Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I Wonder If You Can

For two weeks I’ve been packing to move at the end of the month. Every morning I wake up thinking I’m almost done, only to unearth some new layer of my existence that needs to be taken out, dusted off, inspected, and packed back in bubble wrap, newspaper, and blankets.

The greater part of this build-up is books and, more recently, DVDs. Lately I’ve been ruthless in throwing away books I haven’t cracked open in over ten years and, at present, have no ambition of re-reading before I die. I’ve also thrown out some DVDs I bought under the impression that I had enjoyed them, but later discovered that I did not like them nearly as much as the IMDb readers and Motion Picture Academy do. But, for all the flaws in the digital transfer (Criterion, please help!), I can’t throw out my copy of Robert Altman’s Nashville—I did not own a DVD player until Nashville was released in digital format—and it was my first purchase.

Books, especially, I have a great deal of sentimental fondness for. I have a broken-spined book of bible stories my first-grade teacher gave me—it has the proud ex libris mark “Joey” in my childish scrawl. I have the one-volume history of British literature my master’s professor gave me when I left Marshall University. I have the brittle, yellowed paperback of metaphysical poets I had as a text in a doctoral-level class at the University of Miami. I have all the books Bruce Weber published in the 1980s—each one worth a round trip to Barcelona now, but what I love I don’t sell (although, if I had the money to invest in potentially rare and valuable books, I have the instincts for what people will want to read and look at twenty years from now). I have books about Frank O’Hara, Arthur Tress, and Pier Paolo Pasolini an old boyfriend signed to me. I have books autographed more recently by favored novelists like Don DeLillo and Joan Didion. All these are already lovingly packed away for the move.

Today I filled a large box with photographic equipment—six cameras I no longer use and will never use again, slide carousels and an old slide projector I was surprised to find out still works, and an old video recorder and a stack of tapes, including footage of me with my demented mother that I haven’t been able even to glance at since she died 14 years ago. I’m not sure whether the new, smaller place will have room for these big chunks of repressed memories and memory-makers in disuse, but I haven’t the heart to dispose of them yet.

It amazes me that I, alone, have all this stuff. Let’s say I must have a carbon footprint the size of Kong. Until 20 years ago I didn’t own furniture, preferring to rent furnished apartments or to lease furnishings for the unfurnished ones. Back then, I could move everything I owned in one densely packed Datsun. Now I have a $2,400 leather sofa I bought in Savannah shortly before moving to North Carolina 11 years ago—it’s my only furniture of value, and it’s fantastic still—long and sturdy enough to hold all six feet of me stretched out with my dog at my feet, comfortable enough for me to sleep on and, if I had to, to spend my remaining years on.

What’s my point here? I guess it’s that possessions are a burden and a pleasure—when they have to be dealt with, more the former than the latter. For days now I’ve fantasized walking away from here with just my dog, my MacBook, my brand new iPhone, and one overstuffed suitcase of clothes—which is about all I really need now. The books, CDs, and videos are all anachronisms now—the sum total of which could fit in far less than one GB of memory.

It’s sort of like St Augustine, who prayed for chastity and continence, but then added, “But not yet.” It amazes me that I’m now willing to pay $500 or more to move a bunch of junk eight miles, most of which I haven’t looked at for 11 years and probably will not even think about again until I move again, if ever. Not including the giant boxes and plastic garbage bags of stuff I’ve already thrown away or hauled off to Goodwill, the volume of my personal possessions is, while not exactly crushing, still daunting.

As extensions of who I am as an individual, possessions tend to lock me into old modes of being and keep me from being the agile, free, and unburdened creature that animals are. As I get older, possessions remind me I do in fact have a history—sometimes the nostalgia is so sweet it’s hard to express in words, and sometimes the memories are too painful to revisit even virtually (as in the footage of my dying, helpless, unhappy mother), yet to cast off the painful past and the mementos of it strikes me as somehow marking down my individual worth and putting my life thus far on clearance. So on and on I drag this shit with me. It keeps me human, I guess.

Philosophically, I want to be the man in the Datsun again—even more, a dreamer, like John Lennon, who can “imagine no possessions.” But, for now, like St Augustine, “not yet.”

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