The day that we arrived back in New Delhi, I couldn’t persuade anyone but Robyn to go with me to the Khan Market. Pat and the boys simply wanted to laze around and Keir would rather wait on a bus for a week in the Sudan (as he has) than spend twenty minutes weighing in on color choices for cloth napkins. Normally, I’m not much of a shopper myself, but I like to get one or two items from my travels to put in my living room. These artifacts don’t need to be expensive, they simply need to evoke memories of far off lands when I’m mulling through the many annoying tasks that attend almost every financially challenged parent of two living in the United States. Many of my friends have housekeepers, babysitters, even gardeners. I don’t begrudge them their staffs. In fact, I wish I had a staff to fill out Spencer’s middle school forms and find Murphy’s lost library book. Instead of that staff, however, I have a few reminders of my travels. Unfortunately for me, these totems need constant dusting.
There is the painted egg from the Ukraine, a cut out lamp from Mexico, a china vase from England, embroidered pillows from Panama, a cat sculpture from Egypt, and a votive candle holder made from indigenous mud that looked a whole lot better in the store – from Ireland. At night, when the kids are asleep, I light the Mexican lamp, play some beautiful music, gaze around my living room, and remind myself that I really have an extraordinary life.
Khan Market is well known in New Delhi. By western standards, it looks shabby and disorganized. The insides of stores, however, can be quite luxurious. Robyn and I enjoyed poking through the tiny shops and I was unnaturally excited about ordering a juicy American burger for lunch. Possibly the most remarkable part of the venture was leaving the parking lot of cars densely crammed into a small place, with no discernable order --- like a meteor had just hit earth and folks had simply abandoned their cars to run for cover. I found out why Robyn had to leave the parking break off when the lone parking attendant started shoving cars around, shoulder to metal, to clear a path for us to finally exit.
Robyn and I returned to the apartment laden with a couple of bags of stuff. I doubt that I had spent more than twenty dollars but I quickly showed my purchases to Pat, who is enough of a metrosexual to enjoy fingering a great piece of fabric.
Later that evening Pat, Keir, and I chatted in the living room. Keir flipped absently through some of the cards that Robyn had bought earlier. Robyn had told me that Keir often threw away objects that they had accumulated. She would come home and a small box that had been given to them as a gift, for example, would have vanished.
“What exactly is your problem with stuff,” I asked Keir.
“The more stuff you have, the less freedom you have,” he responded quickly. He’d obviously thought this one through.
“Yeah, but what about stuff from your travels? Stuff that makes you happy?”
“What makes me happy is not having a lot of stuff.” He jumped up and grabbed a candle, “Like this. What is it?”
“It’s a candle,” said Pat. “You light it and it gives the room a soft pinky glow.”
“Yeah,” said Keir. “But it doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just a thing. It’s taking up space. And this frame…” He picked up a frame that was framing a mere scribble, “Robyn loves this frame. But it doesn’t even have a picture in it. It’s just sitting there, empty. With no picture. I keep putting it in the drawer and Robyn keeps pulling it out again.” He popped the frame into a drawer.
“Why does she keep it out?” I asked.
Keir shrugged as if it were the most perplexing thing on the planet, “She says that she doesn’t want to forget about it. If she keeps seeing it, she’ll remember to put a picture in it.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
Pat leaned forward on the couch, “Oh man. Don’t even start. Of course it makes sense. If she puts the frame away, she’ll totally forget about it.”
“And that’s bad?” said Keir, incredulously.
“OK, OK.,” I said. “How about this? Is there some THING that does have meaning for you?”
“A few.” Keir picked up a thing that was as big as a serving platter. It was flattish and brownish, with a smoothish depression in the middle. “It’s a Neolithic grinding stone we found in the desert.”
“Is THAT what that is?” I exclaimed.
“It’s probably around seven thousand years old,” he said, placing it down again.
Pat smiled, “But does it give off a pinky glow?”
“THAT has meaning,” Keir continued. “The rest of this…What’s this?” He picked up a gift box with a see-through lid, “I don’t even know what this is.” Pat and I leaned over to inspect.
“It’s clearly a decorative plate,” I said.
“With a floral motif,” added Pat.
“We have plates already,” said Keir.
“I guess it’s supposed to be pretty,” I said. “You hang it up. Or prop it up on a shelf.”
Pat pointed, “There’s room, now that you got rid of the frame.”
Truth was, even though Pat and I were kidding around, we got it. We’re not as hardcore as Keir, but ten years ago Pat and I threw almost every knick-knack we had into a box before our firstborn could destroy it. We put the box in the basement intending to unearth it and reunite with our stuff when the boys were older. That day never came because we couldn’t remember what was in the box. If we couldn’t remember the stuff, we reasoned, it wasn’t worth having around. And, yes, there was freedom in that divestiture. Less to dust, for me. Less to break, for the kids. And that elusive freedom from attachment, for both Pat and me. The timing of this adjustment could not have been more perfect, because if the world doesn’t teach you that most shit is meaningless, children will.
Now we only keep stuff that has a story. And the story can’t be, “Because it’s a limited edition print by [famous artist we’re kind of ‘eh’ about].” The story has to go something like the one about a sculpture of a nude couple holding up a crystal ball.
The first year of our marriage was difficult and wonderful. Pat and I were living in New York and acting in a show in the West Village. It was difficult because my best friend died that year. It was wonderful because we were living in a charming garret on Perry Street that was so small we could wash dishes while sitting on the couch. We frequented a glass shop down the street where the merchandise was too pricey. No matter, we got to know the flamboyant owner and we loved the smell of the shop and the artistry of the pieces. In early June, we paid off a student loan and were feeling flush for the first time. So we went to the glass shop and found the piece that sits in our living room today. It cost two hundred dollars and we agonized over whether to buy it or not. I don’t think we had ever bought anything that expensive before. The thought was exciting and terrifying. The owner wrapped it carefully and we carried it home like it was the baby Moses.
Two weeks later, we got the shocking news that the show was closing. We had gotten no warning and we were both out of a job. I remember sitting on the couch and hating the sculpture. How could we have been so stupid as to throw so much money away on that thing? What had we seen in it? It wasn’t elegant, it was garish. An embarrassment. Throughout the following week, as we packed to return to Chicago, we could feel the sculpture mocking us – “You thought you make a living doing what you love and afford something as lovely as me? Think again. You’re foolish dreamers.” We put the sculpture in a box earlier than was necessary just to rid ourselves of its silent recriminations.
Our last night in New York, with our future very uncertain, we lifted the sculpture out of the box and placed it on the kitchen counter.
“It’s really beautiful,” Pat said, putting his arm around me. “Let’s stop hating it.”
As if one could simply elect to stop hating, my young self silently scoffed.
“I can’t stop just like that,” I said. “We’d have two-hundred dollars if it hadn’t made us buy it.”
Pat slipped his arm off my shoulder and repositioned the piece so that we were looking at it from a different angle. “What if we changed the story?” he said. “What if the story isn’t that we were stupid and spent our last dime on a silly item? What if the story is that we were optimistic, we were in love, we were living our dream – and this is our reminder that everything is possible?”
I’m not a woman who switches on and off that easily so Pat’s romantic comedy dialogue only irritated me at the time. But through the years, the sculpture has come to epitomize those words. And even though it is mere stuff, it has also epitomized freedom.
Freedom from fear of the unknown.