What compels us to retain things we don’t need? It’s one of the most predictable and tiresome patterns of humanity: acquisition and retention. We have these discerning decision-making brains, yet things—useless at most— in front of our nose escape expurgation.
From the steel-trap mind of short story writer Lydia Davis: 1
This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.
When I was at college, I kept fruit stickers. The small oval ones.
I stickered them to the furniture—the chair, the desk, and the shelves that remain as students move on. By the end of term, there was no visible wood, just stickers. I ate a lot of apples; they reminded me of home.
Italian novelist and frightfully deep observationalist of what physical things say about our humanity, Italo Calvino, once wrote about collections of sand. A person who collects sand, Calvino supposed, registers their past memory in the small parts of these things.2
It strikes me these collections are more than a collection. They are registration of a human need. To possess? To control?
In a collection, they belong. To disregard them would be abandonment. Things bob along in our wake until some external need upsets the relationship.
E.B. White once wrote a deceptively simple essay about moving from New York to Maine. He wriggles uncomfortably in minutia, the process of disposing the indisposable.3
For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as if by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach.
White would rather be abandoned by his things than abandon them. And when that is impossible, he imagines he’s releasing them on their next journey. They have life, still.
Meanwhile, his wife, “a strategist, knew better,” and she manages to clear out the place while White writes a requiem for curtains.
Of course, what she and he and we all know is that moving from New York isn’t about saying goodbye to stuff—it’s about fixating on stuff so he doesn’t have to “say goodbye” to people, to life, to the person he had so long been.
Abandoning things is easier for some of us than others. I left the fruit stickers in my room when I moved out in May. I couldn’t throw them out. I just couldn’t. Their little screams as I chiselled them off… No.
Today, I don’t let much gather dust. Nothing precious that we couldn’t carry out in our arms in a fire. You have to think about fires in London.
My husband is the E. B. White sort—everything has meaning. My husband lost his father terribly abruptly, so abandonment is a force for him, a deep, abiding force. It isn’t for me, not anymore.
Things become special because we make them special through human acts, through expended emotion. Things we keep nearby, things that bear witness to our lives, and things that will speak of us once we’re gone. They matter.
Like Lydia Davis’s “bad novel,” American poet and farmer Wendell Berry offers us the sparse but true “Throwing Away the Mail”:4
Nothing is simple,
not even simplification.
Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.
We moved out of the dorm rooms come summer. I worked for Harvard Dorm Crew, cleaning up after other students. It was good money, usually quiet.
In room after room after room, I found collections of fruit stickers. On walls, furniture, tables, even bedframes where they would have been, no doubt, covered and invisible. But there, all the same. Collected.
Are all Harvard undergraduates great collectors? Do we suffer letting go? Fear of abandonment? What do these collections say of their owners?
That we have something in common, at the very least.
We are in a perpetual state of retaining things, argues MIT professor of physics and humanities, Alan Lightman, because we cannot retain time. We long for permanence because we live in a world that doesn’t have it. Even the sun itself will die. Space might be infinite; time is not.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs.
Lightman’s own quest for permanence and fixity in a world of uncertainty courses throughout his work. As he crosses interminable lengths of time (to the start of the universe and back), he reaches for an anchor of meaning to keep him still, present…alive?5
I grew up in a house where Mom fiercely decides what stays and what goes, and Dad clings to whatever he can like an octopus scrambling for leaves in a breeze. Upstairs, however, hidden and forgotten in a closet up on a shelf, is a cigar box of hotel soaps. A perfect collection of my father’s from childhood. It’s delightful. I check it every time I go home. Make sure it’s still there.
They will find it when they downsize. Mom, the strategist, will clean out everything, and Dad, the intellectual, will write a requiem about soap, and I, in memory to the child Dad once was and in deep love to both of my parents, will ask to take the box.
Over time, fruit stickers become adhesive. You have to remove them with a scraping and washing and more scraping. As I did so those early summers, sticker after sticker, room after room, I kept thinking, “We have to make room. Got to make room.”
I didn’t clean my own dorm room. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Someone else cleaned up my fragments.
It has to do with giving up, maybe. Death. Death of the person who lived in New York, the death of the person reading the bad novel, the death of the student who lived in that room.
We shed these selves and move on all the time, but sometimes, when our emotional health is too fragile and we hold tight.
The late journalist Christopher Hitchens, an irascible, brilliant, independent mind if there ever was one, once underwent a spa experience in order to write “On the Limits of Self-Improvement.” Of the many challenges of good living the one to quit his “keystone addiction to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless, ” was the most difficult.6
About all the downsides—the shame of being conned by the tobacco companies, the disgrace of being an addict, the suspension of one’s reasoning faculties in the face of self-destruction—I already knew. […] Anyway, I left my pack and my lighter in O’Hara’s care and for a couple of days didn’t smoke and didn’t much miss it either. But then I hit a difficult patch in an essay I was writing, and turned again to the little friend that never deserts me.
A friend that keeps such good company becomes something more, a thread in the fabric of us. Hitchen’s own fabric would soon fall apart, he was diagnosed with cancer a few years after “Self-Improvement” was published. Even as he closed in on death, Hitchens held on to the monument at the core of his being, atheism. (He did, however, give up smoking.)
The older we climb, the harder we cling. We don’t know where we exist when we die, so we must exist even more now.
And yet, we do not and should not live forever. We must clean up. Abandon. We must make room. We must die.
To the students whose room I cleaned, to everyone that came after and affixed their mark on the wood, to my own collecting self, to my husband and my father and even my mother and to anyone who has ever gathered anything close:
You were here. You can no longer be here. Someone else must be here. You must make room. But don’t worry, you will always have been here.