Dear Friends of Switchback,
While I nursed a cup of coffee and gazed out the kitchen window of my childhood home, a doe and her fawn grazed across the front pasture, nibbling on bluestem. I put on my boots and walked out the door and onto the dew-soaked grass. Immediately the deer were nowhere to be seen. I walked down to the barn, the scene of so many of my childhood memories, the place where I helped lambs get born, rode horses, stacked hay and milked the odd goat. My parents are now dead, not even a year since my father passed, and like that doe and fawn, their presence lingers but then the reality hits and they are nowhere to be seen.
I came out to the farm to help sort, pitch, save, recycle, donate, burn, and in some ways, put my parents to rest. The accumulation of years of farming and living that resulted in an excess of materials that now had to be determined and addressed. I was keenly aware of the devastation going on in Texas and Florida that served as a backdrop of the odd ritual in which I was now participating. Irma and Harvey left a lot of people doing the same heart-heavy process. That of delineating between “stuff” and “things.”
When viewed on a sheet of paper, the two words seem like two sides of the same coin. But there is a difference in my opinion. Stuff are materials gathered that have no true sentimental, historical or emotional attachment. Things are just the opposite, not perhaps having financial value, but all or part of the former make them necessary to processing our existence. There are people, who in confusing the two, make a practice of gathering as much stuff as possible in the hope that they can become things. And there are people who believe in a minimalist approach, thinking that by eliminating stuff they may just be able to have things. Those people are also touched by the same desire, to create a sense of understanding of their existence.
What to do? If you strive to surround yourself with stuff, you may never have things. If you attempt to eliminate things, you may just be left with stuff. To the archaeologist, all things become stuff and valuable in that they help to hypothesize what people must have treasured as things. That is why I don’t enjoy antique stores. So much stuff that had once been things to someone, and now are devoid of context and meaning.
The irony of works of nature such as fire, hurricane and flood is that it doesn’t choose between stuff and things, but eliminates equally. Then you have people who look at the television camera and say “we lost every-thing, but are blessed.” Or the family, before the wildfire claims their home, deciding what things they need to quickly stash into their car. And how odd those choices can be. Pictures, books, locks of hair, grandfather clocks, guitars and family bibles. You never hear of someone putting the widescreen TV and the porch chairs in the boat. That’s stuff and expendable. But those rare things are what always make us, as humans, crane our heads toward the television to see what our fellow human beings are willing to transport. Like the Ice Man, found frozen in the Alps of Italy a decade ago, we wish to grasp what things are carried to identify us. And we ponder, what did the Ice Man deem as stuff and what, if anything, was a thing to him?
And so it is a slow process with my parents “remains.” For things may just be stuff in hiding. The clock that was there in the front parlor for decades. Do I attach false value to it? Was it just a clock or was it something that reminds me of some-thing. It is a tough walk through a minefield of emotions. Ultimately, a decision is made. Fire curling through old picture frames and broken chairs. Or a piece of children’s art, with 40-year-old glued macaroni and painted gold, held onto like a treasure from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Perhaps that is why I need to decide in my own life what I want my loved ones to think of as some-thing of mine. A connection to me. And how important it is to separate the stuff of my daily life, material and nonmaterial, from the things that really matter. To not, in my opinion, runs the risk of stuff overruling life itself. The peculiar havoc a disaster brings, whether manmade or natural, allows us a chance to take stock and let go of the stuff and give us the blessing to bestow things to others.
We have a saying in Switchback, “Travel light to travel far.” Certainly when it comes to stuff that is true. And I will never forget the one great thing my best friend Dave’s dad gave him. An envelope on which he wrote, “You may open this and find nothing in it, but you would be wrong, for it is filled with my love for you.”