Yesterday I was stowing some papers in our fire-proof safe, and I paused for a moment to contemplate the odd assortment of items tucked into it. In theory, an inventory of this little fire-proof box should answer the question people sometimes ask: “If your house were on fire (and the PEOPLE were all safe) what item would you grab on your way out?” In actual fact, however, the things in the safe aren’t the items I’d grab on my exit in such an event. Sure, they’re “important” in their own way–passports and social security cards and birth certificates and court custody orders and even my sailing certifications–but everything in that safe could actually be replaced. It would be a hassle, of course, but nothing in that box is truly irreplaceable.
The burning-house query operates on the underlying assumption that there’s some stuff from which each of us couldn’t bear to be separated, and asks us to contemplate what stuff that would be. I’ve had one opportunity to answer the question in practice–though not on quite as tight a timeline as that proposed by the burning-house scenario.
After I left my first husband, he gave me a four-hour window in which to return to the house and round up my things. I had the advantage of being able to think it through in advance (as well as the assistance of several gentlemen co-workers and their trucks)–and the personal guideline that I wasn’t going to take away anything that wasn’t strictly mine. What I came away with that day were my own books and journals; clothing and personal items; my lathe & pen-turning tools; my Scuba gear, snow-shoes, and hiking backpack; four pieces of furniture that had belonged to my great-grandparents; and (with the agreement of the soon-to-be-Ex) one of the two beds we owned. A few other items were already out of the house and decorating my office–my favorite wall-hangings, and my shamrock plant, the seeds for which my mother bought on her 1965 trip to Ireland, as a gift for my Irish great-grandmother.
After fourteen years of jointly accumulating stuff–from camping equipment, canoe and tent-trailer to the furnishings and decor of the house we’d owned and improved for a decade–none of that community-property stuff seemed more important to me than simply getting out. Despite the love and attention and emotional investment that had gone into hundreds of items I’d added to that household over the years, none of that stuff passed the grab-it-on-my-way-out test of attachment, or the test of being worth-fighting-for.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. My thesaurus doesn’t have an antonym for the word “packrat,” but whatever that nonexistent word would be, it’s a word that should be applied to me. I have this almost compulsive urge to continually streamline, simplify, consolidate–and get rid of things.
“Cloud computing”–digitizing and storing things online–is a concept that seems positively made for me. Where previously I had shelves and drawers and boxes and storage cupboards full of journals, yearbooks, photo albums, movies, and books, the digital copies of those things are now all accessible from the little iPad that fits in my purse. So I suppose if the house were burning down, I’d grab my precious Mac and the iPad.
Although even if I didn’t manage that, I could log in anywhere to retrieve everything stored out there in the “cloud”… I’m becoming increasingly “portable”–and our next move should be far easier than the last. (Which is just as well, since we’re actually intending to leave the continent when the kids are through with school here in Idaho, and move back to my husband’s native Hawai’i.)
Come to that, our last move was easier than the previous one, thanks to the “emergency yard sale” we staged as our house headed into foreclosure and our overall financial situation crashed around our ears… Anticipating a move to a much smaller living situation (and trying to keep our power turned on and our cupboards from going bare in the meantime), we offloaded everything from furniture and wall hangings to movies and (for the first time in my life) books. To my oddly anti-packrat nature, an intensely satisfying “purge” of extra stuff.
My recurring urge to purge makes for an interesting dynamic in our home, because my husband definitely does fit the “packrat” category. A few months back he was pawing and rifling through his bedside drawer, muttering over and over: “I know it’s in here somewhere. It’s got to be here somewhere…” I inquired what he was searching for, but he just went on digging and muttering the mantra, broken at last with a triumphant “HA! I knew it was here!” Intensely curious, I asked one more time what it was that he had finally found.
“The bottom of the drawer!” he announced with a proud grin. Later that day (with his permission) I staged an intervention, tackling the drawer with a garbage can. It was jam-packed with sales receipts. For things we’ll never be returning–like groceries and tattoos.
He generally doesn’t object to a purge–he just can’t bear to do it himself. He leaves the room and busies himself elsewhere whenever I go into clean-out mode and start tackling drawers and closets with my give-away bin and a garbage can.
I should take a moment for a disclaimer… You might expect, given my habit of regularly getting rid of stuff, that my house would be spotless, spit-shined, and utterly uncluttered. Not so! For one thing (for reasons unknown even to myself), I’m more often moved to target drawers, cupboards, closets, boxes, bins, and storage units than the things that are out in the open. For another thing, three kids live here (and a pack of teenage boys spend a lot of time here)–and it’s okay with us that the place looks as though we’re LIVING here.
At any given time, you might find the living room floor dotted with segregated piles of Legos for some building project, the coffee tables invisible beneath Beyblade battle arena, Bakugan pieces, doll clothes, stacks of kids’ books, an in-progress game of Monotony (pardon me–Monopoly), Crayola markers, and pieces of unfinished kid-art… The corner of the living room has been draped in blankets for some time now, as the semi-permanent “tent-fort” in which Christian has taken up residence in preference to his actual bed. And because we have no one to “impress” but ourselves, we don’t ask the kids to interrupt their kid-living or clear away its evidence for the sake of a clear coffee table.
But back to the subject at hand… Given the tendency on my part to offload stuff, any item that still remains with me through several years’ worth of clearing-the-decks episodes must be something that tugs on me in some way. I may have a tendency toward offloading stuff, but I’m not immune to stuff-attachments either.
I just went wandering through the house (not a time-consuming stroll, as we live in a double-wide trailer now) with this question in mind, and I conclude that the things of which I’m most fond aren’t the useful things.
There’s a bowl of dried rosebuds from the first summer we were married, when Keoni used to cut a bud from our backyard bush every morning for me to tuck into a pigtail. (On the left side, according to Hawai’ian culture, signaling that I’m married.)
And the Willow Tree carving of a mother with two little ones, which I bought when my own Squirts were precisely that size and shape.
A memento booklet I made when my favorite poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, gave a reading here in town. Her reading coincided with my daughter’s sojourn in Neonatal Intensive care, and the book’s pockets contain items from the hospital and some of my own verse, along with Nye’s “Different Ways to Pray”…
There’s my great-grandmother’s New York teaching certificate, dated 1913, and my great-grandfather’s camera, which he took with him on a tour of Europe about the same time. A little frog with a book, which my parents gave me. The turquoise prayer beads Keoni strung for me, and my straw “hiking hat,” which I like to wear when we go adventuring.
These are all things to which I’m attached, and which won’t be subject to my clearing-out impulses. But if it really came down to it, I’d be content enough to have photos of these things if I lost the things themselves. (And I guess I’ve just taken care of that by including pictures here…) There really aren’t that many things from which I couldn’t bear to be separated. Only two items actually come to mind.
The first, I wouldn’t be in danger of leaving behind–it’s my wedding ring. A traditional Hawai’ian-style band, with “Keoni” engraved among maile leaves on the outside, and “We will be amazed” (from the A.A. Ninth Step Promises) on the inside. I wear it with my great-great-great-grandma’s diamond–one of a set of three, with the other two on my mother’s and my sister’s hands.
And the second, my battered teddy bear, Toots, about whom I write in “(Used) Lions & Bunnies & Bears, oh my!” And yes, Toots is definitely a “who” rather than an “it” (despite his puzzling physiology), which is no doubt why I can’t imagine leaving him behind. That raggedy item has a little piece of my soul in him… not in a creepy Voldemort-black-magic-horcrux kind of way, but in an I’ve-loved-him-till-he’s-real kind of way. Toots is the stuff I would grieve if I lost him.
In contrast to my stuff-collecting window of time at the end of my previous marriage, Keoni experienced the loss of everything at the end of his. He exited his last marriage by ambulance after hanging himself, and when he left the hospital a few weeks later, he had literally the clothes on his back, his eyeglasses, and the iPod he’d had in his pocket. (He jokes that I married him for his money–he’s sure he had thirty-seven cents in his pocket.) Despite the court-order requiring his Ex to relinquish his personal items, he never got so much as his wallet back. And while there are a number of sentimental items he dearly wishes he had, we have proof that Life goes on without the stuff.
Keoni has been putting away a clean load of laundry while I write, and (not knowing what I’m writing about), he just paused in the doorway to offer the bemused observation: “You know, those towels have been with us a long time. When I see those striped towels hanging there, I just know I’m home.”
So there we have it–we DO get attached to Stuff, even seemingly insignificant stuff like our towels.
But we also know that “Home” can be recreated in a new place, or with new Stuff. At the end of the day (literally), I’ll be HOME if I fall asleep with his arms around me–wherever we are.