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The Roundtable

Listener Essay - Mover's Dilemma


    Mover’s Dilemma Ken Appleman Downstairs in the basement, stacked on the dusty concrete floor, cold, lit by the glare of bare bulbs, is my life.

Well, not my life, exactly, but my life’s history. Papers. Books. Toys. Games. Old computers. Defunct cameras. A pair of binoculars so out-of-alignment no crossing of the eyes can eliminate the double image. All of it packed, securely, wrapped in newspaper or old junk mail, and stuffed, neatly, into plastic bins and cardboard boxes.

My life’s history.

I do not need to see any of it. I do not need to feel it, touch it, or hold it. It’s all just there: a vast well of memories, a reference library, ready whenever I need it to recall the details of my past.

The only thing is: I’m moving. And it’s just too much stuff. And some of it, some of it I need to get rid of. But, what?

As it turns out, it is by no means an easy decision.

So, what do I do? And why is it so hard to know? And why am I left with this feeling of sadness?

I think that’s the hardest thing to figure out. Why this sadness?

I’ve been ruminating on it for weeks now. A few things come to mind:

For one, it’s like death. Mine, I mean. If I weren’t around, someone else would have to go through all of this stuff for me. In fact, it’s almost unfair, me having to go through it for myself. Some of these things I just don’t want to see. Gee, most of the books in this box seem almost unread! Why would anyone have all these books and never read them? And wow, look at that sack of letters! These people must have been important once. I wonder why there’s no contact with them now?! And look at that never-built model! Why buy it, if you were never going to build it? And then, why keep it, down here?

Or, if it’s not like death? Then it’s like a litany of failure. Business cards from businesses that no longer exist; some from businesses whose achievements never exceeded the printing of the cards. Mementos from a failed marriage, and from relationships gone awry. Technical design documents bearing my name that no one will look at, except as a curiosity, ever again.

But the reality is, I think, it’s not these things. These are tempting explanations, easy places to go. It’s not a huge leap to realize, as one pores through the ancient artifacts of one’s years, that for many people, cozy in a non-nomadic lifestyle, with a dusty attic or basement slowly gathering layers of archival materials the way that a tree-trunk acquires rings, such archeology wouldn’t occur until after their death.

But that’s too obvious an explanation. As is the litany of failures. While some of the things I was digging up inevitably evoked memories of failures of the past, there were mementos too of successes, of happy times, of events which should bring joy to remember. Pictures of my kids when they were young; pieces of their schoolwork; brightly colored crayon drawings; or old pieces of writing of mine; or, from businesses successful and failed, keepsakes from coworkers and staff: a plush Dilbert; a SouthPark “Kenny” doll; a heavy and substantial bookshelf-worthy marker of a business gone public.

There’s no reason for these things to make me feel the way that I did. Why, then, this sadness?

It occurred to me, finally, that there were two forces at work. One, the hoarder’s nightmare. The sense that I might make a wrong decision. Wait, that thick, old, brittle cable that was used to connect a long-defunct computer to its long-lost floppy disk drive? What if I find the drive one day?! And my batteries-corroded, acquired-when-I-was-a-teen, utterly nonfunctional Super 8 movie camera? What if I one day want to show someone, irreparable example though it is, how home movies used to get made?!

How can I throw these things away?

But, I can manage that. A reasoned argument with myself, the recognition that certain “irreplaceable” things from my past will never need replacement, serves to quiet that fear, allows me to dispose of those things which need to be disposed of.

But what can’t be answered, the nagging question which I can’t find any way to send away, to quiet, is a question about the fog of memory. I never see most of these things, I never wonder where they are, I never need them in my daily life. But, each thing I’ve found has brought with it its own unique message, its own dredged-up story. Each evokes situations which I might never, in any other way, have remembered. And that’s where the pain, the anxiety lies. How can I deal so lightly with my own life? How can I be so willing to dispose of my own memories? Which things do I save, and which do I throw away? Which memories can I afford to risk that I’ll never remember again?

I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out. But outside the dumpster is brimming. And the deepest buried items, invisible from the top? Some may reflect memories which, already, I may not even remember that I’ve forgotten.

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