Todd McEwan, Fisher’s Hornpipe
Once we were buried with provisions for the journey. Now we are freighted with very little stuff at the end of our lives.
I knew a man whose hospital room held a change of pyjamas, a dressing-gown, leather slippers, a cane, and some books. An impersonal jug, flowers picked by someone else, fruit and bottled drinks he didn’t choose. In an old folks’ home, (we don’t say ‘seniors’ in Ireland) my grand-aunts had a few nighties and cardigans, a shawl, a hairnet, rosary beads, a grandchild’s drawing, the Nenagh Guardian, tweezers for the weekly pluck, and jar of Ponds.
What happens to all the stuff we spend our lives gathering so hungrily? All the lipsticks bought to salve our feelings after the meeting that went badly? The granite countertops, the shoes, the toys, the flashlights, the cutlery? The bags for laptops, ski-gear, schoolbooks, gym kit, camping equipment, and the bags that go inside other bags, holding rolled-up underwear or toiletries? At the end of our lives, where is the pre-fab toolshed, the cocktail shaker, the lawnmower, the mousetraps, the tins of housepaint?
We pull this stuff towards us. It is work. Even here, living in Lake Superior Provincial Park, I spend a whole day every three weeks as a hunter-gatherer. I travel an hour and a half to Sault Sainte Marie (‘the Soo’), and traipse around RadioShack, the government liquor store, the supermarket, Staples, Shoppers Drugmart, and the bookshop. By the time I unload the car by flashlight, I am too tired to make dinner.
I was weaned off stuff by a year carrying a backpack. It was painful. My stuff is scattered around the world as if I had spun it over my head and let go. My furniture and books are in paid-for storage in Brooklyn. Paul Ford looks after my red meditation cushions, though I don’t know if he has ever used them. An old co-worker rides my bike around Carroll Gardens. Elly keeps a suitcase of mine in her attic in London. I posted a large box of clothes from Vietnam to my parents’ house in Limerick. I left a stack of books and journals in Ottawa. My best friend might have brought my hold-all with her to Tehran when she moved; I don’t know.
Somewhere there was a bug in my shopping code. I was progressing correctly, pumping the US economy, adding belongings geometrically if not exponentially. I was diligent about sample sales and stoop sales, online shopping and Otto Tootsi Plohound. Then one day I found myself splitting a book collection with a man I loved, and everything changed. Possessions fell away from me. I slacked off on shopping. I have dribbled a trail of articles for 18 months or more, always ending up with less.
Now I live in a one-room log cabin, not much bigger than a potting shed, not much smaller a New York City rental. My two pairs of khakis (borrowed from Claire, who has taken over the big sister job from me) live in a cedar trunk with a few borrowed tops and socks. I have a neat shelf of books, a computer, and a basket of toiletries and makeup I hardly use. A yoga mat, a towel, a kettle, wineglasses, and a corkscrew. And my Three Essential Pens. Everything else is borrowed or shared, and I have everything I need (including the use of a professional stove and walk-in cooler—bliss). There’s an outhouse, and I shower in the lake, very quickly, squealing with the cold.
It’s elegant to live this way, and it calms me. I have shucked the dreck. Except it still burdens me, of course. I carry my stuff on an invisible yoke when I worry about where it is, how to get it back, how to pay for storage. I hardly remember the individual things, but now that I’m in one spot long enough to scavenge old coffee tins for my teabags, I fret about the existence of this amorphous blob of belongings. It would be easier if I had simply given it all away (and probably cheaper than buying storage). Instead I try to remember if I got custody of the posh Calphalon pots, and feel discontented that they are not here.
I remember the narcotic haze of The Zone, in which I picked over the racks in Loehmans with an intensity I couldn’t muster anywhere else. I remember the anxious satisfaction of dumping a pile of carrier bags on the bed. Now I’ve lost my shopping mojo. When Jason tried to explain the latest wireless gadget trends, I kept saying stupidly, irrelevantly, ‘But people don’t need that.’
‘People don’t need a lot of things they want,’ he explained patiently. It is his business to believe in want, not need, and it may soon be mine.
We gather stuff towards us to assert our place in the world, and sometimes to fend off life. Eventually we walk alone towards death, and as we get closer we start emptying our packs. I have a brief preview of that simplicity. I didn’t look for it, but it’s welcome enough.