Posts filed under 'Anti-Materialism'
One of my earliest attempts at lyrical poetry was a multi-stanza piece entitled “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve.” I think I was probably eight or ten years old when I wrote it. The poem told the story of a magical song, wrought of twilight and milkweed pods. There were fireflies involved, and faeries. The song, as I explained in verse, had been exquisite – it would change the life of anyone who heard it. Tragically, however, the song was destined to be unheard and unknown to the ears of the world forever. Why? Because after singing it once in a forest glade, I promptly forgot it.
My parents laughed really hard when I presented them with this, my first literary opus. I recall being puzzled at first – I’d been going for poignant beauty and aching tragedy – not comedy. But, attention is attention after all, and I figured that success was more important than being correctly interpreted by the critics.
Now, many years later, I am reminded of “Song…” as it was, I think, an interesting commentary on how memories are formed – and how something can be exquisite, haunting, life-changing… and forgotten.
Last summer as Sam and I made our way across the country, we paused for a two-week sojourn in East Lynne Missouri. I took the opportunity to excavate a bunch of my old stuff from a storage unit in the next town over, where I grew up. The stuff in question was everything I’d accumulated in my life up to my mid-20’s – at 26 I had simultaneously won a fellowship to go to Australia for a year, and been admitted into a PhD program in California. Sorting the logistics out required, as a first step, putting my entire life into boxes and leaving it behind. There was a household’s worth of the expected: furniture, dishes, pots and pans, shelves, sheets, towels, boxes and boxes of books and clothes. And there were the boxes of memorabilia – notes passed in class as a second grader, birthday cards from relatives, letters from my little sister – now a worldly and grown up 21, but a six-year-old who was just learning to write at the time, photos of myself, friends and family in multiple incarnations, and a few relics of my earliest attempts at writing. Like “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve”, or another early classic, “Ode to a Dead Chicken”. The song lyrics I penned for my imaginary band. Letters and short stories and poems and drawings and mixed tapes from friends and partners-past. My best papers from multiple classes. Myriad applications to fellowships and grad schools. Drafts of the speech I wrote that won an undergraduate scholarship. Notes to myself and to do lists that, while quotidian when written, served six, ten, fifteen years later as a checklist of dreams, aspirations and the activity of self-definition.
So there I was, opening the time capsule. The process of excavation merits its own essay, but I will let two photos take the place of my thousand words.
The furniture was easy enough to disperse – some had to be thrown away, some donated, and a few items are happily living on the wrap-around porch of my friend’s techno log cabin in the woods. The books are all in boxes waiting for me to settle down in one place for long enough to be shipped. I spent a couple of very intense days in the basement dealing with the rest. My animism and anti-materialism were at war, but time constraints kept me from over-thinking. I kept photos and creative work, and threw everything else away. Trash collection works a bit differently in the country; “throwing away” anything that’s paper-based invokes the principle of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” – it all gets burned, one page at a time.
Opening the time capsule and then destroying it forever in just a couple of days conjured a singular and unique emotion for which I don’t have a name. I had long since forgotten nearly every single item I’d put in storage back in 2000 – I would have thought that the memories had been permanently jettisoned from my brain. Yet every box I opened, every envelope, every page – not only did I immediately remember the item in question, but as it leaped back into my consciousness, it brought along with it a thick web of associated memories – objects, actions, experiences, emotions, fears, hopes and dreams that I had also long since forgotten. As it was happening, I wondered what my brain must look like – if normally docile quadrants that had been given over to cold-storage were firing to angst-y emotional life as each physical object I held in my hands reanimated a cluster of memories. Strange, how the passage of time allows for this sort of temporary forgetting, but when the memory comes back, it has all the intensity and emotional charge of the very day it happened.
What was stranger still was sending the time capsule, sheet by sheet, into the fire. Because I knew, without a doubt, that I was destroying the object, the anchor, the thing that allowed me to access not just it’s own memory, but the hundreds of associated memories that surrounded it. I’m pretty sure I spent the whole burning ceremony with a slight all over body tremble, my complexion a peculiar shade of creamy-grey. They’re gone now, the ways back to consciousness. I believe that the memories are still there, as they were still there after six years in a storage unit, but in burning the physical anchors I effectively cut the string that attached the object to the intangible web of memories. They’re still in my brain, but I think they’ve been permanently severed from the possibility of conscious consideration. With each object that I threw into the fire, I knew I was sending big pieces of my past into permanent irretrievability.
At the time it was all so intense, I couldn’t do much more than tremble and blanch, while following my instincts which were screaming at me to move on, with a few precious items tucked in my pocket. I’ve since had time to develop a bit of a theory about it all – to be shared in a forthcoming episode from “Adventures in Anti-Materialism”. In the meantime, however, I’ve grown more comfortable – comforted even – by the idea that the existential fabric of how I became who I am today may be largely forgotten, but it’s all still in my memory somewhere. Maybe cutting the string that connected it to the possibility of consciousness was liberating – maybe those memories can do a new and different kind of work now that they’ve been released to dissolve into the primordial soup of my unconscious. Maybe “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve” needed to be heard and then forgotten in order to be life-changing?
March 1st, 2007
The last time we dismantled the physical elements of our life, Sam observed that I was quite possibly the world’s only living example of an anti-materialist animist – I compulsively get rid of stuff, yet worry all the while that my things will take their rejection personally. Sam’s observation, characteristically, was both funny and insightful and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.
I have, at least since adolescence, had a terrifically obdurate anti-materialist streak. I probably accumulate things at a slower rate than most people; but what really sets me apart is the regularity with which I have complete purging sessions – going through my clothes, books, music, papers, research, household items and ruthlessly gutting my collections down to a minimum – or sometimes into oblivion. I used to think that I did it to be organized. Later, I thought that I did it to avoid having physical “anchors” that tied me to one place, and prevented me from, say, moving to another country at the drop of a hat. Over the past few years, however, I’ve experienced a truly remarkable rash of nearly annual material guttings of my life, followed by violent and radical relocations. In the last ten years I’ve moved half-way across the country three times, moved to different countries and back three times, and moved from one US coast to the other three times. I’m starting to think that maybe on some subconscious level I orchestrate these violent and radical relocations as an excuse to have an anti-materialistic purging session. I guess time will tell – right now I’m doing everything I can to stay put in California, though in a wry and not surprising twist of fate, all of the people who are interested in advancing my career are on the East Coast.
Lately, I’ve been very into practicing non-judgmental observation of my own personality – thinking in terms of personality type rather than in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Along these lines, I’m inclined to just accept that I’m sort of a materialistic nihilist – I strive to consume less and less, and I periodically create reasons to whittle myself down to the bare minimum. But the last several times I’ve gotten rid of everything that didn’t fit in my car, the experience was deeply emotional and left me feeling raw, vulnerable, and sometimes grief-stricken. The problem is that I can’t shake the feeling that objects have some kind of consciousness – that they know whether I’m a respectful inhabitant of the earth and user of it’s resources; they know whether I’ve used them well, whether I’ve done my best to find good homes for them when I no longer need them. But as anyone who has whittled a two-bedroom three-story townhouse down to what will fit into a Toyota Echo on a strict time-budget will tell you, you can’t always find good homes for everything. Piles of things inevitably get left in front of the Salvation Army at 2:00 AM. Good, useful, hard-working things get thrown into dumpsters – soon to spend the rest of their good, useful, hard-working potential languishing for eternity in a municipal garbage dump. Furniture is left on the curb, under threatening clouds that could instantly turn a perfectly usable couch into a water-logged waste. Hand-made hand-me-downs with uncertain provenances are abandoned to make their own way in the world.
Once, when I was about five, my family packed a picnic lunch and went for a long car drive. I remember doing my best to hold all the parts of my sandwich together and eat it at the same time – no small feat for small fingers. Inevitably, some little bits of cheese crumbled away and fell onto the green carpeted floor of the car. I watched them rolling around down there, far below my swinging feet, and was overwhelmed with grief. It was bad enough for the little crumbles to be separated from the rest of the cheese… but then, oh horror… to be ground into disgrace and useless oblivion on the floor? All of that life-giving potential wasted? I haven’t changed too much – if the same thing happened as an adult, I’d find a way to discreetly pluck the cheese crumbles from the floor and toss them out the window into some grass – to be eaten by animals or find some other more direct way to return to the cycles of nature. And so, just as I am compelled by circumstances and internal directives to leave a nearly-new much loved and still shiny dustpan propped up against our apartment complex dumpster with a “free to good home” post-it note, so too will my heart break as I watch it disappear in the rearview mirror. I am convinced that it is feeling forlorn and abandoned, that it can’t understand why it worked so hard for me only to be cast aside when it became inconvenient.
Now, I don’t actually believe that either the cheese crumbles or the dustpan were crying inside. I think, instead, that I experienced a kind of momentary hyper-awareness of all the energy that went into producing those objects and bringing them into my home: extracting the raw materials from the animals or the earth, transforming them into food or plastic, stamping them into forms, packaging them, shipping them to stores, selling them to customers… Abandoning even the simplest of items begins to seem like a monumental act of disrespect.
Sam wonders why I insist on projecting “souls” onto pieces of plastic, only to torture myself. I wonder how it’s possible to be respectful of energy in all its forms, and live in a capitalistic world.
January 12th, 2007
My last post about garage sales was also my inaugural Muse - Adventures in Anti-materialism I. I ended the post fairly confused about the best way to put one’s physical possessions back into circulation. Sell them? Give them away for free? Sell the things you bought, but give away the things you were given? Give things away to nice customers, but when a customer is mean, break the thing they want in half and throw it in the dumpster? Light a match and toss it over your shoulder as you’re walking out the front door?
After a week of sneak-previews, and two days of strangers wandering into and out of our home, we decided that garage sales are not for us. We managed to sell a few things and give the rest away, but the money we earned came no where near covering what we’d spent to buy everything – and no where near the psychological toll of deconstructing something as invaluable as a home, and listening to strangers debate whether or not it’s worth five dollars. Sam summed it up when he said with a sad face “I tried to make it more fun by decorating our house with my balloons, but it didn’t work…”
In an attempt to split the cosmic difference, we had most things up for sale, but filled the garage with items that people could have for whatever they could donate. The garage emptied out pretty quickly, but no one donated. The worst moment came when a guy asked how much for Sam’s “Frankenbike” – a bicycle he had assembled from discarded parts collected around town. Sam loved his “Frankenbike”; it was a testament to the power of inspired creativity and the ability to assemble something truly useful from other people’s cast-offs. In any case the guy, upon learning that Frankenbike was available for a donation of his choosing, said “Cool!” and walked off with the bike – leaving nothing. That was when Sam took the balloons down.
By the end, we were sleeping on yoga mats on the floor, and I felt like the Rock Biter in The Neverending Story, with bits and pieces of our identity being sucked away into The Nothing. “I used to have a home, but The Nothing took it away… now it’s all… gone…”
There were a couple of bright moments. We packed up our entire kitchen, for example, and gave it all away to a lovely girl who had just moved to town and needed everything. I was still sad to give away my perfect tea pot, infuser, and mugs, but her heartfelt gratitude and the joy of knowing that we were making her life easier did more than enough to ameliorate the pain.
In the end we discovered that, for us, garage sales are bad. Emotionally, it feels far better to give much-loved things away for free to good people than it does to sell them for a fraction of their value to disinterested strangers. But how, without a garage sale, would we have met the good strangers who had a real need for some of the things we had to give?
January 12th, 2007
My partner and I are moving away from the East Coast. Our lease is up at the end of the month, and while I have several exciting job applications out in the world, I don’t yet have a position. We’re excited about the fact that we have a truly wide-open future; we’re terrified about having no metaphorical anchor of any kind – no home, no job, no necessary destination. Our plan is to get rid of everything that doesn’t fit in our car, head out of town, and drive west. We’ll visit friends and family across the country, check email and voice mail in case someone offers me a job, and otherwise keep going until a compelling destination presents itself.
We are alternately ecstatic, and horrified. The lure of adventure, of paring everything down to a minimum, of starting over, of taking a leap of faith of enormous proportions is heady. Being the architects of the destruction of our life here is pretty painful. I seem to alternate – some days I’m a mess, I can’t believe we’re selling or giving away objects that we love so much: my beautiful transparent cobalt blue cups and saucers, the bike we found on the side of the road and nursed back to health, the perfect bookshelves. They’re all symbols of course; as a lifetime grad student, I certainly can’t afford anything that would cost real money. But we came here with nothing, and filled our house with beautiful objects that reflect our beautiful life by accepting gifts from friends, and doing strategic shopping at the dollar store. It’s not like we’re giving away money, but we’re giving away the physical proof that we can, and have, manifested something beautiful and tangible from the raw materials of love, openness, and faith. Other days, I’m totally clear about what’s going on. Material objects ought to circulate like food, or air, or library books. You take them in, use them until you’re done, then put them back into the life cycle so they can benefit others. That’s how you stay healthy. If you try to stop up the passage of food, air, or library books, that’s when you get problems: constipation, death, overdue charges. On the good days, I’m know without doubt that it is the act of giving away our objects that guarantees we’ll be able to manifest what we need when we get wherever we’re going.
There are three especially interesting challenges in this situation: navigating the emotional roller-coaster on a daily basis, deciding how to feel about the fact that we’re doing something that no one else we know has ever done, and finding the best way to put the objects back into circulation. The first challenge – the quotidian emotional rollercoaster – seems to be something we just have to live through. We just have to keep breathing, keep reminding ourselves that we have a goal and that it’s a good one. The alternative is to stop the process every time we have a doubt or a bad day. And that would mean that the end of our lease would get here, we’d have a house full of furniture, no plan, no job applications out in the world. In short, a crisis resulting from failure to act. That possibility keeps us pretty motivated to do what we have to do, even when it feels awful. What’s worse, after all, selling or giving away things we love? Or contemplating a midnight panic-fueled jettisoning of all material possessions in the dumpster behind our house?
The second challenge is less literal. What is the best way to deal with the fact that we’re doing something pretty rare, that no one we know has ever done? I tell people our plan, and they blanch; they say things like “you have got to be kidding; giving away everything that doesn’t fit in a car? Are you serious?” Today we decided to think of this struggle as a war. Normally I don’t like war metaphors, but this time I think it’s apt. Everything around us tells us that materialism is good. That success is measured by the quality and quantity of one’s possessions. That people reflect their personalities to the world through their choice of objects. In deciding to define ourselves in opposition to this model, it’s not always enough to know what we want to be, it’s important to know what we’re choosing to define ourselves in contrast with. We’re waging a personal battle against materialism; having a clear idea of the enemy makes it easier to know who we want to be, and why.
Finally, what’s the best way to put our objects back into circulation? We’re having a garage sale today – I’m writing this from the ground floor of our townhouse, stopping from time to time to show people around. On one hand it seems like the thing to do; people come, occasionally they buy. We’ve gotten rid of a few big ticket items this way – the bed, desk, shelves, couch, stereo – and a handful of smaller items. On the other hand, it takes a huge amount of energy to plan and administrate a garage sale: designing, printing and posting the announcements, putting them online, arranging the house so that everything for sale is easily seen, fielding phone calls and visits from people who want ‘advance showings,’ being home all day while strangers walk in and out, and for the most part, decide our possessions – things we love – aren’t worthy. It feels demoralizing, exhausting, and like there must be an easier way. We received many of our items as gifts; should we be giving them away as well? Is it the money that’s tripping us up? I certainly feel like I’d rather give our things to good homes than haggle over them with people who won’t love them. I feel like that would be an ideal solution, but the fact that we’re jobless and soon to be homeless and definitely in need of cash makes it seem a little shortsighted. For the moment we’ve compromised and set one room aside for “donations” – nothing in the room has a price, but we’re asking people to leave a donation of their choosing. The rest of the stuff we’re still trying to sell. So far, several people have taken things from the donations room and no one has yet made a donation. The day is still young, however, as is our adventure, so I’ll write with a follow-up!
August 19th, 2006
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