Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jigsaw Musings

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I am my mother's son and she is her father's daughter.

My grandparents' attic is packed with boxes and boxes of sentimental items--letters, books, trinkets--that my grandfather has kept over the years. A vast closet holds, it seems, half of everything with which they returned from the mission field in Africa. His garage and work shed is a storehouse of metal scraps, rolls of twine, drawers of rubber-bands and a dozen other things that "I might need someday."

Several years ago, when helping my mother pack up my childhood house in preparation of her move to Oregon, I came across box after box after box in the cramped crawlspace. Magazine subscriptions dating back several decades, linens from college, pots and pans which haven't seen a scrap of food in eons, non-perishable food stuffs from when I was in school, an old water bed, a dead lawn mower and worn tires. And this does not even touch the multiple, 4-drawer, upright, metal filing cabinets in which she maintains everything from insurance and other necessary documents to "Kids' School Papers, " "Inspirational Articles," and "Favorite Quotations."

So, I suppose it should not have surprised me this weekend, as I transferred the contents of my life into boxes for shipment to New York, that whatever pack-rat gene dominates their DNA obviously courses through my body as well.

Our Colorado apartment is not large enough to hold all our stuff. For the last several years, some friends have been gracious enough to allow my wife and and I to store our extra things in their basement. But with our impending move to Manhattan, we are compelled to gather everything together and decide what we really and truly want to keep. We are being forced to live simply. A New York lifestyle--at least one in our price range--simply does not allow the accumulation of "stuff."

This purging is hardest on me.

Over the weekend, I took a huge and painful step. I threw out a gigantic box worth of VHS tapes. On these tapes was every episode of Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise and even a season or two of The Next Generation that I'd compiled from TV for almost two decades. Part of me felt liberated. But mostly I just felt very sad. (Later, when my wife got home from a weekend wedding in Kansas City, I would tell her what I'd done. There was no, "I'm sorry honey, that must have been difficult." No, this heartless, Star Trek-hating woman of mine's face lit up and she immediately asked, "Did you also get rid of the hundreds of Star Trek novels!?" No, my beautiful bride, I did not. A line must be drawn somewhere, after all. I'll remind her of this sacrifice someday when I am ready to purchase the DVDs.).

Later came the boxes of books. I own hundreds and hundreds of books. Even after setting aside four huge plastic bins of books to take to the used book store, we're still coming away with nearly 30 boxes of books to take with us. I had to decide which books I truly wanted to keep and which ones were simply the sort which are read once and discarded.

Next came the boxes of beautiful National Geographics dating back to the mid-90s. Ouch.

Most difficult of all, however, were the three or four massive and extraordinarily heavy "Save Boxes."

Their contents were an eclectic hodgepodge, a cornucopia of my life inscrutable to any outside viewer, but pieces indelibly connected and related to my eyes. Childhood toys and stuffed animals, an elementary school "Best Improved Speller" award, a Royal Ranger Straight-Arrow of the Year certificate, old posters, drawings by my sister, High School year books, pictures, Bible school items, college papers, random notes, printed e-mail exchanges, old girlfriends' love letters, gifts, short stories I'd written, Navy memorabilia, and reams and reams of favorite quotes collected on scraps of every kind and size of paper imaginable.

I had to be ruthless. I couldn't keep all of this stuff. I had go through it and separate what was truly worth keeping and what was merely sentimental clap-trap. I began making piles, quickly going through everything. Why had I kept every card my grandparents and mother had given me for Christmas or my birthday? They all said roughly the same thing. Keep the significant ones and trash the rest. Who cared about all those college papers? Keep the ones that I was especially proud of and trash the rest. Quotes? Do I think they are doing me any good in a basement box? Trash. Trash. Trash.

A few hours later, sitting back and looking over what I'd done and the huge pile of rubbish collected on the floor, I suddenly felt nauseous. It happened so quickly that it completely caught me unaware. I was physically ill, teetering on both tears and dry-heaves.

And that's when I realized the extraordinary power of words. You'd think that someone who has a degree in literature would already well understand the magnificent and transcendent majesty of words. Yet this realization cut through the academic arguments and hit home at a place far more personal. As mundane or insignificant as some of these cards and letters were, they represented history. That ink was the embodiment of someone's thoughts, splashed on a page for me to see. These symbols proved they existed. They validated their feelings and intentions. Other than my memories, these things were all that they would leave behind, at least in a physical sense.

Moving like a man who has only seconds to accomplish a task, I dove back into the piles, scattering papers across the living room floor, digging through the mounds to retrieve letters and cards and the like. Happily I began transferring them back into the now near-empty boxes. So what if I had several huge, heavy boxes. I'd simply have to find a place to put them. I simply couldn't part with some of this stuff.

When I was finished, so was the nausea.

These items embodied things I'd done well and was proud of, while others actually reminded me of things I'd screwed up, people I'd hurt and times I wish I could go back and change. They represented history--my history and the history of those closest to me. Was I such a product of my throw-away society that I was willing to toss out the very things that, if not made me who I am, at least were the touchstones for those experiences that formed me? These boxes held the random and seemingly unrelated shapes of the jigsaw puzzle of my life--and there is nothing worse than sitting down to put together a puzzle and realizing that you don't have all the pieces.

I am my mother's son and she is her father's daughter.


Anonymous Nate said...

I identify with this post far too much. Particularly the last paragraph. I don't know when, but someday I'll want to sit down and piece it together, and I will want all the pieces. It's an affliction.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Nate said... the risk of deflating the the more poetical tones, can you say A-1 Storage unit? Don't know what the Colorado prices run, but here it's about $30 a month for a small unit that holds a surprisingly large amount, especially if it's all contained in neat airtight tubs.

But I understand that money will be tight. I have a storage shed attached to my garage that will not be filling up anytime soon. It's not climate controlled, but again, airtight tubs will work fine. This is a serious offer. It's not like I would forget about it being there or anything. It would just sit in the back behind everything else. I'm not moving for a while. Let me know! Springfield's on the way!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

This is one of the most beautiful posts you have ever written. My heart goes out to you as I can only imagine what it must have been like. Having said that, I must inquire, did you finally get rid of "Micro-Fungi on Oceanic Rock Formations"? Jeeze, you are a pack rat.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Hahahaha, you remember that huh!?

No, no, that book and its kin were given or thrown away years ago.

That said, when you are stung by a poisonous Bolivian blow fish and the only antidote is the extremely rare blue moss found on trans-Pacific sea bed rocks the line deep-water thermal vents, don't come crying to me for help.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous CW said...

Hey Brandon:

Thanks for your musings. It is hard to sort out what to leave in and what to leave out.

Personally, I hate to say goodbye to people who brighten my life. Like you, I want to savor every scrap that recollects the memories both bitter and sweet.

I have enjoyed our times together which are only moments in the grand arena. Thank you for every second. I will wait for the movie, yours, that is.

See ya,


1:22 PM  
Anonymous deon said...

I too had to purge many different item's from my life recently, and still much more remains. I totally understand how you feel about having to throw away, and give away things that you have held onto for practically you whole life, but hopefully many of the items went to good homes, and will become some great historical item for someone else. I also inherited the packrat gene from my paternal Grandmother, she has books, and magazines dating back to the 1940's, so don't feel bad. Take care and I can't wait for the next update.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I have some of those invaluable's boxes of my one labled "Paul's Mountains." My wife was asking me about them the other day and reminding me of the accumulating number of mountains and asking when I'm going to do something about them. At least I keep them to the US limit of 14,000 feet, nothing about 15,000, I'm very disciplined.

Brandon, in reading your post I can't help but feel a little remiss in not asking earlier if you had any Star Trek episodes to unload on me in your effort to economize space. In some circles I can't even consider myself educated for my lack of exposure to the ins and outs of Star Trek.

Oh well.

Pack Rats are the ones with no regrets.


5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi there, Brandon~
>I so totally relate to this post<
I have shipped and schlepped boxes of, essentially, junk across the country several times now...
oh my~

DB ; )

9:28 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

What can I say but "me too"?

We're looking at going through a very similar process, very soon, very hopefully. (closer and closer we get...)

But when I cleaned off the old bookcase last weekend, and came across the Cover Story article of my Aunt in Marin County who died a couple years ago, I also could not let go. But I also realized as I looked at the silly little plastic bag this newsprint is hanging half out of...I have a friend who is a scrapbooking fiend.

"So What?" you say...well, actually, some of these stupid, faddish hobbies can be useful! Because the thing that comes with ARCHIVING.

For a few (hundred??) dollars, you can put your precious cards (I've got my share) and articles, and letters, into a beautiful archive collection box, which will a) preserve it, and b) make it look less like junk [something that should be thrown away] and more like history.

I'll let you know if Evelyn is available for consulting! :-)


5:38 PM  
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6:24 AM  

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