Possessions, Belongings, and Boxes of Stuff

Well, I have done it. In the last week I have gone through every last one of the things I have carried with me to this point in my life journey. At the height of my ownership of things, I had two houses, one in San Diego and one In Lake Arrowhead, each well furnished and full of things I valued.  Divorce from my first husband whittled it down to one house ( surprisingly, the mountain home despite the fact that I worked in San Diego).  Then that went too, and I started renting apartments in San Diego. After a couple of moves, I started getting real about what I was willing to lug around.  The books went, and at least some of the extra sets of dishes.  Along the way I have discarded mountains of clothing, outdated electronic equipment, furniture, and more. It’s really embarrassing to contemplate how much landfill I personally am responsible for.

Yet despite several serious hoe-outs of my condo and storage unit over the last several years, I still had so much stuff, it took a week to open every cabinet and drawer and make a decision about what was going to remain in my life. It’s done now.  I have handled every object and relegated it to its category. Most of it is gone, the rest reduced to little more than I can fit in my car.  Now I sit here, giving in to the exhaustion.

This exhaustion is in part because this deep cleaning involved going through two big boxes of memorabilia I had never had the fortitude to tackle before. I rarely have the courage even decades later to look at the intact family that imploded with the death of my son and the downward spiral of my first husband. I would look at our faces and reel with the knowledge that we had absolutely no idea what would hit us.

The memories aren’t all heavy. In fact, many are far too light. I didn’t know quite how to feel about things like old scrapbooks from as far back as elementary school, old yearbooks, and of course cubic feet of grainy, square Instamatic photos and boxes of slides.  I went from those two big cartons down to a single accordion file for me and another for Ivan of artifacts from his childhood. The rest, including all the scrapbooks, went unceremoniously down the trash chute.

The purge is connected to the realization many people my age are having, that our kids don’t want our stuff.  It doesn’t seem fair to leave to Ivan the  task of throwing away crumbling old corsages pinned onto equally crumbling scrapbook pages, or pictures of me with old boyfriends, school friends, and relatives he doesn’t remember or never met.  I needed to go through it myself, and then we both, in different ways, could move beyond.

There’s a difference between a memento and a memory. Everyone and everything  that really matters is still vividly in my head and I don’t need sticky pages in old albums to keep what’s important alive. But it’s more that just the practical matter of not wanting to lug those dusty and mildewed boxes of memorabilia into the next chapter in my life. It’s not just charity in advance to make losing me a little less painful part of  Ivan’s future.

The truth, really, is that I have reached a point where my past is just not that interesting to me. I want to be as fully here in the present as possible, unencumbered by closets full of mementos of years that, to be truthful, feel quite alien to me. I look at my kindergarten class picture and see that girl with the lopsided grin, and though I know she is me at five, I can’t “relate” to her any more than to a random five year old today. In fact, I  have only one concrete memory of that entire school year, when the teacher, a gruff and ancient German refugee named Mrs. Popp, scolded me for throwing something a little too effectively. Down the chute the picture went, and every other class picture too.

As I write this, I struggle to find the right word for those things I threw away and the things I kept. Possessions?  Not really. What does it mean to possess something anyway? And surely an old “Nixon for Governor” bumper sticker in a scrapbook doesn’t measure up to the passions that word should invoke.

Belongings?  Think of how silly it sounds to call what you own your “belongings.” Maybe that flyer from a Donovan concert my freshman year of college reminds me of feeling that I belonged exactly where I was that evening. But to call that flyer a “belonging” of mine more that fifty years later seems downright bizarre. Does it belong to me, or do I somehow belong to it? And really, what does it matter?

My true “belongings” are intangible and fluid. I belong to my world, I belong when I am in harmony with it, I belong when I feel I am on the right path. This kind of belonging takes up no space in a car or closet, and matters so much more.


Poe in the Time of Covid

Lit majors never stop processing everything through comparisons to stories, even decades after leaving school.   I have been thinking lately  about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” and how Prince Prospero and his noble friends barricaded themselves inside his palace partying it up while the plague raged outside.  Of course eventually it reaches them too, with predictable horror.

Masks, death, parties, isolation. Not hard to imagine why this story would come to mind. It’s not exactly a parable for our times, because in Poe’s story the wild partiers and the isolationists are one and the same. In real life, those of us trying to protect ourselves are isolated in our own homes, not gathered together inside a bolted palace.  We are not partying, because we know full well what is in store for those who are. Unfortunately, here, in real life, the attitude outside our nests of isolation seems more and more to be “Red Death? What Red Death?” The Grim Reaper figure of Poe’s story ( ironically the only one masked) goes about today methodically doing his work among those populating the beaches, the protest rallies, the funeral parlors, the family reunions. 

Texas and a few other states  keep marching toward full “normalcy” while their hospitals are screaming that they are already near capacity.  We hear about spikes, but often don’t realize that those cases would be on top of the 20,000+ new cases and 800-1000 deaths that have become the daily plateau in the US.

Poe’s point is clear.  The Grim Reaper can find us wherever we are. The great irony is that all those  who ignore precautions about crowds, all those  who don’t  wear a mask, may pick up that scythe and become Grim Reapers  themselves, all the while behaving as if he doesn’t exist, and death can’t come for them.  In the story, Prospero and his friends are safe until he  gets in.  In our world, he’s already here, and he looks just like us.


Where I Was Nine Years Ago


I ran across this talk I gave at a San Diego Writing Women event almost a decade ago. It felt pretty wonderful to see passion I used to feel for writing fiction. I am going to give some thought as to whether I might feel it again. It wasn’t the writing I soured on. I still love to write. It was literally everything else about the publishing and marketing process that drove me away.




This is the impromptu evolving memorial for George Floyd, who was murdered by a police officer in full view of a gathered crowd a week ago.   It has since been referred to as a sacred place, and I think I know why  It goes far beyond the death of  one man.  Those who point to ways in which his behavior was not perfect miss the point of why people are sanctifying the place he died. In a way, this isn’t even about him. Years from now, it may be hard for many to recall his name.

They will remember that horrific image of the officer with his knee to a man’s neck as  he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and maybe remember how a man in his forties called for his mother  with his  last strength to cry out. But most important, they will remember what broke in them that day, and  what new revelations came pouring out.   That is what renders this place sacred.

Most definitions of “sacred” are related to specific religious traditions, but Satish Kumar, former monk, peace and environmental activist, goes beyond that. He says that a place important to a community can aid us in reaching out to something bigger than that community—something  divine, however one may understand that. A sacred place, therefore, is one that draws individuals into a commonality that fosters, to use a  hackneyed phrase, a vision of the bigger picture.

I said earlier that this isn’t about George Floyd.  I didn’t mean to minimize  the fact that a particular human being died. It is certainly about George Floyd for George Floyd and his family. But  Floyd’s death is really about all of those countless hearts and minds that saw as a result of his death what it means to live without privilege in an America that has been sold to us as exceptional.  In this idealized America, everyone is privileged.  This  America is good enough the way it is. This America is threatened and confused by demands that it do more than tinker at the edges to make it better. With his death, important ideals that privileged Americans like myself  comfortably espouse as being “the American Way” collide head on with other Americans’ reality in a manner that, once seen, cannot be unseen. This new vision requires action in order to continue to live wth integrity.

This divine spark  tells us to rise up, that we are bigger and better than the lives we have been living.  Resistance to this change will be swift, enduring, and brutal.  No one ever said a life lived with integrity will be without its challenges and losses. A sacred place marking such a painful time can serve as a way of remembering to stay strong because  the change will be worth it.

One has to earn  the privilege of laying flowers on this site.  Whether the crowds at protests  will ever visit the spot that generated this awakening,  it is sacred to them  Sacred to us.  Sacred to me.