Saturday, November 28, 2009

Breaking Free From My Possessions

I'm throwing stuff out. Again.

The photo above is from 1985. This battered Volkswagen Van contained all my possessions at that time, and the pillow tied on top is my futon-bed. It wasn't much stuff, and yet this load weighed me down. Several times on the road from Philadelphia to Dallas, I was tempted to park the van and walk away from it. 

There's a wonderful scene in Franco Zefferelli's movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in which young Saint Francis gives his clothes to his father in the central square of Assisi, then walks away naked, toward sainthood. The actor playing Francis, Graham Faulkner was young and toned; this helped us stop wondering what he would do a few minutes later, when thorns and bugs attacked him. Nevertheless, we tend to over-estimate the usefulness of things we keep, and under-estimate what keeping them costs us, to the extent we consider this at all. 

The cost reveals itself at odd moments. While recovering from a devastating break-up, I noticed that my mood soared, each time I disposed of something associated with the dead romance. It was a complete surprise. I didn't think that lamp from Target was weighing me down. Despite this discovery, I didn't throw everything out. The urge to hoard stuff was so strong, the remnants of the past life left one at a time, over many years. If I had it to do over again, I'd pack a bag and walk away from it all. I'd have been stronger much sooner that way. 

Imagine walking into this beautiful room. Notice the rounded windows, like the gateway in the movie poster above. We could dance across it, skate across it, sit in the uncrowded light and air. But to sit we'd need a chair. Maybe a table. A few books. Well maybe a few more. Before long, I would block up the windows with stuff, and this room would resemble the cluttered space I'm sitting in now. 

Probably we need some of this stuff, but it must be less than I have. Our things clutter our minds, not just our houses. I think that's why some of us are drawn to the ocean or the desert. 

How often I've traveled to a place like the Grand Canyon and wanted to stay there. Never mind I can't stand heat. The greatest thing about this view: It has none of my baggage in it. On that basis, almost any place would do as well, provided I didn't send back for the moving van. 

Years ago, my apartment looked like this tunnel of books. I wanted the books around me, because I was proud of having read them all. I wanted to remember what I'd learned, and probably I wanted to impress visitors with my vast knowledge. But now, today, remembering is not the challenge. Now I must get new thoughts in my head. Out! Out, all of you! I'll see you in the public library if you're needed again!

We think we're strong enough to carry all this stuff, to hold it in our arms, and still open those arms to new ideas. We only defeat ourselves. Learning, working, romance, all start with empty space. If there's no room for them, they can't come in to our lives. 

Emptiness is a necessary precondition. For this reason, I'm not bothered by the possibility that life has no meaning. Life might be empty of meaning in the same way that a suitcase is empty when you buy it. No one would buy a suitcase already full of someone else's stuff. The emptiness makes it useful! It's our invitation. The universe offers us a place to perform, and fill our corner with the meaning we discover. This is better than than swallowing a meaning given to us from outside. 

We grow strong when we open to the present moment. Clarity of vision lends us the force of urgency. Precious little time remains, to do better work, to learn new lessons. 

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