I would make a terrible Buddhist. The whole release your attachment to stuff tenet, which if I’m reading Buddhist writing correctly, is a pretty big deal is not my jam. I am not a hoarder or even a collector, but I am a saver of IMPORTANT THINGS. Some of those things include books, letters, rocks and seashells, and old notebooks full of the very cringey, but often incredibly self-righteous, ramblings of my younger self. We all have them, some in poem or song lyric form. Right.
Recently, I was summoned to my mother’s house to retrieve boxes of personal things I had stored in my childhood bedroom. Why this purge needed to occur immediately, after a mere fifteen years of not living in the house anymore is a mystery, but the subtext of “your piles are in the living room” was clear.
A lot of boxes contained envelopes of photographs from high school and college. Others housed a more eclectic collection of items like mix tapes, graduation tassels, cards and notes with cryptic messages that read like World War II Navaho code breakers, but were apparently hilarious inside jokes, a hat box with hats in it from an unfortunate Debbie Gibson phase, just about every original cast recording CD of every musical ever, my Mulder and Scully action figures still in the package (NOTE!).
“When did you make a Billy Joel scrap book?” my brother teased.
“Shut your damn mouth,” I said.
Opening each cardboard wormhole was an exercise in riding out embarrassment, nostalgia, and confusion. A lot of it would need to go, but what? How would I choose? It was all so precious to me, even some of things I had no clue about—a pencil sharpener shaped like a chicken, promotional flare from my stint as a Disney Store “cast member.”
A musician friend of mine did a Kickstarter for his recent album and we had long discussions about the different reward items—hand written lyrics, old press photos, bits of recording gear—he didn’t see the want behind these things. “Anything can be a thing to someone!” I told him emphatically, if not very scientifically. But it’s true. We don’t have to work too hard to imbibe something with meaning, to cast a spell over it declaring it sacred, immutable 4EVA. I know it’s not the CD or the yearbook or the shoe box of movie ticket stubs that matter, it’s the emotional charge they carry, it’s that they are tunnels to places, times, and people that we can return to and in doing so give us back parts of ourselves. Heady stuff. Memories are a serious business. They are touchstones that can nourish us when we’re in the deep valleys and sustain us over the course of wicked storms. They are the scaffolds that uphold our version of the truth.
We need the junk to make meaning for us when nothing else makes sense.
I was served this reminder last week when I happened to be standing on a street in Portsmouth NH, a pretty, seacoast town lined with quaint shops and sleepy cafes that make it feel like a bit of Paris transplanted to northern new England, when a motorcade of police cruisers pulled up the boulevard. An ordinary flatbed truck, the kind you might hurry up to pass on the highway in order to get out from behind its slow drag, followed carrying one item: a flat piece of rusty metal maybe 6 feet long and 3 feet wide. The metal was strapped down like a patient on an operating table. Small banners tacked to the sides of the truck bed lifted slightly as it moved passed with the phrase “9/11 Never Forget” written in red script against an image of the New York City skyline.
The piece was part of a metal beam taken from one of the towers and brought to Portsmouth to eventually become part of a permanent memorial. It was an odd feeling to cue up on the sidewalk and watch the piece zip by with the same fascination and urgency reserved for a glimpse of a traveling dignitary. I unconsciously put a hand over my heart and nodded. It feels ludicrous to say we’ll somehow forget one of the most horrific tragedies to take place on American soil in the twenty-first century, that we somehow need these artifacts to help us remember, but it also feels unthinkable to say, “It’s only a hunk of metal, it’s only building scrap.”
Maybe there’s no threshold of preservation because maybe once the spell is cast upon a thing it can never be truly broken. That’s a 24-hour genie on call, always at the ready to gift you back a memory, a moment, and for a lot of us, that’s worth keeping a few shoe boxes full of precious junk.