This is one of various posts that I started, but didn’t finish. It’s now slightly out of date, but I’m posting it anyway.
Again, pardon the extended periods of silence. Things have been… eventful. Working, fretting about work, applying for jobs, fretting about applying for jobs, slowly burning the last of my meager reserves, and trying most mightily to keep my stress level in check lest I summon forth something psychosomatic and even more financially ruinous.
But, though there isn’t much light at the end of the tunnel, at least I’ll be in a slightly different looking part of the tunnel soon enough: We’re moving out of this craptangular apartment and moving into an awesome little rental house!
Moving is stressful, in its own right. Not just the exertion that’s required, or the worries about things breaking on the way. Not just the need to adjust your mindset, to abandon something that has been established as your new normal and to forge into something unknown. But for me, the truly stressful part of moving is how it makes you take account of all the physical STUFF you’ve accumulated through the years. The sheer mass and weight of the things that you own, and the effort it will take to move it all from point A to point B.
I don’t tend to think of myself as a materialistic kind of person. I tend to feel guilty when I buy… well, anything, to be honest, but especially anything that’s expensive. I’m a little more forgiving with myself about smaller purchases, but I still have to justify them to myself. And part of that justification is usually how much lasting enjoyment I’ll get out of the thing. This can become a double-edged sword, when packing time comes around: if I keep the thing and burden myself and others with moving it, that’s greedy and selfish. But if I throw it out or give it away, it only makes my past purchase greedy and selfish, because I’m denying myself the full utility of the item.
Sometimes, that’s when my brain pops up with its “sentimental value” nonsense. To be certain, some of the things I have down in storage are purely sentimental value: old stuffed animals, school yearbooks and memorabilia, rocks and shells picked up on vacations long, long ago. But, at the same time… I recognize that I’m keeping these things because I wanted to keep them when I was younger. I’m not that same person, and I don’t have that same urgent desire to keep things, and in some cases the emotional value is long faded. Meticulous and precarious Lego constructions, once my prized creations, have come apart and not been fixed; my treasured rock collections seem like so many pebbles; toys that were once the focus of a thousand imaginative stories just became… things. Take stuffed animals, for instance: I had a bed full of ’em. Each had a name, each had a story, each had a place it would sit. The rest of my room would be adrift in shin-high toys and randomness – but the bed-critters were always organized impeccably. I loved every single one of those toys, and each one was comforting and precious to me. Believe me, nobody bonds with a stuffed animal like a kid with no friends and no pets. But now, I can’t even remember some of their names.
It’s nothing to really be amazed by, just the natural consequences of aging and time — but it’s still strangely fascinating how things we once cherished unquestioningly can, over time, become inert.
And yet, sometimes, that can make their value all the more potent.
Before I moved down here, I was cleaning out my room at my parents’ house. The only place I’d ever lived, besides my dorm; even when I moved to an apartment, I never quite moved everything to the new place. So there were various ancient relics hidden in the closet and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most baffling is, I found my old Magna Doodle. It was one of my favorite toys when I was a tiny human, in part because I didn’t know how it worked, exactly. It was clearly something to do with magnets, of course, and I had seen the classic iron filing + magnet experiment before. But I could never understand how the image stayed in place. And, since I wasn’t one of those tinkerer types of kids — you break a toy, that just means you get in major trouble and don’t get any new toys — I never found out.
So, possibly as an experiment — or possibly not — the me of about two decades ago apparently drew an insistently cute little picture. One featuring a rabbit, a couple of flower-infested hills, clouds bedecked with smiley faces, and a sincerely scrawled mandate at the top, saying not to ever erase it.
Irony being what it is, of course the first inch or so had been erased by some errant bump of the slider. But most of the image is still there.
I know this, because I took it with me, and kept it in a storage box down in the garage. Why? Well… good question. I don’t remember making the drawing anymore. I don’t know how old I was. I don’t remember what intense feeling I had about it at the time that would have called on me to never erase it. To abandon the use of the toy entirely, just to preserve that image.
I see it — and other inexplicably-kept relics of my childhood — as a sort of reverse time capsule. A regular time capsule is clearly designed with the intent to preserve some sort of feeling or zeitgeist, with the actual contents lost to time and revealed only after a certain threshold point — often in a deteriorated or possibly unrecognizable state. But with these childhood relics, the contents are revealed all along. It’s the feeling that becomes obscured, and that only seems to grow more dim and unintelligible as time goes on.
Again, just a natural part of growing up.
But it doesn’t help that I was very aware of the fleeting nature of childhood even as I was living it. I had an older sister, after all – older by the better part of a decade. It was baffling to me that she could value clothing and talking on the phone over video games or toys or anything “fun.” And I was assured at every turn that, when I was her age, I’d be the same way. My resistance was always seen as cute, too — which only added another layer of pre-teen angst. You’re a child, and somebody is telling you that everything you value in life is going to be supplanted by everything that you find boring at best, loathsome at worst — and that you’re going to LIKE it. And the very fact that you’re horrified by the concept isn’t met with empathy or understanding, but with chuckling patronization, or criticism that you’re just too immature.
I remember being sad at the end of my tenth birthday — because I’d moved up to the double digits of age, where I’d be for the rest of my life. It seemed like such a boundary between childhood and… well, certainly not adulthood, but not childhood, either. My mom asked why I was sad, and I couldn’t even articulate it. How do you explain that you feel like you’re getting old when you just turned 10? I’m pretty sure she was upset with me, thinking I was being selfish, or wanting more presents, or something childish like that. Which was a nice way to sharpen the point of the irony.
I remember making lists of things I wanted to do over summer breaks, to make sure I squandered them thoroughly enough. I remember reading that kids ask more questions than adults, and trying hard to think up a question to ask about as many things as I could. I saw how unnatural and prescriptive these actions were at the time, too. But to try to mandate myself into childlike frivolity seemed no more unnatural than the idea that I’d just grow out of it. No more unnatural than the idea that I’d someday find excitement and fulfillment in such stultifyingly boring things as clothes shopping.
And yet I still remember the first Saturday morning when I woke up, looked at my bedside clock, saw that it was time for my traditions of cartoons and excessively-sugary cereal… and decided that, y’know, I’d just rather go back to bed. That, not the flip of the odometer at age 10, was the first time I truly felt I wasn’t a kid anymore.
So I wonder, now, about that little drawing and its fervent mandate to preserve it. Sure, it was probably just something I really really liked and wanted to save forever, for whatever weird kid-reason at the time. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe, instead, it was some kind of childhood’s last huzzah. As desperately innocent an image as I could muster, in what I felt were the last days I could get away with it, with a hope to keep the image — and with it a shard of my childhood itself — preserved for as long as possible. I knew it could be erased, by intention or by accident. That’s the whole purpose of the toy. So I put up the dire warning at the top – surely to myself; it’s not as if anybody else would have cared either way. And then I put the toy away, somewhere hidden in the closet, and went on about the business of growing up.
But why wouldn’t I have done that on a regular piece of paper? Something that I only had to worry about throwing away or tearing, not something that was designed to be erased and reused? Unless I was a canny enough kid that it was the entire point. Of course I’d always scrawled drawings on notebook paper, and on the green-and-white striped reams of dot matrix printer paper my dad would sometimes bring home from work. I remember feeling nostalgia when I was – well, probably 10 or so, finding a picture I’d drawn years before of some of my favorite stuffed animals. When it came to preserving a last drawing of childhood… maybe to draw something on paper was setting the bar too low.
You’d think I would have known, by the simple nature of the toy, that never erasing the drawing would mean I never drew on it again. That I was abandoning the continued act of play in order to preserve some single instance of play. That, in codifying that picture, the lists of things to do on breaks, the kinds of music to listen to to make it feel like summer, the things to eat and drink and play to encapsulate my childhood fun, I was only admitting that they weren’t organic, natural behaviors anymore. That it WAS all something that I had to exert a conscious effort to experience. That my very desire to preserve it was just proof it was already gone.
And maybe I did, on some unconscious level.
Of course, that’s not something I’d have been able to articulate at the time — which was all the more horror. The slow realization that many of the things I enjoyed, the things that made me Me, weren’t sufficient anymore. And with no real aspirations for my adult life — no belief in a dream job, no dream wedding, no desire for kids, no serious concept of myself as being capable of doing anything – there was nothing for me to move toward as I moved away from my childhood. Just general expectations to graduate college and live alone forever, paying the bills somehow. I had a vague hope of getting something published someday, though that hope was well and duly beaten down by reminders of how impractical it was — as well as a deep-seated belief that I wasn’t good enough to do anything, and that happiness was just another word for selfishness. So of course I wanted to hold on to the simpler pleasures of childhood — and to figure out how and why they worked.
As I said, I wasn’t a tinkerer when it came to physical objects — but I was when it came to ideas. My many social failings made it clear that a lot of the emotional world was irreducibly complex — that the very act of trying to break it down into its component parts, restructure them, and reuse them only came across as all the more stilted and obtuse. And still I tried to figure these things out: how coolness worked. How friends worked. How confidence worked. How happiness worked. The fact that treating it as a problem to be solved MADE it a problem was something that I was dimly aware of — I knew for damn sure I was Doing It Wrong somehow — but I still thought that other people had just figured out the answer. And that there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t. I could understand what “coolness” was, but I just couldn’t perform it successfully. And so I binned it with similar issues, like answering math problems, or dribbling a basketball, or riding a bike, any other thing where What I Knew and What I Could Do were an unbridgeable distance apart.
In general, I had a pretty hard time figuring out how to “just be myself.” Adults tended to exhort the idea as if it were the solution to everything (and as if almost all my “peers” weren’t telling me that I shouldn’t even exist.) To tell me to relax and “just be myself” was like telling me to not think about my breathing, or to not be aware of my own tongue, or to not think about purple elephants. The very fact that I was being told to be natural just required me to be aware of everything that went into what I was doing, and to try to figure out what things I should or shouldn’t do in order to successfully be “natural.” And if this made me even more awkward, stilted, unhappy, and uncomfortable in my own skin, maybe that was what my “natural” really was.
(Yeah, I kinda hit the angsty emo phase about half a decade early. It could well be argued that I’ve remained in it many years too late.)
But it’s not like I thought things were going to get better. It’s not like I had any reason to think I would be happier as I got older. Getting older meant more responsibility — which only meant more things to fail at, with worse consequences, and with no help from anyone anymore.
So for all those reasons, all those feelings — which, unfortunately, are still rather vivid, even if specific memories of actions have faded with time — I can see that sunny scrawled image as being overloaded with sentiment.
Still, I guess you could ask what’s worse: to overreach in hopes of preserving an experience, a worldview, a brief blip of time, by formalizing it and detaching it from your natural enjoyment? To make it some sort of ritual, tangential to organic experience, and therefore in some sense fictional — fictional, and thereby timeless? Or is it worse to just let once-beloved things lapse and fall by the wayside, until you come across them years later and can’t even remember what they were or why you cared? To realize, fully, that you are not the same person as the you who cared about these things — even though you remember caring about them fervently? To forget even having cared? To be faced with the recognition that everything you currently love, no matter how powerfully, may someday seem just as shallow, just as inert — that you’ll be lucky if you even have the emotions left to feel embarrassed by them.
That’s the core difficulty of dealing with objects and experiences from the past. Reconciling the You you were when you got / made / were given / saw / were told the thing, and the You you are now. Being asked to admit that these past relics of you aren’t relevant to your life anymore, that some could just as well have come from strangers. To not feel like you’re betraying some trust you put in your future self — because it’s not about what You feel about those items now, it’s about what You felt then.
Especially when some elements of the past were so prized, and some were so painful. After all, if I’m going to abandon all the insults and deathwishes I was ever given as no longer relevant to the person I am now, I also by definition have to give up everything from my past that I liked and enjoyed, because they too should no longer be relevant. I guess you could argue otherwise — that it’s always fitting to define yourself by or through that which you’ve loved, always appropriate to disregard any definition set by or through that which has loathed you. But even that is spoiled by how you can cherish something one year and be poisoned by it the next.
Whether it’s tangible items or abstract feelings, I don’t like the idea that my future doesn’t have room for my past. I don’t like the idea that my past defines such a narrow space for my future. Have I just not grown enough as a person to give both the space that they need? Is there in fact more space than I think, but every time I move ahead, I drag almost all the same baggage along? What could I get rid of? What would I regret? What should I shed?
What things, for better or worse, burn so brightly in my inner vision that, even if I did remove them from view — even if I could remove them entirely — they would only be replaced by a throbbing and opaque afterimage, a blind spot in my past? Wouldn’t I rather see what’s there, old and untrue or not, than contend with illusions that still don’t help me see? Yes, the afterimage would fade in time — but then what? What if there’s something even worse to be seen behind it all? What if “freeing up” that space somehow doesn’t even help?
But if that’s the overextended metaphor I’m making, the solution might be a further extension of it: bright spots can only leave afterimages if you fixate on them too long. If you let your eyes wander to other things, the afterimage doesn’t set. If you choose which bright spot to look at — the white-hot shame, or the shining moment of happiness — then you choose which one will imprint itself on your vision even if everything real is stripped away.
Still, perhaps too ponderous. Let’s reel it back in, shall we. After all, it’s not just a metaphorical matter. It’s a matter matter. I have stuff, and it’s stuff that needs to go to a place. But which place, and where, and when, and how.
I’m also faced with realizing how many things I never unpacked here, or used. Boxes and boxes of books. My DVD player, my game consoles. My keyboards and sax – walls being too thin to dare to practice anything. Where do I draw the line? What things are my past? If I haven’t played a note in two years, am I obligated to get rid of these things, if space is at a premium? And what things should I let go of because I intend to live with a certain person forever? I still have all my own everything from when I lived alone: dishes, pots and pans, tables and chairs, etc. I haven’t used them in just as long. Spares are good to have, but so is space — so does my decision to keep them belie some secret fear that I’ll live alone again? Still, I might cling too hard, because I gave up too much, too easily, not too long ago.
How do I take all this weighty, solid stuff and move it where it needs to go? How do I know where that is, or how hard it will be to move, or when I should just let it go? How do I know, for certain, what I’ve grown out of? What I’ve grown into? What I won’t, in the passage of years, pine for again, longing for a single small tangible memento that ties me to that time? All these items have such weight. How do I overcome their inertia? How do I convert it into momentum? And, for that which I let stand, how do I at least make it some sort of effective counterweight – something at my center, solid and reliable, whose weight can propel other things, launch other things, like a battlefield trebuchet?
And that’s as much as I’d written. The process of the move itself gave me no time to write for the past month or so. And now it’s been, well, exactly a month since moving.
So what do I think of it now?
In terms of the tangible, we still haven’t unpacked much. Both the main room and my room still look like we’ve ushered forth the Box Apocalypse. After setting up the essentials like beds, computers, basic furniture, and kitchen goods, it’s as if that reached the Good Enough point. The bookshelves are still incomplete. The media center has only a TV on it, which itself is not hooked up. The consoles haven’t even been unpacked. My own room is mired in a Catch-22: the closet is full of boxes, and much of the room itself is filled up, too. But the contents of the boxes in the room would, when unpacked, get organized into the closet — but I can’t get to the closet without doing something with the boxes that are in the way, which can’t be done until I get to the closet…. yeah.
And yet… I’m strangely eager to do this triage, to determine what to keep at hand, what to preserve in storage, and what to give or sell or trash. I’m eager to get rid of some of my old clothes, despite the fact it’s because I can’t wedge my husk into them so easily anymore. I’m eager to put up shelves. I’m eager to have, literally, a place to hang my hat.
Because the thing I keep forgetting is that, as I’ve moved from place to place, each place has offered more opportunities that I forget about or don’t make the most use of. I could’ve used the garage to store more stuff at the apartment, unlike my less-accommodating studio apartment. I just hardly thought about it. And here, unlike at the apartments, I can install wall shelves. I have this entire new dimension to work with! All this vertical space that I can use for shelves, tall bookcases, open shadowboxes for decorative knickknacks. Some old stuff must go, to be certain — but the old stuff that I don’t want to go doesn’t necessarily have to. Not if I make the most of my new opportunities, understand my space, use it well, and organize things. It’s not just old stuff in a new space. It’s old stuff, a new space, and new ways of thinking about the stuff and thinking about the space. In ways that sometimes only reveal themselves when you’re actually IN that space.
And yes, that’s another extension of the metaphor, too.
Not everything can be predicted and planned. Not everything can be organized impeccably. Sometimes you keep what you don’t need. Sometimes you regret what you let go of.
Perhaps I’m breaking things down into their component parts and analyzing them too much again. What kind of stuff should go where? What sorts of compartments would that need? What goes where first? What deserves to stay? What deserves to go? What do I deserve to be allowed to keep? What do I have to sacrifice?
Maybe the question I should really ask myself is… What things do I want to keep because they help me be Me? What things do I want to keep because they help make this place not just liveable, but a home? What things neither speak to or of Me as I am now, nor Me as I once was? Yes, everything says something if you read into it enough, but… the things that I should value most right now, hold onto most, are the ones that I know say something — and say something constructive.
And yet, though it says things I don’t remember writing, for reasons I can only guess about, for purposes that may not have been constructive at all… on the top of a heap of stuff in the garage, there is still that crate, and there is still that Magna Doodle with its insistently-innocent image. In time it will likely move into the attic, with a trove of other things too objectively useless to keep in the garage, too subjectively significant to trash or sell or donate. It should, one could argue, never have been brought; should have been junked when I moved, or moved before. It’s not as if preserving it means anything. It’s not as if I owe that past self of mine anything.
But maybe the best way to reconcile the good and bad parts of my past isn’t to junk every bit of it and move on. Maybe it’s just to figure out what really is most important, what isn’t important… and, very simply, what I want and don’t want. I can want things that aren’t important. I can NOT want things that are. I can acknowledge that things aren’t important just because I do want them. And, yes, I can want to keep an item more than I want that item itself.
The things that I truly need and truly want to preserve, I will make room for. And even if it’s disorganized, even if it’s a big heap of a mess, it will still be a mess of things that matter.
And that’s about all I could hope to make of anything: this home, this mind, this life.
A mess of things that matter.