I have a lot of things. They’re not, for the most part, things that are of any monetary value, but there are a lot of them. Most obviously, I have a lot of books and a lot of documents, and then there are the heirlooms. Heirlooms in my family aren’t of the Faberge egg type. The flatware and the tea service were silver plated once, but the silver wore off decades ago. My grandmother’s china is scratched and worn and chipped from long years of daily use (three hot meals a day, every day), and the flowers and scrolls on the plates are ghosts of their former selves. My other grandmother’s sewing machine was loaned, after her death, to an in-law who kept it on a porch where it suffered the ravages of rain and snow and sun for years. Still, these are things that came down in my family, and when they’re gone, they’re gone forever. They’re irreplaceable. I am the curator, saving them for … what? for whom?
I have no children, and if I had any children, there’s no reason to think they’d be interested in this stuff. My brother isn’t. I have six first cousins on my mother’s side, and they have a total of seven children. Unfortunately, almost all of my heirlooms come from my father’s side. I have no first cousins on my father’s side. I have three nephews, only one of whom has a moderate interest in some of this stuff.
And let’s be honest, I’m not just the family curator. I’m a pack rat. All my life, I’ve saved things that are of no value and no particular use, on the off chance they might be useful sometime. And I’m cheap, so I save things to save money. That’s okay to a point; I don’t see any point in buying Tupperware when I have perfectly good pickle jars. It’s just that you have to know when you have enough pickle jars.
Our whole society is built on the acquisition of things we don’t need. Things that in many cases we won’t even want for long. Nobody questions it. We need bigger houses than our grandparents ever dreamed of, and we need cabinets and closets like they never imagined, to keep all our stuff in. Nick-nacks and superfluous appliances and rapidly obsolescent electronics. The computer you bought five years ago is junk. You can’t give it away. Same with your television.
Obsolescence works to your advantage if you’re not too picky. You can get things pretty cheap if you don’t have to have the latest or the best. I tried to sell a computer monitor at the flea market for three dollars; nobody would buy it. I ended up giving it away. But most of us don’t want to have the worst computer and the worst television of anybody we know. We want the latest, the best. Everybody knows that somebody with a sixty-inch flat screen high definition television is a better person than somebody with a twelve-inch black and white television. He’s smarter, better looking, better dressed, healthier, more successful, more discerning, more trustworthy, happier. Most of us wouldn’t say it that way, but we know it. Everybody knows it, and most importantly, he knows it. He hasn’t come this far to be the sort of person who doesn’t have a nice television. And if you don’t have a television at all, well then, you’re some sort of hippie freak, a drop-out from decent society. What sort of person doesn’t own a television? If you didn’t see Dancing With the Stars, what the hell do you have to talk about? You’re nobody.
The person with a big house is better than the person with a cottage, who is better than the apartment dweller — except in big cities, where everybody lives in apartments and co-ops and condominiums, and then it’s a question of size, location, and amenities. Look at that crown molding! It cost a hundred times what the wall itself cost, and worth every penny! All the appliances are stainless steel. Teak floors are nice, I guess, if you can’t afford wide antique chestnut floorboards from an old convent upstate. My god! Don’t tell me you still have Corian countertops! We tore ours out years ago and put in granite — that was before we got the terrazzo, of course, and we tore out the terrazzo to put in quartz. Quartz is much better. I know somebody who still has Formica; can you imagine?
Lame Deer said, “Americans are bred like stuffed geese — to be consumers, not human beings.”
Buddhism teaches that all these strivings and attachments are unskillful. They hold you back psychologically; they tie you down. They warp your life. The convention among American Buddhists is to say, “Well, of course, you shouldn’t have attachments to things, but you can still have things.” There’s some truth to that, but anytime you have to say there’s some truth to something, there’s a lie lurking in the shadows.
Laozi, they say, rode out of China on an ox. The Buddha wandered India with a begging bowl. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. What did they know that we don’t know?
It’s perfectly respectable, and a perfectly decent life, to be a householder. You don’t have to set out today with your begging bowl. I don’t think I’d advise you to do it at all, ever, and if I did, you’d think I’d lost my mind. The homeless are neglected or abused in our society. The mendicant is not respected, and the law of hospitality is long forgotten. But still: unless you have arrived where you want to be, and are living the life you want to live, your things can be a trap, and probably are. You spend most of your life working to pay for a home and things to fill it with. Oh, and don’t forget — a new car every two years.
I’m not knocking wealth. The Jews who were best situated on Kristallnacht were the ones who had the courage to leave everything behind and the means to emigrate. Money gives you options. If you want to drop out, move to Santa Fe, and paint, then fine. But the living ain’t easy in Santa Fe; it comes at a price. Dropping out with a roof over your head and good health insurance is a privilege of the well-to-do, and most of us aren’t that well-to-do. Most of us are caught in the slavery of debt and thoughtless acquisition, and we’re governed by a corporatist class that is rapidly depriving us not only of our privileges but of our freedom. If you’re not among the wealthiest of us, your options are dwindling almost every day.
I don’t care about most of the things we’re “supposed to” care about. I don’t need to be respectable. I think I’m better than you because I’ve never seen American Idol, never bought a television (though I’ve owned a few), never had the slightest desire to own a side-by-side stainless steel refrigerator with an ice and water dispenser in the door, couldn’t care less about a new car. I’m above all that, you see.
But not really.
I care about other things. I have just as many attachments as anybody you know. I just have different attachments.
I’m trying to get rid of most of my things, and it’s hard. I want my books to go to people who will read them. I want my grandmother’s things to go to people who will cherish them. I want my collection of documents to be available to people who will use them. It’s a lot of work, and it’s draining. I want to read this book again before I give it away. Wow, that’s a really good book. Maybe I should keep this one. Here’s something I don’t really want. But I bought one for me and one for Sally, and it reminds me of her. Maybe I should keep it.
Sally, my friend. Sally spent her life working to make money to buy books and movies. Not too long before she died, she finally got a condo, and she got a high-definition television and a Blu-ray player, and she started giving away her DVDs and buying the same movies on Blu-ray. I went over there and she had boxes and boxes of Blu-ray discs on her living room floor, with no place to put them, so I built her a shelf. Soon after that, she died. Her siblings came and took the few things they wanted, and gave the rest to Goodwill. We enjoyed those movies. We enjoyed that television. But you know, maybe we could have just played cards.
I’m following Sally. I’m five years younger than she was when she died, and every day I’m one day closer to death. I hope I live longer than she did — I hope I live a lot longer — but I’m not going to live forever. What am I doing with my life?