(This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2010)
Many of us traveling into late middle age have by now laid our parents to rest and/or moved them in with us or into transitional facilities. In so doing we have come face-to-face with the detritus of their lifetimes, and having disposed of their stuff (or, heaven forbid, added their stuff to our stuff) we are seized with new ambitions: to downsize and streamline and free ourselves of the burden of so many things we used to think we couldn’t live without. We have learned again what we already knew: things, cumulatively speaking, are a pain in the ass.
Carl Jung in his old age was convinced that all things, including pots and pans and knives and books and shoes and stones, were animate entities and demanded our attention and energy. It is said that when the elder Carl entered his kitchen he would politely greet the knives and pans and forks, and ask them to be kind to him so he might successfully brew his tea and scramble his eggs. He was convinced that by acknowledging the aliveness of these allies they would be less likely to jump from his hands or fall to the floor. Thus his cooking would be a delight rather than a danger.
Indigenous North Americans, dubbed Indians by their irrational conquerors, believed, as Jung did, that spirit animated all things. Stones, water, wind, trees, stars, clouds, and fire were alive, so it was common practice (not crazy) for a person to address a tree or a rock or the sky as brother or sister or friend. Would we want to possess and keep captive hundreds and thousands of things if we felt each was our relation and possessed a soul? I doubt it.
When my mother began her Alzheimer’s adventure, she developed a grave concern about her things. How did they get here? What were they called? And what were they for? I would soon learn that Alzheimerians cannot learn. They only unlearn. But before I gained this awareness, I would patiently explain to my mother that she had bought the things called bowls and books and vases, and they were for putting things in or for reading or for holding flowers. She would nod, see another thing, frown, and ask, “What’s that?”
“That is a teapot?”
“How did it get there?”
“You put it there.”
“Well, because it looks nice there and you can reach it easily when you want tea?”
“But I don’t want tea. I want coffee.”
“Fine. I’ll make some.”
My father was a pack rat of psychotic dimensions. I theorize his junk was the main thing that drove my mother crazy, along with his incessant cruelty. Long before the onset of her Alzheimer’s, my mother would go into rages about the ever growing stacks of magazines and newspapers and junk mail and just plain junk, none of which my father would allow her to throw away. For some years he collected electric motors, though he never did anything with them. When I cleaned out his garage the year before he died, I found fifty-seven little electric motors in various stages of disintegration, thousands of rotting magazines, and over five thousand books, none of which had been looked at in decades.
My father went off to work every day and left my mother alone in a big house full of useless junk. When she would leave the house to visit friends or shop or do volunteer work, or for the ten years she practiced law, she was an entirely different person than the person she was in her dysfunctional house. I’m talking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde different. Away from the massive jumble of things she was brilliant, competent, funny, and happy. Then she’d come home and become helpless, befuddled, humorless, and miserable.
And isn’t it true, as Perry Mason liked to say, that when you get away from your accumulated things you feel lighter and, dare I say, happier? Why are vacations so refreshing? Certainly because we’re seeing new sights, breathing new air, and breaking free of ossified behavior patterns; but I contend we feel most refreshed because we are free of those myriad animate things, each demanding a share of our psychic energy.
Reading interviews with people who lost their homes and possessions in the Oakland firestorm of 1991 in which nearly four thousand homes were destroyed, I was amazed to discover that after their initial shock wore off, many of the survivors said they were greatly relieved to be free of their accumulated stuff and to be “getting a fresh start.” Which reminds me of cost analyses proving the average American spends a much larger portion of her income providing life support for her things than for herself.
When my first marriage ended, I went from being a home-owning car-owning person to being a room-renting bicyclist pedestrian, and I felt, literally, fifty thousand pounds lighter. Some of this lightness came from escaping an unhappy emotional life, but some of it was unquestionably the result of being freed from the psychic responsibility for a house and a car and the ten thousand attendant things.
My Jewish grandmother, poor from birth until thirty, wealthy from thirty to sixty, and poor again until she died at eighty, told me she was happiest when singing or reading poetry, no matter her financial state. And it is from that perspective I prefer to judge the current economic collapse: the failure of a thing-based economic and social order, but not necessarily the end of happiness.
The mainstream pundits and politicos and economic puppeteers keep telling us that the much-ballyhooed (but essentially non-existent) recovery is mere moments away if only people will resume buying things they don’t need. Never mind that all fifty states are bankrupt and their citizenry bankrupt with them, people have got to roll up their sleeves and start stimulating the economy. Come on! What are you waiting for? A job? Money? Yet despite historically low interest rates, people are saving money as never before, if they have any money to save. People are driving less, shopping less, and needing less than they used to think they needed.
So wouldn’t it be great if this meltdown turns out not to be a meltdown, but a turning point, an awakening? The death of the parent equals the death of the old economic paradigm. In cleaning up the parental junk, we come to terms with the futility of hanging on to huge piles of stuff. In picking up and reforming the economic pieces, we leave out the making and getting of piles of junk. If we aspire to possess anything, it will be a few high quality things we lovingly care for as opposed to crap we stack up and eventually throw away or leave to our children to throw away for us.
I know. I’m waxing utopia here, but maybe, just maybe, there are good times ahead and they won’t look anything like the previous good times but rather more elegant and spacious and egalitarian. There will be less judging people by what they own and more celebrating people for how uniquely they jitterbug, how kind they are, and how fun they are to hang out with.
Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.