From my grownup show about stuff
Aspen, CO Colorado
Years ago, I was telling my step-father about Miss Bryson, my evil first grade teacher.
He was shocked, because Miss Bryson was HIS first-grade teacher, too! He wasn’t shocked by the coincidence, but by the fact that Miss Bryson was still alive by the time I was in first grade. Apparently she was seriously old, and seriously mean, even when she taught him.
She was a harsh grader for a teacher of 6-year-olds. She bought red pens in bulk. I still have one of the papers where she gave me a big, red 86 for making a letter wrong. There’s something just so beautifully random about scoring an 86 on your schoolwork when you can barely count to 86. And when your teacher is 186 years old.
But whatever my grade, each day I’d bring my school papers home and put them in the steamer trunk at the foot of my bed. My grandmother had an antique desk full of “old stuff,” fragile photos and yellowed bits of paper from the 1940s ” war bonds, my grandfather’s draft notice, their early letters, stuff like that. I loved that old stuff, and I wanted my own some day. So I decided that filling my steamer trunk with my “See Spot Run” musings was an investment in my future nostalgia.
One day I come home, lunchbox in one hand, school papers in the other, and I head straight to my room and open up the trunk and … it’s empty! Yesterday it was crammed full of papers. Today, nothing. All my stuff. All my … work. Gone.
I run to ask my mother where she put my papers.
She says, “We burned ’em.”
I picture my parents waving goodbye from the window as I get on the school bus. As soon as the doors close they don their ceremonial garb, dump the steamer trunk contents into a pile in the yard, toss a match into it and begin their Satanic ritual, dancing and laughing around the conflagration fueled by my literary output, raising their glasses in allegiance to the Dark Lord. BURN! AH, HAHAHAH! BURN!
But even then I know this isn’t the case. The burning of my life’s work is simple housekeeping. My mother, not even 30 yet, was just tidying up. And, the way things got tidied up in the Deep South in the early ’70s was with a good burnin’. Each house in our neighborhood has a metal trash barrel in the back yard. When the trash bag in your house gets full, you put it in the barrel. When the barrel gets full, you burn it. It’s like having the carbon footprint of Sasquatch.
I’m devastated by this. I’ve never lost so much as a stuffed animal before, and now I’ve lost my precious embryonic time capsule. An entire wing of the future Barry Smith Memorial Library wiped out in one casual house cleaning! I feel so vulnerable, and naked, and exposed, and hungry, because I’ve just gotten home from school and it’s snack time.
In that moment I know what I have to do.
NEVER THROW ANYTHING AWAY AGAIN!
I know that I need to document my life through photographs and artifacts and physical reminders of places and times, and see to it that these items remain safely in my care forever. I shall build a grand mosaic of me-ness, ” pictures of me, by me, stuff made by me, stuff made for me, pictures of stuff made by me for someone else ” a Mobius strip of self, and then, and only then, I will know intimately each aspect of the complicated mechanism that is me. If losing my papers has made me fragmented, then saving everything from this point forward will make me whole again. According to the Hindus there are three great mysteries: air to the bird, water to the fish and man to himself. Well, I’m in no position to help out the fish and the birds with their quandaries, but I will solve that mystery of man to himself through the power of stuff.
This is my manifesto!
OK, so I didn’t actually write out a manifesto ” I’m in first grade, still trying to master the art of not making backward Rs. But this is obviously what I decided, because, well … here I am.
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