My Solstice pledge to begin each day orienting to spirit and what the Buddhists call “clear light mind” had a corollary commitment, and that was to lighten up on the material plane and drop some of the “stuff” I have been carrying. Well I took action on this last weekend and faced off against a large storage locker South of Market where Susan and I have been stowing things for nearly 20 years. We live in a flat in San Francisco that has limited garage storage, and felt like we needed this, especially when the kids left for school and didn’t want to carry their “things” with them. Well the kids are all married with their own kids so what are we doing with this held-over storage locker? It was paper, and dust, and mildew, and little black and white symbols, and old wood we thought. But oh no, it was part of our identity and shadow selves, and once in the light the surprises began.
The process began several months ago when we tackled the kids’ stored stuff. Phil had already taken his comic book collection back to Portland, along with other papers and memorabilia he wanted, but there were still some of his things. This was easy. Send them back or dump them.
Jerda, our daughter, was more of a challenge. She moved to Phoenix in a smallish house, and had a dozen boxes of scrapbooks from high school and college, plus boxes of dolls, mugs, letters and other things. These sat on my workbench for a month before we figured out we could use Skype to go through everything and ask Jerda directly what she wanted by holding objects up to the camera. We pared it down to six boxes amidst hoots of laughter and shipped them off. I had the fun of bringing one box of junior high notes to her personally and howled along with her as she read these pre-texting artifacts. She and her friends would write and fold and pass dozens a day in those days. They are now history and had almost no content. (We wondered if Twitter is really much different).
After this purge Susan and I still had a dozen boxes of old financial records, half an HO guage railroad table I had made by hand and didn’t want to throw away, an old antique writing desk we’d used for meditation and for writing, an antique rocker, two old manual typewriters, my Mother’s “precious” solid maple coffee table (still carrying its invisible “no-toys-near-this” shield from my childhood), a couple of boxes of “memory clothes” (old letterman jackets, Susan’s cheerleader costume from college, her wedding dress, a shirt she made me when we first fell in love, etc.) Plus there were five boxes of files from my earliest days of work and three boxes of Susan’s letters from Chicago. Everything had that mildew smell of old storage lockers – in our case amplified by Public Storage having a water leak that brought some dampness into our area— and the crooked finger of the past beckoning us back into memories long forgotten.
Last weekend we faced the last of it. We intended to bury this coffin of consumerism once and for all, and its $175 per month charge. But even the Public Storage facility had to kick and scream in its last hours. We owed over $300 for two months of recent charges, and received no less than five calls in the week leading up to the coup de gras. Because we had skipped a payment they put a lien on the locker and snipped off our lock. We couldn’t get in without settling!!! Would they pay for the mildew damage on our clothes because of the leak? No, because we didn’t buy insurance. The fellow presiding over the locks and gates in this strange mausoleum of stuff looked cadaverous himself. His answers were given without expression, and complete finality. There was only one way through this, and that was face forward.
We loaded up all the furniture we wanted to save, and headed over to The Grove’s storage locker to add it in there, but guidance from on high had it locked and empty of people. We had no room at home. This pushed us to extreme measures. Let’s just give it all away, we decided! All the way to the Community Thrift Store on Valencia we vacillated, especially about the writing desk. Both Susan and I have attachments to all its little drawers and ebony sheen. But it is small, and not very practical, AND we have no room for it.
The response of the kids working the dock at the Community Thrift Store felt like angels showing up at our funeral. They were ecstatic – and our favorite charity, California Poets in the Schools, would get all the credit for sales. They LOVED the desk, and my railroad table, and the antique rocking chair, and the weird denim footstool with white tennis shoe feet that Phil didn’t want. They LOVED the bass guitar with no electronics, the old pendulum clock my brother brought back from Hong Kong when he was a purser on American President Lines last remaining US passenger liner. And we were suddenly lighter.
I thought about my brother, whose house burned down once taking everything with it, and how much lighter he felt after he got over the shock. I thought about death itself, and where spirit might then be able to go without the body. I felt excited about someone in the Mission finding my hand made train box and feeling like a treasure had appeared. The giving of this “stuff” completely transformed the yucky, contracted feeling at Public Storage.
Another carload was required to get rid of the nine computer boxes. I was staggered at the physical evidence of all our intake, and began to wonder how many acres and tons of this kind of stuff is crammed into houses and lockers all across America. We ended up with no less than four huge garbage bags full of nothing but non-biodegradable foam packing material, and a foot and half high of cut up cardboard from the boxes. So who says that the electronics are “green?” This stuff is never going away. Again the angels at Community Thrift made our day. One young man said he would gladly take half the cardboard to recycle. We had enough room in our bins at home for the remainder! Maybe the younger generation is getting the picture and changing. They changed our mood at least.
This left a final load of my boxes of old files and Susan’s old letters. Why not just toss them too and get rid of history? Something in me resisted. I started journaling in 1972, and some of these boxes are the only record I have of the time before that when I was in college, and later on my Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs in Los Angeles right after the Watts riots, and working on my first jobs at Chicago State Mental Hospital (as a mental health education) and then at the Chicago Tribune. As they journeyed back to my shop in our garage and once again covering my worktable I wondered what was calling me. I began purging them of irrelevant paper immediately, eliminating two full boxes of papers that had no current meaning and keeping three, and some insights into why.
I’ve begun to get very interested in long cycles, especially long cycles of development, and my own history as the most immediate laboratory. The 1980s marks a real turning point for me, when I turned 40, and when I began to go on vision quests and take my own inner development as seriously as I took my outer work. Several boxes held files covering my year sabbatical in 1985 at the San Francisco Foundation, where I was in internal OD consultant during the Buck Trust trials. Another was full of information about the Headland Center for the Arts, where all during the 1980s I served as a founding board member and first chairman. Another held files relating to the Presidio and its conversion to a National Park in the 1980s. These I want to write about eventually I know, for each deals with large scale institutional change, the challenge of our times.
I’m also interested in the forces and factors that shaped my own life. Were my current intentions visible but not accepted? Was my deeper nature knocking at the door of my consciousness, and drowned by the din of daily activity?
I can’t fully tell yet, but the papers in these old boxes have clues. And the sweep of files tells a story of time. I was amazed reading my old Coro files to find writings about energy, ecology, and social justice that could have been written yesterday. I was amazed to find my individual project report about the challenges to African American males in Watts and realize that I now, forty years later, am grandfather to two African American grandchildren through my daughter Valentine, who had two interracial marriages, and am watching them get arrested for just driving home and being black.
One letter in particular had completely escaped my memory. It was from W. Donald Fletcher, the founder of Coro, where I was a Fellow in LA in 1965, then on the staff from 1969 to 1977, and then twice on the Board. My experience there has been formative. Fletcher was writing to me following the Fellowship while I was heading off for Chicago and journalism school at Northwestern. I was struggling with question of purpose and identity, wondering what I would do with my life. I, like others in my generation, were plagued with Vietnam and whether or not we would be drafted. I didn’t have much perspective at age 22. “You are an active person,” Fletcher wrote, “and I doubt if you will ever do just one thing. So do many things, but have them point in one direction.”
I can’t say this advice propelled me to my current situation, but it describes the arc of my development. I have a “one direction” now and it is to awaken and help others awake from our long sleep of materialism — not by ignoring the storage lockers and the institutions, the body and the physical resources we all need— but by facing them, helping transform them, and personally holding only what is necessary and what I can attend to with love and respect.
I now feel the beckoning finger of my gigabytes of electronic storage. “We need work too!” the files say. “We came from you. We want your attention. We want your time.” And I bet I’ll have to pay there as well if I carry more than I can attend to.