Comic by Lucy Knisley; original, with commentary, here.
I’ve spent the last week and a half pitching in to try to clean out my in-laws’ basement. It’s the accumulation of over 20 years of living in one place, with children who have grown up, moved out, moved back, moved out again, moved back… well, you get the picture. Right now, it’s still housing boxes and boxes of the life Mark left behind when he moved to Scotland, still waiting for him to come back and pick up again where he left off. So we’ve been trying to sort through that, being realistic (or, perhaps, a bit bloody-minded) about what we’re attached to enough to hang on to, what we’ll really, honestly look forward to unpacking at the end of this journey of uncertainty we’re currently on.
My parents have occupied their home for almost, though not quite, as long, and I have my own boxes stored there. But my father is severely asthmatic, and housekeeping has always been focused on minimizing dust, which means minimizing the amount of stuff that accumulates in any one place, and making sure that anything that does pile up is easy to move and clean behind–including boxes. I hated that when I was a child, and rebelled against it when I moved out the first time, but it has marked me with a distinctly low tolerance for clutter.
And before they settled down in that house, my early childhood was spent moving all over the North American East Coast (and midwest), and my early adulthood has been similarly peripatetic; sure, I hoard books (and usually at least 50% of my luggage in any trip is taken up with them), and my undergraduate degree in studio art generated its own pile of difficult-to-ship material. But I haven’t had the luxury of developing an extensive file system, or sourdough starter, or keeping jars of screws and nails and paperclips, or back-issues of magazines the way you do when you live mostly in one place. I have one childhood stuffed animal that travels with me (it was a gift from my grandfather the day I was born), not a bag full of stuffed animals stashed in the basement. I have a box full of my great grandmother’s crystal coffee cups, but not a box of regular old drinking glasses; handmade pottery serving bowls, but no pots or pans or mixing bowls. I wouldn’t claim to be a light traveller, and I’m not likely to sign up for the 100-thing challenge anytime soon, but my metric for stuff is based on whether I love something enough to cart it to the other side of the globe and back; things that are useful but not sentimental, or mildly sentimental without being useful, are, in my mind, disposable.
So I’m simultaneously fascinated by and struggling against the extensive archive of my partner’s past. He has (well, had–see above comment about bloody-mindedness) almost all of his notes from high school maths, still intact in their binders. Relics from Cub Scouts. A rock collection. Boxes and boxes of back-issues of the Presbyterian Record. VHS tapes of TV shows that his mother made for him when he was first away at university. Orders of service from quite nearly every church service he’s been to or conducted since at least 1990 (as I mentioned on other social media platforms, we’re keeping most of these, at least for awhile). Sorting through all this gives me a picture of a life, of the sort of person he was long before I met him: the sort of person, it turns out, who once upon a time very long ago used the Reproaches from the Cross in a Good Friday service, and also the sort of person who conscientiously re-wrote every skit or story he used in youth ministry to ensure that it reflected the best theology he could marshal at the time. In fairness, he did also rewrite the Reproaches, in an attempt to make them more obviously about the penitence of the Church and less about castigating the Jews; it wasn’t a stunningly successful attempt, but I wouldn’t want to re-read the paper I wrote on trade unions when I was an undergraduate, either.
This insight into the family I’m now a part of, the completeness of the archive, is a tremendous gift, and I’m grateful for it. And I’m conscious–perhaps a bit sad–that it’s not a gift that I’m able to give in return. The past is a foreign country, and I have lost my guidebook.
All of this feeds into the intersection between my two big professional projects right now. On the one hand, I have some older writing under contract, and I need to get it dusted off, into proper shape, and delivered to the publisher by the end of the summer–and my ability to write is very intimately linked to my sense of space; my ability to think clearly is linked to my ability to control my space. There’s no good way to put a happy gloss on the fact that the basement cleanout has led to a physical encroachment on my professional ability to function, and that all the emotions connected to the past and the physical archive, the double-edged gift of being allowed limited access to a past that at the same time remains foreign and inaccessible to me, are being heightened by the outside pressure I’m feeling.
On the other hand, the research I’m currently developing is all about the religious resonances of objects. I’m focused mostly on the act of making (a combination of my art school background and reflections on certain inconsistencies within the Jewish tradition), but there is also a lot to be said, and a lot that’s been said and that I’ve been reading my way through, about our relations to objects as objects. (Anyone who’s interested in the larger discourse about objects and making should also go read my friend Anna’s work in a closely related area, since a lot of my project sprang from conversations we had while she was working on her article.)
In my in-laws’ basement, I’m reminded of the importance of artefacts and physical inheritance to a diasporic people–and every non-First Nations person in North America has at least a heritage of diaspora (as do a not insignificant portion of First Nations)–to our ability to maintain and reconstruct links to a past which may otherwise be lost. The piles of shoes and suitcases on display at several Holocaust museums around the world have more than a passing functional relationship to my box of crystal coffee cups; both testify to a continued connection with the long departed, lasting long past the time their names have been forgotten (this is in sharp contrast to the work I’ve done on war dead, where the names and, often, only the names remain as a trace in the world). I’m reminded that there’s a spirituality not only to making, but to keeping… and throwing away.
The past, and its physical traces, is an anchor: without it, we drift aimlessly, but if it becomes too large and heavy, it drags us down. That’s a problem that we see today in religious communities, both Jewish and Christian, which have become more concerned with maintaining identity markers because they were important once-upon-a-time than with generating a constructive current engagement with religious tradition. I think we’re all struggling, in different ways, to find the right balance between hanging on and letting go, between honoring the past and clearing out a space for ourselves.