October 19, 2003 Dematerialization
My two ďbest friendsĒ right now are named Suzanne and Susanna. Suzanne lives in New Jersey, and I met her shortly after I moved here. Susanna lives in my house in Virginia, and we met at the beginning of 7th grade. Today they met each other. Susanna was en route from NY to Arlington Ė Suzanne escaped from (daughter) Sarahís dependence and came by to hang out. They seemed to get along great, which was fun. Suzanne likes to talk to anyone about raising children in the context of divorce, so she pumped Susanna about her experiences. Their situations are pretty different, but still I was glad that they had things to discuss that I couldnít even be part of.
Iíve started divesting myself of things Ė Iíd like to reduce them to what fits in the van. Iíve been weeding through my books for a week or so now, and had a big pile of ones I donít want to keep. Susanna went through them before Suzanne arrived, and pulled out a few. Suzanne took a whole bag full. Susanna took all of my potted plants Ė plus the two I brought to Arlington on Friday Ė and a bag of potting soil. Suzanne took one of my two pinwheels, and I would have given her the other if she had been willing to take it.
Itís strange, this business of divesting. As I went through the books, Iíd look at them and ask ďis this really worth storing someplace, and having to move, because someday Iíll want it?Ē Itís easy to get rid of things Iíve acquired as an adult. I donít really have any attachment to them. I brought them into my life when I sought an eveningís entertainment, or was enchanted with their colors or lines, or thought I might learn something serious. But I can let them out again just as easily. Whenever I want to learn or be enchanted or entertained Iíll find a way.
The ones Iím keeping are the ones that I grew with, the ones that are really part of my life. Jane Austen, the Narnia stories (though not my extra ďcleanĒ set), This is New York and This is Paris. Rascal, and My Side of the Mountain, and other books that Iíve had since Ma gave them to me when I was a child. My sixth grade medieval history text, a book called Be Happy that Paul gave me the year he died. A book on home design that Marion lent me when I bought my house, which I never returned, and which has some notes she wrote about design of her own home. A book of poems that Rafael gave me, which I donít care about, but itís hard to give away a book of poetry with a love letter slipped into the first pages and a warm inscription.
I donít know what Iíll do with the stuffed animals. Henrietta, my devoted orangutan, has agreed to come with me on my travels Ė sheíll like to hang from the handle of the pop-top. I donít know about the rest, though. Return them to those who brought them into my life? Maybe.
I feel I should change my attitude about material possessions, but I wonder if Iíll be able to. Possessions are fun. New possessions are even more fun. But I donít need them, and they weigh me down. Iíve lived for all these years in a lot of space, where I didnít have to hold off because there was room for anything I might want. So I have far more books than I need, and way more clothes and pairs of shoes and pots and pans and pottery bowls and all kinds of other discretionary purchases. If I get rid of all the excess, will I then want to jump in and get more? New things are so entertaining, but they donít seem right.
I believe that Americans consume too much. We grow up on the fun of new clothes, the sense of virtue and intellect that comes with new books, the delight in a bargain of any kind. I love to buy new things Ė earrings, shoes, books, fleece sweaters, pretty pictures,
pottery. But why? I donít need any of these things. I have far more clothing and shoes and jewelry than I can wear, I havenít read half the books I have, and I certainly donít need any more lovely pottery bowls. So why do new ones seem like so much fun? Why do I always want to look at them in the shops, check for bargains, find the perfect color of fleece, or try on yet another ring? Is anything different in my life if I make myself another gift? What do I really gain by it?
Most of us seem to have this instinct, though. Friday I met my friend Davidís mother-in-law. We were at his synagogue, which is connected to a museum, and the museum had a shop. Over brunch after the ceremony she remarked that she hadnít looked at the shop Ė and could she really have passed up such an opportunity? I said yes, she could Ė but in fact, I had looked briefly in the windows of that shop, and admired the craftsmanship on items I would never dream of owning Ė mezuzahs and Passover plates and the like. Itís not only the pleasure of looking at something pretty and well-crafted Ė it is the possibility that there might be something there Iíd like to buy - that makes it so entrancing to look. Even if I know perfectly well that Iíll never want a mezuzah or a Passover plate.
I donít really get it. Can I work this instinct out of me by simplifying my life and my possessions? Or will I just find the depletion of my things to be a great opportunity to get new ones? Like the time I lost my toilet kit and all the jewelry I was traveling with, and Marion responded, ďyou know what that means, donít you?Ē And I grinned. I could begin again!
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