Or – discarding the products of your labor.
I would not describe myself as overly attached to material things, at least as compared with friends and contemporaries in twenty-first century America. For years, until I moved into my present house in 1993, frequent long distance moves on a tight budget forced me to identify what was important and irreplaceable, and to sell, give away, or discard what was not.
I have noticed a steady decline in the demand for perfectly serviceable items in the 50 plus years since my first garage sale. This seems to be a product of a culture that encourages the acquisition of new items, typically charged to a credit card, as a surer sign of personal validation and a better road to personal satisfaction than hand-me-down clothes and furniture. It bothers me a little to throw a solid piece of furniture I bought at Goodwill in 1994 into the dumpster, but it’s not a source of grief.
I don’t have much invested in furniture, emotionally or financially. That was not the case a generation ago. I recall an episode in Somerville. Massachusetts in 1978, when I and two room-mates rescued a 1930’s vintage chair from a trash pile, and the former owner, an elderly Italian, was delighted that someone wanted a chair he’d lived with for decades.
I guess I always envisioned that the downsizing and distribution of my possessions would fall to my heirs, and I went so far as to make an inventory of the things that were of value to me for their unique status as products of my own, or in some cases, of my parents’ labors. Now it looks as if moving into smaller quarters is something it behooves me to do soon, while I am still sound in mind and body. That means either looking individually at my material goods, seeing to their disposition, or relying on a de-cluttering service which has no history with the accumulation and will be governed mainly by the current monetary value of goods my daughter and perhaps a few close friends have no interest in, when deciding whether to hold a pre-estate sale, give them to the Salvation Army, or toss them in the dumpster.
Several boxes of papers I just sent to recycling illustrate my dilemma and what I refer to as a grieving process. I have a doctorate in biology, with a specialization in fungal taxonomy. I spent a decade of my life accumulating a professional library at a time when it meant real financial hardship, and writing papers which were well regarded in the field, reprints of which fill a couple of boxes. There are unpublished manuscripts, unique and probably of interest to someone. I was never able to find permanent paid employment in my field, and this entire archive went into storage in my basement two decades ago. Those papers represent a whole decade of my life – my dreams, my labors, the hopes I entertained as a young woman – and nobody wants them. A downsizing service would recycle it with no qualms, and my daughter would not think it worth storing, or going to any great effort to finding some individual half a world away who might want the manuscripts and specialized books in a discipline not currently in vogue.
As I get older, the rate at which things go obsolete seems to be increasing, leaving things for which one worked very hard with no value in the eyes of the world. In this case, it is not so much the material objects which are to be lamented, as intellectual property which will be lost if the material objects are not preserved. Anyone with a strong creative bent, be they artist, craftsman, writer or research scientist, knows the feeling of loss when something he or she has created, which initially appeared to be of utility in enriching the human condition, becomes something to be discarded alongside the pizza boxes, shopping newspapers, and clothing bought cheap at a big box store, which has lost its luster of newness.
I try to hide my grief when I see educators with an eye mainly to their own bottom line, be they public or private, aggressively marketing to young people the chance to be a scientist, or an artist, or a writer, when the pace of change has now become so rapid that it is not just retirees like myself, but a high proportion of young would-be creators barely out of college, who will see their dreams tossed into recycling. It’s getting harder and harder to hold my tongue.
Photos by Martha Sherwood – all rights reserved