My grandmother had a beautiful house. Underneath the cream-white carpet the floors stood on a hollow wooden raised foundation that echoed the gentle sound of your footstep with a beautiful acoustic resonance, like the soles of your feet were sending sound waves through the body of a giant steel stringed guitar. Next to the modern artwork adorning the bar, that I never once saw used as an actual bar, was a large cabinet with kid sized white french doors that, when opened gave way to a trove of blue and yellow bugle horns, board games, soccer balls, and marbles. Anything you could want to play with, rested right there in the cabinet. The kitchen was contemporary and airy, with lots of sunlight throughout the long California days. The metal sculptures throughout the house had a soft feel to them, and all of the artwork appeared to have been crafted for its location. My dad grew up in that house, and the echos of his childhood adventurous pursuits still rang off of the walls. There are so many memories in that space.
When my grandmother decided to move out, we all knew it was the right decision for her, but the change left an empty space in our hearts. Everyone would still be able to be together, but we would no longer be together in that space. As my grandmother packed the various elements of the home she had lived in for over fifty years, she sent as emissaries, different nostalgic objects and artifacts to the homes of her children, grandchildren and friends. More to my grandmother’s loving way, she asked us what things we would like to have in our homes. Dori and I have a silver serving tray from her that we keep in our dining room.
The things we populate our homes with, the stuff, they hold memories. There is some history that nestles itself among the fibers, resting between every atom of our cherished objects. Memories that animate solid lifeless objects into sacred articles that help tell our story. We have known this as Jews for millenia, and allow our objects to help make our lives meaningful by telling their stories. And we recount our memories week after week, unrolling the story of our people and reading it out to ourselves to tell us who we are. Someone asked me this week to explain the holiday of Purim. At first I said, “oh, it’s so much fun! We make little three cornered cookies and give them to each other. There’s a lot of celebrating!” Until I realized that I wasn’t really helping. What was Purim about, this person wanted to know. I stopped to think, and realized that I took for granted what was at the core of not just this holiday, but many of our Jewish holidays: that we come together for the holiday of Purim in order to tell part of our story. Our stories, our memories, are right at the core of who we are.
One of the ways that we hold onto these memories is by placing them in objects. In the case of the Torah we have translated them into words and written them down, but other memories, the violence of Haman we have placed into groggers that crank out noise, a pair of silver candlesticks tell many stories, and years of weekly and annual prayer are woven into the fabric of our tallit, our prayer shawls. This is one of the many reasons why when it comes to things, it can be so difficult to let go of them. Family heirlooms are often few and far between, but we take the same memories and place them into shirts, cars, books, any number of knick knacks and instead of allowing us respite from holding onto every last memory they weigh us down.
The last time that Dori and I moved, we hired a company to help, and when they slammed the back door down on that giant white truck full of our things, and threw the heavy latch we jokingly told them that we didn’t want any of it back. It was so freeing to feel like we didn’t have all this stuff anymore, the weight lifted off our shoulders. It is almost unbelievable how much stuff we can acquire, and all the more so the things we get rid of. Of the loads of stuff that all of us donate to Goodwill and other thrift stores less than 20 percent of it is actually sold in that store. There’s simply too much, and faced with more clothing than they can house in the multitude of warehouses around the city, thrift shops have to find other ways of dealing with our no longer wanted items.
One billion pounds of used clothing is exported every year from the United States alone to poorer countries. There are literally hills of discarded clothing some of the poor towns who are the benefactors of our discarded stuff. In Ghana there is even a common saying for this. The phrase “obroni wawu” means “clothes of the dead white man,” a culture unable to imagine the volume of things that we have in the US and one that reasonably figures that if so much is there in Ghana, there couldn’t possibly be just as much, or even more, somewhere else. Some communities are now turning away these exports because they have more clothing than they need to cover their bodies, just not the food to fill them, and yet I still have a closet that is bursting at the seams. In 2014 Goodwill sent 11 percent of the clothing donated to them to the landfill, which cost millions of dollars just to haul away.
What makes us continue to gather more and more? For certain we live in a consumerist culture, our media and industry strongly encourage us to purchase and buy. Undoubtedly each of us had the experience today of having an advertisement suggest that we need or want their product. But there is more, every new thing that we have allows us to fuse it with new memories, and new pieces of who we are. Objects let us expand ever further our own identity, and grow bigger with new stories.
And it is so hard to let these things go, because sooner or later each and every thing that we have holds a memory, tells a story, and when we give away that thing, we give away that memory. When we give things away, we give a little bit of ourselves away with it. And we can’t help but feel then, like when we give things away we are losing a bit of ourselves, which reminds us of that time when we will have to give away all of our self. Every parting object a small reminder of our frailty, our mortality. Every new purchase a false reassurance that we never have to give ourselves completely away if we simply bolster our self with stuff.
About a month ago, Dori and I stuffed one green and one red backpack full of provisions, a tent and clothes, and made our way across the country by train. Traveling with a sparse set of things, what we could fit on our back, we stepped off the train at a number of stations to walk around in the open air, and I felt that same freedom we had when the movers secured the latch on that truck. Freedom from my things, freedom from too much memory. Vacation just isn’t the same when you stay at home, you have to get away to be free, and leave all those heavy memories behind resting quietly and securely in the walls of our homes. Vacation lets us let go of all of the things that we have, all the permanence of our lives, and be free. And it was in that moment, stepping through the forested mountains in the crisp Colorado air that I was reminded of something powerful, that real freedom, the kind that lets you open up, and instead carrying the past, allows you to live right there in the moment, real freedom, comes from letting go.