We are in the process of doing some home improvements that we have put off for five years. When we sat down with our priorities and budgets five years ago, we decided to buy bikes and live with gnarly carpets (you can buy rugs to cover stains), the horrid light yellow paint on the walls (we call it Sun Faded Cat Piss), the uncomfortable futon we’ve had since 2003 (our dog loved it), and the cheap blinds (rental unit level quality). Every time we have had a bit of extra money, we decided to go places rather than invest in home improvements. Then the pandemic hit, and we spent almost a year with those floors, those walls, and the blinds, and whenever I had regrets, I went out to the garage and looked at our bikes to remind myself we’re doing okay in life.
Before we have folks to do this flooring work, I have decided to see this as an opportunity to cull through my belongings. My husband and I both moved out west (separately) in our twenties with what we could fit in a car, and when we moved in together, we chose the best of anything we had as duplicates. He and I have moved close to a dozen times in the twenty years we’ve been together, so we’ve pared down our belongings. Books and bikes take up the most space, and we’ve always seen it as worthwhile to keep some possessions. If you look at our library and if you know us individually, you can easily tell which books belong to whom. Only he and I know which books we’ve both read (we have different tastes). As we have moved, we have also accepted that there are some things that we will never part with as individuals. One heated exchange is all it took for me to accept moving things of his, and he mine.
For instance, after our third time moving together, I peeked into a box and found this black leather jacket covered in art that I’ve never seen him wear and I suggested that he part with it.
“I’ve never even seen you wear this, and what’s all of this other crap in this box? It’s gotta go to Goodwill, yo.” I had thought he was the only offender of keeping unnecessary things, but he came back swinging with the snark.
“Oh, you mean like that heavy-ass sewing machine you make me carry. I’ve never seen you fire that thing up.”
He had a point. I loved that machine. It was from my life before him. It was the only thing left from a certain era, a time that feels like it never happened. Maybe he felt the same way about his jacket. Space in the U-Haul was precious real estate. We parted with a few kitchen gadgets and he kept the relic of his punk rock youth. I blew him a kiss when he carried the machine up three flights of stairs, and he extended his middle-finger with a smile in his eyes. That was the last time we had that discussion.
Now that we are faced with moving all of our possessions to put in new floors, I am motivated to streamline my things mainly because of a short story by Ann Patchett, whom I love with all my writerly heart. In “How to Practice,” she writes about helping her friend clean out an apartment of her recently deceased father. Both Ann and her friend do not have children like me and my husband.
Here’s the section that gave me pause:
Over the years, we had borne witness to every phase of his personal style: Kent as sea captain (navy peacoat, beard, pipe), Kent as the lost child of Studio 54 (purple), Kent as Gordon Gekko (Armani suits, cufflinks, tie bar), Kent as Jane Fonda (tracksuits, matching trainers), Kent as urban cowboy (fifteen pairs of boots, custom-made), and finally, his last iteration, which had, in fact, underlain all previous iterations, Kent as cosmic monk (loose cotton shirts, cotton drawstring pants—he’d put on weight).
I love this description for two reasons: We learn so much about this man both by popular references and the way that she uses parentheses. Rather than telling a story within a story, she gives us details about Kent’s life in between those parentheses. I used to teach my students that if you are going to add parenthetical information, you should read it aloud and if it doesn’t make sense like you’re whispering an aside, it doesn’t work (when in doubt, leave it out).
Explicitly this is a story that teaches readers to think about their things and what might happen when you die, what might happen if you do not have children to clean out your closets. It’s also about what this man brought into his life as he aged and changed through different phases.
Implicitly this story is about so much more, and I thought about how that sewing machine (for me) was the first time I had extra money to buy something I wanted as a working adult. That leather jacket signifies something intangible to my husband, I’m sure. My mind then wondered some more.
When I think about stories of intangible and tangible things, I see the cover of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. If you have not read this book, click away from this bloggy drivel, and treat yourself to an incredible book about the Vietnam War.
Here’s one of my favorite passages:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations…men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to.
We have two copies of this book, by the way, we read it as graduate students and loved it. I know his copy by the handwriting in the margins, it’s a given we’ll keep both copies. The day my book arrived in the mail 22 years ago, I cracked it open and read the whole thing in one sitting. I canceled the plans I had that night, ate cheese and crackers for dinner and read O’Brien’s masterpiece, a banned book. I had heard both of my parents tell stories about the Vietnam era, and I’ve seen all of the movies and documentaries, but that book took me inside the mind of an American soldier, inside the complexities of that war. He taught me the weight of intangible things (like memories) can be heavier than any real thing (like carrying your friend’s dead body).
Memories are heavy.
When I bought that sewing machine, I justified the purchase because I knew I could always sell it if I really needed the money in the future. I’ve learned from my middle-class friends, they didn’t have to think this way about their possessions. For those of us who survived childhood with parents who lost jobs and the economic destruction that ensues, it is hard to not think this way even if you have moved into a new tax bracket yourself. That sewing machine signifies a sort of success for me (I never got desperate enough to sell it). I’ve never asked my husband what that jacket means to him, but I will carry that box should we move again (some stories are personal, it is also lighter than my sewing machine).
As I started to go through the things I have accumulated since we moved here five years ago, I cut the tape on a box that I have moved but have not opened in probably ten years (if I’m honest, the mister has probably carried this one, it’s really fucking heavy). I have letters from people who are (sadly) no longer in my life, my high school yearbooks, really old family photos, scrapbooks, and my high school diary. I spent some time putting a few photos on the Insta writing captions (Insta is all about self-entertainment). When I cracked open my yearbook and a weaving project from my senior art class fell out. I had forgotten that we done weaving in that class!
Memories of my art teacher came flooding back as I touched the fibers and marveled at how good it was (humblebrag). I remembered the art teacher telling me my design was ambitious and that I may not be able to make it work, but she told me to experiment and try. Like a good art teacher, she had us sketch and make a plan before we started the actual weaving. I don’t remember my grade nor do I remember what anyone else made, but I remembered loving the feel of the loom, how I obsessed about the colors of the yarn, and that class was one of my favorites because I got to talk with my friends as we made things (a precursor to how my best friendships have matured and endured).
As I turned the 4×12 inch weave over to see the right-side and the wrong-side, I now see how my plan did not work in reality (some of the rows do not connect, there are holes where there should not be). I am amazed by the teacher’s willingness to let me make those mistakes (she had to have known), and I think I can fix them now.
In this small artifact that has survived 30 years tucked into a yearbook, I see my 18 year old self choosing colors I still love to this day (greens, purples, golds, blues) and a design of a sun and a moon (always a hippy at heart). Until recently, that was my one and only art class. My heart aches for students who do not get to take classes like this or for kids who lose time in art class to do active shooter drills. I know for a fact there are fewer art teachers.
I also looked at the teacher section of my yearbook, and I was amazed at how many of my teachers had graduate degrees from really good schools. Morehouse, NYU, Spelman, Syracuse, Boston College, and other regional publics from the southeast, I was so very lucky to land in that public school in Atlanta, Georgia though I am not sure I thought that at the time.
I looked at the photo of my history teacher (a Morehouse alum) who played “Fight Power” by Public Enemy during a lecture, and he stopped the cassette tape (I’m old) as Chuck D was mid-stream:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
He asked us why Flava Flav was so mad at Elvis and John Wayne. I remember the entire class cracking up. We were freaked out that our teacher even knew this music (he was probably 26, ancient to teenagers). In my suburban Atlanta classroom, we loved that music and I remember us laughing at how hip our teacher was (he dug Public Enemy like us!)
I have never forgotten the power of music for what we call teachable moments. I don’t think (and I deeply fear) that a teacher could not do this today, and every time I hear that song, I think of him and what he taught me about poetic explication (though I would not have known to call it that).
Can you imagine his lesson plan? Today we will discuss American history, cultural appropriation, and race relations as represented in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Students will discuss key poetic lines from William Jonathan Drayton Jr. and Carlton Douglas Ridenhour.
Maybe he did not write a lesson plan at all and that’s how it worked (I remember him shutting the door before he pressed play on the boom box).
So okay, I’m digressing (as usual).
Here’s the thing.
I want to express gratitude to one of my dearest friends (a textile artist) who bought me Ann Patchett’s new book and had her sign it for me in her bookstore as I housesat. As I fell deeper in love with her home and her pets. As I tried to write this book of mine. As I tried to essay and nothing came. As I tried to remember the hope that you can be an author who owns a bookstore in 2022.
Patchett’s message has helped me through some really dark months, and she has helped me see that I am at my best when I essay (when I attempt, when I try).
I’ll leave you with her words from (a tear-stained) page 4 and 5:
…I could watch myself grappling with the same themes in my writing and in my life: what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take. Again and again I was asking what matters most in this precarious and precious life.
As for death, I have remained lucky. Its indifference has never waned, though surely it will circle back for me later. Death always thinks us of eventually. The trick is to find joy in the interim, and make good use of days we have.
Amen, Ann. (And fight The Power).