Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Things We Keep

We are currently smack dab in the middle of Garage/Yard Sale Season in Minnesota. Every intersection in town is peppered with homemade signs in obnoxious colors and large print designed to catch the attention of passing motorists. If, when driving along, you happen upon random sprawling clusters of cars, you'd better prepare to brake for women pushing strollers and children darting out from between parked vehicles as they race toward these advertised destinations. I have personally not gone to many sales this spring for one reason: I am preparing for my own. It is counter-productive to load up on someone else's junk [treasure] when you are endeavoring to unload your own. So I stay in my cluttered garage, sorting and pricing--assigning monetary value to things I no longer need. Space becomes a premium when I realize all of life is a trade-off: In order to make room for the things I want, I must get rid of the things I can live without.

A few years back I embarked on a mission to purge myself of Excess Stuff I had spent nearly four decades amassing. I began with the obvious traps that tend to attract unused articles--the backs of closets and the bottom dresser drawers. Finally, I moved on to my most sacred shrine of nostalgic keepsakes--my hope chest. I lifted the lid with great heaviness of heart. Stuff was so tightly jammed inside I knew this journey must lead to the expulsion of trinkets I held dear to make room for future must-haves and I hardly knew where to begin.

Straight away, I set aside my plastic-veiled wedding dress as something I must hold onto--though it will never fit me again nor will I have occasion to wear it. The dress has yellowed over the years and absorbed the lovely [and probably permanent] smell of cedar. Next I extracted several impossibly tiny dresses of various colors, trimmed in lace--one for each of our four newborn daughters--and a tiny velvet tuxedo worn by our son when he was a year old. There was a collection of baby shoes and a sticky, wadded up mess that made me smile: It was a pale blue, jersey-knit outfit adorned with appliques. That wasn't the only unusual ornamentation. On the first day our three year-old wore it, she happened upon a stray bottle of red nail polish and busied herself painting--not only the nails and skin of her bare little feet and hands--but her clothing as well. Some messes must be kept to be believed.

The deeper I dug toward the bottom of the chest, the farther down Memory Lane I traveled. There were ribbons and newspaper clippings from my high school track days and old yearbooks. I found typed reports and stories I'd written for English class. At the very bottom, I pulled out a small blue box with a hinged lid that had my name painted on it. Here were the treasures I had kept from my childhood. Eager to rediscover what a ten-year old deems important enough to save, I sat down to give this my full attention.

Just inside the cover, resting on dark blue velvet, was a faded leather dog collar. I thought about the pet who had worn it. She was a collie/shepherd mix we named Ginger. I loved this dog with all my heart and imagined her to be just like the movie star, Lassie. We had to keep Ginger tied in the backyard because of her single vice: She chased cars. One summer day, I saw her languishing out by her doghouse all alone and took pity on her. Against explicit parental instructions, I unhooked the chain from this collar--vowing to myself that I would keep her in the yard. Almost immediately, Ginger bolted across the street after some kids on bikes and was hit by a car while I stood helplessly watching from the curb. I was nine years old and responsible for the death of my beloved dog. I was inconsolable.

Three marbles rolled to the edge of the box when I tilted it slightly. I smiled when I remembered how important these tiny globes had been to me. I loved the way the colors swirled through the glass when I held them to the light and the heavy density they imposed in my hand. I remembed how I had painstakingly collected marbles all year until I had enough to fill an entire coffee can. But one day, I saw something I was willing to exchange my earthly wealth for--something of infinite value: A genuine coonskin cap. I had long been a fan of Davy Crockett* and Daniel Boone and I watched my neighbor, Brian, wear his cap every day consumed with envy. I finally convinced him to trade his cap for my can of marbles. Following our transaction, Brian promptly marched to the nearest storm drain and poured the marbles into it. They rolled straight down to Pelican Lake where they lay submerged to this day. When Brian found me parading about like the "bar-killer"* I always imagined myself to be he demanded his cap back. I clenched the scrap of fur tightly to my hair, stroking the ringed tail along my hot cheek. "No! I gave you my marbles! It was a fair deal!" I protested in vain. My mother made me give the cap back. These few marbles were all I had left of that brief moment of glory.

A silver dollar caught my eye next. It was dull and worn on the edges and dated 1906. My grandpa worked with the Credit Union in town and was privy to all sorts of banking information. One day he called my sister and me to him and handed us each a dollar bill. "Take this to the bank," he told us. "Exchange it for a silver dollar. Next year, the government will start plating silver dollars with nickel instead of real silver and these will be worth a lot of money." So we did. Over the years I have taken the dollar out every so often and turned it over and over in my hands. I have never even checked to see how much it is worth. But whenever I hold it, I think of my grandpa, who wanted us to wisely plan ahead, and so it is valuable to me.

Further down inside the box I found a curious glass vial holding a vague black substance. Words printed on the label read, "Black Liquid Gold." We had taken a trip in 1972 out to Mountain Home, Idaho to attend my cousin's wedding. All along the way we saw oil rigs bobbing up and down on the plains like giant black ants. At one gas station, I bought this souvenir, believing I was purchasing something truly valuable for a mere two dollars. After all, the word "gold" was mentioned right on the label! On this same trip, I stealthily pocketed a piece of petrified wood from a National Petrified Forest we visited. These tokens remind me of a very long drive I took with my family in a very hot car, fighting with my sister the entire way. Here is where the phrase, "Are we there yet?" was first made famous.

I find it interesting to reflect on why it is we keep the things we do. Some people are Packrats, others are Throwers. I believe I fall mostly into the second category as I always feel a certain sense of relief when I get rid of excess stuff that clutters my habitat. Unfortunately, it has taken me longer to realize, I can drag around excess mental baggage that clogs my soul. This is harder for me to address because I am unbelievably sentimental. But I know that this unbridled emotion can be my undoing--marring perspective and keeping me from moving forward. So I find it is very necessary to periodically take stock of the storehouses of my heart and do a thorough cleaning.

Sometimes I am tempted to hold onto things only I think are valuable--like the vial of oil. These could be words spoken to me that, though inaccurate, I can't quite dismiss from my head and embrace as though they are truth and they grow in weight and importance through the years. Then there are sad memories--the accusing voices, like the dog collar, that keep me awake at night telling me I can never do enough, never do it right. Or, like the silver dollar, there are good things I am unwilling to let go of but keep hidden in the safety of my own heart. And don't forget the precious marbles I cling to for fear you will take what is dear and dump it down a storm drain, leaving me with nothing!

And so I plug away, back in my garage, sorting and pricing and piling my excess belongings on benches and tables. In recent days my daughters have added things of their own to sell, further hampering my progress as I feel compelled to go through what it is they [think they] can part with. At the end of a long day, I walk away with a single item I cannot/will not permit to be sold: a tiny pair of socks printed with owl faces that my grandson Cohen wore every day as a baby because they were the only things that would stay on his little feet. These I must keep. These unimpressive scraps of cotton I will make room for even if it means something else has to go. They don't take up much room...right?

"Since we are surrounded by so many examples [of faith], we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up." Heb 12:1

*The Ballad of Davy Crockett
by Tom Blackburn & George Bruns

Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bar (bear) when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.


  1. If I didn't share most of your memories, I'd say, "we can't be related." You write SO well and are so articulate. Makes me seem bumbly (word?) in comparison!