It was the one place I dreaded to enter– the “place that shall not be named” – the a-t-t-i-c. Our move to Iowa was fast approaching and Tammy continued to remind me that we needed to do this, but I would conveniently find another important task to occupy my time. After all, it was too hot up there, right? And we didn’t have enough bags and boxes on hand to complete the task. That’s it. We just weren’t adequately prepared. We’ll do it next weekend. Despite my brilliant tactical approach to procrastination, the day of reckoning finally came and into the attic we climbed.
American culture seems to reward accumulation and attics, closets and garages are the museums of our lives. The experience of sorting, packing and moving is the one occasion in which the inventory process reveals in one moment the very best of intentions and the short-sightedness of many choices. If the U.S. Census required a listing of the stuff we have stored away in our homes, I think certain patterns would emerge. Clearly, underutilized exercise equipment would be the item at the top of the list nationwide. Next would be children’s clothing in pristine condition, but set aside by growth spurts that seem to always come within weeks following the back-to-school shopping season. It must be the cooler air. Following close behind would be toys, games and puzzles that were in the “must have” category in the store – yet with a half-life of about a week. Then there are the gifts we have received, where “re-gifting” was simply not an option and burial in the attic seemed to be the most immediate solution.
As the old saying goes,
“It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you have.”
This trip through our attic was a bit different. I began to see a pattern in the things piled high.
Let’s begin with the obvious. There are some things we regret not using any more. “Just think where I would be now if I had only continued to . . .” I suspect we can all fill in the blank with something we once cared about. And while the statement is certainly true for me, I am reminded that somewhere along the way I made a choice. The seasons of life force us in certain directions. The presence of young children, for example, reshapes all of human experience. The hobby, sport or activity of young adulthood is crowded out by playgroups, school activities and endless trips in the minivan to yet another soccer game. The culture of accumulation, however, creates this conflict within us that says, “You should be ashamed of spending all that time and money on something and not using it. What a waste!” Releasing ourselves from these prior interests is hard. But the ability to set aside the things we were once enamored with represents progress, not a lack of commitment. There are some things we need to leave behind. Get rid of the guilt and move on.
We then find reminders of past learning that has helped to shape our lives – experiences we would like to renew. The old hat I purchased from the trip to Greece; the books and binders from college; the guitar with broken strings. These are the items that represent the knowledge, skills and experiences that have helped me understand myself and the world. Most of this remains with me, but I am troubled by how much I have forgotten. An old professor once told me that early in his career he would tell students that the methodologies he was teaching would serve them for the rest of their lives. As he neared retirement he admitted to me that he was entirely wrong. In fact, most of the methodologies he taught in those early years were no longer relevant at all. As knowledge expands and the world becomes increasingly complex, we should realize that what we derive from our accumulated knowledge is an understanding of how we learn and where knowledge can be found. Our interests may change, but our curiosity should grow. Fortunately, learning is less about space and more about time. Perhaps the two are inter-related. If I take up less space with things, maybe I can find more time to learn.
Determining what to keep is the greatest challenge. It’s really about what I value. As I sorted through a pile of luggage, I rediscovered the first catalog bag I used as a rookie admissions counselor in the early 1980s. I was fresh out of college. In those days, admissions counselors traveled like a carnival from high school to high school, and from college fair to college fair. Friendship was common and friendly competition made it fun. The catalog bag and the tabletop display were the tools of the trade and comparisons of design and durability were often discussed during conversations in the hallway. Duct tape was often essential. My display was nothing special, but my catalog bag was different. I probably spent more on it than was necessary. I don’t think anyone particularly admired it, but my initials are monogrammed on the top and I felt like a professional when I carried it around. I can’t think of a practical use for it now, but I haven’t been able to let go of it either. Perhaps it’s symbolic. My catalog bag reminds me of the early days of my career and is filled with the values I have accumulated through the lessons of life. I need to carry that with me, especially today. It’s worth keeping.
As we completed the task of organizing the attic it occurred to me that leaving things behind – even things that once mattered a lot – is okay. I also realized that my devotion to learning accumulates knowledge, skill and experience, but occupies very little space in the stack of possessions I take with me. Most of all I found that the things I value most are sometimes symbolized by artifacts that serve to remind me of what matters in life.
There was a common refrain in my home as I was growing up: “Blessed is Nothing.” I was never fond of this phrase since it always seemed to emerge when I could not get something I really wanted. I have a different perspective now. The older I get, the less I want. Each holiday season I would ask my Mom what she wanted for Christmas. The answer was always the same, “Peace and quiet.” It’s funny how her Christmas list is now mine.