When I visit my Granny at the retirement village where she lives, I’m always curious about the items that traveled with her from the home she had lived in for 35 years. There is a set of armchairs, a single bed, an ornate, wooden side table, an old cabinet, a chest of drawers, some basic appliances, photograph frames, piles and piles of papers, bottles of medication. The linen is clean but worn – in fact, everything is worn and not least of all my darling old Granny. She doesn’t care about any of that at all. She is generous, wise, and compassionate and values only her family, her memories, and her stories. There is an integrity and economy in her kind of sane austerity. She is free from distraction in that regard. I am not.
Everything I accumulate will also be destined to become frayed and old, condemned to an abject utility devoid of meaning. It is kind of beautiful. The Japanese have an interesting term for it – wabi-sabi. It is a worldview centred on an acceptance of imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence and an appreciation of the beauty inherent in the patina bestowed upon matter by time. A serene, melancholy nostalgia hangs about my Granny’s little flat, as it is lit by the afternoon sun. She has transcended the need for meticulous organisation, for occupying herself with the vain pursuit of order and symmetry. I have not.
I will not remember my sofa or the car in which I drove to this or that place one day in the deep future when my skin is thin as paper and there are great grandchildren weaving between my old ankles and my cane. My grandchildren won’t care to hear about a gilded plate I once owned. They will want to hear about the time we danced in the rain beneath the Eiffel Tower, ate baguettes and flew to the moon on a magic carpet.
Matter tends towards disorganisation, towards ends untwining from one another, towards dog-earedness, towards dishevelment, towards thrift shops.
Each of my ancestors had a house full of stuff. Where is all of that now? When they died, the children apportioned it or discarded it and eventually it was whittled away to nothing. The prized camera, the kitchen table and chairs set that almost caused the divorce, the inherited armchair, the grandfather clock that siblings had feuded over, the famous dress from the wedding – all gone. All the dreams, hopes, fears, neuroses… these too are gone.
I imagine those ancestors that came across the sea to South Africa also couldn’t wait to leave the Ukraine. They dreamed of being on the boat those long months while they planned, just as I too am displaced from the present by an imagined future but also restrained from possibility, destined for suffering by an unhealthy attachment to possessions from which I derive far less enjoyment than I do from long road trips with my sister and chats in the sun in my Granny’s flat – either of which would not be able to accommodate both me and my sofa.
A healthy attitude towards acquisition might be something of a cross between Solzhenitsyn’s advice ”Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag” and the Dhammapadda’s famous aphorism “Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.”
It could be summarised as:
“Cross over to the farther shore of existence with only the travel bag of your memory.”
From the 16 Meditations for Deranged Workaholics series.