Let us not blame ourselves. It is human nature to struggle against our urges, dissect them, and at the end of the day we must be compassionate. We have only to look at history to see a record of how our personalities have bloomed and shown their colors by the things once buried with us (see ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA).
There is a desire to build knowledge upon knowledge; one achievement, such as the making of cloth from plant fibers, can give birth to another, such as taking linen rags to make paper (see CHINA’S HAN DYNASTY). We must look to the tomb’s books, bowls, cups, combs, and magical figures and wands—all the practical things—meant to help us through the afterlife because if it is anything like the earthly life, we know we will need help getting through it (see ANCIENT EGYPT).
Then we will also remember that empires are built until they crumble under the weight of their own excess (see Ancient Rome). It is happening now (see THE UNITED STATES) and it will happen again (see DUBAI). How we learn from the history of our struggles determines the extent of the decay.
It is human nature to make, to produce, to possess, and finally consume or destroy. These things hold promises that appeal to vanity, ego, or insecurities because promises hold the opportunities for more creation. Not the creation of more things, but a better existence. The recording artist/producer Brian Eno describes this possibility in the documentary film Here Is What Is:
I remember buying a little Indian sort of chest of drawers once, and I was so intrigued by it, by the color of it. And I thought, “This, if I let it be, could be the beginning of a new life for me. If I followed the message of this little set of drawers and built everything else around that— that would be a different life.”
The idea fascinates us: To encapsulate that which is beautiful. But to stop with a chest of drawers is to go against that urge for something better, bigger, and in that greener pasture. So the promise of a chest becomes a ghost with the acquisition of the new rug that will not only tie the room together, but also tie our lives together, until the new lamp sheds some light on our lives. Yet, all this will burn when disappointment outweighs the promises. (see ANCIENT ROME)
Regret has filled my home for years. Empty promises weigh more than anything I can think of, proliferating with each piece of furniture, each newly-devised organizational system, and each book that will teach me how to live. And the disappointment manifests in homeless junk mail, business papers, and bureaucratic files. That which is reviled has taken over and oppresses. Just to get through the day’s business requires a blind eye to step over the huddled masses of white paper without being paralyzed by conscience.
One cannot summarily sweep her arms wide and push all the offending things into the trash. Each and every sheaf, envelope, catalog, must be examined and disposed with, sorted into the appropriate receptacle: Refuse, recycle, or shred first, recycle second. Then there are the greeting cards, marking the years, the events, and the lives. We lose sight, for they are none of these things; it is not without considerable regret that they are placed in the recycle bin. The worry lingers that the sender will sense her good wishes have ended up in the pulping pile when logic says that the good wishes were transferred to the recipient upon opening the card. The card has served its purpose and must be repurposed, reused, recycled. (see CHINA’S HAN DYNASTY)
- There is a paradox in determining what to keep: It takes time to form relationships or at least to build context. I have been relieving my shelves, my surfaces, and my psyche of burdens without that context. Once I am done, what am I left with? Practical things:The glass bird that fits in my palm. Its smooth and cool shape reassures me. My mother, a wanderer in spirit and a touchstone for all who know her, gave to my two best friends and me this bluebird of happiness when we graduated from House Springs, Missouri, to proving grounds Elsewhere. My bird has sat on desks among Russian dictionaries and volumes of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in Spartan rooms on the plateau in northern Missouri or in the Hudson River Valley. Smuggled into Moscow, the bird gathered energy, hope, and love like a solar cell that now ekes out its reserve when the feel of it in my hand is necessary. It reassures—there were days when I was stubbornly, foolishly, humiliatingly, and (of course) unrequitedly in love with an Englishman, but I understood something more about myself when distance made me give him up because I never could when he was down the street, in the next room, in my bed—that I can survive (have survived) heartbreak and be the happier for it.
- The monkeys. Two of them, one smaller than the other, with their cherry resin shaped so that their simian hands cover their mouths. Wendy has a pair of them hiding their eyes, and Sue’s are shielding their ears. Each serves as a symbol of the sins we should try to avoid: saying too much, seeing what wasn’t intended for public consumption, eavesdropping. Our powers were the stuff detective and spy novels were made of, and we generally used them for good, but sometimes we used them against each other to draw out what we didn’t want anyone to know. So we gave each other the monkeys as reminders (warnings?) of how to behave. I don’t know that it worked. We still hurt each other the way only friends can. But Wendy and I overcame the ways we wronged each other, mostly over trifling boys. As a junior in high school I dated her crush Tom, even though we were more like siblings than lovers (but boy! could he make me laugh). Then, four years later she dated Brad? Brian? Brent? And it stung because it felt like tit for tat, not because either of us were really all that interested in him. But our history helped us overcome that, balanced our friendship again. And then, there is Sue. She, well, she turned her back on us, on our past, and the foolish, reckless, delicious things we did. But I know she has these trinkets somewhere in a box, perhaps with our letters, and her journals, moldering in the dark of a closet. Like Wendy and I, she needs them: These keep our bluebirds company and remind us of times when we had triple the capacity for fun and risk, and our youth to heal most wounds.
- The green soapstone school of fish. My father brought it to me after he spent a month in South America. We usually got clothes from his business trips to places more exotic than Orlando or Dallas. A muu-muu from Hawaii. A t-shirt with Portuguese on it from his first trip to Rio. A sweatshirt from Paris. We loved them and wore them until they were falling apart. But these fish were something I couldn’t outgrow, even though I was growing faster than I ever had before. Gone was the girl that studied stars and planets in the crisp, cold valley air. Gone was the daughter that sat at the kitchen table every night, needing help with her math homework. Instead his daughter was learning a language with letters and nuances foreign to his Romantic/Germanic experience, and she was coming home with more independence and ear-piercings. Even so, he considered his daughter’s accumulation of piscatorial ephemera, all stemming from her teenage obsession for a hockey player, Bob “Bass” Bassen. Of the jewelry, clothes, posters in that collection, the four fish carved from brown-marbled green stone remain the finest examples of my former attachment to gilled creatures. All the more dear because they let me know what had gotten hard to say, that I’d always be my father’s daughter.
- The decorated box. My mother preferred to make gifts and cards for the holidays, mostly because her father prized these things above all else, even golf. So we often manufactured things for each other at Christmas, hiding in corners or restricting access to areas of house to work on our gifts. The year before I went into high school, Nick was too young to draw much on his own. He wanted to give me a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed box to hold the beads, and string, and tools needed for the jewelry I made. Mom penciled the design and Nick painted it in. Four years apart, we’ve loved and supported each other, but our daily lives have been a mystery to one another. Now, twenty years later, he’s an artist and I love my box a little more than the cherished prints and drawings he’s since given me.
- The fossil of a ribbed plant stem imprinted the smooth limestone. A few years ago I found in box a folded piece of notebook paper wrapped around a rock. We grew up in the foothills of the Ozarks with a creek that ran past the back of our yard, where we spent hours exploring, looking for fossils, avoiding snakes, and trying to catch minnows. The paper was a card from my little sister, written in the second grade, wishing me a happy birthday. We were always close, but often the memories of antagonizing each other stand out more than the moments of sisterly harmony. But there is a photograph that brings me back to the good things about having a sister. Anna and I are four and six, sitting in a director’s chair with our backs to the camera. We’re wearing our matching nightgowns, we have an arm around each other’s shoulders, and our foreheads are pressed together. Each time I see the fossil among the soapstone fishes, I think of my eyes locked with hers as we giggled, waiting for the camera’s flash.
These are the tributes and wealth that adorn my home. If archaeologists were to some day dig me out of sand and dirt, they would find with me these things that speak not to what I do, but to who I have been and will be. (see ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA)
After years of moving, from my college days to a post grad school nomadic lifestyle, I tired of shuffling stuff just because I once put it in a box when I didn’t know what else to do with it. Why did I have sheets for a bed I no longer had, clothes that I could no longer wear, notes for exams I no longer had to study for, and cassette tapes that I could no longer listen to? I have been clearing these things out with the same consideration I give my junk mail.
I will never be like a turtle or snail. That is to say, I will never carry my possessions on my back; I could not restrict myself to so few books. But I have discovered all that I can live without, and I believe the next move will at least be made without giant plastic containers filled with things we haven’t seen in years.
Although I will never be a snail, if there was ever a reason to evacuate and abandon our home, I would empty my Winnie-the-Pooh box of its pens, pencils, and markers, and in would go the bluebird, the monkeys, the fossil, the school of fish to keep company letters and notes from my husband from over the years. These items supply my spiritual needs (see ANCIENT EGYPT). These things do not ask me to build a life around them. They tell me not to forget the life and love I have had, and the promises I have made to myself.