Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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For more than two years I lived in Africa and Haiti as a Peace Corps volunteer. Though I carried only what would fit into my backpack, my Swiss Army knife, water purifier, wristwatch, and eyeglasses set me apart as a wealthy man. I was inspired by the resourcefulness of the people I worked with, who washed clothes in a wheelbarrow, fried eggs on a shovel, turned tin cans into lanterns, and made a cookstove from scrap car parts.
Today I live in a one-room cabin in the woods. I have an outdoor fire ring and an indoor stove that I made out of a fifty-five-gallon barrel. Other barrels collect rainwater from my gutters. I use this water to clean dishes, wash clothes, and take showers. My drinking water comes from my neighbor’s well. The taste is enhanced by the quarter-mile hike through the countryside.
A single candle illuminates my entire twelve-by-twenty-foot house. The walls are free of outlets, switches, and cords. The only electrical device I own is a solar-powered radio. I have a small table with three chairs (Thoreau said three chairs is the right amount) and a few shelves of books, dishes, and spices. In the corner behind my door is my composting toilet, and next to it, the ladder to the loft where I sleep.
A sign on my wall reads: “If there is something you need that you don’t see, please let me know, and I’ll show you how to do without it.”
When I was in my early forties, my husband, Jerry, took in a stray kitten. “This may be the last cat we own,” he said. He was feeling old. I told him not to worry: many of my relatives lived into their nineties.
A few years later I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
First there were the physical losses. I wanted to say goodbye to my breast in a meaningful way, so my sister and I got out my paints and brushes and wrote farewell messages on my skin: “Thanks for being part of the team for fifty years.” “You’ll be missed. Love, your fellow appendages.” The nurses laughed when they saw our artwork, and the surgeon apologized for having to mess it up. I was home petting the cat and walking around the block within twenty-four hours.
Since the operation, I’ve had to let go of my appearance. I barely recognize myself in the mirror because of the thirty-pound weight gain and the hair loss. I like to blame the weight on steroids, but there is also the part of me that says, “Better enjoy those Oreos while you can.”
I’m ridding the garage of junk Jerry won’t need when I’m gone: the flute I picked up shortly after college; my graduate-school textbooks; baskets that I will neither decorate nor use. As these possessions disappear or are passed on, I gain emotional and spiritual gifts to replace them.
I’ve decided to purge my life of unnecessary clutter, to act on values that were previously buried beneath the busyness. In return, I receive time: to read and write; to take an art class; to talk to friends over a leisurely cup of coffee.
A cancer diagnosis grants the freedom of lowered expectations. Nowadays, if I get out of bed and into my clothes, I call it a successful morning. I’ve let modesty go. Some evenings, after sunset, I walk around the block in my pj’s and bathrobe. I’ve since learned that other blocks in my neighborhood have their own “bathrobe walkers.”
At night the cat snuggles up under my husband’s chin and stretches out a paw. This won’t be the last cat Jerry owns, but it will probably be my last. When I am gone, I hope the cat will be a comfort to Jerry on the lonely nights.
Long Beach, California
My grandmother gave each of her seven granddaughters a beautifully crafted twenty-four-karat gold ring with two black stripes circling the middle. While we tried them on our fingers, she explained that she’d had a jeweler in India make the bands, and that the stripes were hairs “from the elephant I shot.”
I froze. I am an animal-rights activist. I support stricter punishments for poachers and oppose the use of elephants in circus acts. My grandmother knew this, and could tell I was uncomfortable receiving her gift. “It was different then,” she assured me.
She described how she’d killed an immature African elephant on a safari with my grandfather forty years before. When my grandparents had moved from India to Africa, my grandfather had helped the Kenyan government with the culling of “nuisance creatures,” including young male pachyderms who had lost their adult role models to poachers and were left to ravage the countryside and terrorize the people.
Her feelings clearly hurt by my reaction, my grandmother told me, “If you won’t wear it, give it to your brother, for his future wife.”
But as troubled as I was by this gift, I didn’t want to give it away.
My grandmother had been a Catholic Indian living in Africa, wearing Western clothes and hairstyles, raising five children mostly by herself. She was also an excellent shot. I love the story of how she once shot a black mamba that had slithered too close to her child’s crib. She is still a strong, independent spirit who loves to laugh. She takes great pride in her Indian heritage, but at the same time believes India was better when the British were in charge: “Much cleaner.”
Whenever I visit her at her small mobile home in rural Massachusetts, I am aware of all she gave up when she fled the political unrest in a newly independent Kenya. But she never complains. She feels lucky to live in the U.S.
I have kept the ring, but I do not wear it. It hangs on a string, tacked to my office wall, where I see it every day. I’m still figuring out its significance for me. Ironically, of all the granddaughters, I am the only one whose finger the ring fit perfectly.
I was a suburban stay-at-home mother of one until my husband and I decided we needed a change. He quit his job, and we sold our most valuable belongings: cars, cameras, antiques. We figured if we could live on rice and beans, we wouldn’t need an income for a while. We were going to buy ourselves a half year of freedom.
The three of us took off across the country, pulling a little trailer, and spent six glorious months living out our fantasy of adventure and family togetherness. I loved the simplicity of the traveling life: Three towels, one frying pan, no TV. No garage overflowing with baby clothes and Halloween decorations and unlabeled cassette tapes and special-occasion china. I couldn’t imagine going back to our old existence.
When we returned home, we decided to make our new living arrangement permanent, and got busy cleaning out the house to sell it. As the clutter lifted, I felt freer, younger, more daring. I also felt superior to my neighbors, who were trapped in their lives of consumption.
My husband and I bought a big Airstream trailer, stowed the necessities in it, and set out, debt-free and unfettered. Part-time work covered the grocery bills and left us with plenty of time to spend together. We home-schooled our daughter; lived in beautiful, unspoiled places; and congratulated ourselves for having had the courage to escape middle-class American life.
Last spring, our travels took us back to our old hometown. Visiting a friend’s house, I noticed a little gourd painted to look like an animal. It looked so familiar. Then I realized: it used to be mine. Though I’d once been glad to be rid of it, after seeing it in her house that day, I wanted it back. I felt as if I were pressing my nose to the window of Tiffany’s, coveting some precious gem.
That night I parked in front of the home we used to own. I didn’t feel smug or smart or free. I thought, I used to live somewhere. I used to have a real life. I used to have a lot of nice things.
Then I went home to the RV park, where our motor home was glowing with cozy warmth. I hugged my husband and daughter tight and remembered that home is wherever the three of us are together. But that night, like many other nights thereafter, I lay awake for hours in our little bed and felt as inconsequential as a shadow, a ghost adrift in the world.
My father is Dutch and grew up in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony. His family had a huge colonial-style home filled with expensive antiques and art brought over from Europe. They had cars and many valuable books. My grandfather brought home orphaned tigers, bears, and monkeys to raise as pets, and my father’s childhood home was always bustling and full of beauty.
Then, during World War II, the Japanese invaded the islands. My grandfather threw the family heirlooms down the well minutes before the Japanese kicked open their door. Everything was confiscated, except for what they could fit into one suitcase apiece.
The Japanese sent their Dutch captives to concentration camps, where prisoners received one cup of rice per day to eat. The women and children went to one camp, and the men to another. When my father turned ten, he was sent to the men’s camp, along with his best friend, who was so heartbroken at being separated from his mother that he stopped talking, drinking, and eating. When he died, the Japanese guards gave my father the contents of the dead boy’s suitcase.
My father was able to trade these toys and clothes for an extra handful of rice a day. He was also able to get bananas from natives through the fence, and when he became weak, he traded the fruit for lighter work assignments. While others died of starvation, my father stayed alive.
When U.S. troops finally liberated the Dutch prisoners, my father returned to Holland with only the clothes on his back. He later immigrated to the U.S., worked his way through college, married, had three children, and bought a large house overlooking the Pacific in southern California.
My father is now in his seventies. I visited him a few years ago, while my mother was on a trip to Europe. When I opened the cupboard in his kitchen, I found rows of used Styrofoam cups, plastic “sporks,” and neatly stacked fast-food French-fry boxes. A drawer was filled to the brim with corks.
I was emptying hundreds of corks into the garbage when my father came in and saw me. He flew into a panic and scooped the corks back out. “You wait,” he fumed. “One day you’ll need these.”
Exasperated, I shouted, “For what?”
“One day, you’ll need to burn the ends to make charcoal,” he said. “So don’t come running to me when you have nothing to write with!”
Thankfully I have never known absolute poverty, the loss of everything and everybody familiar, the sort of deprivation that would make someone hoard corks in a million-dollar house.
San Rafael, California
During the twenty-five years I spent in a six-by-nine-foot prison cell, a slim volume called the “operational procedure” detailed what prisoners were permitted to own. Each inmate could have two pairs of bluejeans (no decorative zippers, extra pockets, or designer labels); one ring (plain, no stones); one watch (not to exceed fifty dollars in value); and so on. We were allowed only ten books, including magazines and newspapers.
Somehow my roommate and I always managed to exceed these limits. And we were not alone. When the guards came sweeping down the hall for surprise room searches, we’d madly stuff our possessions into our lockers. The items that were prohibited — scissors, drawing pens, hot-water bottles — we would store in unobtrusive places, hoping they would remain unnoticed. Sometimes it worked. If it didn’t, we would lose the item for good. This was always a blow, but we learned to get over it quickly, in the best attitude of nonattachment.
When I was released from prison six months ago, I had six cartons of books, two cartons of clothing, four cartons of art supplies and artwork, and at least six heavy cartons of legal paperwork. It cost me more than four hundred dollars to mail all of it home. How, I wondered, did I, a practicing yogi, acquire all this in a prison where the rules allowed only six cubic feet of personal property? And why was it necessary to haul it all with me?
As I continue to unpack and sort through these items, the answer becomes clear: My history is in these cartons, twenty-five years of my life. I cherish these possessions. I weep over them. I smile. I guess I will have to come back in yet another lifetime to learn nonattachment.
Santa Rosa, California
I have lost three personal libraries in my life. The first disappeared when I was fifteen. We were moving, and Mother gave me three days to decide which books to keep and which to throw away. I tried to persuade her that books were not mere possessions to be casually discarded, but she held firm. I ended up with one box of discards and six boxes to keep.
When we arrived at our new home in Michigan, I discovered that Mother had mistakenly thrown out the six boxes of good books and left me with the collected works of Mickey Spillane. “They’re only books,” she said.
In my twenties, I acquired 1,500 books while my first husband was dying of melanoma. I read my way through Ron’s seven-year illness, losing myself in any story that helped me to forget.
After Ron’s death, I found a new love and ran off with him to Mexico. My friend Ruth agreed to store my library while I was gone. When I returned home three months later, I learned that Ruth had sold all my books at a garage sale. “I wasn’t sure you would ever come back,” she said.
I married that new love and for the next seventeen years tended my library as if it were an English garden, selecting only the best and ruthlessly weeding out any book that didn’t deserve space. As my library grew, I installed floor-to-ceiling bookcases in each room. I amassed more than three thousand books.
I was home alone the night that an accidental fire gutted our house. After the firefighters left, I tracked down my husband by phone and told him that our home was a waterlogged, charred shell. He told me he had fallen in love with his new female boss and wouldn’t be home that night. Maybe never.
For months afterward, I would burst into tears when I saw one of my books on a bookstore shelf. I cried more over the lost books than I did over my lost husband.
I now have a third husband and a fourth library, with books scattered here and there, in no particular order. Many are trashy detective novels that I read in airports and motel rooms when business takes me on the road. Every once in a while, without a twinge, I donate bags of them to a friend’s used bookstore. It’s time to live the life for which books prepared me.
I just came across my father’s solid-gold Omega watch in my file cabinet. Deep, extensive engraving on the back commemorates fifty years of service to the Chicago Paper Company, 1917 to 1967. The alligator band is cracked, dry, and curved, even after thirty-two years of lying flat in its coffinlike satin-lined case.
This watch came to me in the mail in 1972, sent by the woman who was with my father the night he died. I intended to give the Omega to my brother as soon as he kicked the heroin habit he’d picked up during his service in Vietnam. But he couldn’t quit, and then he disappeared for twenty-five years. He turned up in New Mexico last year in a terminal coma, his skull shattered by a baseball bat.
The watch makes me feel sad when I look at it, even though it isn’t the one my father wore when he hit my mother, or when he broke my nose. He didn’t get this watch until he retired, twenty years later.
The watch is self-winding. Just the tiniest motion makes it start ticking. I own this beautiful piece of machinery, yet here I am wearing a fifteen-dollar Timex. I try on the Omega, but the strap is so long it comes around and eclipses the face. I should buy a new band for it, but the Timex still works fine, and I hate to spend money on nonessentials. Besides, that big watch would look silly on my tiny wrist.
I could sell it, but the personal engraving would probably diminish its value. Besides, I’d feel guilty. I’d give the Omega to my son, but I’m afraid it might have a curse attached to it, and he doesn’t need any more problems. And I’m worried he might sell it for less than it’s worth.
The watch and its curse (if any) are mine. I put the watch back in the file cabinet. Sometimes mementos of pain are as precious as those of triumph.
Culver City, California
When I was in high school, my family home was an eight-foot-wide trailer parked in a campground on the wrong side of the levee, where the law prohibited building permanent residences. Besides our trailer, there were only willows and cottonwoods and the swirling green water of the Feather River, which every few years would flood, forcing us to tow our house to a field beside the county airport. The roaring crop-dusters would wake us up at five every morning. Eventually the waters would recede, and we’d return to the park.
My mother was a teacher’s aide, and my stepdad worked with me at Dan’s Bait and Tackle. I had worked there since I was thirteen and had all the fishing gear I wanted. I was an awkward boy, and fishing on the weekends was my respite from lonely days at school.
Eventually I made some friends and began dating Nicole. For the first time I experienced the touch of a girl’s skin and the taste of her lips. We planned to go to the junior prom together.
By then Mom had managed to buy a rusty, twenty-year-old Datsun pickup for $250. She painted the truck herself with two cans of royal blue Rust-Oleum, the bold brush strokes clearly visible in the sun. I pulled the inside door panels off and re-covered them with some scrap naugahyde.
One spring evening, Nicole and I were driving home from a movie in that hand-painted blue pickup when she wondered aloud, “Do people really go to the prom in a truck like this?”
I realized then that this girl I had imagined spending my life with was embarrassed by my poverty. I felt a flash of anger. For a moment I imagined pulling to the curb and telling her to get out. But when I turned to her, I saw the only girl whose touch I had ever known.
“They do if that’s what they own,” I said. Nicole was quiet after that.
A few weeks later, Nicole announced that she had arranged for us to double-date to the prom with her best friend. The friend’s boyfriend, coincidentally, drove a nice car.
My father practiced a radical form of Christianity that discouraged the use of locks. Over the years, my parents had a number of items stolen: a thousand dollars in cash, an antique pocket watch (which, inexplicably, turned up later in my parents’ mailbox), and several bicycles. My father loaned out beloved books and an excellent pair of leather shoes and never saw them again. He let neighbors come in and borrow tools from his workshop, whether he was home or not. A sign at the bottom of our driveway said, Welcome Strangers.
I’m a shy person by nature, and I often felt besieged by all the visitors — many of them indeed strangers — who took my father up on his invitation. I have to admit, though, that some of my most important friendships were formed as a result of those visits.
After my father died, we couldn’t bear the onslaught of random company, so we took down the sign and put a lock on my father’s workshop door. After all, he had a number of valuable antique tools. In the four years since then, we have struggled to convince people that things have changed around here. This isn’t a museum. It’s our home, and we value our privacy.
The parade of curious strangers and acquaintances seems to be abating. Days go by with no company at all. We haven’t had one thing stolen since my father’s death.
So why doesn’t this feel like a happy ending?
While disposing of the estate of our favorite uncle, my younger sister discovered that several of his possessions, including a 1940s train set, had disappeared from his home. My other sister, B., eventually admitted to having the missing articles. Our uncle, she said, had given them to her and asked her not to tell us about the arrangement.
After our father’s death the following year, we likewise found various things missing from our parents’ home. Again, B. said that our father had secretly given the items to her.
After the death of our ninety-year-old mother, my younger sister found not one piece of our mother’s jewelry in her house, not even the religious necklace with which our mother had asked to be buried. We knew where we would find it.
I was irritated, not because I wanted any of the items for myself, but because of the disrespect my sister B. had shown us and our parents. When I confronted her, she tersely replied that she was “entitled” to everything she had.
Hearing her use the word entitled, I realized that my sister was trying to give herself the affection our parents had withheld. B. had always felt like an outsider who could never quite prove her worth to our mother. As a little girl, she’d always longed to find buried treasure.
© Alan Bailey
Sick of financial striving and spending our days at jobs we hated, my husband and I ditched well-paying positions with affordable health insurance and bought a 1984 Dodge conversion van — dubbed the “Mystic Traveler” — with a bed on top. We sold everything: furniture, clothes, dishes, books — all but a few pots and pans. We traded our wedding crystal for a minitoilet.
My in-laws thought we were nuts; only retired people like them should live on the road, they said. My parents saw it as an adventure and admired our courage. I could feel the jealousy burning in my friends’ eyes. We were free.
We left San Luis Obispo on a glorious sunny day and spent three weeks traveling through the Painted Desert. We camped at the Grand Canyon and listened to the coyotes howl while we cooked marshmallows on our campfire. We hiked the beautiful red-and-pink landscape, ate canned beans and fresh fruit, and fell in love all over again.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, about two months into our trip, I got pregnant. There we were: no health insurance, no steady jobs, and no place to live. With my swelling belly, I was afraid I might get stuck in our pop-up bed and never get out. We sold the Mystic Traveler, bought a family-friendly Suzuki, and rented an apartment.
It’s now three years later, and I’m working full time at another corporate job while my husband works part time as a park ranger and cares for our son. We have a mortgage, a car payment, a dog, and countless plastic toys in the yard. I have accumulated so much credit-card debt it makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. Some days, when I sit down to pay my bills or watch my son’s Wiggles video for the umpteenth time, I wish we could hit the road once more. But I’d probably just get pregnant again.
My half brother Mark was the child of my mother’s first marriage, when she was a teenager. That marriage ended quickly in divorce, and my mother got remarried, to my father. A year later they had me and moved to Seattle, leaving Mark behind in California with my grandmother. He was two years old.
I grew up making summer trips with my parents to visit Mark, Grandma, and Phil, my grandmother’s third husband. I was always excited to see Mark, and we would ride bikes, fish, and fight the way brothers do. When it was time to go, I would ask my mother if Mark could come with us. But she would always say, “He belongs here with Grandma and Phil.”
These visits became more and more awkward over the years, as Mark and I began to realize something was not right about the situation. The last time we visited, Mark and I were teenagers, and when it came time to leave, Mark protested: he wanted to come home with us. My grandmother said if he did, she would never speak to any of us again. Mark stayed.
Mark and I got together a few times as adults, but the connection wasn’t there anymore. For one thing, his religious beliefs were alien to me: my grandmother and Phil belonged to a strict fundamentalist church, and Mark remained a devout follower. We went years at a time without seeing each other. Whenever I expressed regret that we weren’t closer, Mark would say, “It’s not our fault. These things just happen.”
Mark eventually left the church and was ostracized by our grandmother and Phil. He also made a long-overdue call to our mother and told her how he felt about having been abandoned. They yelled and cried, but managed to move past their hurt feelings.
One morning my mother called me. Phil had died of a heart attack, and she was going to help my grandmother plan the funeral. Did I want to come? I asked if Mark would be attending, and she said no, the church had banned him from the ceremony. So I didn’t go to Phil’s funeral.
A few weeks later a package arrived for me. Inside I found a worn belt with a large, shiny buckle, and a note from my mother explaining that the belt had belonged to Phil. She thought I would like to have it to remember my “grandfather” by.
I examined the big, Western-style belt buckle. It was silver with brass roping along the edge and a well-worn 1897 silver dollar in the center. The belt itself was stiff and cracked, with eyeholes added to accommodate Phil’s growing (and later shrinking) waistline. He must have worn it every day for many years. It was the sort of thing a man would want his son to have. So I packaged it back up and sent it off to Mark, the closest thing Phil ever had to a son.
A few days later Mark called me. He had been surprised to receive the belt. I asked if he’d recognized it.
“I sure did,” he said. “He used to beat me with it.”
In our senior year of college, my boyfriend and I rented an apartment. We’d just come back from a year abroad and had little money and few possessions. We slept on a mattress on the floor because a bed frame cost twenty dollars. Our dresser was a plastic shelving unit like the ones people use in their garages. We pinned a map of the United States to the ceiling over our bed, and at night we quizzed each other on geography and state flowers.
In our living room, we had a red velvet couch handed down to us by a friend. A huge gap between the cushions swallowed pens, sweaters, phone books. The borrowed TV sat on a box I’d covered in cow-print contact paper. I collaged a hideous glass coffee table with movie-ticket stubs, magazine clippings, and pictures. On one white wall we taped greeting cards.
When we graduated, we took only what would fit in a station wagon. The rest we left in the garbage bin or dropped off at the YMCA.
Last April, we bought a house and decorated it with new furniture from Ikea. We have comfortable chairs to sit in and a futon to sleep on. But I miss our wall of cards, our colorful coffee table, our mattress on the floor.
San Diego, California
How is it that I found myself with a twenty-year-old box of toothpicks? It was so familiar to me: yellow with blue writing, a telephone number I did not recognize scrawled across the lid. Why did I use the toothpicks in this box so sparingly? How had it traveled with me from home to home, through the births of two children?
Then I attended a workshop on Native American rituals, and when the discussion turned to the sacredness of everyday objects, I thought of that box of toothpicks. It came to me: the box had belonged to my mother, who had died when I was twenty-one. I could see her pulling the box from the cabinet above the stove, taking out a toothpick, and testing a cake to be sure it was done. I had avoided using the toothpicks because, once they were gone, I might somehow feel I had lost her again.
After that day, I got the toothpicks down often to test cakes for my own children. As I used the last one, I felt my mother’s presence more, not less.
Oak Park, Illinois
In my forties I read a book by a woman named Peace Pilgrim, who had given up all her possessions in late middle age and begun walking around the U.S., speaking about peace to any who would listen. She said she didn’t need the security of a home or wealth or possessions; love would sustain her.
Though I was filled with admiration for this woman, I knew that I could never do what she had done, because I wouldn’t be able to let go of my possessions.
A week later, the home where I had lived for thirteen years burned to the ground. I was left with only my old car and the clothes I had on.
After I’d recovered from the shock, I soon received all that I needed from my community and friends. I saw then the truth of Peace Pilgrim’s words.
My husband, Lawrence, bought his first gun in 1984, because of a self-confessed “problem with authority.” The Maryland legislature was talking about banning handguns, so he went out and bought one: nobody was going to tell him what he could or could not own.
When I met Lawrence, he owned only three guns: that first one he’d bought, and two antiques that wouldn’t fire. Later, a friend introduced him to duck hunting, and as he got to know other hunters and gun owners, he developed a sizable gun collection.
My husband wasn’t exposed to hunting or even target practice as a child. His parents, both liberal Jews, don’t know what to make of their son’s hobby. Even though he believes in everything the Democratic Party stands for, Lawrence votes Republican, because he is scared the Democrats will take away his guns.
Lawrence keeps his guns in a safe the size of our refrigerator. As I am prone to major depressive episodes, I am not allowed to know the safe’s combination. I don’t want to know anyway. When Lawrence periodically opens the safe, I peer uneasily over his shoulder. There are at least forty guns inside, along with dozens of small blocks of lead, to make ammunition. My pearl necklace is in there too, for safekeeping. It comes out far less often than the guns.
Beside the safe are Lawrence’s thousand or so books about guns and hunting. He also has some history books, but let’s face it: they are mostly about guns too.
The workshop/laundry room is where my husband keeps ammunition and gun paraphernalia. He has hundreds of small boxes of shotgun shells and cartridges. Some boxes indicate what kind of animal the ammunition is meant to kill: geese, ducks, quail. (I wonder, are there boxes that say “humans”?) Though Lawrence cannot keep any other space in the house clean, he stacks these boxes very carefully atop one another. All his tools, solvents, scales, and lubricants are carefully arranged. In this order, I see his love for these things.
It was a Sunday, and my house was full of people. I’d just received some unsettling news from my doctor. Feeling frustrated, I decided to take a drive. As usual I brought my camera with me.
I ended up at the town docks, where I took a few pictures of buoys, an old shed, and rowboats being pulled by the outgoing tide. On my way back to my truck, I saw an Asian woman and her family catching crabs. I began to photograph the crabs lying on the dock. Then I heard the woman yelp and saw her trying to shake a crab off her finger. I snapped her picture in midyelp. I knew right away that it was a great shot.
I was rejoicing in my good luck when the young woman walked over to me and said, “I would like the film, please. I never gave you permission to take my photograph.”
I tried to look confused. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. This is my photograph,” I replied. I explained that it wasn’t against the law to take photos in a public place, and if she had any problem with it, she could call the police.
She and the other members of her family became embroiled in a heated discussion in their native tongue. By their body language, I could tell that some sided with me, but most agreed with her.
The woman approached me again and said in a more determined voice, “Look, you can take all the photographs you want, but if someone objects, then it becomes a question of ethics.” She held out her hand.
I maintained she was free to call the police and let them decide.
By now the fishermen had stopped fishing, and the family had gathered around. The woman was right next to me, her back turned, debating with three family members at once. I gave up. Tapping her on the shoulder, I opened my camera, peeled the film out, and handed it to her. The group was suddenly silent. She smiled in relief and said, “Thank you.”
Driving home I felt strangely uplifted. Rather than adding to my earlier frustration, the encounter had somehow relieved it. That woman had my film, and I had the memory of her smile.
Barrington, New Hampshire
While serving my tour of duty in the Peace Corps, I lived in a small village in a remote region of Nepal. I’d joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to escape the comfortable and morally vacuous life I knew in the U.S. Though the villagers were not well-off by any standards, for the most part each family had what they needed to live.
I happily moved into the loft of a small thatched-roof hut (some cows resided on the first floor), bringing with me only minimal possessions: sleeping bag, backpack, straw mat, a few candles and books, three shirts, two pairs of pants, a jacket, a scarf, a toothbrush, floss, vitamins, and some cooking utensils. I didn’t want to stand out as the “rich American.”
There was a woman who stopped by my hut from time to time to ask if I had a “dubba” (an empty plastic peanut-butter container) I could give her. The women who cooked my curried greens and chapatis every evening called her the “dishonest woman” and warned me of her thieving ways, but I never learned why they accused her. One day, when I had no plastic containers for the dishonest woman, she gazed at me for a few moments and asked: “How could just one person, here all by himself, possibly own so many, many things?”
Cabin John, Maryland
The man I lived with for twenty-three years would not allow me to touch his books, CDs, laserdiscs, tapes, or audio-visual equipment. I could touch his clothes only to wash them and when they were on him — except when he didn’t want to be touched.
All of his possessions had to be perfect, which meant he bought and returned numerous stereo components, beds, chairs, and so on, until he found just the right one. Often nothing was good enough. He never did find the perfect chair, and so could no longer read books from his massive collection, since every chair he sat in to read hurt his back.
Still, I was not allowed to touch his books. “You might bend a page or get a fingerprint on the cover,” he’d say. “You might eat crackers and get crumbs in the binding. And you’re always crying. You’ll drip tears on the pages!” The only time I touched the books was when I bought them. (He was afraid to deal with cashiers.) But once I handed over the bagged book, I was never to touch it again. And it was my responsibility to make sure the cashier didn’t harm the book in any way.
People I knew suggested I rebel by tossing his books on the floor. But they didn’t know what his “punishments” were like.
His most sacred possession was his box fan, because it made the white noise he needed to sleep. It had its own rug, and in every house we lived in he would place the fan in the spot that produced the most-even sound. Once, the fan was in a hallway, and I had to sidle around it many times a day — without touching it. Another time it had its own bedroom. No one was allowed to touch the fan. The slightest contact could change the sound and keep him awake for weeks.
Running a fan every night, year round, eventually wears the motor out. In anticipation of this, he kept four extra fans in the dining room. When the current fan coughed its last, he had to “audition” each new fan until he had the right one. Many failed the test.
To him, I was just another possession that had to operate perfectly or suffer the consequences. I, too, eventually wore out. I left him.
My mother sits in her green chair in the corner of her room at the nursing home. I see her through the window blinds as I walk to the door. She is reading Cold Mountain a second time. Beside her is an antique table — the “Mississippi table,” she calls it, a remnant from her childhood.
The green chair and the old oak table are the only pieces of her furniture we could fit into the furnished, semiprivate room where she spends her days. We were forced to discard many items she had cherished, mended, dusted, and rearranged over the years. Bits and pieces of my mother went to the Salvation Army, to the church rummage sale, to family. I have wept over the loss of the turquoise Pyrex dishes, the faded pillowcases, the book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the birdbath, the Fanny Farmer cookbook, the white chenille bedspread, and the plastic church that played “Silent Night” to me as a child.
As I have grieved the loss of these items, I have also grieved the decline I see in my mother. I know that one day she will leave behind even her green chair and continue, untethered, on her journey.
Dripping Springs, Texas
Every year or two, when I can’t shelve a new book or close a drawer, I am inspired to get rid of one hundred things. It’s a nice, round number, and a manageable task. I number a sheet of paper from one to one hundred and begin to scout for items I can do without.
Like weeding the garden, throwing away the worn-out, the expired, and the broken is a pleasure. The going gets tough, however, when I try to choose things that no longer reflect who I am. Will I ever again wear high heels? Do I really plan to bake popovers? Will I ever spin my ancient records when it’s so easy to play a CD?
I used to be a weaver. My loom sat in the middle of our living room, and I wove while my children played nearby. As my interests changed, the loom was demoted to a bedroom, then to the basement, where it sat idle for years, folded up under a sheet. Finally I sold it. Watching it disappear down the street in the back of a pickup truck, I wanted to run after it shouting, “Come back! I didn’t mean it! I do want you!”
I hate to let go of my past. The object that brings to mind an experience becomes the experience itself, a talisman filled with the essence of a certain time and place. Cleaning out a file cabinet is one thing. Giving away the little black dress I wore to a dance when I was nineteen is another. As long as I have storage space, I avoid making hard decisions that cut too deeply into my treasures.
I once read a novel based on the lives of a real pair of brothers named Collier, who lived in a decaying house filled with everything they’d ever owned. The rooms were mazes of passageways formed by crumbling piles of newspapers. A charred piano stood as a permanent memorial to a rebellious childhood act of arson. The brothers were immobilized by their junk, all possibility of a normal life buried beneath its weight. I struggle to find a balance between living like a monk and turning into the Collier brothers.
I need to start another list, to help me get rid of immaterial possessions: old attitudes, bad habits. These are even harder to shed.
My neighbor Joe is an artist. This summer, he handcrafted a thousand small wooden boats, painting them bright primary colors. He worked in his yard and invited everyone who passed by to inscribe a boat with some character flaw they would like to be rid of. One by one the little ships that lined his driveway were christened “Envy,” “Criticism,” “Anger,” “Jealousy.” His plan was to take the boats to Maine and set them adrift on the Atlantic Ocean, carrying the psychic baggage of a thousand people out beyond the horizon.
He asked me to participate. Choosing a yellow boat, I wrote, “Attachment.”
Joyce Marquess Carey