October 4th, 2010
Four Weeks After the Fire
(After reading a previous entry, someone remarked, “You are a Poet of Loss.”)
I am looking into the closet of my tiny bedroom in this tiny cottage, and counting my clothes. I have four shirts, and a pair of black pants. On the shelf, a pair of tan pants, and a t-shirt. On the back of the door hangs a long blue nightshirt. There’s a story behind that one.
When we went up to check the house after the fire, I absent-mindedly stopped and opened the mailbox. The only thing inside was the nightshirt, back ordered from Orvis, wrapped in green plastic. Somehow the shirt survived, completely intact, oblivious to the inferno all around. Such are the strange gifts of fire.
In the kitchen I have a cup that Rosemary gave me at the potluck, brightly painted with words of friendship and flowers; a coffee maker, and a few utensils. Most of the other cupboards are bare. There is an elegance to such sparseness; a poetry to this bare bones existence.
In the bathroom I have a small collection of tiny travel shampoos and soaps and toothpaste, which I got at the Free Store. The young women there had wrapped up toiletries in small cellophane bags and tied them with ribbons for fire survivors. When I bent down and picked one up, there was a small note tied to it with a shiny pink ribbon. It read, “Always thinking about you. Stay strong.” This made me weep on my friend Matthew’s shoulder, right there in the store. Taken aback once more by the kindness of strangers.
At the Free Store I found a long wool coat made by Jones New York, a couple of pillowcases, and some boots for winter. “Are you sure this is all you need?” asked Matthew, who flew all the way from Chicago to help me for a week. “Yes,” I said. “That’s it for now.” There were so many donations, such an outpouring of clothes and books and toys and food… I could hardly take it all in. “Is that all you need?” Yes. What do I need? How much “stuff” does a person need? This has been a contemplation all of my adult life.
When my house burned down at 12, my father shrugged and said Good Riddance. When he died at 62, he owned exactly four suits, a couple of golf outfits, two sets of gold cufflinks and a sports car. My mother used to say that if he ever decided to leave us, he could pack in five minutes. I don’t know if he was trying to keep the freedom he felt from losing everything, but after the fire he never really bought things again. And if people gave him things he merely gave them away. “You don’t own things,” he would say, “They own you.” And so we all became purveyors of freedom rather than of possessions, mastering the art of moving around, cutting ourselves free, no “stuff” to tie us down.
And then, at 40, I bought a house, and it began to fill up. Clothes, shoes, books, papers, exercise equipment, linens, collectibles… Each spring I would clean house, up there in the mountains, and fill boxes and bags with things for the annual Sugarloaf Garage Sale. I was ruthless, giving away books that had overflowed the shelves, clothes I hadn’t worn in years, kitchen utensils that I rarely used. I would go through files and dump papers, throw out old photographs, pare my memorabilia boxes down to a minimum. And yet there were times, late at night, when I’d walk around my spacious house and feel like a prisoner of all my stuff. “Who needs all these dishes?” I would think. “Why do I have closets and closets full of clothes?” At times I wanted to get rid of it all. But not like this; not all at once.
There is philosophy and there is reality. Deep down we sometimes wish we were free of all this stuff, that we were twenty-two again, and everything we owned fit into the back of an old Honda Civic. But then we realize that, for the most part, we need stuff to make a life. And when it all goes away, we are plunged into a strange and spinning place, with nothing to hold on to — no house, no home, no stuff, no clothes, no papers, no books, no clutter. Nothing to own. Nothing to own you.
My next door neighbor here in Chautauqua also lost his home in the fire, and the other day he came home with a bag of new clothes and sighed as he carried them up the stairs of his cottage. “So it begins,” he said sadly. “I was just beginning to relish the freedom of no-things.”
The freedom of no-things. Who are we when we have no “stuff?” Can we then become somebody brand new?
Yesterday in the mail I received a card from my friend Ellen. Tucked inside it was a small piece of paper with the following poem written on it.
The Guest House – by Jelaluddin Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Such is the poetry of loss — It is an invitation to see what lies beyond sorrow, what sits just on the other side of pain, what sun rises on the horizon of despair. It will pass, as all such experiences do. The edge will dull, the memory of “no-things” will blur. I will shop, and fill this tiny closet with the things that make up a life. I will once again own things, and try not to let them own me. I shall do my best to “meet them at the door laughing” — the things, the feelings, the crowd of sorrows, the unexpected visitors.
We will dance together, in a new place, a new home, with room for us all.
Wishing You a Good Night,