Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tierra del Fuego

It's been well over a week now since flames were racing up and down the foothills a mere two miles from the house I live in. The strangeness of the experience has all but dissipated now, and the only people I know who were directly affected are mere acquaintances.

That Thursday night was an exercise in putting "impermanence" into practice, though. J and I had been driving home from work and immediately saw flames in the distance from the freeway, but it was hard to tell exactly where they were located. As we flipped around the all-news AM radio stations and got closer to town, it was apparent that the fire was up in the foothills, but definitely somewhat close to Santa Barbara. We weren't particularly alarmed and did an errand or two downtown, which by then smelled fairly smoky and had a few flurries of ash raining down.

We parted ways and when I arrived home I found my upstairs neighbor loading an armful of clothes into her car. Although I had talked to J about the possibility of packing up some stuff and spending the night at her place, it wasn't until I saw my neighbor that I thought things might be kind of serious. Not urgent, but serious -- at least for our neighborhood.

Since I knew some parts of the city were without electricity due to the proximity of the fire to some power lines, I decided I'd rather pack up some stuff before the power outage spread to our area. I live in the lower part of the foothills, and figured that there was only a slim chance of the fire coming this far. Even without a sense of "real" urgency, the exercise of packing up belongings "just in case" the place might burn down was an interesting exercise.

What would you pack up and take? I had a good couple hours to pack in a leisurely way, but what if I had only had mere minutes?

In ended up taking a few days' worth of clothes. A large shoe box of photos and negatives, some photo albums, and a couple of framed photos. A small framed lithograph I bought in Venice. Several wooden carvings from my time in Africa. Cameras. A box of blank checks. My passports. Eyeglasses. A toiletry case and all my supplies of medications. An entire box of colognes and perfumes (don't laugh: it's become a hobby and the entire collection is worth an amount of money that I'm almost embarrassed to admit).

My scrapbook from Africa and several old handwritten journals were packed up also. I had to dig around in a couple of boxes for some of the journals, and even then there were some that I just couldn't find (and I still haven't figured out where they are). I've made a mental note that I really should collect all of those journals and have them in one place. In this digital age, it would be nice if I had a scanner and could digitize all of them; I've also thought of transcribing them into some kind of online repository, but who knows how long before I get around to something like that.

The only book I grabbed was an exhibition catalogue inscribed for me by a former boyfriend (he had helped curate the exhibition).

So in the end: impermanence. I had to consider what would happen if I lost it all. My friend, J, seemed quite upset at the idea of losing all her objects -- even though her place was much further from the fire than mine, we both imagined what would happen if winds blew the fire Armageddon-like through the city. Although I could say it certainly bothers me, I don't know that I would be crushed to lose my possessions. There's part of me that feels that it would be great to have everything wiped clean and make a fresh start from nothing. However, without renter's insurance, that might actually be a heartbreaking (and budget breaking) situation.

I still haven't unpacked and put back in place everything I threw together that Thursday night. I also really need to go through my closet and the boxes of possessions that are stored all over this apartment and get rid of so much stuff. I have a hard time parting with many things, but part of me really hates "stuff" and has grown to hate it even more as time passes.

There was a time when almost everything I had was able to be transported in a single carload across the country. That time seems so carefree and exciting now. It's not that I have expensive pieces of furniture that I can't part with (though there are a couple nice pieces I wouldn't want to just pitch in a dumpster). I still find it hard to part with certain items of clothing, even when I haven't worn them for years (or in some cases, over a decade). I've saved almost every handwritten letter I've ever received, and many greeting cards as well, if they have significant inscriptions. There is one overflowing shoebox of programs, handouts, and flyers for performances I've attended.

Coincidentally, This American Life replayed an episode today about people who have to clean up the belongings of those who die with no next of kin. It's worth thinking about: What will happen to all our "stuff" when we're gone, whether we die unexpectedly in a bus crash tomorrow or if we live another twenty or thirty years? Isn't it worth doing a little winnowing ourselves now to spare some poor soul the job of having to figure out what to do with that Pikachu bath toy that looked so cute years ago when we just had to buy it?

Maybe that's why it might be a good idea to move residences more often -- and not just haul all the same boxes of junk to the new address, but to use moving as an opportunity to pare down and clean out.

Which brings me to my next topic (although I feel like I've written more than I wanted to at this point and maybe I should wrap things up): I really feel like leaving California more than ever lately.

Not that I really want to leave, but I've been in an indecisive limbo about how and where to live my life for so long now. It will break my heart to leave California whenever that happens, but I feel such a strong pull back to the Northeast (mainly because of my grandmother's advancing age) that I know I can't just keep feeling this tug indefinitely without some possibly tragic psychic consequences.

In addition, developments at work have conspired to make me entirely fed up and depressed about the situation there. Without elaborating, I'll just say that I'm pretty much being moved to another affiliated unit against my will, and while it's being spun as an "opportunity!" by some, what I really feel is that it's an opportunity for my direct supervisors not to have to deal with me challenging them or making them uncomfortable now and then. Seriously, I'm just disgusted, but as I said, also depressed because at times like this I really start to think about other job options and I seriously have NO IDEA what my qualifications are, if any. They're so generic, in my mind, as to be meaningless.

In truth, all I want to do lately is sleep because I'm so depressed, and while I'm not really actively thinking of suicide (honestly, I'm way too afraid of death), the thought does cross my mind about how such an act might play out. Sleep is so enjoyable that eternal sleep doesn't seem like much stretch or hardship. Seriously, though, I don't view suicide as something that might happen in the near term, but I do wonder if that's ultimately going to be one of the most likely options in the far-off future. My health is declining and will only continue to do so. I have, essentially, no career, and the thought of trying to "sell oneself" to prospective employers as age advances and one is less likely to be perky enough to pull it off with enthusiasm alone (especially when one doesn't really have a "profession") just seems more and more ridiculous. And the carnage of a few disastrous relationships recedes into the more and more distant past with nothing promising on the horizon to replace them.

I want to sell off all my things and pack it all up by April for a retreat to New Jersey. That also plays into a childish fantasy of "sticking it to" my employers by leaving at an inopportune time. Silly, but it feels good to have that fantasy right now.

However, the stress of worrying about health insurance, possibly buying a car, trying to come close to earning my current salary... and the chances of working at something I love and that would satisfy me on a molecular level.... it's all too much, so here I sit contemplating crawling into bed at 9:40pm (and here I was intending to soak in a bath tonight).

“Television in India is so uplifting!”


rptrcub said...

It's good to know that your residence remains intact, and most of all, that you are all right. I am about to move myself, so I've thought the same thing about just starting all over again barring myself and my cat getting hurt.

I would hope that suicide is never an option for you. I, a stranger to you, am not going to be pollyannaish or be like Annie and say that everything will get magically sunny and bright. The stress in life, period, sounds overwhelming and I've spent my own time getting to bed early and thinking about just wanting to reboot my life. But I would hope things get better.

I hope I do not offend or that I am presumptuous. I just wanted to log in a friendly word.

LadrĂ³n de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Another beautifully written post and contemplation of the wonder of it all or the total lack of it. I've felt all those ranges of emotions and then have been mad at myself for doing so and then had them come back even stronger. I'd hate to say that now having a dog has change it all, but it has helped.

Papagayo said...

hi joe... the first part of your post is really beautiful, and makes me wonder what i would take in my apartment filled with second-hand crappy furniture and loads of cheap clothes. thinking about it in terms of an emergency is quite different from debating carting every piece all over the place when i simply move. as far as the second part, i empathize with your position... i work in higher ed and i'm beginning to become annoyed with a five-word title that serves as a conversation killer, but the point is that I HAVE A JOB, which is important because I live in a country where that is SUMAMENTE IMPORTANTE. So I don't get down on myself about it... besides the fact that we both know there are probably a billion people in the world dying to work who just can't get a job. If you want to move, you should. You're far from your family, maybe something new would be fun for you. And remember: you're still young and good looking!

Salty Miss Jill said...

Oh, honey. Know that you're not alone.
Love, SMJ

BigAssBelle said...

oh sweet man, I think I know how you're feeling. I can't say anything to make it better, just sending a big hug.