Savers and Unloaders

On getting your things in order
We keep objects: “old letters preserved from the years when I lived far away, an ocean separating me from friends and family.” (Suzy Hazelwood)

Like many Americans fortunate enough to remain healthy while working and attending school remotely, the Cooper family—me; my wife, Molly; our fourteen-year-old, Larkin; and our menagerie of pets—has spent an extraordinary amount of time in our house these past five months. The COVID confinement has meant living around the clock in this shared space, working, cooking, eating, sleeping, entertaining each other, and driving each other crazy. As someone who works at home anyway, I will confess to sporadic eruptions of surliness. Who are these two interlopers in my workspace? Ah, yes, my family. Such intensive domesticity! We’re all here, all the time.

Some of the extra home time has been put to household organizing, with special attention paid to those zones of perpetual chaos, the attic and the basement. Molly would add my study to the top of that list, under the heading “Emergency!” A great simplifier, she’s a devoted reader of the organizing consultant Marie Kondo, and regards my messiness with disdain and alarm. Meanwhile, she works away at improving our environment. Containers have proliferated, formerly unruly objects have been marshalled into order; the kitchen countertop now hosts a single small box. I keep trying to restore this area to its former comfortable clutter (I am, after all, the cook); but every time I look, oops, it has been neatened again, as if by tidying elves in the night.

Messiness and neatness, as traits, tend to parallel two personality types: savers and unloaders. I’ve always been a saver. I keep a lot. The mess in our attic, for instance, includes two plastic yard bags filled with old letters preserved from the years when I lived far away, an ocean separating me from friends and family, and relied on a flourishing epistolary life. Those bags also include letters my parents wrote, going all the way back to childhood postcards written by my dad from summer camp to my grandparents. I even have letters written by my mother to a college boyfriend; he held onto them for decades and sent them to me after she died. Beyond these personal meanings, the fact that letters themselves—long, discursive, thoughtful personal communications—have been displaced by ever more abbreviated forms of digital messaging is another reason to save them. So the bags remain; and when Molly points to them and asks me whether they “spark joy,” I answer truthfully, “They do!”

There are other items saved in my attic. There’s a giant duffel bag containing every pair of shoes that Larkin wore for the first eight years of her life. I have a plan for those shoes: an installation, a big arrangement of concentric circles, beginning at the center with the tiniest shoes, and “walking” outwards in spiral circles of ever-larger shoes toward the edge. But until I actually create that, all those shoes remain stored up there, along with boxes of books and photos; framed art we have no room for downstairs; old home movies from my childhood and still older ones from my mother’s; my 78-rpm records from the 1960s; my complete Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton collections; my father’s medical-school diploma; my grandfather’s World War I army uniform; the ring I gave my eighth-grade girlfriend at St. Joseph School (courteously returned to me when we broke up, and stashed now with my plaid St. Joe’s school tie); a box of ephemera from a ski area in Quebec that we visited every winter when my sisters and I were kids; a copper mule mug that is the sole survivor of a collection my mother used for iced tea; a Swiss-made art deco music box that plays Strauss waltzes...and on and on and on.

The saver’s insight is that our lives are both contained in and conjured by these things; his avocation is the archaeological dig into personal history

The saver is obsessed with the biographical importance of objects, the role they play as tangible markers of one’s past and the way that holding them in your hand can spur memory, bringing back the almost-forgotten with a seductive rush of pleasure. Saving objects preserves the past, and also, in a kind of mirror action, projects forward into the future—that vague and hazy future in which you may want to bring back memories of today; or in which your grown child, once you are no longer here, may touch this or that preserved object and experience its talismanic magic. The saver’s insight is that our lives are both contained in and conjured by these things; his avocation is the archaeological dig into personal history, unearthing this or that dusty relic of the past and brushing it off for study. 

But, of course, in another sense, these things are not our lives, which continue fluidly forward, now rushing, now eddying, and always resisting our attempts to pin them down. Photos, videos, saved objects: yes, these things are proof of our having lived, but they are not our lives and they are not us. They are artifacts. And some day in the future, they will hold no conceivable meaning for anyone.

They may even become a burden. By the age of sixty, most of us have faced the difficult task of going through the possessions of a close family member who has died. A rich mix of sorrow, grief, love, and laughter lies in that chore. But—depending on whether the person was a saver or an unloader—it can also be, to put it bluntly, a bear of a task.

My late mother, Mary Ann Hook Cooper, was a champion saver. She loved remembering her childhood and continued to feel the reverberating loss of her parents, one of whom (her father) died when she was still young. She held onto everything. Yet while sentimental about the past, she was also a covertly tough person, and when she made her mind up about something, she stuck to it. In her mid-seventies, she suddenly reversed a lifelong policy of keeping everything, and began to unload. My sisters and I referred to it as “The Great Purge.” I can see her, standing in the big attic of our family’s house in New London, Connecticut, going through stuff. “Ditch it!” she’d say, holding up this or that relic. “Get rid of it!” She did it with a strange, fierce jubilation. My sisters and I marveled.

Within a year, our mother had been diagnosed with cancer and was dead. I am convinced that she sensed what was coming, and wanted to spare us the task of having to deal with her stuff when she was gone. The three of us still have a lot of our mother’s belongings, more than enough to remember her by. But in simplifying what we would have to face after her death, she made our grief less onerous. I think of that as courage and generosity. She prepared her own leave-taking. She got her things in order.

 

There’s a melancholic undertone to the saver’s enchanting archaeology. Nostalgia was long thought of as an illness. The term was coined by a seventeenth-century Swiss physician who joined two Greek words to fashion a neologism for “the pain of homecoming.” (The Swiss were considered especially prone to homesickness, so much so that it became known as “the Swiss disease.”) As a disease, nostalgia described a clinical wistfulness at the prospect of a lost home in the world, and a consuming, impossible desire to get back to it. In my case, it entails a longing for my childhood family, lost to divorce, dispersal, and death. In time I came to understand my susceptibility to the dim lure of nostalgia, and to be at least a little bit on guard against it. But I still can’t hear “Tales from the Vienna Woods” on a music box without getting choked up.

Such a predilection makes it unsurprising that I have long prized the work of John Updike, the novelist best known for four books chronicling the life and times of a basketball-playing alter ego, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Updike was a practicing Christian and religious themes in his work cluster around three impulses: praise for the created world; awe at the mystery of human consciousness; and dread and disbelief at the prospect of personal extinction. Taken together, these themes trace a conspicuously writerly spiritual logic—namely, that the existence of God can be inferred from our own inexhaustible wonder at the world around us, and celebrated in the writer’s ability to express it. The four Rabbit novels are crammed with the trivia of American life, and hostile critics blasted Updike for lavishing descriptive prose on such banal topics as TV dinners and coffee makers. But a friendly critic, James Wood, perceptively called Updike’s “plush attention to detail” a form of “nostalgia for the present.” Updike understood that in a sense, all of life is being left behind at every minute, as we pass through our allotted stay on earth. “The self,” he wrote in his memoir, Self-Consciousness, “is a window on the world we can’t bear to think of shutting.” Packed full with the ephemera of daily life, the Rabbit novels are the efforts of someone desperate to get as much in as he can before that window shuts. They are saver fictions.

What kind of faith does the saver’s imperative animate? At a conference on Christianity and Literature, Updike asserted that “realism forms an homage to the God of creation” and that in his own fiction, “mundane events are considered religiously, as worthy of reverence and detailed evocation.” Such axioms come close to making a religion of individual consciousness.

Updike treasured Proust, and in his view Proust’s message was that “the transformation of experience by memory into something ineffably precious is the one transcendent meaning each life wrests from death.” The one transcendent meaning? Updike linked the very existence of God to the miracle of individual perception—and to memory. Though raised a Lutheran, he kept his spiritual gaze fixed not on the life to come, but on the life already lived; as he speculated in a poem written as he was dying of lung cancer, “Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start / and not the end of life.” This notion exudes a tinge of the heretical—as if God himself were dying and the world ceasing to exist because we are leaving it. Updike viewed the end of individual consciousness less as mystery than catastrophe and as his death approached, he described that catastrophe in a series of poems that express a crushing poignancy, even as they convey the unsettling prospect of a man mourning his own loss. Thus does the saver veer toward an idolatry of the self, arranging the personal effects of memory into a kind of shrine: “my life, my life, forever,” Updike wrote in his last poem, three weeks before he died.

Unloading remains tough for the saver. The challenge lies in the deep recognition that nothing—and certainly no object—can provide a stay against mortality; that life is fluid, a river from which you drink as deeply as you can, loving people, living as fully as possible, and then... moving on. “Watch out!” Luke 12:15 warns us. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The saver, in the metaphor of Ecclesiastes, is forever chasing the wind. Your objects are not your life, nor can they keep your life from ending. Like so many of life’s important truths, this is something you have to keep learning again and again.

 

Making a shrine of your own life is a kind of spiritual error. And yet it is also a gauge of how much we love the world

I’m trying, and to that end I have decided to unload certain cherished items from the attic. A single pair of sneakers remains my all-time favorite—Reebok Blacktops, heavily cushioned basketball shoes that came with air bladders built into the lining and a pump, disguised as a basketball, in the tongue. After putting them on, you inflated them, and a luxurious softness encased your foot.

Those Blacktops, now prized by collectors, evoke basketball of the 1980s, an era of splashy new hoop gear. For me they evoke something more personal: the six years I spent in my late twenties and early thirties living in Germany, with a woman I’d met here in the United States. Basketball in Germany was a third-rate sport and a mediocre American hoop player could be a standout at the club level. When I wore those Reeboks I was, in effect, a ringer. I played for a sports club called Vorwärts Orient in the lovely Rhine city of Mainz. The club consisted of soccer (the “FC” on the jersey means “Fussball Club”), volleyball, basketball, and chess—hardly a “jock” outfit. After practice, our team would cross the street to a tiny neighborhood bar called Schweizer Haus, in the basement of a residence. The place had literally three tables, and we would drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and crack jokes, occasionally indulging the curious German tradition of Stiefeltrinken, drinking beer from a giant glass beer stein in the shape of a boot, passed from person to person.

The bartender at Schweizer Haus was an older woman, a boisterous Berliner named Jutta, who cooked us really bad goulash soup and sat on a stool, drinking as we did. Jutta would get rowdier as the night went on. “Halt die Klappe!” she’d shout when one of us kidded her, “Shut your trap!” Inevitably at some point she would turn to me—the only American ever to enter that place—and sing, “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, whooo-whooo!” I’m pretty sure those were the only English words she knew. After two years of our going there twice a week, Jutta was diagnosed with cancer and quickly died. She had been a loner, far removed in time and place from where she had grown up, and the only people to attend her funeral were her brother and our basketball team.

For thirty years I’ve held onto these shoes—scuffed and deformed—because they evoke a time of unprecedented excitement in my life, when I was young and had cast myself into a new country, with a new language, a new love, and large hopes for the future. I played hard, worked hard, loved hard. That phase of my life remains precious to me, a time chock-full of discovery.  Seeing these sneakers makes me grateful to have lived it. But I don’t need the sneakers themselves. Accepting this truth allowed me to toss them out the other day. I shed a tear or two, but away they went. 

Making a shrine of your own life is a kind of spiritual error. And yet it is also a gauge of how much we love the world, and the blessing of our lives in it. As with so many things, the challenge lies in reconciling opposites into a richer and more capacious whole—in cherishing and letting go, saving and unloading at once.

Unloading will always be a challenge to those who, like me, store up memory like treasure. But I will invoke, as needed, that image of my mother, and that fierce gleam of joy on her face as she dispatched her life’s objects with a triumphant “Ditch it!”

Your life is not less fully lived for being, finally, over and done with; even for being forgotten. Regarding those sneakers, and other similar treasures, I will remind myself: do not chase them. Let them go and let their memory dissipate, as it must and as it should, when I do.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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