This story was written in 2002 in my journal following a dream about a coat I had owned as a 16 year old, a proud possession purchased with my own funds from my first job at a bakery in Chicago. At the time of the dream, we had been considering selling our house and moving to a much smaller house in order to pay off some debt. This dream seemed to grow out of those concerns. The process of writing what I remembered of the dream in first person helped me gain insight into what was most important for our lives.
The River of Unbelongings
Though I'd just barely recovered from a bout of flu and hadn't yet gained my land legs, I was attracted out of doors all the same. For down on the street, below my apartment, stretched an odd collection of curious and colorful "former belongings", spread out flea-market style on tables and racks and in flimsy canvas booths that stretched for blocks. Weak-kneed, I stepped into the street, driven to caress with hand and eye the possessions that were dispossessed. You see, I am a second-hand junkie. Drawn by the bargains and the mystery of former lives, I haunt used clothing stores for fun and inspiration.
On street level, folding tables were piled with ordinary and unusual objects, while metal racks and manikins sported dramatic and mundane costumes. Surrounding me was the flotsam and jetsam of lives filled with desire gone cold or too soon aborted. Lives where the need to possess may have been a passionate priority. Or perhaps little passion was attached to some of these former belongings. Maybe they were owned by people with so many material goods that they would not be missed.Or, perhaps, by cautious individuals who wanted few belongings to burden them. And even those meager possessions had to be parted with at some point. Life required it.
"We are not our possessions" I heard a small voice in me say.
Yet I was fueled onward by an appetite that believed the untruth that if only I could possess one of the items on display, my life would surely become more colorful, serene, or romantic. All those qualities that I desired (that seemed to float always just out of reach) beckoned to me in the shape of silken kimonos, crystal vases, or embroidered linens.
My journey through the booths was meandering and mesmerizing...I saw before me objects that human ingenuity had once brought into being, but whose appeal waned quickly like tarnished silver. Memories rose up whole and shining from dusty cast-off goods Old box-style cameras and instant point-and-shoot models that I remembered from childhood filled one booth; in seeing them, the advertising jingles of the day returned to me accompanied by black and white fuzzy images from our television past. In another display the bold patterned drapery fabric popular in the 1950s hung, very much like the curtains I had fingered and clung to as a toddler. Old ashtrays were strewn throughout table displays--testament to the absurd and seductive glamorization of a deadly habit. And soon I was tapping the tune to the Marlboro cigarette commercial against my thigh and remembering my father's stained yellow fingers. The pineapple cookie jar raised a memory of a pineapple-shaped ashtray filched by my junior prom date from a downtown hotel. Wedding dresses, prom dresses, bridesmaid's dresses hung forlorn-- worn only once, then abandoned to this river of unbelongings. Like a stream of jilted lovers, the dispossessed, outgrown, repossessed former belongings were now seeking new homes.åÊ
Continuing to float past row upon row of garments, I found myself drawn to a colorful tent brimming with coats. What could be more necessary to life in the Midwestern climate than a warm winter coat? Yet here, in a huddle, stood the cast-off coats of dozens of winters. And amidst these moth-eaten, out-of-fashion garments, hung a shining white coat that set my heart humming with delight and desire. It was the white canvas dress coat lined in lambskin that I had bought with paychecks from my first job as a sixteen year old. The remembered thrill of acquiring the coat sent a shiver through me. The sense of independence I felt when purchasing such a substantial and essential item from my own earnings! The thrill of elegance I felt when the coat swished mid-calf over my crossed nylon-clad legs! The flush of maturity and flirtatiousness I felt when a maitre-d removed it from my shoulders at my first formal downtown dining experience!
The coat glowed with magnetic energy convincing me of its desirability.
Then all at once the shimmering dropped away. It faded like the light of a sputtering candle and I was restored to my midlife eyesight. I could see now that the coat was stained yellow in its folds -- the white, which was so hard to keep clean thirty years ago, had accumulated thirty years of dust and wear and neglect. With the warm light of memory faded, I could see now that it was a rather repellent garment. dream dispossessed. A belonging no longer mine.
But why had it attracted me, only to leave me with this hollowness?
When the scales had dropped from my eyes, I saw with pained clarity the fickle nature of my attachments. Yet I knew just as clearly that the pleasure it had given me was certainly real.
Why did I take it all so seriously? Why the scraping to possess, only to let go or lose interest? I felt the bile rise in me, not a flu symptom, but anger -- that all we strive to own gets taken away in the end.
Another clear memory rose in my mind, triggered by the stacks of old games and toys in one of the booths.It was Milton Bradley's game LIFE designed by depression era adults and played by our affluent baby boomer generation. The game taught that life's goal is to have 2 children, life insurance, a nice house and savings account. And if you missed out on these goals, you lost the game. You didn't die; they just sent you to the poor house where you sat with no belongings watching others roll the dice and take their shot at doing life the right way. I remember that taste of bile mixed with salty tears when, as a child playing the game, I was sent to the poor house.The bitter unfairness! The humiliation! I railed at Fortune for being so cruel to me.
Yet I recall, too, that beneath the surface of my childish outrage, a growing sense of contentment emerged as I sat out round after round watching my siblings' driving desire to do life the approved way. On the sidelines I could see the anxiety that every roll of the dice invited. It surprised me to realize that in this game, my basic needs continued to be met even after I landed in the poor house.åÊ Yes, my possessions were gone, I owned no property or life insurance. I had failed at LIFE according to this baby boom paradigm. Life was about owning. And I was without possessions and dependent on the kindness of others. But wonder of wonder -- I still was alive! And sometimes, it was pure relief I felt when released from the competitive chase to own more than any other player. Even though I was very, very young, I intuited there were more ways to win at Life than Milton Bradley was letting on.
So there I stood as an adult on that street of orphaned objects, still wobbly from my recent fever and my past reminiscences. I'd been made hollow by illness, then filled up by rote appetite to re-possess the past and its debris. Yet my childhood intuition about Life and true contentment pulled at me. Suddenly laughter bubbled up from within me and there was space inside me once again. It was comical -- this colorful parade of human attachment and release that surrounded me. Thousands of life lessons whispered in a chorus arising from the metal of old vegetable pans and the porcelain of hollow vases and urns.
Here was a grand display of unbelongings. Before me was the Christ's lesson that the kingdom is not made of the physical stuff we possess, the Buddha's teaching that suffering arises from desire.
The next object my eyes rested upon was a carved mahagony laughing Buddha; and I laughed in return, knowing his secret. Neither Jesus nor Buddha suggested that we shouldn't take pleasure in those objects that surrounded us. We are required to love, but not cling to, the gifts that we are given in life. Indeed life is a practice of letting go over and over.
Had the former owners of these objects tenaciously clung to their possessions, releasing them only when their grasp was pried loose by poverty or illness or death? Did these objects flooding the street arrive here simply because their owners grew bored and their possessions were released on a tide of dissatisfaction? Or perhaps the former owners of these belongings had let go with elan! With willing hearts, they opened their coffers and closets and released those things that can't permanently satisfy. And perhaps they had space in their lives for a deep belly laugh as their former possessions floated off on the river of unbelongings.