In the last month, I’ve been in the process of getting ready to move and I’ve put a lot of thought into why I have so much stuff laying around. My closets and drawers are filled with everything from Wendell Berry poetry, to Brewfest wooden nickels, to an old belt of M-60 rounds. So I’ve gone through it all and with each thing I pick up I have to decide if I’m going to keep it or toss it. Why on earth do I have a belt of M-60 ammunition? And why on earth can’t I bring myself to throw it out?
Well, thankfully, I’ve managed to throw out just about everything. I had to narrow my criteria for keeping something down to this: is it a tool, is it a book, is it clothing? Now that sounds easy, but those three categories tend to have big gray areas. Take for instance this Tae Kwon Do gi that I got from a South Korean marine while I was camped on a hill somewhere near Pohang, Korea one winter. I think I traded him an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for it. Well, that fits nicely into the clothing category, but it’s certainly not something I’m ever going to wear…even if I could fit into it. Yet I keep it. Why?
Or take this set of National Geographic’s Mysteries of the Unexplained books that I bought when I was abut sixteen and thought was the most amazing collection of paranormal oddities I’d ever seen in one place (pre-X-files, mind you.) They are books, sure, but am I going to read them again? No, and frankly they look sort of silly sitting on the shelf next to C.S. Lewis and John Irving. Yet I keep them.
Tools don’t really need explaining, you simply can’t ever have enough of them, so why would I ever get rid of any of them at all? I wouldn’t. That part, at least, is easy.
Why keep all of this junk? Why did I pack that stupid belt of M-60 ammunition? The answer, for me at least, is that I collect all these weird things and put them on my shelves because they are a visual representation of my life, who I was, who I am. They say things about me in a much easier way than I can express with words. This is why I take so much pleasure in perusing another person’s bookshelf or movie collection. Our collections are like an abstract equation and solving it can go a long way toward telling you who a person is. If I spot too many movies on your shelf that star anyone named Wayans, for example, we aren’t likely to ever be very close friends. If you happen to have a healthy stock of Kurasawa films, on the other hand, we are going to get along nicely. Same with books. Terry Goodkind? It’s going to be a long and ugly night. Wendell Berry? Let’s go farm something for the good of humanity. Music is the same way.
So the reason I keep that M-60 belt is that it’s part of my grand collection. There’s a great scene in the movie Wall-E where he brings Eve to his home and since he can’t talk he starts showing her all the things he collects, like a lightbulb, and a Rubik’s Cube. It’s his way of saying, here, look at this, this is what I value, this is part of who I am, this is a piece of the puzzle. For me those M-60 rounds are a reminder to me that I spent six years of my life playing pretend war in some Arizona desert as a U.S. Marine. The Korean gi reminds of the winter I spent freezing my toes off living in a tent on a hillside in South Korea. Kurasawa films are reminders that I was a film student. So I carry all these little collections around thinking that someday maybe they’ll tell someone who I am, or who I was or wanted to be.
I’m pretty well done packing. The furniture all had to go. A lot of my clothes went to Goodwill. I got rid of all my dishes except for one plate, one glass, a couple pieces of silverware and a frying pan. I pared down my belongings until I am left with almost nothing. What’s left is, while small, a grand collection.
Here’s a sample…
Punch Drunk Love
Raiders of the Lost Ark
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
The War Against the Chtorr series
Crime and Punishment
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A sculpted clay wolf that I made when I was nine
A collection of awful poetry that I wrote 10-15 years ago
A Coconut from Tinian
Letters from a French girl named Caroline
16mm Movie Camera
A ridiculous student film called “Lucky Strike”
The Torah bought in Jerusalem
A handful of stones from the desert in Beersheba
A woven wicker Thai volleyball
A manila envelope from a friend with Wendell Berry poetry written all over it