Posted by: HAT | November 19, 2014

Must-Saves, or a Possession Problem

image of a mica coated cardboard decoration in the form of a church

What the village church looked like before it was abandoned

Hi, Gang!

Now that it is winter, the blessing of a garage is especially noticeable. Our house has a two-car garage, and I confess to having had prideful thoughts about how we can actually get two cars into it. Granted, it’s a tight squeeze, a little like holding your breath while zipping up jeans. But since both sets of our parents have two-car garages that can hold 1 car at most, on good days, because they are fully occupied holding other things, it’s also a little like shopping for a size 4 with a friend who is getting into a size 14. (Clarification: it’s what I imagine that would be like.)

Admittedly, our garage has a seasonal rhythm. In the spring, when it’s time to start mowing the lawn, at least one car moves outside. This makes it easier to get the lawnmower and wheelbarrow in and out, and leaves plenty of room to mix potting soil and to unfold and dry folding chairs that have been sat in by wet swimmers at swim meets. Then, late in the fall, ideally well before the first snow, the summer stuff gets dusted out for the last time and pushed back into its winter upright-and-locked position, and the garage becomes a place for the cars to shelter from the elements.

This year, however, making room in the inn for the little car, which has to fit on the “compact car only” side of the garage, required dealing with some of the other things besides cars that had been taking up space in Mom and Dad’s garage for the last 10 years or so. Specifically, the 6 boxes of “Christmas stuff.”

I agree completely, in principle, with Dorothee Soelle about the role of possessions in the life of the spirit. She points out that voluntary poverty and mysticism have traditionally gone together. St. Francis of Assisi specifically made the connection between poverty and pacifism; property leads to the need to protect the property, which leads to weapons and the use of weapons; giving up the property allows you to give up the violence that is its inevitable consequence. Soelle sees the practice of simplicity, of living simply so that others may simply live, as an important resistance practice in our own day. In a world in which we are bombarded by advertising messages urging us to see-want-buy, in which consumption increasingly becomes our work and our duty, and in which “having” implicates rich-world consumers deeply in the relations of exploitation and violence that structure our world, stepping back from consumption is an act of resistance. I agree, in principle.

This principled agreement was on my mind last Friday when, barely ahead of the first snow, I made myself “deal with” the “Christmas stuff.” The experience of dealing with Christmas stuff raises some questions that complicate the problem of possession. In the case of the Christmas stuff, it is a little less clear to me what constitutes resistance, or what resistance means.

From the beginning, this Christmas stuff was not stuff to keep. It was already earmarked for dispersal. In general, in fact, it was already earmarked for church, which is having a holiday bazaar on Saturday. In recent years, this bazaar has moved more and more towards the sale of “gently used” Christmas stuff, and away from the crafts that were the mainstay in years past. Theoretically, items from Mom and Dad’s would have fit the bill nicely. The proceeds from the bazaar go towards some worthy cause, whether the church’s budget or the local ministry of feeding the homeless. How many proceeds there are depends on our encouraging one another and members of our community to do just the opposite of embracing voluntary poverty and to be moved to acquire additional possessions.

A person might argue that buying a “gently used” item or a piece of handwork from a gaggle of church ladies is closer to the resistance of voluntary poverty than buying something new from a store. So maybe the bazaar offers people an alternative to the consumerism into which “the economy” and “society” are constantly propelling those of us who live in the rich world. On the other hand, the event of a bazaar only makes sense within that economy and society, so a person could also argue that it participates in the dynamics of that consumerist economy and society. Those arguments seem about equally persuasive to me. So, I either spent last Friday assisting in a resistance event, or aligning myself with the dynamics of consumerism, or doing some of both; I don’t really know.

I do know that even “gently used” stuff has to meet certain standards of marketability – possibly a bit of evidence in the “alignment with consumerism” column. This was an issue for the Christmas stuff from Mom and Dad’s, because it had not been stored under the best conditions. In fact, it had been stored in poor conditions. The garage was damp. The boxes were inaccessible; they had been untouched for a long time. So they were musty.

Part of “dealing with the Christmas stuff” was eliminating all the must, separating the stuff that could be saved from the stuff that was hopeless. Anything porous had to go – the Polish straw ornaments, the little lamb’s-wool ornament I bought Mom for Christmas one year, the felt elves. All the cardboard. All the packing materials. Anything that could be washed – ceramic, glass, metal – was a good candidate for salvation. Wood is on the boundary, but most of the things that were wood seemed to be in decent shape/marketable condition.

But this brings up another complication: the “weapons” needed to prevent the loss of possessions are not just the kind that keep other people from taking them, like guns and police power. They include the kind that keep time and life from taking them over and ruining them: temperature control, pesticides, detergent, housekeeping and care-taking. Often, the use of these – or, some of these – weapons is construed as an expression of responsibility, even of love. In some contexts, refusing to wield these weapons of care may be, often is, construed as abandonment and neglect. It signifies not caring any more. If there is an act of resistance involved in laying down those weapons of care, or in refusing to take them up in the first place, who or what is being resisted, and is that resistance liberating? Maybe “caring nothing” for one’s possessions signifies freedom from them, transcendence of them; or maybe, it signifies a specific kind of need for them, a need for signs of one’s indifference and freedom. Again, I don’t know.

I do know that not all possessions are equal, or equally precious. Santa mugs – great, someone else will love them. Spode Christmas mugs – great, someone else will think they got a bargain. Mom loved them, she might wish I did, but I can handle that posthumous disappointment. Christmas tree ornaments bought after my brother and I were grown and gone – ideal candidates for a church bazaar. A paper bag with cardboard houses, a bent and torn cardboard church, faded miniature pine trees on stands made of red wooden spools – porous; musty; unsalvageable; almost indistinguishable from a box or packaging. Except for its role in the childhood memory of “getting to hang the village” on year after year of Christmas trees in a dangling cluster from the lowest branches. Impossible to sell, impossible to keep, and just as impossible not to feel something like a traitor, or a killer, in the act of consigning it to oblivion. Things like that are not just things. They are enchanted – they call our names, from another place and time, whispering like Sirens to some long-forgotten self, begging for … continuity? Solidarity? Mercy? For whom, or what?

What is it most necessary to resist, right now: the tyranny of things, the conventional criteria of value, the temptation to dwell in the past, the temptation to abandon and refuse to care for the past …? It’s hard to know.

I got the car into the garage before the snow fell, I got the Christmas stuff to church before the bazaar. “The village” is a memory – along with a lot of other things. Maybe memories count as possessions, something we “have.” Whether they are the kind of possessions it would be better to have fewer of, the kind of possessions that come to possess us, I can’t say. Maybe it depends on the memories.

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