Copyright 2021, John Manimas
I felt the strain in my back and the sting of sweat in my eyes as I watched the chair swing in my hands and fly like an unwanted bird to a crash landing in the twelve-yard dumpster. A crack and snap as it joined a desk, a clock, picture frames, a bag of old slippers.
Boards that once held books spun and flew like fluttering orange leaves and drifted in slow-motion over the edge and into the trash piles of Gehenna. I watched things fly out of my own tired fingers as though I were viewing the world from a spiritual place, my heart flinching as a pair of torn winter boots that had once been my favorites dropped into the giant steel box of junk. It was not junk. It was my life, but then again maybe I was treating my life as it were junk. Was it junk? Or was it a challenge to restart? We know we can restart a computer. Can one restart a life? I recalled the wonderful philosophical commentary: "We cannot change the beginning, but we can change what we do today and in that way change the ending."
The impossibility of being understood ran continuously through my mind as I busily picked up, carried, launched. Up the stairs, down the stairs, in one door, out the other. Friends and acquaintances, and the town gossips, would all ascribe my behavior to the usual offenses – blind passion, betrayal, adultery, stupidity, brains made of fruitcake. I would not even try to explain to anyone, to tell a story that would be re-written a hundred times and passed around like an old dime novel. What really happened is I felt trapped in an old script, a reputation that was as much good as bad, but painfully fixed, like a full-body cast. I felt that Vermont, where I had lived for 45 years, had gotten stale. I needed a "change of scenery." Then it struck me that it was me who had gotten stale, and the change of scenery I sought was the scenery inside. In my mind; in my heart; in my soul. I did not really want to leave people, but I wanted to leave place. This was the best I could do, not depart to another country, but join an old friend in a small city. Join the socially active world that encompasses diversity instead of a small town in Vermont where everything is coated with maple syrup and the main dish is a small church supper.
I had thought "a change of scenery" just meant a brief vacation from the usual routine. But I came to believe it can be a full examination of one's internal "self" in surroundings that escape old information. I want new people who can know me only as I am now, and not as I was before. They can give me new assessments, new criticism, new insights into who and what I am. I am an orphan who does not want to find my original family. I want to find my self that seems to be the hardest person for me to know. What does one do with self-knowledge? Do I hide myself from my own eyes? Is "re-inventing" oneself unusual or common?
Tired, sweating, dirty, I did this three times, filled three twelve-yard dumpsters with what could not be sold for pennies or even given away. Collections of miscellaneous hardware, machine parts, hinges, brackets, used nuts and bolts, sheet metal, all the things that I might need someday but had not needed for the past ten years. We had lived in this old two-story house for twenty years, longer than I had lived anywhere else in my lifetime, including my first eighteen years in Connecticut. I had grown attached, very attached. I knew that the Buddha said attachment can be bad. We must be aware when we are attached and aware when what we are attached to is sinking into the sea, or carrying us to an empty island. I was aware that my study of Jesus brought me to the conclusion that he was trying to teach Buddhist principles to an earthy Mediterranean culture. He had traveled the Silk Road and visited China and India during his missing years, and now he was trying to guide hot-blooded lovers of bread, wine and sex toward the contemplation of enlightenment. He spoke of forgiveness, forgiveness of oneself and others, of unselfish love and generous hearts, and the people repeatedly asked him about sins and revealed their fears of cruel punishment. Should we stone the adulteress? Will I go to hell forever? Do I have to marry my brother's wife if he dies? What about being quiet on the Sabbath? Or enjoying the company of a Samaritan? Are all these things deadly sins? Sounded like the Catholics are Jews after all – most things being sinful. They did not hear Jesus. They could not let go of the idea that any discussion about being good, or just, or happy, or enlightened must be about a church with authority, power, and a mission to punish. For the East, religion evoked a pursuit of enlightenment; for the Mediterraneans, religion evoked fears and punishments. Like the Buddha, Jesus suggested that happiness arises from the shedding of attachments. These thoughts ran through my mind as I threw my treasures into the dumpster. Chairs, clothing, dinner plates, glasses, vases, silverware, garden tools.
Some good stuff had to be given to family and friends – ladders, chain saw, shop vac. I could not part with my woodworking tools, certainly not all of them, nor the three tools boxes I had made with my own hands. In went old window panes, clothes hangers, mattresses, pots and pans. We ran out of time to carefully give things away. No one was interested. I had tried yard sales several times. I could only give away a few things that had some value. With a sledge-hammer and demolition tools I had broken and disassembled our old upright piano. The metal frame weighed a ton. I could only move it by tumbling it over the ground. An iron-monger picked it up before sunset.
The last heartbreaking stage was my books, around three hundred books that I had carefully packed in thirteen boxes. They were labelled and sealed with clear tape because I thought I might save them, might be able to take them with me. I was attached to my books, attached to the words in my books, as attached as I was to the woods surrounding our house and to the stream that ran through our five acres of hillside land. But keeping the books was impossible. No room for the books in transit, no space for my books in my new home with my kind and loving friend from Grade 7-2 at McKinley School. Back then we were the "fruity" class, the well-behaved kids who liked school and teachers. The obvious question was whether I was going back to my childhood, regression rather than forward progress.
After living my new life in Schenectady for a couple of years, old wisdom came back to me: "Wherever you go, there you are." I had been so uplifted by the diversity in Schenectady, the diversity of the architecture, the diversity of the people, the surprisingly meaningful history. Settled by the Dutch in the 1600's, occupying a central place in commerce that was dominated by fur trading. Located where the Mohawk River made a southern curve toward its meeting with the Hudson. This was the region that had to be controlled by whoever wanted to control North America, the rich new continent that was defended by innocent, natural people who did not believe that the land could be privately owned. Schenectady became the home of the General Electric Company, created by Thomas Edison, and made New York City the first city in the world to be lighted by electric power. The American Locomotive Company built railroad engines that were shipped around the world. The presence of Charles Proteus Steinmetz at Union College. The influence of William Seward, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Hamilton. The Roosevelt home at Hyde Park 80 miles south. Saratoga, Ticonderoga, Lake George, the Erie Canal that was the original Gateway to the West. This particular new scenery seemed unlike an accident. When I lived in Vermont, we traveled for visits and vacations two or three times a year. As I drove down an interstate highway in the Northeast, I would say to my wife: "It's good for me to visit America once in a while." Such was the "refuge" of a small town in Vermont. When I had first moved to Vermont in the 1970s, someone suggested that the state of Vermont build a fence all around it and make it a theme park. Maybe that isn't just a smart remark about a sense of provincialism in Vermont, or anywhere else. Maybe one's own life can become a provincial theme park, a set of self-concepts that are like gripping rides and museum exhibits. They are interesting and engaging, but they are attachments, views of oneself to which we are attached. Had the person I was been a theme park in my head? Does everyone carry around a model of their life story with selected themes? What if the gods are real and I am a myth?
After I moved, some of the old messages to my brain were heard also in the new world. I did a lot of living in my head. I have always been occupied by my own thoughts. And, as egotistical as it may be, my own thoughts are often more interesting to me than other thoughts which seem to me to be distractions from what is important. I acknowledge I have a "little OCD." I don't close doors three times and wipe everything clean with bleach or alcohol, but I do wash my hands a lot and I have some kind of preoccupation with the positions of things on a surface such as a table or desk or in a yard. I actually can be a good landscaper. Any dirty dishes on a table or in the sink make me nervous and jerky. I often cannot sit still. My dear friend calls me "Johnny Pogo" as in pogo stick. I like natural things, stones, rocks, flowers, trees, bees. I really like trees. I love driftwood. I have spent time making driftwood sculptures. I have selected special pieces that I found and treated them with oil and mounted them on platforms or wheels. They are special to me and very beautiful. I sometimes think of them as the bones of dead trees. I often imagine having a home that I would build myself with a fair amount of open meadow and I would place several large driftwood sculptures as works of art, and inspirations, in the meadow for everyone's enjoyment. But who else enjoys driftwood that much?
My ego about my ideas and my view of the world has been confirmed in ways that clarify. A genuine friend once said to me "You want to be heard." I have come to see that probably my desire to be heard sometimes makes me annoying, even offensive or uncomfortable to some people. So, my old feeling that I am not liked might be based in truth. It is not so much that I am not liked but some people prefer that I listen rather than speak. I was a social worker for twenty-five years and I was a master of listening, but that was when listening was my job. After about two years in my new home but in the same old body I recalled the advice of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 being something like: "If you want to be good, give away all that you have and follow me." Be detached, which does not mean just detach from things but also detach from ideas, concepts, beliefs, just about everything. Be like a little child for whom the world is awesome and new, never seen before.
The dumpsters were paid for and hauled away, but all of the discarded things still existed. No matter what happened to them, all the things that had touched my life are printed somewhere in my memory. We can detach from many things, but we cannot detach from body and soul. Wherever you go, there you are. There is a vast conspiracy of life and we are members. We cannot really detach from life or from ourselves but we can do something that helps us understand. I threw my life of things into dumpsters, and that is what we call a receptacle for what we discard, even when we discard things that we treasure. Do we all experience the dumpster? Can everyone accomplish detachment from the intangible things that control us, such as beliefs and stories about our loves, successes and failures? Stories about the universe and how it works, new stories that change the old stories? A "dumpster" could be a person who dumps things. Thus, I am a dumpster. So what. Even if I traveled to another planet I would still be me. Still be attached to who I am. Maybe death is the only detachment. Then again, maybe not. Maybe detachment is impossible. Maybe, if you do not understand my story, you need a change of scenery. And if you do understand my story, well then, there you are.
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