22 January 2012

Material Witness

Recently a class was asked to respond to the first chapter of Walden as it regards materialism and material goods. What I had to say rather surprised me. It's probably far more personal than some of the other responses (not to mention twice as long. I'm the lone PhD student in a cross-listed course otherwise filled with undergraduate upperclassmen.) It also came fast on the heels of an in-class writing assignment asking us to define, as close as we could in the ten or so minutes allotted, what we meant by the term spirituality; I believe my initial response was something along the lines of, "Jesus, Ed."

Apparently it's going to be one of those semesters.

It's all well and good to agree with Thoreau's thoughts on materialism as a theory, but as it plays out in our own lives, it's sometimes another story. To wit: the past six years have been a very curious journey for me and my stuff. As anyone who's ever been through a divorce can attest, the ceremonial "that's mine, this is yours" is about so much more than simply who gets the glass barware (him) and who somehow ends up with not one but both cocktail shakers (me). It becomes about power, revenge (though thankfully not in our case; most of the division was rather simple--he for the most part just took his marbles and went home), memory, sentimentality, and ultimately sometimes about our very idea of who we are versus who we thought we were.

That process is weird enough, but I then spent the next five years living with my parents, with the bulk of my belongings, save for some clothes and books, in storage. A year ago, when I was finally reunited with my furniture, the majority of my books, the rest of my clothes, and all that miscellaneous.....well, stuff....I had a couple of realizations. The first of these was precisely how much crap a life accumulates. The second was how much of it is truly unnecessary. I lived without my X-Files lunchbox just fine--why save it? Well, because of the third realization. While I did donate, pass on, recycle, or just plain heave quite a bit of stuff, I also kept quite a bit. After five years of driving past the storage facility and waving at the packed-up symbols of my exile, here I was, rediscovering who I had been during the divorce, and how well it meshed with who I was now.

I don't know if you know this, but it's hard living in your parents' house as an adult. There are space wars. In my case, there were also stuff wars, about how many belongings I had and how much they encroached upon the "public" areas of the house (which, of course, was filled with "their" stuff) and whether or not that was ok for everyone involved. I won't get into that here, but suffice it to say that unpacking into my own apartment again was nothing short of revelatory. My stuff, c'est moi. In addition to things I'd forgotten I had, there were things I was surprised I didn't have (really? he left me the blender but took the iron??)--and those things were and are not just a representation of the pain of our separation, but also of the resilience of my soul and heart. Here I am again, me and my stuff. All in one place. For someone who spent the better part of six years feeling like she was in limbo, having a home and your stuff to put it in is a pretty empowering feeling. There's a huge difference, it turns out, between deciding to rid yourself of the trappings of materialism and being forcefully separated from your possessions.

(For the record, I kept the X-Files lunchbox.)

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