Everyday, there’s a new natural disaster somewhere around the world. Fires,
earthquakes, hurricanes, massive floods, tornados, tsunamis. Inevitably, in
their aftermaths, there are images dispatched from the effected areas where all
we see are heaps of ruins where people’s homes and communities once stood. And
after the search, rescue and recovery efforts cease, we see them: the shocked population
of the area, sifting through the ruins of what used to be their lives in search
of their possessions. It’s a natural reaction to think that they’re so lucky to
have survived. It’s normal to say: “so, what if their stuff is demolished? What
matters is that they’re safe and alive.” The point is obvious. Stuff doesn’t
matter and material possessions are not important, when compared with other
substantial matters like survival.
We’re taught it’s better to give than to receive. We tell ourselves that material things
are just that and not very important in the grand scheme of things. We believe
that objects aren’t what should matter. From very early on in life, we hear all
these ideas and internalize them.
Let’s ignore the irony that despite what we teach our kids and tell ourselves about
the immateriality of material things, ours is one of the most materialistic
societies in the world. Let’s forget that we’re all addicted to things- getting
them, keeping them and getting more of them. That we’re in a constant rat race
of obtaining more stuff: more shoes, more clothes, bigger cars, new
electronics, better TV’s and on and on and on. Despite this, we’re constantly
told and most of us believe that the virtuous thing is to reject materialism.
And yet, we still stand in line overnight on the street for the next Apple
product that’s just like the last one, but thinner, shinier or white with a
front facing camera. And don’t forget that great all American Thanksgiving
tradition of lining up in front of the local Best Buy right after our turkey
dinner, so we can be the first ones in the store when it opens at the ungodly
hour of 2 in the morning. We don’t know what they’ll be giving away, but
whatever it is we cannot live without it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we have a love affair with stuff. A
schizophrenic love. Or, rather, we have a dysfunctional love/hate relationship
The truth of the matter is more complex than slogans, expressions, trademarked
catch phrases and fanatical brand name loyalties. The reality is not black and
white, but filled with many shades of gray.
Yes, materialism, consumerism and hoarding more and more stuff are nasty habits,
deserving of being kicked to the curb. And yes, there are much more important things in life than stuff. But possessions can also be imbued with sheer magic. Possessions, at times, capture a snap shot of us at a particular stage in our lives. They can hold a piece of us forgotten to us. They can trigger headier notions and feelings like hope, grace, devotion, love, and even self-esteem. At times, our possessions serve as a bridge to our pasts and allow us to reach places within ourselves forgotten or tossed aside long ago. Possessions can be our best friends, therapists and the only real connection to our true and complete selves. And I believe that honoring this reality doesn’t make me greedy or shallow or materialistic, but simply aware and realistic about life.
A few weeks ago, I received a box from my prior home state of Texas. My husband and I
shipped it to California during our last trip to Dallas, back in May. It held some stuff from my years lived in the Lone Star State, including things from my very first few years in the United States. This was stuff I haven’t seen or thought about in at least a dozen years. This was old stuff I had learned to live without.
Initially, I couldn’t bring myself to open the box. Not really sure why. Maybe I was
scared of a trip down memory lane. Or Maybe I was afraid of feeling loss and sadness. Anyway, it took me a few days to work up my courage to finally get into it. I think my hesitation stemmed from the belief that once I opened it and began to go through my old things, I would never be the same again. And, I was right.
Every book, CD and old journal struck a different and long forgotten chord. Every
photograph took me back to a memory I didn’t know I still had. Every note, letter and old greeting card was like a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is me. Every memento led to an ocean of wisdom, hidden knowledge and long forgotten lessons.
I read the letters my girlhood friends wrote me just after I left Iran. There was so much
love and longing in them. There was such pure friendship between each and every word, phrase and line. Each letter took me back to my teen years- those days spent as a lonely outcast, the new foreign kid in school, the alienated, slightly freaked out, lost and homesick girl in ESL class. The letters took me further back, to a more innocent time before my exile from Iran. I was reminded of our inside jokes, our schoolgirl crushes and our fun times, even though they took place only a couple of years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I marveled at the human spirit thriving even in the worst of circumstances. We felt real love, real happiness and real friendship, despite the fact that our world had just been ripped into smithereens.
So many of the letters were addressed not to my real name, but to “Dear Judy”, a reference
to Jerusha Abbott, the main character of our cherished book Daddy Long Legs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daddy-Long-Legs_%28novel%29), written by Jean Webster. Ornate hand-made stationeries, notes and other artwork sent to me by these girls, whom I loved like sisters, reminded me of our love of all things western. Somehow, Snoopy was a huge favorite. Not sure why.
In this treasure chest from the past, I found several volumes of my old journals. Talk about a blast from the past! I read sections of the first journal I kept when I came to America-Texas to be exact- in 1985. I could feel my progression, my evolution in every page. In fact, I began writing this journal in Persian, but gradually switched into English. What an insurmountable challenge it seemed to the 15-year-old me to learn English! My loneliness and the feeling of being overwhelmed by my then new life are so vivid and palpable in the pages of my journal that I couldn’t help but feel love and true admiration for that 15-year-old girl.
I’ve kept everything from high school: homecoming ribbons, report cards, hall passes, honor roll letters and even my school cafeteria lunch cards. I’ve saved dried flowers, photos, movie tickets and the ticket stub to my very first concert in the United States: Duran Duran, summer of 1987 at Six Flags Over Texas. I’ve even saved notes passed to me in class, a rarity considering that I spoke hardly any English and was mostly ignored by my classmates. I think I did this because I needed to have documentation that those years really happened. Having fled Iran, I had very few things from my early life. When I moved here, I felt this incontrollable need to build a new life surrounded by things-my things.
I can’t truly explain how it felt to look at all these artifacts from the early awkward years of my American life. Every slip of paper, no matter how insignificant, took me back to those days- a shy teen-aged refugee from Iran with no family (other than my parents) or friends, who spoke no English and was behind in school, just wanting to survive high school, one day at a time.
My huge brick-size volume of Persian-English dictionary reminded me of the days when I
couldn’t go anywhere without it. I carried that humongous thing to every period, everyday, for the entirety of my high school years. I remember going to my science class for the first time and meeting the raspy-voiced science teacher, Ms. Davis. She took one look my dictionary, which I was holding as if it were a protective shield, asked me a couple of questions, which I couldn’t understand, and knew exactly what to do with me. Ms. David, bless her chain smoking heart, sat me down, gave me a textbook and told me that the only thing she expected me to do in class was to read my textbook page by page, looking up as many words as I needed to. I was exempt from pop quizzes, exams and class discussions. All she wanted was for me to do my best and learn the material, even if it had be one word at a time. Ms. Davis helped me more than she would ever know.
Among my things, I also found some of my father’s prized possessions. His art books and the hundreds of slides of Persian art and historical sights, which he had to smuggle out of Iran, reminded me of his eternal and undying love for our homeland, its history, art and literature. Suddenly, I was back in our first apartment in Dallas on Gaston Avenue. I could feel his frustration and fear and see his restlessness and hard work in attempting to simply fit in, begin anew and normalize life for all of us. Those early years were the hardest for us as a family and we drifted apart from each other, as we each tried to acclimate and learn to live this new and very different life to the best of our individual capabilities.
An old and colorful scrapbook opened a doorway into my college years. Here again, I’ve
saved everything: birthday cards, dinner receipts, even my unsent notes to boys who were undeserving and inevitably ended up breaking my heart. I even have funny little notes from girlfriends written on the backs of cocktail napkins. They reminded me of our happy, carefree college days and the friendships we forged for life.
The most touching things I found in this treasure trove of objects and reminders were a
few old video tapes. They’re home movies of seemingly inconsequential moments of our lives. And yet, they are truly treasured gifts from our former selves to me today. One tape captured the day we bought our first (and last) family home in 1989. Watching it, I saw such a great sense of happiness, pride and promise. An immigrant dream come true right on the screen before me. After more than seven years, this was the first time I saw and heard my dad speak. His happy voice, his funny jokes and his smiling face were the biggest and most heartbreaking gifts for me among so many others hidden in this box from Texas. Seeing the house that became my home for a decade, empty of furniture and brand new to myhopeful family, transported me back to more than twenty years ago and re-introduced me to that naïve, idealistic young woman I used to be.
Yes, it is better to lose everything if it means that one is still alive and safe. Yes, material things don’t matter, as long as we have our loved ones and our health. But, that’s not the end of the story. I am altered because of material possessions. I am enhanced because I possess tangible things from my past that connect me to it. I am soothed by my “stuff”.
So, while I watch reports from natural disasters around the world and feel glad to see the survivors, safe and healthy despite the total destruction of their homes and belongings, I feel a deep sadness for them and what they have lost. And I know that they will also feel this sadness, if not now, in years and decades to come.
Let it never be said that material things can’t bring us happiness, wisdom or peace. They totally can. They enrich us and they enlighten us. They help us travel back in time, meet with our lost loved ones, feel love, be loved, feel closure and find ourselves.