A Collection of Me

By

In the last month, I’ve been in the process of getting ready to move and I’ve put a lot of thought into why I have so much stuff laying around. My closets and drawers are filled with everything from Wendell Berry poetry, to Brewfest wooden nickels, to an old belt of M-60 rounds. So I’ve gone through it all and with each thing I pick up I have to decide if I’m going to keep it or toss it. Why on earth do I have a belt of M-60 ammunition? And why on earth can’t I bring myself to throw it out?

Well, thankfully, I’ve managed to throw out just about everything. I had to narrow my criteria for keeping something down to this: is it a tool, is it a book, is it clothing? Now that sounds easy, but those three categories tend to have big gray areas. Take for instance this Tae Kwon Do gi that I got from a South Korean marine while I was camped on a hill somewhere near Pohang, Korea one winter. I think I traded him an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for it. Well, that fits nicely into the clothing category, but it’s certainly not something I’m ever going to wear…even if I could fit into it. Yet I keep it. Why?

Or take this set of National Geographic’s Mysteries of the Unexplained books that I bought when I was abut sixteen and thought was the most amazing collection of paranormal oddities I’d ever seen in one place (pre-X-files, mind you.) They are books, sure, but am I going to read them again? No, and frankly they look sort of silly sitting on the shelf next to C.S. Lewis and John Irving. Yet I keep them.

Tools don’t really need explaining, you simply can’t ever have enough of them, so why would I ever get rid of any of them at all? I wouldn’t. That part, at least, is easy.

Why keep all of this junk? Why did I pack that stupid belt of M-60 ammunition? The answer, for me at least, is that I collect all these weird things and put them on my shelves because they are a visual representation of my life, who I was, who I am. They say things about me in a much easier way than I can express with words. This is why I take so much pleasure in perusing another person’s bookshelf or movie collection. Our collections are like an abstract equation and solving it can go a long way toward telling you who a person is. If I spot too many movies on your shelf that star anyone named Wayans, for example, we aren’t likely to ever be very close friends. If you happen to have a healthy stock of Kurasawa films, on the other hand, we are going to get along nicely. Same with books. Terry Goodkind? It’s going to be a long and ugly night. Wendell Berry? Let’s go farm something for the good of humanity. Music is the same way.

So the reason I keep that M-60 belt is that it’s part of my grand collection. There’s a great scene in the movie Wall-E where he brings Eve to his home and since he can’t talk he starts showing her all the things he collects, like a lightbulb, and a Rubik’s Cube. It’s his way of saying, here, look at this, this is what I value, this is part of who I am, this is a piece of the puzzle. For me those M-60 rounds are a reminder to me that I spent six years of my life playing pretend war in some Arizona desert as a U.S. Marine. The Korean gi reminds of the winter I spent freezing my toes off living in a tent on a hillside in South Korea. Kurasawa films are reminders that I was a film student. So I carry all these little collections around thinking that someday maybe they’ll tell someone who I am, or who I was or wanted to be.

I’m pretty well done packing. The furniture all had to go. A lot of my clothes went to Goodwill. I got rid of all my dishes except for one plate, one glass, a couple pieces of silverware and a frying pan. I pared down my belongings until I am left with almost nothing. What’s left is, while small, a grand collection.

Here’s a sample…

Movies:

Magnolia
The Village
The Matrix
Punch Drunk Love
Star Wars
Raiders of the Lost Ark

Moulin Rouge
Kill Bill
Open Range
Camelot
Zoolander

Books:

Jayber Crow
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Lilith
On Writing
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
The War Against the Chtorr
series
Crime and Punishment
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Canoecraft

Miscellany:

A sculpted clay wolf that I made when I was nine
Baptismal Certificate
A collection of awful poetry that I wrote 10-15 years ago
M-60 ammunition
A Coconut from Tinian
Letters from a French girl named Caroline
16mm Movie Camera
A ridiculous student film called “Lucky Strike”
The Torah bought in Jerusalem
A handful of stones from the desert in Beersheba
A woven wicker Thai volleyball
Sailboat blueprints
A manila envelope from a friend with Wendell Berry poetry written all over it

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


22 Comments

  1. Josh Kennedy

    It’s funny how the silly, bordering on stupid, things around my house are so hard to get rid of. It doesn’t help that I’m a pack rat either (my dad was born into the Great Depression and nothing was discarded if there was even a slight chance that it might find some use in the future). And while I agree with you about how the trinkets of our lives work to remind us who we were (or at least remember being), a lot of times I find myself keeping the dumbest little things for no better reason than “they’re mine!” Sheesh, now I’ve got the urge to purge…at midnight.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the post, though I skipped the part about Wall E since I haven’t seen it yet. Also, on a side note, I was pleasantly surprised to see Moulin Rouge in that list. I haven’t come across too many guys who dig that film (their loss), but I’ve always had a soft spot for it since my first viewing in the theater. Spectaular, spectacular!

  2. Nate

    The part about Wall E was the best part. I havent seen it either. But it was still the best part.

    Reminds me of something Henry Scougal said/wrote in “The Life of God in the Soul of Man ” (an incredible book written by a guy who died young in 1678). Roughly, he said that the worth and excellency of a soul can be seen in those things which that soul values.

    This is obviously true of Wall E and Pete who show who they are by showing the things they value. When I was talking to my wife’s preacher (before we were married), he said he liked me because I liked her. If I valued her, I was probably a good guy. He was using the Scougal Principle (as I call it).

    Those are great examples of the Scougal Principle.

    Its interesting to apply the Scougal Principle to God – to look into his word, figure out what he values, and glorify him for that.

  3. jeremy byrd

    pete,
    i like what you’ve said here…but i wonder how you respond to what Jesus said about treasures that moth and rust destroy? peace.
    jb

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Jeremy,

    My point was that these aren’t material treasures so much as a means of revelation. I don’t keep them for me, I keep them as a way of giving other people insight into my mind. Jesus was talking about materialism. I’m talking about communication.

  5. Aaron Roughton

    I had a great time recently going through my “treasure boxes” with my kids. They wanted to know what each thing was…my old pocketknives, foreign coins, a Mickey Mouse watch from 1976, sharks teeth, pottery shards, a troll doll with the hair burnt to a crisp…It’s as if my kids knew what you wrote about…that the stuff was somehow a window into me.

    I should also mention that the stuff that I own that defines me has changed as I’ve grown and changed. I’ve thrown away things recently that 10 years ago would have broken my heart. But I guess that’s a sign of growth, in one direction or another.

    Thanks for the post Pete.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Pete,

    Interesting post. We’ve moved five times over the course of our 18 year marriage and prior to that I had moved four other times and there are things that have followed me and many things I’ve pitched — but I had to really wrestle with it. I agree with your sentiment here, it is kind of a crazy living time capsule. Hopefully a revelation and not a pain for those who get left with our collections when we move on to our true home.

    But, what’s up with the Wayans comment when you have an Adam Sadler and Ben Stiller movie in your sample list. I kind of find the humor to be on the same level 🙂

    Cheers!

  7. Andrew Peterson Fan

    We’ve moved 35 times so far… I set up 3 piles in each room: keep, give away, and throw out.

    Have we used it in 6 months? Keep. Is it a seasonal thing? Keep. The rest we don’t need and just keep what would hurt to part with.

    The hardest part for us are the what if’s. What if I need a basic black or formal dress, or go back to work sooner than planned? What if we have a grandchild in a few years and wish we had held onto those children’s toys and books? What if I go back to teaching once our children are grown and wish we’d kept all those unit studies? What if we need to ride our bikes somewhere because the car breaks down? What if we give away or sell all our 110V appliances, lawnmower, and everything else we have right inside our garage-less German house just to have to buy new ones when we go back to America, and we wished we had just tolerated them being in the middle of our rooms a few months longer?

    In moving, we are reminded of AP’s “Land of the Free”, thinking about all these things we have, what others could use more than we could, and what really matters… or doesn’t.

    We seek Him for a Christ-centered balance between need and want, a plan that incorporates more Biblical stewardship than greed, wisdom regarding the time and season for everything, and the ability to trust God to provide our daily bread instead of hoarding more than one day’s manna.

  8. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I am a collector of things. Always have been, probably always will be. For me, I don’t think of this inclination so much as communication about me, but as reminders of the past that I don’t want to forget. These things communicate about me (and those I’ve known) but that’s not why I do it. It’s not for others; it’s for me, I suppose. I often get the sense that to a lot of us, life and people are disposable. Those people and things that are no longer present in life are somehow unimportant or irrelevant. No. I reject that. The things I collect are important to me because they remind me of who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

  9. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    I agree, Curt. I don’t like to get rid of books because of what they tell me about who I used to be when I read them. A friend of mine put it this way: “I believe it’s a good idea to read as many books as you can get away with, and to keep them around on bookshelves as a way of reminding yourself who and where you used to be at the time in your life when you read that particular book.”

  10. whipple

    It’s always reassuring, and somewhat sobering, to find another Kurosawa fan, as I filed into the company line of those who have discovered wonder in his art before my time.

    I’d also like to know your thoughts on Lilith. When I read it before, I think I tried a bit too hard to assign a Biblical antecedent to every character, so I missed a lot of the good meat of the story. I shall have to read it again, once I find a tumbleweed copy blowing through this cluttered cobwebbed town.

  11. Amy

    There is no way humanly possible for me to keep all of my books. I actually go through a little grieving process when I get rid of them, but except for the ones that change me in some way, I have to get rid of them because Mt. TBR is very real.

    Having said that, I have hundreds of books.

    I also have a lot of movies. And I have an attachment to them, if I really liked the movie or it challenged me or I connected to it in some way. I go through this internal dialogue of whether or not I will realistically watch this again and if I want to watch it again, can’t I just rent it, and really it’s miserable. I am hanging onto some of my boxed sets of TV series for the same reason Will I ever sit down and watch Buffy again straight through? Probably not, but I like having it on my shelf.

    I get what you’re saying about the items being a means of communication. I also love examining people’s bookshelves, and entertainment centers. Jeff Bezos said at BEA this year that some of the people who have converted to the kindle still buy the physical copies of the books and perhaps this is why.

  12. Amy

    I moved about two weeks ago and went through almost the opposite process. I recently returned from a two year stint in the Peace Corps in Africa, where my only transportation option was hitchhiking around. When you hitchhike everywhere you have to carry everything you have on your back and there’s this perilous balance between having everything you need in case you get stuck out in the bush in the middle of the night (candle, matches, tin cup, water, powdered soup, Swiss Army knife, a sweater, a cell phone and a sleep mat are the minimum- a switchblade, a plastic wrapped bar of chocolate, and a book among other things would be nice) and not having so much that you can’t carry it at least several miles through heat you didn’t know was possible on planet earth and still be able to toss it into the back of a pickup truck/cattle truck/bus with more people than you thought humanly possible/donkey cart at a moments notice.

    Anyway, having things and traveling with them is strange to me. I had no furniture, so I had to buy a bed, some shelves, and a wardrobe. This causes me to feel an odd mixture of excitement and terror. There is something very freeing about being able to carry everything you own on your back. You feel like you could go absolutely anywhere. I think part of it is the guilt of possessions (when I’ve seen what is absolutely minimal for survival) and part of it is that in some very important ways, no matter what we do, our things own us. I was never afraid of getting mugged when I didn’t have a cent to my name and only had a paperback and a granola bar in my bag. I only feared mugging when I was traveling with my laptop. Things may define us, but they also limit us. The best gifts in my life I received with empty hands and a grateful heart and, in some ways, I desperately miss being really _really_ poor.

  13. Leigh McLeroy

    Pete –
    I loved this post. I agree that the things we keep are very revealing. I just today saw Wall-E, and found the scene you described so touching. If only it were so easy to “show each other our stuff” that we keep on the inside! I’m working on a book now called “God’s Cigar Box” – imagining what small artifacts God would save if kept a cigar box (think “To Kill a Mockingbird”) – and what they he would say about him. The last chapter unpacks my own box of artifacts, and explains why I keep these. Thanks for unpacking a few of your own.

  14. david

    Amy, you should totally watch Buffy all the way through again 🙂 my wife and i are watching it and Angel, and i’m consistently surprised at the truths Whedon and crew touch on…

    speaking of my wife, i’ve been trying to explain to her how important my collections are to me, and have had a hard time making sense to myself, much less to her. i’ll be pointing her to this post, to see if it helps communicate… i appreciate the transparency, pete! something i strive for in my own life, with my own shelves…

  15. Janna

    Pete,

    Maybe no one else is this nosy, but where are you moving . . . and why? I also agree about Moulin Rouge; been trying to get my hubby to watch that one. We also own On Writing — good stuff! Do churches still make baptismal certificates these days?

  16. Janna

    Well, let me be the first to welcome you to “good ole Rocky Top.” Hope you can adjust to the central time zone. I’ll never understand this state and all it’s divisions. Growing up in AR, I thought all of Tennesse was like Memphis. Boy was I wrong! We’ve gotten used to K-ville though and we like it pretty well. There might not be any beaches, but there’s plenty of lakes and good fishin’ to keep you busy. Best wishes on this next leg of the journey!

  17. becky

    I wrote down this quote once–can’t remember who said it. “Every possession is a stone tied to your leg.” There’s nothing like moving to make you think really hard about which stones are worth dragging around. The importance of each of my possessions diminishes with each day closer to moving day.

    I am with Curt on this. My stuff is not a communication tool so much as a memorial. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. God had the Israelites put up standing stones, and other types of memorials, all the time. Part of faith is remembering who God is and what he has done for us in the past. Mind you, some of my stuff is truly just junk. But some of the things that I keep, and several of the things you listed Pete, are standing stones, and I don’t mind being tied to them.

  18. Terri Sutton

    I love how you describe your collections. I am a huge collector of other people’s stuff. On my lunch I go to st vincent de Pauls and treasure hunt I also love goodwill.com. I love old books and I love this website. Good luck in Nashville and how is the sailboat? Terri

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