Kept, yet not Possessed
Going through the stacks of paper at my office reminds me of a photo album I made once, at a former sister-in-law’s suggestion. It was full of images of me gathered and assembled from various stages of my life, sometimes with people I cared about or close family members I no longer speak to, sometimes alone. There was one of me in a motley-colored orange cotton winter coat. I’ve never liked orange, so I don’t know what possessed me to buy that coat. Thinking of it now, it was part tiger, part Jackson Pollock. A fairly brilliant combination from a design perspective, I’m thinking now, brilliant enough to make someone wear it who despises the color orange. I don’t have the photo anymore. The entire photo album was stolen out of the back of my 3rd husband’s pickup truck from under a tarp in a New Orleans hotel parking lot when I was four months pregnant.
On the other hand, I was proud of my international currency collection, also stolen. When I finally got the courage to fly overseas in 1999, I truly challenged the fates. One crumpled bill I got with arabic writing on it from a smiling middle Eastern merchant in Paris. We couldn’t talk to each other, but he handed it to me as a souvenir. Probably worth about a penny to him: to me, it was a priceless gift. There was an old man’s white bearded face on it, adjacent to a drawing of a quarter moon. I readily studied the images I found on all the currency I got, keeping the crispest prettiest bills and shiniest coins and spending or exchanging duplicates. Accumulated prior to adoption of the Euro, my currency collection was its own photo album, in a sense. My entire collection fit into a shoebox, which I guarded carefully until I married my daughter’s father. He took it away the day we left Europe, handing it over to the German moving men. I never saw it again.
These memories cut me now as I look through documents and belongings still in my possession. What is the value inherent in saving things? Is it in the things themselves? Are some things valuable only for the memories they make? Is money like that, too? A foreigner’s smile, a bill with a crescent moon on it? What a quaint notion. Money can pass from hand to hand invisibly, enriching lives in many ways. It can stagnate in someone’s bank account, making one or two people very happy simply thinking about the ever-increasing numbers. The article is kept, yet not possessed. When we hoard, the amount may increase, the value does not. What is the value of a book that sits on a shelf never read, or a never-seen doll in a box in the attic?
There must be value in time spent with people we thought we loved, or think we know. The time comes to an end, and we either have keepsakes in our hearts, or we have something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense looking back. Distorted memories that don’t add up on the ledger. Some lessons are learned that do not serve us in future endeavors. Here is a stack of papers concerning my search for employment, there a stack of my education transcripts, here some research for a paper I wanted to do on my own, there a ream of drawings and special instructions, here a stack of legal correspondence, there a folder of contracts and unpaid debts, over there a stack of medical bills that I cannot pay, hither and yon scraps of paper with important information written on them that I need to compile in a notebook for future reference, business cards I collected from meetings I can’t remember featuring people’s names that will never mean anything to me, with bits of dust, tubes of lotion and tchotchkes everywhere mixed in.
Perhaps there is value in giving or throwing things away, as there is in the burial of corpses. Stymied sorting through piles of paper, I remember that my photo album truly was a collection of heinous images, visual records of situations I came to distrust in retrospect. My pedophile father hugging me as a young girl. Stolen photos of me smiling as a new student in a high school where no one liked me. Prom dresses that I did not wear to prom. Images of me trying to look glamourous or wearing fancy clothing for the camera that I had no reason to wear anywhere else and should not have purchased in the first place. An image of my daughter’s father, a man who refuses to pay child support, tenderly touching my face the night we got engaged. Those images were mine and their loss permanent and tragic, but their existence presented a troubling enigma to me at the time, like a ledger full of bounced checks or a counterfeit plate bearing images of falsified hundred dollar bills.