I scurried around the room knowing I had to be forgetting something. Oh wait, this poetry anthology or this collection of short stories? And what about shoes? This pair was practical, this one sturdy, ohhh but these have always been my favorite! It should be okay to have just a few extra things right? Maybe I just won’t choose.
I stuffed all these beloved things into my army surplus frame pack, ran my hands over the necklaces hanging on their hooks, the bindings of books still resting on the windowsill, my giant collection of dresses is all colors, materials and lengths. I had spent all my time after the dismal period of being under my parents’ iron fist surrounding myself in items I felt reflected my once deflated soul. All these things in which I saw myself, in ways I hadn’t been allowed to express in my parents’ house. “I’m not materialistic,” I told myself. “These are just deep expressions that surround me with much needed light and peace.”
Explain, explain, explain, rationalize, rationalize, rationalize. You know where none of these words mean shit? On a trail, uphill, for a mile through the forest. We had met up with some other travelers and next gen hippie types (Rainbow Family, they’re called, or just Rainbows) and joined them for the final night of their gathering in the Shawnee National Forest. And here I was, with my fifty pounds of “much needed light and peace.” I didn’t want anyone to know what an awful mistake I was realizing I’d made. One foot after the other, shifting the pack, bent forward to compensate, muttering in my head, “Oh shit, I can’t do this! Shut up, it’s fine. You can. You can. You can. Oh god, this thing is like fucking half of me! This is not gonna work. Shut up! Just walk. Walk. Walk. You love every pound of this stuff.”
When we made it to the top I thought I was going to die. I went for three weeks with that overloaded pack, hardly touching three quarters of the stuff in it. Then, the following summer, we moved to Washington, making the trip with a westbound friend who had a van. We had a Chevy Cobalt. I packed pretty much the same as last time, but for three people. I’m pretty sure every single one of us was sick of my shit by the time we arrived. We transferred it slowly from the smaller vehicle into the larger, our friend being gracious and accommodating regardless of having to dig around all my things, shuffle and rearrange to get to her own things. Someone finally tied my bags to the roof of the van. One fell off and no one noticed till it was too late. Every coat, jacket and blanket I owned was gone. On the last leg of the journey my daughter’s bag of clothes fell off. We were driving behind the van this time and stopped, laughing as we collected colorful dresses and leggings off the side of the highway in the moonlight.
Then, the next year, we’re headed somewhere new, this time with only the Cobalt. I laid everyone’s clothes out on the living room floor, separated out our favorites and sentimental items (like tie dye we made, and the jeans myself, both my sisters and both my children had worn as babies), then started a thrift store bag. Things too big for the car (the rocking horse, the kitchen table, the three story dollhouse grabbed up from Ross for 50 cents after Christmas) automatically enter the “get rid of pile.” I did draft after draft after draft. The kids participated, going around the house throwing toys into a box “for other kids to enjoy.” We had the conversation that led to one of my many mantras, recited with tiny rolled eyes and sighs. “What doesn’t matter?” I ask. “Stuuuuuff,” the kids huff. “What will you have forever?” “The love of my family.” My youngest at the time, then two and a half, tried to roll his eyes like his dramatic sister, but giggled in spite of himself.
They were huge sports, even going out to the sidewalk to greet kids who came to our yard sale to give them the guided tour of toys they could make their own. I did end up replacing my daughter’s dollhouse with an “on the road” version, mostly out of guilt. I think I cared more about the whole thing than she did. She now has the Calico Critters Camper (without the tuxedo cat family or Cherry Cruiser. That stuff is stupid expensive!). We made it out of the state without losing anything. I went from a ten years’ accumulation of clothing including twenty six pairs of shoes, to nearly the bare minimum- a pair of boots, a pair of tennis shoes, a pair of moccasins to solve the “what shoes do I wear with this dress?” problem I have, as a tomboy who wears dresses. Nothing with a heel. Ever. I own one drawer full of shirts, one pair of pants, one pair of shorts and, although my enormous dress collection awaits my settled down days in a trash bag at my mother in law’s, I take three dresses around with me.
When we finally got our bus I did it all again, this time with one more kid. The dog always wins at giving the least fucks. I’m getting better. My kids no longer roll their eyes when they tell me stuff doesn’t matter. If we’ve learned anything it’s that no matter how much you get rid of, or lose or pass on, something else will always take its place. And then, that thing will go too and likely get replaced. When we say, “Stuff happens,” in this family, it’s not a euphemism for “shit happens,” that we just say. It literally means that Stuff, junk, possessions, things, will always ebb and flow through our lives. The only constants are our family and the experiences and memories we have and build together. I needed that lesson just as much as the littles, and we’ve learned it side by side. It’s not a trend we follow to be on an HGTV show. It’s not sleek wood shelves and plants hanging in glass spheres. It’s just as much an amalgamation of others’ unwanted items, picked up from thrift stores or given to us by strangers we meet on the road, as it always has been. Just far fewer of them now. I tell people fairly often, “All you have to do to be happy is give up everything. It’s so much easier than it sounds.”
When we meet other travelers one of the questions we always ask is, “Is there anything you need?” And, of course, I’m the queen of baubles and trinkets, when I know where I left them. I’ll pass on a galaxy rock or a pin to remember us by and the people we pass things on to may well pass on those same items. My husband once gave away a jacket, only to have an identical jacket given to him within a couple months. The universe knew he really liked that one…Or maybe I did. I found out it wasn’t waterproof the day my daughter and I went out to see how far the creek had risen in the middle of a spring downpour. We carried a bleeding toad to safety in my soggy pocket.
I grew up being made to feel guilty for even the things I needed (showers were timed, lights were to be off until sunset, one pair of shoes were allowed at the beginning of each new school year) by a man who never wanted children and resented giving up his own desires for us. This created a handful of complexes in me, one of them the, “I want better for my kids than I had,” thing. What I failed to realize for the longest time is, it was my father’s attitude that caused me to lose out, not the items I was denied as a result. And children who are given every material pleasure are simply harder to please, as their baseline is so much greater before they feel they have even achieved “normal.”
Now folks, please don’t do that thing where you talk about the underprivileged and make your kids donate a toy to a poor child, just because the child who goes without is the worst thing you can imagine. You just reinforce the same negative ideals in the other family by giving in to that attitude. Not to mention, you’re in fact reinforcing in your own child the opposite of the value you were likely seeking to instill. That is, teaching them the other kid is less well off because they have fewer things. Volunteering is a far better way to teach compassion and empathy and show your child a slice of the other side. The worst thing people of privilege seem to be able to think up is not having their precious stuff. Do you remember that we’re animals? Have you ever seen a rabbit with a purse full of things it just can’t leave the warren without? Breaking up with stuff is one of the most freeing actions you can take for yourself.
I started this piece on my phone in the back yard this morning. My youngest and I discovered a secret lady bug village in the thickest part of the unmown grass. The ladybirds were reinforcing my message. Since childhood I have never succeeded at feeding a lady bug and, other than aphids, I’m not even sure what to offer. I watched a particularly red little guy crawl down a blade of grass and pick up a dew drop in his mouth, which then slowly disappeared into him as he walked. Another had one on his back, maybe for later, maybe to take home to his thirsty mother. Or maybe, the sun had hit it just right and he saw all the colors reflected in it and knew, this was all he needed, until the sun or perhaps gravity took it back.