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For the Love of Materialism

I have to downsize.

The move from London to Seattle is getting old. I’ve been resisting the implications and thus my “moving in” has stalled. We love our new house, but it’s smaller than the one we lived in in London. Not complaining. There is only the two of us and we certainly don ‘t need a big place. Having said that, my study is noticeably smaller, which means less shelf space, which means not everything will fit. Things have to go.

My Books. Some books have to go. I started out hesitantly, but now it’s a purge. So is it too sentimental to suggest books are companions? I don’t think so and many of my companions are going to a book depository, their fate after that unknown to me. Philip Roth, Toni  Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Kingsolver, Roberto Bolaňo, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, and Joyce Carol Oates…all thrown in a bin. It’s impossible to think anyone could love them the way I have. Even duplicate copies of Kurt Vonnegut are going.

My Things. I’ve have a lot of things I brought back from places far away: Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, South Africa, Angola, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Malawi, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Guyana, India, Myanmar, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria…Each item possesses and preserves memories of people, places, activities and events. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as I sat on my new study floor taking each item out of shipping boxes and unwrapping them one by one , I often felt a love for the thing I held in my hand. Can you actually love something material? Can you love a wooden carving from Yangon or a tin cup from South Africa?  

Material Things in Need of Shelf SpaceIt sounds pretty stupid, shallow, deranged, sad, bereft of any psychological and spiritual integrity? Those of you who like me who were raised on liberalism (now progressivism after the Republican Party turned the word “liberal” into an evil word with not so much as a whimper from liberals) might share my seemingly natural aversion to materialism.

Materialism: a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important that spiritual values; the philosophical doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

Indeed! But there I was sitting on the floor loving a stone carving from Zimbabwe. I don’t love my new TV. I like my new TV, but I don’t love it. So how could I love the child’s rattle from Varanasi?

It’s clear that these material things only have value to me. When I was diagnoses with prostate cancer, before I knew if I had the benign prostate cancer that would more than likely do me no harm or the deadly cancer that could kill me in three months, I sat in my London study, a pad in my lap, with the sole aim of writing down to whom each item would go after my death. I started with the two easiest items. Philip would get my framed original ballot from the first South African general election in 1994 that I spirited out of the country a week after the event. Kevin would get my large pieces of the Berlin Wall I claimed when the wall came down in December of 1989. At this point my wife entered the room and asked what I was doing. I told her. She hesitated for only a moment and then said, and I quote: “Dale, no one’s going to want this stuff!” What a thing to say to a maybe dying man!

She was, of course, right. With the exception of the South African ballot and the pieces of the Berlin Wall, which I still maintain Philip and Kevin would really appreciate and value,  the rest of this stuff is just collections of atoms, materials with no inherent value or meaning. Except to me.

Obviously, it’s not the material that I cherish. It’s the memories. The chopsticks from Shanghai. The mojo from New Orleans. The bottle of El Dorado Rum, which I use as a bookend, from Georgetown. The didgeridoo from Sydney. The pipe from Bangkok. But now I fear, there is not enough shelf space for all the memories.

I’ll get over it, eventually. But my life has been one of movement. Since the day I was born I have moved every five or six years, with the exception of London where I lived in the same house for sixteen years. I have no soil or community to ground me. But I do have memories. Each memory associated with a crass piece of matter contributes to my sense of identity and “home”. This new house in Seattle? Home? Not quite yet, and it’s hard to imagine it becoming home without placing my memories on a shelf. No memories, no me. No memories, no home. So I guess my new study is going to be a little crowded!

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

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