“For some weeks now I have been engaged in disbursing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach. But this did not happen. My wife and I diligently sorted and discarded things from day to day, and packed other objects for the movers, but a six-room apartment holds as much paraphernalia as an aircraft carrier. You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes ingenuity and great staying power.”
“It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve; the valve permits influx but prevents outflow.”
“This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.”
E.B. White, Good-bye to Forty-Eighth
Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957
In my most disciplined moments, I tell myself that my relationship to possessions is in order. I am not a slave to stuff. I say it to myself with great resolve, with sincerity, clear eyed, a straight face, and a cool, reasoned, grounded belief in my assertion.
The reality differs.
It is a lesson I should have cultivated more effectively by now. After all, I have had sufficient opportunity to learn by observation. In her later years, I watched my mother struggle over her own stuff; boxes of keepsakes, photos, greeting cards, clippings, owners manuals for toaster ovens no longer in her possession, things she believed had intrinsic value, or which served as links to some part of her past. She perceived meanings in things of all sorts, yet the power of those meanings left her paralyzed by their grasp. I watched many times as she would lift the lid from some box, peer in, watched as the confusion overcome her, saw the trouble in her eyes. Most times it ended the same way; she would replace the lid, without decision or action, and ask the question which never varied:
“What am I going to do with this?”
Insight about my possessions came when Jeni delicately mentioned that I had a similar attitude about my own stuff. On that day long past, I sat holding the shoebox containing my boyhood collection of toy cars, struggling to reason out who to entrust with this vestige of my childhood. In a blinding flash of the obvious, she reminded me I had no kids to leave them to. Suddenly there seemed no further reason to continue the illusion of myself as curator and conservator of my life’s treasures. In that moment they were reduced to merely old toys.
As an experiment, I listed one of them on eBay, and quickly learned they had become collectible. One by one they were sent off to new owners. Encouraged, I located a collector who agreed to take custody of my vintage Evinrude outboard, the one Dad bought for me when I was a boy. I found another whose focus was antique phonographs; he adopted my hand-cranked Aeolian-Vocalion. My boyhood accordion was sold outright to a musical instrument shop here in town.
For most of my life parting with these would have been unthinkable. The place they occupied in my mind was one of preservation of my past, an obligation viewed with something like veneration. Like my mother I believed they were significant, possessing an inherent ability to define, to ground, to secure a sense of self, to safeguard thoughts and emotions by their mere presence. Parting with my outboard motor, phonograph and the rest would have meant risk of loss, not only loss of the objects themselves but of tangible links to who I was, links I believed to be real. Once they were set free, I reasoned, turning loose of the rest would be a snap. Logical, dispassionate, deliberate, absent of conflict, cut-and-dried.
The reality has been mixed.
“All sorts of special problems arise during the days of disposal. Anyone who is willing to put his mind to it can get rid of a chair, say, but what about a trophy?”
“Trophies…are almost impossible to throw away…because they usually carry your name, and a man doesn’t like to throw away his good name…”
E.B. White, Good-bye to Forty-Eighth
Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957
For several years during the middle part of life, I studied and tested for several professional certifications. These occupied space on the walls of my office, along with a couple of brass and walnut plaques with my name on them, recognition bestowed by the associations which granted the certifications. The first to go were the walnut plaques, liberated from the dusty high shelf of my closet. With no office left in my life as a proper place to display my accomplishments, they made the last, slow march to the trash bin.
The last certification, the one requiring the most effort to acquire and retain now hangs above my desk here at home. It bears my name in large showy script, as well as the issue date and the signatures of the then-officers of the association. For all its pretension, the passage of time has rendered it no more than a relic, apropos of nothing. Yet the time I have struggled with disposition of this last artifact of my working life is beginning to approach the amount of time and effort expended to earn it.
And then there are the portraits of the child I was, the ones I sat for in a professional photography studio. Given my parents attitude toward money, the very existence of these seems implausible. Each session must have cost more than a week’s supply of groceries. For most of her life, they were among the dearest things my mother possessed. But they have not hung on a wall for twenty years. And there is same pesky problem; no one to bequeath my boyish image to, no one who cares, or should.
There’s nothing like an object lesson to make a point. Following the exit of something formerly thought to be irremovable, I notice bare spaces, previously having been occupied by… what was it? The absence is clear, but the missing object is already an obscurity. Once removed, I find with surprise it is not missed. The expected regret does not occur. The spell the object previous held over me has been broken.
As White has observed, “…to empty the place completely takes ingenuity and great staying power.” Most days I look around and find no advance on the objective, in spite of evidence to the contrary; bags of outgoing stuff in the garage; closets containing an avalanche of stuff deposited there over the years, suddenly seen as having been reduced to some level of manageability; overwhelming projects viewed with trepidation which have been cut down to size.
And so evidence mounts that we do indeed have the staying power needed for the disbursal. The end remains beyond sight, but progress has been made.
For some time I’ve had an intellectual grasp of the suggestion that possessions and events in life have only the meaning which we ascribe to them, but have no intrinsic meaning of their own. Now I have been given the means to understand this at a rational level, to put this axiom into practice, to decouple sentiment from reality, to see my possessions and myself in a truer perspective. One by one, my worldly goods are ceasing to be heavy, inescapable responsibilities.
My mother’s faith in the power of possessions was something I previously accepted without question. Now, letting go is becoming not only possible but preferable, the only responsible thing to do.