Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A dispossession of possessions

I used to subscribe to the notion that he who dies with the most toys wins. That was before we owned our own mercantile business and had first pick from dozens of vendors’ wares, some of which were the epitome of desirability and cool. It was also before we moved to the country and discovered life on gravel roads and the concomitant migratory traits of dust, something I thought only birds and caribou were known for. 

Last week I hauled several large boxes of VHS video tapes and music cassettes to the street for the trash man to take away. It was more than a simple spring cleaning, something instead approaching a complete and wholesale divestiture of items that have lost their importance either through technological obsolescence, shifting personal interests or, as I prefer to say, wearied disgruntlement from decades of dealing with a copiousness of stuff

It all came to a head several weeks ago when I was out of town. My wife wisely chose that moment to call a contractor to begin remodeling the basement. First, though, she had to make room for the guy to do his business, and this in turn led to the uncomfortable realization that a sizable amount of the stuff she’d have to relocate was, in fact, useless. Stuff that had been hidden inside boxes for eight long years without once seeing the light of day. Stuff that had to be weighed against the larger issues of space and livability.

Each year when I engage in a half-hearted spring cleaning, I tell my wife we have to be brutal. There's really no other way. The half-hearted part comes not from a lack of willpower on my part but on hers—things we’d forgotten even existed suddenly become valued treasures when rediscovered in some moldering box. And so I toss what I can and grit my teeth over what I cannot, and the next year and the next we follow these selfsame paths and fight these same fights. 

On my return, I found the basement shaping up nicely. Actually, it hadn’t looked that nice, or so spacious, since we bought the place. From such simple acts come great inspiration, and in the next few days I threw myself into weeding out a lifetime of collecting. 

Like dust, stuff tends to accumulate without any visible means of generation. This is not to say I’m blameless over the vast amount of things that somehow have found their way into our home. And it’s becoming painfully obvious that no matter how much I accuse my wife for the clutter, there’s enough guilt to go around several times over. For example, upon inspection one large cardboard box labeled “fly-tying supplies” was found to contain miscellaneous scraps of dun jute and string, short lengths of copper and brass wire, broken extension cords and strips of tinsel. The embarrassing thing was that I’d hauled that box all the way from Colorado and had dutifully stored it downstairs since, and yet had the temerity to call my wife a packrat! 

The cassettes were just the beginning. I was a man possessed, a Caesar casting a cold, cruel eye on the victims of my displeasure and pronouncing judgment with downturned thumb. What couldn’t be recycled or given away was set out for the trash, and my paring was thorough and exact. There were occasional grants of leniency, rare absolutions for trivial personal items that my heirs will have no qualms about disposing of—rusty lures, a few tattered royal coachmen, a music cassette that somehow never made it to CD, neoprene waders I can no longer fit into, a worn leather holster from a former career, the lowly and base underpinnings of a life of memories.

In one box I came across a small wooden container dating from my teenage years. Inside was our wedding announcement, an old chipped prism, two broken arrowheads, a pair of hospital identification bracelets worn by our sons after they were born, a receipt from the Friendly Hills Inn in Taos, New Mexico where we spent our honeymoon, a miniature Oriental vase and matching hairbrush. Time slowed to a crawl. In spite of my imperialistic mood I found myself choking back tears.

What matters in the long run? By the end of our lives do we come to understand that the only important thing is the living itself, the moment to moment communion with what we’ve been allocated? I can’t say. But I know this: some stuff matters. Most doesn’t. Differentiating the two is our life’s task. 

I carefully put the items back into the box and closed the lid, and walking up the stairs called out to my wife, Lori, come see this, come see what I found.

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