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…
Punch Drunk Love
Raiders of the Lost Ark
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
The War Against the Chtorr series
Crime and Punishment
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A sculpted clay wolf that I made when I was nine
A collection of awful poetry that I wrote 10-15 years ago
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
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.