Friday, October 1, 1999
Carlisle Comments: The Right Stuff
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." H.D. Thoreau
Most of us wouldn't admit it even to ourselves, but if Thoreau was right, and our material possessions are a hindrance to our elevation and a positive burden to our souls, by now our souls are weighted down like pack mules loaded for a trek to the gold fields. Were Henry David to saunter out from Walden's woods to survey his new neighbors, imagine how swiftly he would turn heel to write a new diatribewhich no one would take the time to read. They would be far too busy at the mall, or virtual on-line mall, happily burdening their souls. Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. Not if people have the right stuff.
We don't care about wrong or right stuffjust more stuff. No one likes a greedy, grasping person. But do more people actually emulate Mother Teresa or Bill Gates? Do we more avidly track the success of charities or the rise and fall of the NASDAQ?
Truth is, we crave any and all stuff prodigiously and don't much care how we get it. We fantasize about owning the unattainable, until fantasies come true, as in Silicon Valley's recent surge in Ferrari sales. On the other hand, here in Carlisle, a minivan pulling up to the swap shack to disgorge its post-yard-sale cargo creates a stir akin to a show boat rounding a curve of the Mississippi. We return home triumphant with our swap shack prize, in the face of family interrogation, "Do we really need that?"
Clearly on some level we do, even with, or perhaps because of, the prosperous economy that some analysts compare to that of the 1960s, with real income gains and high productivity. The world of the on-line auction has become a battleground, with popular E-bay being challenged by an alliance of competitors. Public television's reigning ratings leader is the Antiques Roadshow, an appraisal clinic that teaches you how to tell plain everyday stuff from terrific stuff. The Roadshow's fascination is its suggestion that the ghastly portrait relegated to the attic inflicted upon you by your late Aunt Sara was by a newly rediscovered naive artist and at last you can afford steak.
But the real value of stuff transcends the materialist cycle of binge and purge represented by on-site or on-line auctions. " 'Tis better to give than to receive" reminds us that stuff can be a channel through which we can exercise selflessness and generosity.
In October of 1991, children in a wooded, hilly California neighborhood gathered their old toys, dolls, and stuffed animals and brought them to school to give to the poor. The following Sunday, a terrible fire swept through the neighborhood, and destroyed thousands of homes, the children's homes among them. When they returned to school from shelters, hotels, or the homes of friends, the children were overjoyed to find their old toys awaiting them. Discarded the week before, the rejected toys were now rendered precious by fire and loss. For the children and their families, these material possessions had become a balm, not a burden, to their souls.
A year later a complaint common among those who lost their homes was, "Yes, insurance covered our losses, but everything we own is just too new!" Can anything be "too new?" Weren't they just whining about a condition as tragic as being too young, rich or too thin? Or is the idea of "too new" a clue to the value of stuff?
If you have ever evacuated or even moved (a gentler, diluted version of evacuation), you know the difficulty of choice. What must you give up, what must you keep? Just as French bakers brought dough starter to America, so that their bread would continue to rise, beloved old stuff can be "the starter" for the new.
When one way of life makes way for another, it is your stuff that bridges the gap, remains the same. In times of radical change, even if you can afford to replace everything, stuff becomes a reminder of where you've been. As one generation gives way to another, stuff can pass down through the years, providing a concrete testament to lives once lived. For some, the legacy has been lost through catastrophe, and stories and traditions must fill the vacuum. But if the past has been lost through neglect, then the future has lost its moorings.
So, take care to consider before you discard, and look again at your family treasures. And dear Henry David, some material possessions may burden soulsbut others may also accord us our history.
Iris Jones is an elementary school teacher recently relocated to Carlisle from California
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito