remains an indelible mark in my heart and memory. The first grade drawings and notes of the now fully mature woman that is our daughter brought us to a standstill in the purging attempt of those rich and delicious years of raising our child, growing in our professions, and developing lifelong relationships with others in the same stages of their lives. “Stuff” represents tangible, tactile, and sometimes photographic reminders of cherished times and gratitude.
Wonderful reflection, Andrew. Thank you so much.
The storage unit, oh my! Best of luck, Pat! I am about to embark on my maiden voyage on that, as it happens, tomorrow, except on the other end: filling it up with items from the pod, from where they will await further disposition. Hope upon hope and intention here that said disposition does not require years, so please wish me luck in return!
Jay, your comment immediately put me in mind of the old gem, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” with the added proviso: “…except someone who’s been there…” That image of beholding a daughter’s first grade drawings tells me that you have, though “bittersweetness at the all-too-rapid passage of time” is no doubt a more accurate descriptor than “trouble” (but which wouldn’t have fit too well on a song title…) So enjoy this, please, as a small compensation:
So fun to finally sit and read this post, Andrew. My favorite line: “One can spend time and money and occupy drawers and closets in far less meaningful ways than this.” A beautiful sentence; and also a *total* rationalization for keeping sh*t!!!! hahaha. I knew such a post was in store, having heard bits from along the way. I looked forward to it.
A related note: I have a plan to go through the boxes in my basement, now that the summer heat and humidity are easing up. I know my old great-grandfather’s trunk is down there, chock full of letters from throughout my earlier life, when we wrote letters on paper. A dilemma: A huge stack of letters from my college boyfriend – who wrote great philisophical and irreverant letters peppered with phrases from Grateful Dead songs – and who has sadly since died. He had two daughters. After all these years (he died in 1998) would his daughters want to read those letters?? That question receives different answers from me on different days.
And finally: I turned on the baseball game as I finished reading your post – and my dear Red Sox are all tied up in the 8th inning with – the Giants!! Yes I did catch that reference to the Giants. So time will tell.
Thanks for this lovely piece, one for the ages.
My initiation into the delightful experience of moving was a forced one. It seems that UCLA’s Office of Residential Life took exception to my participation in the cherry-bombing of my dorm’s laundry room, which culminated in a “persona non grata” status and a forced removal from Dykstra Hall. Since my room there was as bare as a beggar, I immediately needed to find a furnished one-bedroom apartment or stack up cardboard boxes under a freeway overpass.
It’s strange how much I’ve felt that my change of residences resemble Picasso’s stylistic periods. My pre-minimalist move, when I stuffed all my worldly possessions– a single duffle bag, two mismatched suitcases, three cardboard boxes and a less than modest bookshelf– into my banana yellow Pinto’s well-designed trunk conducive to rear-impact fuel tank fires aligned itself perfectly with Pablo’s early Blue and Rose periods. The sofa was a floral maroon color and the bathroom had a turquoise tint to it. I’m still not sure whether the mattress was a dirty gray or clean black. The main draw was its scenic view of the 405 with its rich mixture of honking horns and percussive collisions which rudely drowned out the volume on my recently purchased 15” black and white TV.
After two years there, I moved into what I call my Cubist apartment with its monochromatic fractured unfurnished look and a kitchen decorated in early American cheap. I remained in that Spartan existence for several years until I decided to marry and quickly discovered the narcotic effect of materialism. We bought a house in the San Fernando Valley, carried a mortgage for the first time, purchased a new Maytag washer and dryer, watched Laker games on a 21” color TV, acquired two cars and created three children. However, when my 26-year marriage ended, I turned back the clock and returned to Sparta.
Two years later I remarried and moved to Valencia where I renewed my capitalist ways and determined that I would once again sacrifice myself for the economic well-being of our nation. I asked my wife, “Claire, how would you like to buy a Sony – 65″ Class – LED – X900F Series – 2160p – Smart – 4K Ultra HD TV with HDR? Imagine how much more our 9 grandchildren will enjoy Sesame Street!” She paused, “Sesame Street or LeBron?” And in a voice reminiscing the soup Nazi in Seinfeld, she declared, “No TV for you!”
Four years ago, Claire and I decided to sell our home in Valencia and move to Texas where we could buy a new one for half the price and twice the square footage. Although sorting what to keep and what to dump was a daunting task, we eventually packed it all into an Allied van and found a home in Texas, the proud state of George W. and Ted Cruz. While I’ve found its humid Surrealism less than ideal for my progressive leanings, we have made a number of like-minded friends who are working diligently to topple the Trump regime. However, no more moves for us. Our nomadic tendencies have officially ended. From where the sun now stands we will move no more forever.
Robert, 3+ years later, I got returned to this piece and beheld your semi-minimalist essay here, wondering why I failed to respond and concluding it had to have been put on my to-do list at the time, which often isn’t a literal pen-and-paper or digitized list but instead resides in that portion of my brain that houses the increasingly misty waystation of short-term memory. Alas…
So this note is a much belated but no less sincere expression of appreciation for your Picasso-ization of your own History of Stuff, rendered with great wit and verbal dexterity. But really: cherry-bombing a dorm laundry room? Kind of a cheeky, low-grade terrorism, I’d say, though the fact you were pranky college students rather than malevolent thugs probably saved you a misdemeanor arrest, conviction and likely sentence of community service. The fact that you have indeed served your various communities in the years since can be looked at as a debt long repaid, with the bonus of a story well told these many years later…