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The Trivia of Modern Life

I was out the other day with a friend I’ve been trying to see for months. Finally, we had the sort of date that only two busy people can put together: she had an errand she needed to run over the hill, so I went with her so we’d have the time to talk. That’s how desperate you get in this modern life!
This friend lost her house in a wildfire last summer. We talked about a lot of things, but everything kept coming back to that. She apologized, then said that she supposed she was still working through it. When would she not be working through it?
It reminded me of a temporary quandary I had last year when my husband was considering a job overseas. I started to go about my days thinking about how we’d move out of this house, how we could possibly put everything we needed to live on in suitcases.
It came down to the ragbag. I was doing the laundry, contemplating what clothing I’d wear in a completely different climate with a completely different culture attached. I was putting away rags into our large bag of cast off clothing, sheets, towels. And I thought, what do you do with the ragbag? You’re moving overseas and renting out your house. Obviously you can put the important stuff into storage, and you can sell the less important stuff at a rummage sale or give it to Goodwill. But what do you do with all those useful things you’ve collected: the rags, the twisty-ties you use on a half-used bag of peas, the containers from pickles and mustard and other things that would see their use somehow, someday.
It was exhausting to think about. What do you do with the accumulations of modern life?
My friend has the opposite problem. Whenever she goes to a store, she’s faced with all the things she’s lost. Insurance money pads their bank account and she’s supposed to “replace” what she’s lost, but how does one start? We wandered the aisles of a bookstore she’d been given a gift certificate for. She talked about books she loved and how they don’t have much space for books in their rental. Should she buy what she had before? Try to get it all back? Or move forward? And what is forward from nothing?
She’d been out the day of the fire, and all she had left was what was in her car and on her body. She mentioned her favorite earrings and I hoped that she’d been wearing them that day. Nope, she said. Nor had her mother, who lives with her, been wearing the bracelet that she treasured, the first thing she bought with her own money sixty-some years ago. Her son didn’t have any of his toys or his most comfortable clothing. Her husband, too, was starting from nothing.
There are comic elements to her story. Her husband’s adult son had grabbed the cats and stuffed them in the trunk of his car. How do you stuff cats into the trunk of a car? It sounds like the set-up for a joke, except there is no punchline. One of the few scraps that survived was part of a certificate signed by Richard Nixon. As if the fire was afraid of his mark, it kept its distance and just burned around his name.
But losing everything, moving everything, changing everything — those are largely stories not of comedy but of details. What are the bare essentials of modern life? What would we pack into the covered wagon if we had to move on? Without the stuff we accumulate through life, what defines us?
My kids love to look at the decorator crab at Long Marine Lab. They think it’s so funny how he has adorned his shell with what he’s found — in this case, the colorful pompons that the aquarium staff put in there for him. I know that some of us are comfortable with morphing from one life to another, but most of us are like that crab, defined by our stuff. The insurance will pay for the new toilet brush and the TV and that brand of stove we should have bought when we remodeled the kitchen that burned, but money can’t replace the memories in the most trivial of things we keep around us.
At least, my friend tells me, they have the cats. It’s so comforting to have a familiar warmth to hug, when everything else around you is too new to be part of your history.

Posted in Parenting.

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