the burdens of stuff
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I am recently home from three weeks in New York City sorting through my late parents’ possessions with my brother.
Wow. I have something to say to all you parents out there: If you have a lot of stuff, as a loving gesture to your children, get rid of some, OK? My parents had a lot of cool stuff but they also had a lot of junk. A lot. See the photo? Multiply it by an eight-room apartment. Where they lived for nearly 45 years.
Books. Books. Books. My dad loved books. “Dark brown books,” my mother called them. Hundreds of them. Some might have been valuable if they had been cared for, but they spent their lives in steam heat, drying out. When I visited last year, Dad gave me a book I’d wanted to read, but when I opened it on the airplane home, it crumbled to dust in my hands.
I know that people who love books love having lots of them. “Too many books? No such thing!” I understand the wealthy feeling a full bookshelf inspires. But friends, hear me now: There is such thing as too many books. Really. They are bulky and heavy and nobody really wants most of them. No, not even libraries. Not if they’re old, brittle, out of date. Sure, I took a few of Dad’s books. Not many, though. Just a few. We threw a lot away. We’re not sure what to do with the hundreds remaining. We organized one roomful, more or less, and then grew exhausted and left the rest, and further decisions, for another day.
Going through the detritus of a long life is fascinating and depressing—and not depressing just because it is related to loss. Here are notes for books my father never wrote, books he wrote but didn’t sell, hopes and dreams crammed into a filing cabinet. Here are souvenirs of trips that no one remembers anymore, heirlooms with stories lost to time (although my brother is doing an amazing job assembling our family history), bits and threads that mean nothing to us but might have been rich with sentimentality for Dad. Have we thrown out his “Rosebud”?
We had appraisers in and found treasures that had been buried from sight behind decades of indiscriminate accumulation. We found treasures of value only to us, flotsam that coaxed out memories from the deepest corners of our minds. And we found junk, worthless and ugly bric-a-brac kept only because Dad’s default was “keep.”
I am having nine cartons of stuff and several pieces of furniture shipped home and the apartment is still crammed. I barely made a dent.
Back home, my attitude towards my own stuff has changed. I’m not half the pack rat Dad was, but I still have shoes in my closet that are never worn but with sentimental value, a file drawer full of aborted creative endeavors, bric-a-brac kept for no particular reason. I brought two cartons of books to the library yesterday. I have put some clothing on e-bay. I’m just getting started.
But then there are the photos. My gosh, the photos. What’s to become of them? They are the most haunting aspect of my stuff.
My brother and I love looking at photos of our youthful parents and their friends, at photos of our own childhoods, and at the rarer photos of the generations before our parents. But we have no children of our own, so no one will care about the photos we leave behind. I have thousands of photos, not just of friends and family, but also of my travels. Photos that will mean nothing to anyone after I am gone.
Perhaps, when I see the end coming, I will build a bonfire of my books, photos and failed manuscripts and let them flame out with me.
one last on loss
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The day after my Dad died, I apologized to a friend who lost her mother a few years ago, leaving her without a living parent. I’d tried to be supportive at the time, but I realize now how little I understood. Not really. I understood “sad” and "loss," but not all this. Until it happens to you, the full impact of losing both parents is incomprehensible. Parents anchor us to the earth, they are our most essential touchstone. With them gone, the world tilts off-balance.
My relationship with my parents was fraught and distant. This is a sad fact of my life and I have come to terms with that. My loss does not actually affect my day-to-day or even week-to-week. But my world has profoundly changed.
I’ve heard people say that even as adults, they felt orphaned when their parents died. That is not my experience. Rather, I feel untethered, like a wagon broken loose from the horse. How do I know where I’m going now? Whose approval am I seeking?
And when you lose your parents, your most essential and concrete past slips away, with all its textures and complexities. Your parents are now photos, memories, mementos and whatever you carry of them in within yourself. They become ephemera.
You'll understand when it happens to you. And, very sadly, it will.
a death in the family
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
This is one of my brother’s early bands, The Eels, circa 1975. That’s brother Nick, doing a Harpo Marx kinda thing, second from left. He played the drums back then. (He can play about any instrument you put in his hands now.) Next to him on the couch is Chris the bass player, who was so laid back he was inside out. Last I heard, he was in some kind of metal band. And then another Chris, the temperamental genius guitarist and my ersatz brother. He and Nick were friends since elementary school and Chris spent a lot of time at our house. Sometimes I would get up late in the morning and there would be nobody in the house but Chris, sitting at our kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
And on the far left, holding the inert warhead in what is known among those who know it as the “Warhead Picture” is Jerry Garcia. The other Jerry Garcia.
Jerry died last week and it’s given a lot of people a lot to think about. A lot of ambivalence surrounds his death, from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. As you might imagine, with those particular causes, his death is not entirely surprising but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Jerry was charismatic, charming, talented and a drug addict. Gosh, that’s a cliché, isn’t it? After the Eels, he played with a couple of important bands in the NY punk scene—Richard Hell and the Voidoids and James White and the Blacks.
My friend Dave, who was close friends with Jerry from childhood, told me that when Jerry learned that he’d made it into the Voidoids, he went straight to Dave’s house and they jumped up and down and squealed like little girls.
But Jerry was a vortex of dissolution and over the years, he sabotaged himself—stealing from friends, band mates and professional associates, for example—and many (most? all?) of his friends dropped him.
One friend one time left a room leaving his wallet and Jerry alone. In the wallet was money and a note that said, “Take the money and never come back.”
At his best, Jerry was social, garrulous and a raconteur but that may be why he tried so hard to bring his friends into his drug-driven life. He liked people and didn’t want to do stuff alone. We all like friends around who share our interests. My family holds Jerry partly responsible for my brother Oliver’s descent into addiction and his ultimate death. I don’t think I ever saw Jerry again, after Oliver died in 1987, though I heard news of him now and then, none very good.
Jerry lived with his parents when he died. There was no funeral, just a viewing of the body. Dave went and a few other people. Just a handful. A small handful. After seeing what was left of Jerry, they all went out together and reminisced about Jerry’s good days, about the Jerry who charmed everyone around before he allowed himself to freefall.
Jerry was not an intimate of mine, although he was certainly part of a gang with which I ran. I still laugh to think of him telling me, when we were both older teenagers, that he likes Jewish girls “because they put out” –which is tawdry but funny anyway. (Jerry was Cuban.) I never put out for him though he once expressed a fleeting interest.
Drug addiction is so sad, so sad, so sad. It steals people away from us, sucks them into a cesspool from which many never emerge. Oliver was sucked down quickly. Jerry spun around and around into middle age before his body gave out.
Maybe Jerry was a bad person. I don’t know. He did a lot of bad things. But I think he was just broken, like Oliver. Now that he’s gone, his friends are mourning the person he once was and could have been. It’s a complicated sadness.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
No? Well, don’t think about a white bear...
...now, what are you thinking about?
I’m trying not to think of the poor little poochy, but damned if that image isn’t locked and loaded into my head. It. Just. Won’t. Go. Away.
It’s not like I’ve never seen roadkill before. And it’s not like I’ve never seen an animal die before—Tom and I have had to euthanize four pets over the years and we wouldn’t dream of not being right there with them. I was even with my friend Russell when they turned off the respirator. I saw my brother in his coffin (he looked handsome and just like himself) and my mother (not good).
Nothing has haunted me like this little pup.
It was partly the violence of the moment. I won’t say more about what exactly haunts me because I find the thoughts so painful …
But I've been thinking now about soldiers. How do they ever recover from the experience of war? I guess they don’t, not really or completely. They must carry the images forever, if they don’t manage to repress them. (Yes, it's possible.)
This interesting article from Stanford discusses how women’s memories of disturbing, emotional images is stronger than men’s—that women tend to store the emotion of a memory in the same place in the brain as the memory whereas in men, the emotion and the memory activate different parts of the brain.
So I guess that might mean women wouldn’t make good killing machines, eh? Is that a good thing or bad? Discuss.
I am distracting myself as much as possible from the memory of that miserable moment Tuesday night. Lunch with my client yesterday was a lot of fun and productive. I held it together just fine. It’s only at quiet times that the image pops back up. I started crying during the final relaxation in yoga class this morning.(In unrelated good news, my tree pose was fine today so I seem to have recovered some balance.) However, it was good mental exercise to tear my mind away from the bad thought and bring it back to the moment—the music, my own breath. By wrestling my mind back to the here and now instead from the there and then, I felt immediately better.
Maybe little pup’s last moment has a little lesson for me. One I’d really rather have skipped. And so would he, I’m sure. If he’d had a chance to think about it.
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