I live in a country where people change homes often. It is supposed to be a sign of upward movement. There are things called ‘starter homes.’ I guess people start with those and then move up, first to a townhouse and then to a detached home. Then, if you are anything like Oprah, you graduate to a $55 million mansion.
I have done just the opposite. I lived for years in large detached houses. The government placed me in grand homes, with reinforced doors and round-the-clock guards. Then I receded into a charming three-story townhome in a Washington suburb where tall trees and short shrubs were my heartening company. Now I hope I have made my final transition: to an ultramodern apartment with decent spaces, large windows and the vista of a manicured lawn.
I have been dreaming for a while about a life of less clutter. It was comfortable living the way I was living. But I had a hard time finding some books I wanted. Worse, I overlooked some books and had forgotten that I had them. Not just books, I possessed more things than I knew or remembered. More than once, I bought what I already had, whether it was a brand of crackers or a box of dishwasher detergents. I had too much space and I had bought too many things to fill the space.
Then came the day of reckoning. The van was at the door, to take away my things to my new home. And three more trucks to move away the things, four-fifths of my treasure, that would go to charities. Frantically, I sorted things, casting a last, lingering look at the multitude of objects I had to part with, shirts and shoes to beds and desks. I realized what a fool I was, how much I was invested in the tchotchkes around me. It was painful for me to get rid of the thousand things that were around me, things that weren’t important for my existence and were probably obstructions to a cleaner, simpler, happier life.
I did not sell a single thing. All clothes, furniture, electronic equipment went as gifts to mostly anonymous recipients, all books and stationery to students and libraries who I hope will find them worth preserving. The measure of agony to dispense with them is of course no way to guess the measure of joy it will bring to the recipients. I wish they could know that I had cared for them; I wish even more that they would care a little for them.
I thought of my pain and the reason for it. Every one of those things, a book, a picture, an old letter, represents a chunk of memory. In that way, it was an anchor of my undistinguished life. It gave meaning to my brief existence on earth, it provided a context for my loves and lusts, hopes and dreams, tenuous but tenacious aspirations. No use telling me they represented the past and needed shedding; they were the past that defined my whole being and forged what remains of my future.
It is perhaps foolish to debate the virtue of retaining or relinquishing the million trifles that gilded our days. They played a role in our life-drama, or were a critical prop, and thus gained an entry into our heart. We ascribe them an undeserved value – my dearest school friend gave me that keychain or an unforgettable redhead handed me that watch before saying the cruelest goodbye – that doesn’t stand the test of time, but they surely overwhelm all niggardly calculation about what has an iron grip on my weak heart.
The trucks were loaded with my blings and blankets, my radiators and refrigerators, my beloved books and belittled bookracks. The painters were ready to repaint the walls to make them look new; the floor polishers stood poised with their foul-smelling paint to give a new shine to my much-trodden floors; the expert cleaners held their brooms and buckets ready to give my weather-beaten home the renewed glamor of an elite home.
I could stand it no longer. I placed my suitcases in my car, donned my favorite weather-beaten jacket and started the car. The realtor, virtually a counselor and guide, placed two untouched bottles of Grand Marnier and Glenlivet in the passenger seat and, in return, I placed the key of my home in his hand and pressed the accelerator. I couldn’t bear to see the last of my old home.
A new home waited for me. A bright new apartment, modern and sophisticated, with shiny floors and dazzling lights, brand-new furniture and finest kitchenware. An apartment with no memories at all. It will be for me to create radiant new memories.