As we unpacked in our hotel room for our training trip out in Carefree, Arizona, it struck me that so much of life is packing and unpacking things. We need our stuff. Live by our stuff. Pack and unpack our stuff. Until we ultimately leave all our stuff behind.
Earlier this week I loaded the last (and all) of my father’s clothes into the Subaru and headed for the Salvation Army. We’re cleaning out the house and heaps of clothing have no value except to those who might genuinely need them. Every months I find some sort of clothing to recycle to needful purposes. Amvets. Vietnam Veterans. They call and at least one bag of clothing goes out into the world again.
Many years back a man showed up at our church with a long story about how he was from Scotland and his parents were coming over to visit him and he needed clothing and food. So I tooled home and got him some clothes and a bit of money. Four weeks later he was seen wandering the streets still. Only this time he was dressed in one of my old favorite shirts.
It was a kind of “time out of mind” moment in my life. Trying to do good does not always produce good. It’s a fact that you realize as you grow older.
That doesn’t mean it has to produce full cynicism. It is often said that a liberal is only a person that has not been mugged yet. Life has mugged me a few times, yet I hold fast to the notion of doing good. Or doing my best.
Which half explains why we’re out in Phoenix on a seemingly self-indulgent training trip. Sometimes to figure out the things back home you have to get away. That’s what my son originally recommended after my wife died. “Dad, you should go to the wilderness. Get away for a while. You need that.”
There’s a wildneress inside your head as well, and that must be explored if you plan to find yourself. I’m reading the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and have seen the movie several times. When she lost her mother it threw her into a steep tumble down the alluvial skree of life. She fell from the mountain of hope with scratches and bruises and a broken spirit. And to heal herself, she essentially climbed up the western edge of the North American continent.
To start out, she packed far too much stuff and could not even lift the bag she hoped to carry a thousand miles. As she went along, there were things discarded and disavowed. These included mental burdens as well as physical objects. She had packed more than she knew or needed on the trip. The book taught me some things about how my children feel about the loss of their mother. How to pack and unpack those emotions. How to look at them. I’ve tried to be a good father in the wake of her passing. In some ways, yes. In others, perhaps not.
But the fact remains she cannot be replaced. Like all of us that have lost something precious, we pack that loss along with us whether we want it or not.
As I put my training gear in a drawer in our hotel room, it struck me that there were six or eight things bright and fluorescent in my gear. Socks. Shirts. Pullovers. Cycling gloves. I put them in there together. It was my bright drawer. Like a drawer full of hope.
When I loaded all my fathers stuff into the Subaru and drove it to the Salvation Army, their parking lot was full. So kept moving and wound up at Goodwill. My father loved that place. He loved finding “bargains.” It was his hobby. So it made some sense to return all his stuff to that store. It filled an entire six by six foot bin. I didn’t study anything too closely. I’ve ceased packing sentiment over “things” as part of the process of getting along in life.
For some people the phrase “packing it in” means giving up. But it’s precisely the things we give up that keep us from having to pack so much, and carry so much along as we proceed toward that place of freedom we call self. And toward that new belonging we call companionship. Because that’s highly portable.