Jewish Journal


December 25, 2003

Baggage Claim


I used to want things. One day, I realized the seven pairs of Puma sneakers and the Pottery Barn rug and the 8-pound "Columbia Encyclopedia," those were just things to pack, and I didn't want them anymore.

Actually, that day was just about two weeks ago, when I got a job in New York and had to pack up my worldly belongings in a matter of days to ship off to Manhattan. I got here just in time for the first snowstorm, which is happening today, as I stare out my hotel window. Maybe I should have held onto those wool gloves, but in a fit of Buddhist nonattachment, I erred on the side of frozen.

I donated most of my clothes to my girlfriend, a social worker who divvied them up among the teenage girls under her charge. I divided my books into piles: the Mitzi pile, the Bianca pile, the Tim pile. I parceled them out stuffed in the multitude of tote bags I amassed during my five years in Los Angeles. I packed up sacks of makeup for my 14-year-old cousin. She also got a jewelry box filled with stuff I hadn't worn since I was her age.

My silky green Indian print curtains went to a friend of a friend, with the cream-colored panels thrown in for good measure. I left behind a coffee maker and microwave for my home's new inhabitants.

With days left before I was scheduled to leave, my blue Taurus plagued me. It was worth so much to me, a way to get safely from place to place, but worth almost nothing to Mr. Kelley Blue Book. When my dad called saying one of his jalopies broke down, I said "Dad, you're in luck. The Taurus is yours and it will be parked in my garage with a full tank of gas and the keys under the doormat. Godspeed."

I can honestly tell you that the most I ever got from my things was in the giving away of them.

"What do you want for Chanukah?" my mom asked before I left.

"Nothing," I responded, with perhaps a little too much snap in my newly nonattached voice. "I don't want things. If you must, send a bottle of Scotch, that way it will be gone in a day."

I can't tell you how many expensive candles I owned that were too good to use. There were the tubes of body lotion that were too special to open, the gifts that I put on a shelf, the fancy champagne I was waiting for the right occasion to pop, the scarf that was too pretty to wear. If you don't think burning that grapefruit-currant candle you've been hoarding is a spiritual act, think again. Having isn't living, it's waiting to live. 

I think we single people do a lot of that waiting; as in, when I have a date, I'll try getting my legs waxed; when I have a boyfriend, I'll try that new Italian restaurant; when I get married, I'll try buying a house. 

Okay, I sound mighty philosophical for a girl who breaks out in tears at least once a day, trudging through black ice and wet snow and wondering, which way is uptown? Will my new co-workers like me? Am I doing a good job? Have I made a huge mistake and ruined my life?

If only you could pack up your emotional baggage in a couple Hefty sacks and drop them off at the Goodwill. 

Maybe I've taken the first step, the easy one, in giving away the material things I don't need. And every night, in a ritualistic fit of beauty product blasphemy, I purposefully massage my fancy face cream into my hands and elbows like so much drugstore Lubriderm. I'm using what I have and I've disposed of what I don't need, and maybe I'm hoping something so silly and small will have a profound effect on the storage unit that I call my brain.

In the meantime, I'm traveling as light as I can. The phone numbers in my cell phone are the most important things I have, and I use them nightly to report on how homesick I am. 

And when you rip off the packing tape and shake out all the Styrofoam peanuts and unroll the bubble wrap, it's right there, small and obvious as a regifted picture frame -- I'm scared. 

I've collected anxieties and stowed away a mother lode of smothering perfectionism and now I wish I knew how to give them away. I had them in Los Angeles, and here in New York, away from my friends and my routine, they've multiplied. I've learned only this: giving stuff away is only possible when you understand how deeply you don't need it. 

I have to believe that will happen with the things that truly weigh me down. Until then, I would like those gloves back.   

Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan, where she is a feature reporter for Fox's "Good Day New York." She's on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

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