The Haunting POD in the Driveway
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I find it disproportionately rewarding to fill our trash can, compost can, and recycling can every Wednesday morning before wheeling the three of them out to the curb.
How glorious to be rid of things, to make the house lighter, to lessen one’s load. Amazon Prime members seem to be surrounded by boxes, opened or unopened; we frequently walk them out to the recycling bin. As we have been taught since we first started separating our recyclables as children, eventually some of these boxes may return to us in the form of boxes recycled from the previous boxes.
But we don’t know this. We just trust that our empty plastic water bottles will serve another drinker in the form of a picnic table or a play structure in a neighborhood park. I like to hold on to these hopes, these illusions. That’s why I didn’t click on the Atlantic story titled “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work.”
We recently had a new garage floor put in (largely against our will, but that’s another story). Right now, our garage is empty. The concrete has been curing, -- hardening, preparing for our footfalls, our vehicles, and the weight of our bins and boxes -- for more than a month. Our garage probably didn’t look this nice when our home was built in 1992. As part of the preparation process for the newly-poured slab, we donated a few vanloads of stuff to Goodwill, filled our garbage cans so full that it almost took two of us to wheel them to the curb, and sent a lot of 1970s and 1980s furniture to the Yolo County Landfill. But much of the contents of our garage sits in a POD in our driveway, a daily visual reminder of all our stuff, stuff we might use someday, stuff that our kids will really appreciate owning after we are gone. Keepsakes and such. Valuable stuff.
You are probably familiar with the ways that comedian George Carlin talked about all this in his famous comedic rant about Americans and their stuff: “Actually, this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That's all; a little place for my stuff. That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there.
That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is- a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.”
When our Saturn was stolen from in front of Crepeville in downtown Davis one evening about ten years ago, we were despondent. We loved that car. It was an example of stuff that we actually used. It was also full of stuff.
The car (which we nicknamed “Trendsetter”) was discovered in a midtown Sacramento alley a few days later, smelling like an ashtray. The thieves had taken the car seats (probably to make room for more smokers) and the DVDs of jazz and recorded poetry that National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia had given me, but not my signed copy of the late Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). The thieves left the gold behind.
When I told UC Davis English Department professor Jack Hicks this stolen Saturn story, he remarked, “I wish someone would steal my car for a while and remove the contents of my trunk. I keep my garage unlocked for the same reason.” I bet it took Jack more than a weekend to clean out his office when he retired.
I’ve been reading about renunciation in recent years. Some Christians renounce the devil and all his works and temptations, but I’m sure that many of them notice that replacement temptations can be mailed to the house, sometimes the same day. I bought a microphone this morning, and it has already arrived at the house. Soon poets will be speaking into that mic on the rooftop sculpture garden of an art gallery. I am not yet ready to renounce this new treasure, but perhaps we always say that of our most recent purchases. Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
In the Buddhist tradition, we refer to the Pali word “nekkhamma” when we talk about renunciation. It coincides with the first practice in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: "Right Intention." This is how the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön talks about renunciation:
“Renunciation is realizing that our nostalgia for wanting to stay in a protected, limited, petty world is insane. Once you begin to get the feeling of how big the world is and how vast our potential for experiencing life is, then you really begin to understand renunciation. When we sit in meditation, we feel our breath as it goes out, and we have some sense of willingness just to be open to the present moment. Then our minds wander off into all kinds of stories and fabrications and manufactured realities, and we say to ourselves, ‘It’s thinking.’ We say that with a lot of gentleness and a lot of precision. Every time we are willing to let the story line go, and every time we are willing to let go at the end of the out breath, that’s fundamental renunciation: learning how to let go of holding on and holding back.”
Even though she uses the word “insane” in her first sentence here, Pema Chödrön is nevertheless framing renunciation positively, indicating that gentleness and precision await those who renunciate foolishness, needless distraction, and pettiness. In his book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama uses the words “compassion” and “discernment” to communicate the same principle. He says that with our focus on possessions, “We become more demanding and less content, finding it more difficult to satisfy our needs.” These contexts for renunciation resonate for me.
I believe that I am becoming lighter, if only by a gram or two, every day. We seek to live according to our systems of ethical beliefs, even when we are taking only small steps in the right direction. As Abraham Lincoln said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk back.” As for me, Wednesday is around the corner, and I will seek once again to fill the recycling bin and recycle my cardboard. I feel more like a renunciant as I’m shedding my life of acquired stuff than I do when I unlock our huge POD and behold and mentally catalogue its contents.
Amongst the hundreds of audio books that I have acquired, one in particular is calling me. We will see if minimalist Joshua Becker’s new book Things That Matter will guide me towards keeping my mental and actual garages tidy, to lessen my own cognitive and spiritual loads. As Becker says, “The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don't.”
I hope you value these missives! Subscribing to the weekly Pub Quiz I run for supporters is inexpensive via Patreon, and it will add nothing to your garage as long as you don’t print out the quizzes, as I used to do every week when I was performing the quiz in person. This week’s Pub Quiz features questions on Apple developers, driven ambition, funny names that start with L, founding fathers, chipmunks, titles with five words, spiders, job seekers, Trojans, islands, World Series winners, Ben Stiller, African cities, Ireland attractions, overworked musicians, legends of past ages, Nebula awards, famous speakers, odd syntax, notable mayors, Academy Award-winners, the example of roses, beverages, southern cities, intransitive verbs, Johns Hopkins, Pacific voyages, current events, and Shakespeare.
Thanks to new subscriber Jasmine and to all my regulars. I so appreciate your monthly support.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Mottos and Slogans. Starting with the letter R, what company uses this tagline: “The best ideas are often the simplest, like streaming made easy”?
Internet Culture. The search engine PimEyes allows one to search for what?
Newspaper Headlines. The University of California has announced that it is waiving fees and tuition for what category of students?
P.S. Happy June to all the graduates!