I do not remember the menu, but she served Jell-O. This was Minnesota, remember, and I’m clergy; state statue mandates that Jell-O be served. It tasted a little off. Turns out it was sugar free, because Glenna’s diabetic. I learned a lot of things about Glenna that evening. Glenna was a widow. Glenna had step-children, her husband’s by his first marriage. The step-children, one of each, lived on separate coasts and hardly ever came to visit since their father died. Glenna had a lot of puffins. Stuffed puffins, wooden puffins, porcelain puffins—which was briefly my favorite tongue twister. Glenna had a lot of salt and pepper shakers. Glenna collected salt and pepper shakers. Glenna could not leave Blue Earth County without looking for salt and pepper shakers. Glenna did not care much for pepper and her diet required her to use very little salt. Still, Glenna’s house was full of salt and pepper shakers. She took me to her basement, which looked a lot like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Countless boxes of salt and pepper shakers filled shelves from floor to ceiling.
I was twenty-seven years old, serving my first church and had not even been officially ordained. I sat in the front room of the widow’s home and wondered, “Where is all this stuff going to go?” I have now been in ministry close to twenty years. I find myself sitting in parlors, living rooms, front rooms and wondering where will the souvenir mug from the Badlands wind up? The Dala horses from Sweden? The plate from Expo ‘67? The doll from Alsace? The bits of scrimshaw? The Navajo sand painting? The cat clock with rhinestones on the pendulum tail, whose eyes oscillate with barely audible clicks? All of these objects are treasured keepsakes. Marie and Edmund bought those Swedish horses the only time they left North America. These chachkies are valuable, priceless to their owners, and great conversation starters for new clergy. Still, I wonder about their fate once Edmund moves into the retirement community. Does anyone want these things? Will they get shipped off to Goodwill or Saint Vinny’s? Will the next rummage sale for the little league or animal shelter be their way station before they are placed on another shelf, stripped of the memories that once made them precious? Perhaps they will be precious to someone else for completely different reasons.
For years I could not pass a used record store without stopping in and searching for a single of “This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers. To me it was the grail and frankly, once I found my copy I was a little disappointed. About that time used record stores started to disappear anyway. Like many things in life, the search was better than the find, the journey better than the destination.
One of my stops in a used record store was truly unforgettable. As usual I did not find “This Old Heart of Mine” but I did find two other records I had to have: Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, backed by the Jordanaires and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on a maxi-single. I went to the cash register and placed my finds on the counter. The clerk looked at me. He looked at my purchases. He paused. He looked at me again. “Are these… uh… both for you?”
I looked over each shoulder, confirming to myself that I was the only customer in the store. “Yes.”
As I walked through the parking lot it occurred to me that perhaps my selections had struck the clerk as incongruous. Patsy Cline and Grandmaster Flash share only one thing in common: they are both recording artists. The Grandmaster is still alive; Cline died famously in an aircrash. They do not even share a common country. Cline was born in Virginia; Flash in Barbados. For years they resided side by side in the boxes that housed my record collection. Even today I am as likely to croon, “I’m always walkin’ after midnight” as I am to rap “Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge!” while I’m doing the dishes. In my head and basement, these two artists occupy equal space.
My record collection, however, was diminished this summer. My town endured two floods. Sunday we had a “twenty-five year event” and four days later we hosted “the one hundred year event.” Our basement flooded both days and a box that held a portion of my record collection was damaged by sewage. I had not lived with a working turntable for fourteen years. I had not listened to most of these records for years before that, but I was still saddened by taking them to the curb, knowing their fate was the Winnebago County landfill.
We lost a lot of other things in the flood. I cannot recall how many trips I made from the basement to the curb. We lost our card table and chairs. A box of records. Our dehumidifier was damaged, but it was about to be replaced anyway. I cannot remember what else we lost. Two weeks in a row the terrace in front of our house was filled with water-logged garbage and I have no idea what we lost. It’s been six months and I have not found myself looking for something in the basement, only to remember we lost it in the flood. What was my house full of?
In seminary we were translating a passage from Genesis and came upon the Hebrew word “recush.” “What’s recush,” someone asked the professor. She smiled slyly over her coffee mug and said, “Tupperware.”
Recush is “household goods” or “moveable property.” Nomadic people had to travel light. They followed their sheep and goats, so their households contained the bare necessities. They did not have a lot of moveable property, because they moved so much.
I look around at my house and realize that all the recush I have makes it difficult for me to move! And I mean “move” in both senses: relocating residences and walking from one room to another. How did we get all this?
After my second week of repeated trips to the curb with water-logged recush, I took stock of my closet. I have four rugby shirts. I’ll bet I wear one of them three times a year. I do not need four, but they are perfectly good, so it’s hard to throw them away. “Perfectly good” is shorthand for “I cannot foresee ever using this, but will not part with it.” I gave one of my rugby shirts to Goodwill.
After Mary’s mother died I got some of her father’s clothes that her mother had kept for grubby jobs. Charles was about five inches taller than I, so the sleeves on these shirts were long. Irritatingly long. I rarely wear them, thus they will never wear out, thus they will always be perfectly good. I suppose I could wear them enough that eventually they will wear out, but wearing them irritates me, and who knows, ten years from now I might want an ill-fitting flannel shirt. The fear of regretting giving these two shirts away is too much to bear.
In my office I keep nine liturgical stoles. Each was a gift from someone special to me. I have all the church’s seasons covered. Since I was ordained in 1991, I have acquired four Guatemalan stoles. They were de rigueur two decades ago. In a typical year I lead worship about forty-five times. About half the time I wear a stole for perhaps ninety minutes. At this rate I will wear out one stole… never. And who knows what special occasions await me, when some special person will give me another one? Will my sons want them? Will they find a good home when I no longer need them? (The stoles, not my sons.) What could I do to make them wear out faster?
Does my congregation recognize the madness of our having so much recush? I have my doubts. During a sermon, I held up a stole that I have never worn. It was a parting gift from the public liberals at my last church. It is Guatemalan and ugly. Its base color is black. I confessed that I could not throw away even an ugly stole. I vowed to “regift” it. At least three members of my congregation tried to talk me out of giving this stole away.
“It’s not ugly,” they said.
“You are simply wrong,” I reasoned.
“You could use it for something else. Mary [my wife, a quilter of enormous skill] could do something with it!”
“I’m going to give it away.” I had to defend giving away something that belonged to me. That is ugly. That I have not used in the ten years it has owned me.
I honestly do not feel diminished in any way by giving things away. I suppose I would rather see things used than thrown away, but when I look around my house and office at things I have not used in years or books I have moved with multiple times and never read, I find it rather easy, when the mood strikes, to get rid of things.
There is a complex on the outskirts of my town along each of the highways that enters this burg. These complexes resemble row houses of two car garages. I drive past them and wonder, “What’s in there?” I never see anyone coming or going at these buildings. They sit idle, silent, on the edge of town filled with…. well, I can only guess.
I fear they are filled with refuse from our flash floods. Many houses in Oshkosh had sewage back up into their basements during the floods. Untreated sewage. I will put this as clearly as I can in a family publication. Everything you have ever flushed down the toilet bubbled up into our basements. Within days this sewage-spattered recush appeared on the streets for pick up by the sanitation engineers. And nocturnal dirt people slowly rode bicycles past the piles of recush and picked through it, seeking treasures. A friend ran out to the street and told one rag picker, “Those Halloween costumes were soaking in raw sewage!”
“They look all right to me.”
“They were in pooh!”
“Oh, I don’t mind.”
Later, this same friend got a ten foot long board and spray painted, “Contaminated” on it, shielding her pooh-tainted recush from the spying eyes of the cyclists. She might as well have painted, “Hey, kids, free ice cream! Take all you want!!”
I know the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” And the good people at eBay have made a fortune matching trash to treasure seekers. But I am growing to realize that trash is trash, excess is excess, and too much is too much! I have stopped taking the complimentary advertising pens I am given regularly. The fact that something is free is no longer reason enough for me to take it. I much prefer to receive gifts that I will consume or that will wear out to recush these days. I have enough clothes, shoes, books, coffee mugs, baseball memorabilia….Actually I have more than enough of everything! I have everything I need, everything I want, and my home and office are filled with things I neither need nor want.
In this trying, near Depression moment, early in the Obama administration, I know that purchasing, consuming, will help the economy, and perhaps coordinated spending sprees by middle class folks like me will help get the economy moving again, but I am opting out. The economy can freeze and stagnate before I am willing to bring another gadget, keepsake, memento or doodad into my house.
I am even refusing to purchase an iPod, even though I could download “This Old Heart of Mine” for ninety-nine cents. Next time I regret losing this chestnut, I plan to go out walking. Even if it’s after midnight. I will startle the nocturnal dirt people who are finding relics in my rubbish.
And I will be free!
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.