Let Go and Let Goodwill
This all likely began in the womb, but for our purposes we’ll say the first grade. One morning, I arrived at school with my classmates, and was delighted to find that a card stock ruler thing had been attached to each of our desks. Probably a foot long, distinct marks, the simple sort of learning tool you can see taped down to the desk of a first grader. He or she could hold up a piece of paper or a pen, or something, and see how long it was. It probably included metric measurements too (just as a joke) but it was a lovely surprise. A present, just for nothing, just for showing up. And we all got one, too! It was so fair. A gift unattached to arbitrary skill sets? Even at that age I knew how rare it was for there to be no losers.
Being pathologically well-behaved, then and now, I was almost afraid to touch the gift, but the same wasn’t true for many of my schoolmates, who in no time had added their names and doodles, and punched holes, and drew squiggles around it. It was some time before I felt brave enough to claim mine, and even then, all I did was slide my hand underneath it when I was reading, or during heads-down, or whenever I had a hand free to do so. Because it was mine.
Perhaps a month later, we arrived one morning to find that any of the rulers that had been in any way soiled or vandalized had been removed, including mine. Obviously, she’d had it up to here with watching ungrateful children ruin the thing she’d given us, and not even my gentle usage escaped her ire. As a punishment, we ruler-defilers were tasked with cleaning our desks of the ink and whatnot. There was no ink on my desk, just the telltale gum from the tape, which I had trouble getting off. Because I was six years old. I told my teacher so, in an ashamed whisper, so she took the sponge and with adult vigor wiped away all traces that my ruler had ever been there.
Now, the winners in this little drama were the ones who were least impressed with the gift. Those that got to keep their rulers didn’t have to clean their desks, so they were rewarded, essentially, for never noting the presence of their rulers in the first place. Dullards. I loved mine, and I lost it. Because I touched it.
This is just one of the contributing factors in my very layered, complicated relationship with Things, particularly the Things I’ve been given by Others. The message here was not,“I am giving you this thing. It’s yours now.” It was, “I’m entrusting this thing into your care, and you will keep it in mint condition until your death.” The problem is, I was already wired for that sort of attitude towards my things, so this sealed my fate. It is why, I’m convinced, that I never burn the candles that I’ve bought or have been given to me as gifts. I periodically have to give away a small stash of acquired candles and it is not because I don’t like them. It’s because I like them too much.
I have this egg. It’s a ceramic egg with blue flowers, about the size of an egg. We three Noa Girls each got one in our stockings one Christmas, oh, back in the late seventies. We were tchotchke-oriented and happy enough to have another thing to call our own. I think I need to make it clear that the egg was not by any means a favorite possession. But I’ve seen to its care ever since. It’s a short hop from tchotchke-oriented to packrat, it turns out. You have to be able to cycle knickknacks. I can’t do that.
I don’t want the egg, but I’m stymied as to what I should do with it. Do people just throw this stuff away? It should be obvious by now that I am not one of those people. Would Goodwill put it on a shelf? To sit alone forever? Because who would buy it? It might be the most useless item ever. But there must be someone out there, right? How do I find that person? These questions arise every time I uncover the egg, and in every case, it seems easiest to just put it back in That Drawer. Which I have done. And that’s fine, because what if my Dad asks me about the egg one day? What will I tell him? FYI, both my sisters are pretty sure they still have their eggs somewhere.
If we want to dig a little deeper — and I invariably do — this tendency to hold onto things was reinforced by my mother’s habit of cleaning our rooms for us when they got too messy and she was fed up enough. And by “clean,” I mean she took a garbage bag and indiscriminately threw away a portion of our belongings. So, even if I’d decided for sure that I liked something or wanted to keep it, it might go in the garbage. And for a while, at least, I had no recourse, no voice to argue. It’s impossible for me, as an adult, to have anyone help me go through my things, or even help prepare for a move. I am still standing there watching my mother, mortified by the choices I’ve made and unable to explain why I kept these things. Just the thought of it…. No one, and I mean no one, helps me pack.
My late husband would very occasionally clean out a drawer or something and when he was finished, I would carefully pick through the garbage to see what of my things he saw fit to dispose of. I was not always rational. Of particular concern were the childhood things — the games, the toys, the gifts, the detritus of childhood, really — and I think that’s because my mother removed a whole non-contiguous pile of stuff, including, but not limited to, my childhood teddy bear. I remember him going into the bag. And I couldn’t save him. Which I am not saying ruined me, but it ruined something. My things are a chronicle of what’s happened to me, they hold the memories. She erased some of my story.
My husband was not, despite his occasional wild hairs, much different from me in the collecting department, though naturally the stuff he acquired and kept differed from mine. We were together for 20 years, gathering and moving crap across the country, all the way from New Jersey, like a glacier. And now he’s gone, so his stuff has been imbued with this weighty importance. “I belonged to a dead person,” it says, “and he sure loved you.” From the Civil War books to the concert ticket stubs, to his grandfather’s baseball encyclopedia, I want to do right by everything, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. I’m the curator of his collection, his history. And you can see where I’m starting a little behind the eight ball, here. And now I think about it all the time: who is going to clear out my stuff when I die? And how will I posthumously explain the egg?
“Did she leave a will?”
“Nope. Just a lengthy apology.”
The house I live in has been a rental for 25 or 30 years, so it’s a bit shabby. I often fantasize about owning it and how I’d renovate, but I think this is just because I can’t stand the idea of packing and moving. It would be worth it to me to avoid that, buying this money pit. That’s bad. Lately, I’ve begun to imagine a scenario where I’m forced to move because of the termites, or the pipes, or the wiring, or any of the other perfectly legitimate health and safety concerns that might condemn the place. And I think I would just sell everything, and start over again, somewhere far away, like England. Or maybe I’d drag my stuff out to the street and post a “take any of this” sign. What I’d lose in potential yard sale dollars I’d make up for in not having to have a yard sale. Which is a fair trade, in my opinion. Because I can’t really take the judgment. “How much for the egg?” they’d ask, with a pitying look in their eyes. (“It’s not for sale! It’s a floor model!”) Just the thought of dragging out my shame onto the front lawn, in broad daylight, for all to see. It’s sobering.
Despite that, at the urging of apartment-dwelling friends who needed the space, I have in the past hosted several yard sales, which were helpful just in terms of seeing how it might be done. Even if I don’t sell my stuff, it is removed from general population and set on a forward course towards donation piles and thrift stores, and yes, garbages. Mind you, my yard sale cronies invariably leave some of their stuff behind, so there’s rarely real progress. But still. It seems I’ve hit the crucial tipping point. Where I don’t want to keep the thing as much as I want it to be gone, finally. Not everything but a statistically significant percentage.
If we dig even deeper, this has to do with deservability. If I don’t believe I should have gotten the gift, or that I’m worth the expense, then to sell or trade or give the thing away is to claim it in a way I’m not really comfortable with. I’m just the keeper of these things, but they aren’t mine. And let’s not forget the Earth. How much landfill space should Jenny really get? But that’s less of an issue now because it’s too late for the earth. And no matter what — whether an item sits in a drawer or sits in a landfill, it is still biodegrading. This was a huge epiphany for me: It will take up the same space wherever it is. Better to confront it, move it along if possible to someone who would like it, or just call it garbage and get it to a dump.
Happily I am not paying these issues forward. I gift the children in my life by remembering the thrill of that stupid ruler, that simple little something for nothing. And I’m pretty clear on this — it’s theirs to do with what they will. If the first act is to pull the thing apart, or roll over it with your Big Wheel, I don’t care. I encourage it. I don’t want you to keep it forever, nor do I want you to attach meaning to it because I gave it to you. I gave it to you. Use it till it disintegrates, or — and I mean this — give it to someone who will.