DISASTER STRIKES!! What Would You Take With You?

“If we fear loss enough, in the end the things we possess will come to possess us.” –Rachel Naomi Remen

Hello friend,

True confession: I am a bit of a hoarder. My mother teasingly calls me “Pack Rat” over my unwillingness to throw things away. She ought to know: her basement is still full of my old t-shirts, trophies, and football cards. I wish I could say I have become better about that with age. No, I still find reasons to keep just about everything that comes my way, no matter how useless or out of style it is or becomes.

I am not sure where this comes from.

Some of it is pure nostalgia. I like the Air Jordan shirt I used to wear in college—when Jordan gear still had the Nike swoosh on it—because it makes me smile whenever I go through my stuff. Do I ever wear it? No. I like that smile, though. The same goes for old books I will never read again, expired driver’s licenses, even eyeglasses I used to wear.

Some of it is in anticipation of hard times. I save for a rainy day (and I am cheap). I know that the gurus tell us to anticipate abundance and live accordingly, but I am really bad at that. When I worked in Tennis, I got some free gear every year. Like a squirrel preparing for Winter, I saved everything I could in anticipation of the day, some years away, when I would return to playing, or when my kids would get serious about it. Same for when I worked in Running: I stocked up on free or cheap shoes so that I won’t need to shell out any money for several more years of exercising. It’s all here in my home, stuffed in every nook and cranny.

When we were planning to buy a house several years ago, one of my requirements was that it be large enough to accommodate two of my defining idiosyncratic needs: 1) my boatloads of nostalgia/junk (depending upon who you ask J), and 2) my own space to be alone. I got my wish: we have a house that has lots of space, all of which is filled. My clothes are in the guest room, and my everything else fills the large basement. I have multiple work spaces, where I am surrounded (suffocated?) by things at all times. So many things….

While tooling around Facebook this week, I came across a post by an old friend that upset my psychological apple cart. It said, “Worst thing I lost in the fire: 3 ½ years of journaling. With every entry I wrote a 6 line poem, that rhymed. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in an essay that journaling can be a daily cathartic moment, or some amount of time. But more important was a six line poem that didn’t need much thought, just do it; keeps the mind sharp. I lost somewhere around 1800 six line poems (not one was worth reading twice). So it goes.  

I suddenly felt so sad and empty. I just wanted to give him a hug.

It rattled me, too, though. Shook me up.

Twenty years ago, when I was just getting in the swing of writing often and long in my journal, I left it at a laundromat in Los Angeles. Later that night (after closing time), when I realized it, I had a little panic attack. In my short time with it, my journal had become priceless to me. I simply could not bring myself to imagine the loss. My heart pounded in my chest until the next morning, when I showed up at the door right before the place opened. The old janitor went back into his closet to look for my book as I sweated and prayed, sweated and prayed. When he walked out with it in his hands, I wanted to kiss him. I have been hyper-vigilant with each volume ever since, afraid to relive that trauma for fear it would not turn out so happily the next time.

And now my old journals are a part of my work as one my book projects, which only increases their worth. Though I am aware they hold absolutely zero value to anyone else, they truly are priceless to me.

In the aftermath of my friend’s tragic post—the fire had been several months ago, and he survived, but the news about the lost journals was new—and my bout of minor post-traumatic stress, I got to thinking about just what I would choose to salvage if I knew a natural disaster was coming and I could only choose a few possessions. In my head, I gave myself more leeway than someone running out of a fire, just enough time to get the few things I really wanted, even if they were in the very back of the closet.

Of course, my journals were the very first thing that came to mind. I have a few plastic totes full of them, but every page would have to come. I was so relieved at the very thought of saving them, at first I wondered if there was anything else that would sadden me much to lose (to be clear: in my imaginary scenario, no people or pets are in danger). Was it just the journals?

No, but I didn’t stray very far from that vein. As further evidence that the material possessions that I value most in this world are just my memories and impressions of my time here, the very next thing that I would take is the small box that holds my camera’s filled memory cards. These little coin-sized gems hold thousands and thousands of priceless moments from my life as a parent. They are also another version of the way I capture my world. When I am old and can no longer do much for myself, I will put on some good music and a continuously looping slide show of all of these beautiful images that remind me of my true treasures.

If I get to be greedy and take more than my journals and photo cards, the last things I will grab are my computers that have all of my other writing in them. Again, the representations of my soul and my journey win out.

I guess my theme is consistent. It reminds me of my Mom’s answers when my siblings and I would ask her what we could get her for Mother’s Day. She always just wanted us to make something for her, something from the heart, like homemade cards or art projects. The “things” I really want to hold onto from my house full of stuff are just things that I have made, stuff from my heart. The other stuff is just, well, stuff. I’m okay without it.

How about you? What are your most valued possessions? Open up your journal and think about everything you own. If a natural disaster were on its way to destroy your home and you could choose but a few items, what would you take with you? Do your answers come quickly to mind and strike you as obvious, or do you have to dig around and make some tough decisions? What is it about the obvious ones that make them so easy? Are they things that you have no way of replacing? Are they memory items, like family photos, souvenirs, or heirlooms? Are they very expensive to buy? Are they super-personal or more general? Which of your items are things that probably wouldn’t make it on other people’s lists? Why do those unique things make it onto yours? Do your choices have a consistent theme, like the way mine are all about how I chronicle my life? What do your choices say about what you value? If you lost absolutely everything you own—but weren’t out anything financially—how do you think you would handle it psychologically? I picture myself going catatonic for a while, a lá Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, unable to face the loss of my writing and photos. To what degree do your possessions, as the opening quote suggested, possess you? On a scale of one to ten, how materialistic do you think you are? Leave me a reply and let me know: If you had only one load to run out the door with, what would you take? 

Be your best today,

William

If today’s letter had you questioning, pass it on. And remember: The best things in life aren’t things at all. Cheers!

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