Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ties That Bind

While in India last year I went to Birla House, the place of Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 assassination. It was an unexpectedly sombre and moving day; walking in the humble, bare-chested man’s final footsteps, following the last few hours leading up to his demise. What affected me more than anything was the display of Gandhi’s worldly possessions at the time of his death. There behind glass on a wall in his austere room lay a careful arrangement of his belongings: a pair of wire rimmed spectacles, pocket watch, prayer book, sandals, a brass bowl and plate and a couple of other small, modest items.

That was all.

Gandhi led an ascetic life, living well outside the confines of personal possessions; a man of the world and of the people. He left behind nothing material to speak of; only a legacy of nonviolence and moral leadership that will last forever. As he himself said, “My life is my message.”

It begs the question: how much does what we have, have to do with who we are?

I’m ruminating on this as I’m driving over the bridge to the South Shore of Montreal. I snap back to consciousness and look around me: to both sides, cars and trucks headed out of town crammed full to the top with vacation and camping gear, bicycles strapped to the back, Thule storage bins tied to the roof, trailers in tow.

I think more: Wallet, purse, duffle bag, tote bin, shopping cart, backpack, car, truck, trailer, moving van, locker, rented storage space, house, safe, safety deposit box, coffee can buried in the back yard.

We all seem to have a tremendous amount stuff to carry around with us and a bunch more stuff to stash away in various ways and places, for apparent safekeeping. There are entire companies dedicated to our ever-growing storage needs, offering a full range of containers we need to buy in order to stash away all the things we already bought but don’t need at the moment.

What is it all? What are things? What do they mean to us, and why do we feel the overwhelming need to hang on to so many of them, inconveniently hauling them with us wherever we go?

Up until very recently, every time I’d visit my storage space my body would begin a series of subtle, negative reactions. As I approached unit number V2208 with its robin egg blue, corrugated metal door standing quiet sentinel over the lifetime of accumulated belongings inside, I’d get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and start to break out in a bit of a sweat. The process was always the same: I’d fumble with the lock, wrestle the door up in a clanging rattle and then stand there for a moment in the jarring aftermath of silence, staring, getting my bearings.

I’d feel a sense of hopelessness and ambivalence as my mind skittered through a barrage of questions with seemingly no answers: What is all this stuff, and does it really all belong to me? When will I ever see these things all unpacked and on display again, and do I even want to? Where? How many more months can I continue to let a fat sum be charged to my credit card for keeping all my belongings safe in this lovely climate- and humidity-controlled environment? And why are there heavy boxes piled on top of my fragile antique table when I specifically told the movers not to put anything on it?

Eventually I’d suppress the feelings and get down to the business at hand, which generally amounted to bullying the boxes around until I found whatever article it was that I felt I needed to retrieve that day. Pull the clattering door back down into place and lock up, leaving my stuff behind, divorced once again.

Perhaps we believe that material things are what connect us to this world we live in. If we own things, we have a semblance of stability; a place where we belong on the planet, where we’ve set down roots. An identity. For certain we are led to believe that things enhance or help define our personality – for example, the kind of car we drive or the clothes we wear. This often then develops into the inexplicable and excessive accumulation of said things.

Is it due to boredom? Do we buy things simply because we have time and money and we can? Do we discover needs that must be filled, needs we somehow never had before, created by clever marketing? Or perhaps it’s the tyranny of choice: We simply have too much of everything to choose from and therefore choose it all (I think there’s definitely something to this last point – alas, for another blog entry). Are we afraid that the trinket we finally decide to surrender to charity is the exact item we’ll have a need for the very next day – even though we haven’t so much as looked at that item for the last 5 years?

Susan Sanders Wansbrough offers this:We overvalue what we have. Whether it is the price we paid for it or the effort it took to obtain it, we find it hard to let something go for less than what it took us to get it in the first place. Even if we no longer need it or like it.”

The last time I paid a visit to my things it was to try to cobble together a suitable job interview outfit. Ever seen what a blazer looks like after it’s been crammed into a cardboard storage box for a year?

This time, my outlook was different. My body wasn’t reacting the same way. As I went through the familiar motions with the lock and the door, I felt a faint flutter in my heart and broke into a smile. These four walls still house far too much stuff. Clearly I haven’t yet been enlightened to the point that I can be content owning nothing more than a pair of reading glasses and a spoon. But in sharp contrast, I gradually came to realize that this also represents my freedom. As hard as it’s been at times to be a vagabond, to continuously search for the next place to sleep, the next friend to take me in, I now understand what a rare and amazing opportunity lies before me.

So what if this overpriced locker has cost me the equivalent of a couple of weeks at Club Med?

It’s the price to pay for having wings.

Never before in my adult life have I been so utterly mobile. I’ve got stuff, and a lot of it – but it ties me to nothing. I can go anywhere, at any time. I can start anew. I can settle or I can roll. I am a drifter, a wanderer, a shape-shifter and a life changer; I am fluid, and I am free.

In choosing a year ago to live without my things, did I change who I am? And if I continue to live without them, does it change who I will become?

If Gandhi were still here, I would find a way to ask him.

As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, keep it.” Mahatma Gandhi


Lorraine Smith said...

Mmm lovely. Timely too, as I'm reading Erik Erikson's Gandhi's Truth and it's causing me to think a lot about this very special, influential, flawed yet inspirational human. Also timely because in three weeks I will spring the stuff from my own storage locker and see what it was I thought was so important to idea what's in there! Thanks for your perspective on this.

Anonymous said...

I love school supplies. They represent a new beginning. You have a blank page, a new pen, and room to make tons of new mistakes, with a little bit of genius in between.

You will be a great teacher because you love what you teach. The most important thing to share is your enthusiasm!