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Trash, Treasure, and the Meaning of Life

Willow learning to walk appears to be imminent.  She probably could walk now but she’s very cautious and doesn’t like to fall, so it could still be another couple of months.  But I feel like once she does get her confidence up she’ll begin by tap dancing out of her crib.  Our apartment already feels small and a mobile Willow on two feet with two free hands to grab things and put them in her mouth will shrink it exponentially.  So when our lease is up in June, Ellen and I have decided to move.

The trial of apartment hunting is one I haven’t had to endure for 4 years.  The last time we moved was inside our current building to a larger unit.  That adventure is still a few months ahead of us, so in the meantime we’ve begun the process of sorting though all our clothes, books, movies, shoes, business cards and tote bags that we like to collectively refer to as our stuff.

We tried to do this last year before Willow was born.  We thought that the onset of parenthood, the biggest transition were likely to experience in our life, would motivate us to really get rid of stuff.  We even went so far as to name the process “the 20s Purge”, signifying not just the end of our youth but our impending thirtieth birthdays.

Well, Willow was born, and she’ll turn 1 next month (ahhh!!!).  Our thirtieth birthdays came and went, and thirty-one is right around corner, which I have to say is rather anti-climatic after all the fuss of turning 30. I  kinda wish we could just switch to birthdays every 5 years now.  Then 35 would really feel like an event, rather than another tick of a clock.   But allow me to get back on topic.  As I began to sift though the bottom of the closet yesterday it was immediately clear to me how much the 20s purge was an epic failure.  We have no less than 5 tote bags at present.  I don’t even use them to go shopping, repeatedly answering the Union Market cashier (and now Whole Foods too!) time and time again with, “A bag would be great, thanks.”

I do want to throw stuff away.  I really do.  Well, rather, I want there to be less stuff.  I just don’t want to have to decide what stays and what goes.  Ellen is always saying “we have to be brutal,” which really is the perfect word for it.  Sometimes it feels brutal.  You come across something that triggers a special memory.  One you haven’t revisited in a long time.  One that, had you not been going through stuff you wouldn’t have thought of, and wouldn’t be pleasantly reminiscing about now.  So what do you do to honor that resurrected memory?  Throw it in a giant black garbage bag with all the other JUNK!

For example, I happened across a pair of Yankees hats Ellen and I got at one of the first baseball games we went to together.  I think it was opening day 2010, really cold, and we won 7-3:  Mark Texeria hit a 3-run home run.  They had won the World Series the year before and all the fans got hats that said 27-time World Series Champions.  We’ve held onto those hats for 4 years, never worn them.  They’ve made the cut through two moves and that now somehow increases their value.  Clearly they were important enough to me then, so why not now?

But, it’s clear that we don’t need them.  The only contribution they’ve made to my life is triggering an internal guilt trip about throwing them away every couple of years.  So I threw them away, I’m literally feeling bad just writing this.  But I had to be brutal.  And I was.

But that was kids play.  What I’m really dreading is going through my DVD collection.  I was a movie fanatic in my 20s.  I started collecting DVDs when I moved to New York in the beginning of 2002 and really got into cinema history in 2003. From the end of 2003 through 2009 I watched movies like it was my job.  Literally.  I probably spent 10, sometimes 20 hours a week watching them.  I saw over 120 movies in the theatre in 2008.  I was IN. SANE.

As you may have gleaned from the year of the baseball game I referenced earlier, Ellen and I getting together caused me to, shall we say, shuffle my priorities a bit.  I still love the cinema but the part of my life that it occupies now is much more compartmentalized.  Since we had Willow it has diminished even further.  I saw maybe 7 or 8 movies this year.  I’m lost at sea with the recent Oscar nominations.

My collection of over 200 DVDs sits on shelves in our living room as a relic of my cine-crazed days.  It hasn’t grown much over the last few years and we don’t ever watch them.  One reason is that our Blu-Ray player refuses to play most of them.  They used to work but now it’s like the Blu-Ray player is mocking us for watching still watching DVDs.  “Seriously guys?  DVDs again? Sorry, not this time.  Or any time.”  We could look for a new player, but the truth is between Netflix and torrents we rarely watch anything on a disc anymore.  There are some discs that are worth keeping, but the vast majority of them I haven’t watched in over five years.  Many of them I’ve never watched at all, or only once.  So my once prized collection stands to see some serious thinning.

I think what keeps tripping me up is the thought that this is stuff that at one time I treasured.  I remember when getting rid of my DVDs would be have been unthinkable.  It’s weird to feel at odds with your former self.  It’s like betraying a promise to a childhood friend.

Ellen and I saw the Glass Menagerie last week and at once point Amanda, the domineering mother, warns her son Tom about the passage of time:  “The future becomes the present, the present the past and the past turns into everlasting regret.”  At the time I didn’t apply this beautiful piece of hyperbole to cleaning my apartment, but now that I think about it, it fits perfectly.

The fear that we’ll lose a piece of our former self by throwing it away, fearing that someday we’ll regret it, keeps us from letting go – literally.  But come to think of it, this nugget from Tennessee Williams is probably a mantra of a person who will one day be on Hoarders.  A fear of regret is the last thing you need when trying to throw stuff away.

Warning – it’s about to get existential.  The past is just that, past.   It’s gone, and the artifacts that remain are the only physical proof we have that it ever existed in the first place.  Our brains alone certainly can’t be trusted with our memories.  The reality is, this stuff really is all just, well, stuff.  Material.  If we let it define us, then what do we really have?  Not to be morbid, but in the end, it’s all just dust.

lots and lots of dust.

All we have is the present.  Which, like life, is painfully fleeting.  As Amanda said, it keeps becoming the past.  Embracing that is difficult.  I’m reminded of a particularly magical moment this past Christmas Eve.  My extended family was arriving at the farm and we had decided to begin in the evening in the barn, where we would sip mulled wine around a Christmas tree.  Right as we began to ladle the wine into punch glasses it started snowing.  As if that wasn’t breathtaking enough, my dad has the foresight to open up the two large doors on the second floor.  As he did, a well placed wind blew the snow into the barn and it gently fell around the tree.  It was snowing inside on Christmas Eve.  It was something Thomas Kinkade himself couldn’t have dreamt up.

At some point during the 15-20 minutes the snow lasted I said to Ellen, “I just want time to stop and to live in this moment longer.”

I was already feeling sad that it would soon be just a memory.  It’s not the first time I’ve felt that way.  Not to get into details, but when Ellen and I met we weren’t sure we would be together.  There were times I ached for the ability to hit the pause button.

But while the whole living in the moment thing is great, I kinda of feel like it’s just another mantra that when taken too far can be used to justify bad decisions.  In fact, anything taken to the extreme is bad a thing.  If you just live in the past, you become a hoarder.  If you just live in the moment you have no plans for the future.  If you live in the future you’re just wishing your life away.

I think the best approach is to just live and not worry too much about the past or present or future.  You’ll keep making mistakes either way.  For me, accepting that it is hard but very freeing.  Particularly when relating to the task at hand, it’s very empowering.  It’s a reminder that I don’t need a memento of every happy memory Ellen and I have together.  Because we can continue to make more memories.  Instead of holding onto old Yankee hats, we can go to another Yankees game.  So instead of cleaning house with a fear of regret, I am trying to use it as motivation for the future.

So now, at the end of this probe into my psyche that was supposed to be a brief, whimsical blog post, my mantra is: I am more than my stuff. I am more than my experiences.  I just am.  I am my past, I am my present, and am I my future.  I was a cinephile and a DVD collector, I am a father and a husband writing in his underwear and I will be, one day, the owner of a clean, well-organized apartment.

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