I know it’s over represented in her body of work, but I really love Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz.” It also seems fitting to include one of her poems in the very first entry of this blog. In case the poem is not top of mind, here’s how it goes:
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -
The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -
I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -
With Blue - uncertain stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -
I’m not going to get into the myriad reasons I love this poem, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these lines:
I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portions of me be
Unlike the speaker of this poem, I’m not planning on dying any time soon, but I can still relate. Over the last month or so, Dave and I have given away or sold most of what we own in preparation for our move to the Netherlands. Really this is a process of choosing. It’s like packing the wagon for our own modern trip on the Oregon Trail. For me, this process has been both satisfying and wrenching.
Mostly, I’ve enjoyed getting rid of stuff. It felt great to whittle my wardrobe down to a single suitcase; I didn’t mourn the sectional sofa a bit as it walked out the door with a stranger.
In the last 15 years, I’ve moved about ten times. Despite this frequency, moving always triggers a period of reevaluation. All my material crap spurs a loathing, both for myself and for the culture of procurement in which we live. As I move boxes from place to place, tuck away a million old items into their new cubbies, and run to Target to buy a slew of stuff to fill in the holes of a new home, life just seems so cyclical and fruitless. Why do I waste time and resources acquiring, storing, cleaning, and moving things that make me unhappy the next time I have to deal with them? This question itself, though, oversimplifies the issue. Each time I moved, I took some pleasure in buying things and setting up house, and many of the items I got were actually useful. Still, some bones deep in my body really want to live in one of those micro-houses with only 50 possessions. So the impetus these days to purge, purge, purge is not exactly unwelcome.
But now, in the final week before departure, with Dave already gone ahead to Amsterdam, the process has become more difficult. It seems everything we own was given to us by someone we love. Wooden spoons, honey-bee themed toiletry bags, even bottles of Excedrin Migraine-everything I touch seems suffused with the care and love of our family and friends. I find myself actually moaning several times a day as I sit alone in the apartment, emptying closets and doing the dreaded sorting. It feels like triage, a minor type of violence inflicted through strategic choice. And here I am loading my car for yet another Goodwill trip.
Of course, we are keeping a number of things-our keepsakes, if you will. We would never give away our stacks of quilts and pieces of handmade furniture. Our wedding clothes. I’m keeping a small box of my most precious books, including a number written by friends. My fabric collection represents too much potential to let go, and Dave is determined to ferry his favorite speakers across the ocean one at a time in his suitcases and rewire them.
But back to Dickinson. In the middle of these lines, the speaker seems to stumble. She says she:
What portions of [her] be
The line break between “be” and “Assignable” is what kills me here. It’s as though she’s searching for the right word-“Assignable.” What portions of anyone are assignable? For Dickinson’s speaker, I think it’s fair to view this stumble as a type of grappling about the future of her soul-or, as I prefer to think of it, her mind. She’s on her deathbed, waiting to go to heaven, and, unlike her material possessions, her soul is not hers to “assign,” because she believes it belongs to God. The poem as a whole is deeply doubtful-or at least ambiguous-about the afterlife, but in these lines, the speaker is reaffirming that she has placed her most vital “keepsake,” her mind, into divine hands.
It’s grandiose to compare our little international move to the gravitas of this poem, I know. Thinking about the idea of “assignability” has me in a reflective mood, though. When one dies, as the speaker does in Dickinson’s poem, it’s obviously no longer possible to hold on to anything-certainly nothing physical. There’s no more drinking wine picked out by your dad or reading through letters or emails from your friends and old loves. The possessions with which you have flanked yourself will be irrelevant-at least to you. Also, there’s no more ability to give anything away.
When I think about it, it seems that gifts are really for the pleasure of the giver just as much as for the recipient. When I make a quilt, for example, I spend lots of time thinking about the recipients. I imagine them liking it (and lavishing me with praise, of course), but also about their tastes, what they do every day, how they might use or not use the object I’m making for them. To give a gift well, I think, one must deeply consider the recipient. But also, there should be acceptance that, despite the effort, the gift may not be liked or appreciated all that much. It may be put away in a box and donated to Goodwill a few years later. Gifts are not to be foisted on someone with expectations. A good gift belongs to both the recipient and to the giver, but the giver’s part happens in the acts of creation and giving themselves-not in what happens to the object afterward.
The mixing bowls and CDs we’re getting rid of, therefore, served their main purpose as gifts long ago. Or maybe this is all to assuage the guilt of the Goodwill trips?
In discussing all this with friends, several people have made me aware of Marie Kondos’s new big-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. The struggle is, evidently, quite common. I haven’t read the book in full yet, but I’m trying out some of the basic techniques she describes, such as verbally “honoring” objects as purposeful in their own way before giving them away. It feels very hokey, but also a little helpful, as is using the criterion of “causes joy” in deciding what to keep. I told Dave a while ago, before I even knew about the book, that, whenever I open a box of stuff we’re keeping, I want to be genuinely happy to see it. Likely, in Dickinson’s time, when keepsakes were dearer and fewer, there would not have been need for Kondo’s book. But the basic emotional hold of one’s possessions must have been similar.
The letting go of material items is a practical necessity at the moment, but it’s important because it proves how little the stuff matters. Somehow, shedding my possessions seems to eliminate a small mental obstacle between me and time, me and other people. Time and people are more important than things. The sorting and packing isn’t exactly the first stage in this big change, but it’s an early part of the process. So that’s where I’m standing right now, a week before I leave-feeling both further from and closer to the important parts and people of my life. The pile of junk left in our Milwaukee apartment is ever smaller, ever more stubborn, and ever more inevitably gone.
Our few remaining possessions fit in these boxes.