Friday, June 3, 2011
Brutal and Summary Dechachkefication
With the onset of Alzheimer’s, my grandmother’s lifelong habit of archiving magazines escalated into the creation of a shoulder-high maze in her bedroom, then the stacks’ consolidation into an impenetrable monolith that finally engulfed my deceased grandfather’s twin bed. Before it was over, termites were nesting in fifty years of National Geographic, Arizona Highways, and Audubon.
I could see the pattern recapitulate itself in my mother’s reluctance to part with anything that had once come into our house, and with the onset of her own dementia, a rising sense that the integrity of her life depended on the categorical preservation of everything she’d gathered around her.
My uncle left a suicide note explaining to his daughter how to install the storm windows.
I’ve labored all my life under the burden of hoarder DNA. I remember explaining at the age of four why the small and large scraps of paper on the coffee table needed each other in order not to feel lonely.
My partner and I spent the last six weeks preparing to walk away from our house in Toronto for fifteen months. Readying it for new occupants involved a brutal and summary dechachkefication.
I went through five boxes of memorabilia from my childhood home that ten years ago seemed like the barest tether to four and a half decades of memory and desire. Nine tenths went into the trash, or to the curio shop around the corner. I couldn’t bear to treat my mother’s favorite housedress as refuse, so I burned it. I hadn’t realized how splendidly cotton fabric flares up.
I sold a collection of vinyl I’d barely played in fifteen years, that as much as any artifact defined who I was in my twenties: hopelessly romantic and romantically hopeless aesthete; idolater of Bach and Mozart; incipient Wagnerian; dilettante in zydeco, alternative rock, and reggae, which represented for me the less mapped-out and rule-bound life I longed for but couldn’t choose.
What do you do with a shelf of twenty-year-old erotic videos that long ago lost their compelling allure, and have in any case turned to magnetic snow onscreen since you last beheld the divine Al Parker in all his gloriously ingenious raunchiness?
And on it went. With every carton removed from the basement; with every bag of unworn-for-a-year clothing donated to Goodwill; with every cookbook I hadn’t succeeded actually in using for ten years, there advanced a lightness that grew addictive. I found myself wandering around the house at night looking for something else I could do without. When it comes down to the choice, at least three quarters of what I hang onto bears almost no lived relation to the quality of my life.
It’s a gentle and very privileged middle-class version of renunciation that I’ve practiced since mid-April. But it’s been salutary nonetheless. What matters, it turns out, are a few dozen CD’s; a cat who spent the first six hours of The Big Shlepp from southern Ontario to the East End of Long Island screaming her head off; the altar objects now installed in a recessed niche behind my desk; some collage work in progress. Letting go of the rest is a taste of freedom, a chance to reinvent the soul and to be reinvented, a minor spark from Shiva’s ring of fire, Pentecost’s least dramatic tongue of flame.