By Maria Padhila
I don’t know how long Isaac and I would have yelled at each other if the repairman hadn’t rung to get buzzed in. We’ve been doing major renovations in our condo after a flood took out the downstairs bedroom and bathroom this summer, and on top of that, the other day the dishwasher runneth over.
The dishwasher is known around the house as the George W. Bush Memorial Dishwasher, because we replaced it sometime after 9-11, when the then-president gave selected households checks for a couple hundred bucks and told them to go shopping for America. Given its origins, it shouldn’t be surprising that every so often the dishwasher and the disposal get mixed up and start choking on each other’s drainages, resulting in a countertop flood. The dishwasher is doing a heckuva job.
But the downstairs flood is what has touched off the topic of dispute between me and my legal husband. The day before, while I was at work, he had made one of the usual three or four calls the reconstruction has made necessary — there’s always some question about where something needs to go — and he told me he’d put some things in the trash room.
Over the past decade, I’d shoved a lot of stuff into my closet. One of the things I asked for in the flood renovation was to turn my big closet into a storage area we could all use — something that could hold the camping supplies, for instance, so they didn’t fill up the entryway. This meant that when the construction people put in new floors and drywall, they also reconfigured the big closet space. I had to take everything out. It is now in boxes and bins stacked all over the one usable room of our place. Isaac and I have been sleeping on an air mattress for a month. I have been living like a bag lady. [This really gets the message across musically, and is worth the watching.] We’re a little touchy.
Compared to many women in my demographic (work in an office in a city), I don’t have a lot of clothes and shoes. Certainly not compared to those in the influx of new wealth fueled by war spending that’s hit Washington, D.C., in the past few years. I feed on the edges of some of that, and I’m able to telework at home in sweats sometimes, so I can get away with a wardrobe that’s mostly black and old, low pumps and pantsuits, never quite in or out of style; you just trade out some blouses once in a while. Some refer to it as rocking “The Hillary Clinton,” though she’s become more stylish in recent years. (It made it easier to live out of one storage bin for a month.) I don’t have to show up looking memorable or current. I have no idea how some women do it. I see them walking K Street in heels and my mouth drops open. Stockings. Accessories. Every day. I admire the evidence of care and energy and hope I will never have to come up with it.
All that’s to explain that it became easy to shove stuff into the spaces unoccupied by clothes. Mostly things I had to worry about in the baby-proofing, years ago. Art with disturbing images. Fragile ceramics. Sharp edges.
And written material. I have lots of books. No, I don’t know how many. Yes, I have read most of them — not all, but most. Yes, I understand that books are now all available on The Internets and so I should throw them all away. Yes, I have heard of the Internet. No, I am not a hoarder. Yes, I know there are libraries. No, I don’t think that once I read a book I should get rid of it. Yes, I often read books more than once (I have some I’ve read probably more than 20 times). Yes, I do look in many of them from time to time. Yes, I use them for reference in my writing. Yes, I know the Internet provides references.
Internet references often suck. The ones that don’t are behind firewalls you have to pay for (professional journals, hello Aaron Swartz). Books and magazines from small presses, poetry, fanzines, graphic novels, art books, feminist manifestos, punk zines — these things don’t get put on the Internet; they don’t go into second printings. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
And this has nothing to do necessarily with their quality, usefulness, or beauty. Sometimes they vanish because it serves those with power for the record of these events or ideas to perish. If we’re lucky, they’re rediscovered — the book 12 Years a Slave was forgotten by most for about 100 years. One of my favorite quotes, which I’ve heard attributed to Brian Eno: “Analog corrupts, but digital corrupts absolutely.” That is, you can still read an old scroll that’s been nibbled by moths around the edges. You can’t read a damaged disk.
But my stuff — the stuff I’ve been shoving away, keeping out of everyone’s way for years — has more meaning, of course, than one could see in those logical arguments. I’m aware of that, as well.
Isaac had no idea all that stuff was back there in my big closet. “Where are all these books coming from?” he asked. He started challenging me on whether I “really needed” all this stuff.
This is the rap I’ve had to go through with a number of people in my life. And it was the rap I had to go over with Isaac the other day — with anger fueled by the hurt of, again, not being understood; of having to unpack these hurts all over again.
I never felt as though I were allowed to take up any space on this Earth. As the “accident” on the tag end of a large family, I was in the way — I even felt guilty for eating, most of the time. As I went out on my own, I dragged a stack of boxes from group house room to studio apartment to basement storage room, sometimes with a place of my own, but rarely with enough time free from work or spent in any one place to really unpack and settle in.
A few years back, I began exploring my relationship to stuff, going a year attempting not to buy any new stuff. The kind of awareness generated by opening the door to even thinking about “stuff” has been something I’ve cultivated and benefited from ever since. My relationship to stuff has changed and shifted through action and reaction. I’ve felt as if I had no right to have any stuff of my own at all. I’ve felt guilty about my stuff and felt I’ve had to hide it. I’ve felt encumbered by my stuff and experimented with trying to be free of all of it, to live without stuff of my own volition, not because it was taken from me.
I think one of the many reasons Chris came into my life is so that I could explore this relationship to “stuff.” With the major Capricornage in his chart, he believes nothing made today could possibly be as good as the way it was done in past times. He believes everything can be repaired, made to work again. It is a beautiful thing in a person, except when you are trying to brush your teeth in his bathroom and there are screws, nails and various small parts everywhere and you realize the toothbrush you were about to use has been employed to scrub rust off something. He also has a lot of Virgo, which means he can’t bear to throw away something that might be of use.
Isaac, a triple Virgo, has a different variant of the same thing — he can’t bear to keep something around that isn’t being used (or could be used elsewhere). And I’m airy as fuck, which means I just shove it all in a closet and go la la la, pausing once in a while to overthink it. Until I realize that the one of five existing copies of a hand-printed chapbook by probably the most gifted poet I’ll ever know, a sort of male Emily Dickinson, might have been dropped off outside the Goodwill, because in my haste to prove I don’t need any stuff, I’ve failed to honor the important stuff.
In exploring my attachment and nonattachment to stuff, I’ve realized how it houses meaning and memory, becoming a sort of external hard drive of times past and possibilities imagined. This is the stage I’m in now. I literally put away pieces of my life when I married and had a child, and I’m now unpacking them. I need the chance to look through them, feel the realities and the symbols there, and above all decide for myself.
So when Isaac put my movie poster of John Woo’s The Killer in the trashroom, I wasn’t just ticked because I have a thing for Chow Yun-Fat. Which I totally do. I was hurt because the object held my past as a film writer, my dreams of writing a screenplay, the times when I could see violent films without thinking twice, the afternoon in the hotel suite when I interviewed John Woo, an introspective, deeply spiritual man, while he talked haltingly about his difficult childhood in Hong Kong.
And now there’s no place to put it. Not on the wall, not in the closet. I don’t even know if I could give it away.
Living with people is hard. We all bring our stuff, and we can’t find places to put it. We can’t always agree with what we want on the walls. I’ve been in houses with kids where the kids have stuck random stickers and pictures on the wall. It looks so sloppy and chaotic, but you know what? The kids live there, too. Why is it taken for granted that the parents control the space and all the stuff in it? It’s just an interesting question — I’m not saying we should all start tagging everything or leaving our toys everywhere. But it’s a question.
It’s even harder to know what to do with stuff when you go outside the couple model. Everyone brings their own to the table, in an unmatched collection of dishes, plastic and silver and enameled iron. There’s sweet pie spilling out of a crumbling crust and showpiece carrots cut into rosettes. If we’re all going to make this work, maybe some of us need to bring less. Maybe some of us need to make room for more.